Great Endings Step 5: What sort of transformation moves us?

by on November 28, 2013

in Film analysis, Screenwriting tips, Story structure

Dead Man Walking Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) confesses to Sister Prejean (Susan Sarandon)

Most screenplays bear some sort of character arc but the “transformation” at the climax often fails to move us. Why? Here I explore what sort of change does tend to profoundly affect your audience.

Is Police Chief Brody transformed in Jaws?

At the start of Jaws, we learn that Brody has a fear of water. At the end of Jaws, while balanced precariously above the bay off Amity Harbour, he shoots the shark. As Cathartic endings go, it works a treat. No question we feel a spectacular release when that predator is instantaneously turned into 5kg of second-rate sashimi. But, are we moved to tears? I’m not.

Yet, Brody, by performing this valorous act on water, has done what I said heroes typically do at the climax in a Transcendent Story – he’s done in Act 3 what he couldn’t in Act 1. Why does Brody overcoming his fear of water not affect us? Why is this not a dramatically effective transformation?

There are a couple of reasons.

Jaws Sheriff Brody shoots the great white shark

The ending of Jaws produces a great release – but how important is it that Brody has overcome his fear of water?

Firstly, and most fundamentally, fear of water is not a character flaw. It’s a psychological condition. Like claustrophrobia. Or agoraphobia. It might make life difficult but it’s not a failing of character. Brody’s fear of water doesn’t diminish his standing as a human. And when we talk about character flaw, that’s what we really mean. How is the character failing to live up to their Higher Selves?

Secondly – and these two things are related – seeing him overcome that fear does not move us. Yes, we feel a release at him overcoming the monster, but that catharsis in no way depends on us thinking – Lordy, look, that man has overcome his fear of water! Oh, the humanity!

Would this ending be any less effective if we were unaware of his fear of water? I don’t believe it would. So the transformation doesn’t come into play.

And we don’t include a character transformation in our screenplays because we think it’s a neat thing to do or because it’s written into our contracts: “Writer must supply one (1) character transformation and payment will be withheld until such time as … ”

We do it solely because we want to produce an emotional response in the audience. That’s what we do. Or try to at least. So if the transformation you have in your screenplay doesn’t move us, there is no point arguing, “But, he used to be like this and now he’s clearly different”. Get out of your heads. Films take place in the heart. If it’s not touching us there, something’s not right.

How important is Edward’s fear of heights in Pretty Woman?

Edward overcomes his fear of heights, but is this is transformation?

Edward overcomes his fear of heights in the climax of Pretty Woman, but does this constitute a transformation?

Similarly, Edward in Pretty Woman has a fear of heights. So when he has to go to “rescue” Julia Roberts’s character from her life as a working girl, does it work our emotions when he has to overcome that fear to scale the fire escape? Not a jot. Why? Because, again, fear of heights isn’t a character flaw.

Is Indiana Jones transformed in Raiders?

I’m going to do it … I’m going to make another reference to Raiders.

After my last post, a former student of mine, Jeremy (of whom I’m very fond), said, in response to my contention that there was no dramatised transformation in Raiders:

I would actually argue that there is a character transformation in RAIDERS. Not a profoundly moving one, but it’s there (to my mind). Indy goes from a skeptic to a man of faith, when at the climax he closes his eyes and turns away from the Ark because he believes in the supernatural power that is going to be unleashed.

To Jeremy’s credit, he recognises that it’s not a “profoundly moving” transformation. But, if it’s not profoundly moving, then the transformation hasn’t done what it’s there to do. However, it’s instructive for us to explore why this doesn’t work our emotions.

I would say that we have the same problems here in Raiders that we have with the Jaws “transformation”. (And, yes, we are talking about two of the most successful films of all time – films for which I have extraordinary affection and admiration – but neither, by my definition, qualifies as a Transcendent Story.)

Firstly, lack of faith is not a character flaw.

I can hear the screams of indignation rise up around the world.

Yes, I’m sure that if you’re a devoutly religious person you are going to disagree. But, then you are entering murky waters.

Is the lack of a Christian faith a character flaw? An awful lot of Christians, would see it that way. But clearly Muslims and Jews wouldn’t think so. Neither would Buddhists, Sikhs or Hindus. And, I’m an atheist. So you are never going to get me to agree that a lack of faith – of whatever brand – represents any kind of character failing. Honouring your Higher Self, for me, means having a code of moral and ethical conduct – of being a decent human being – and you don’t need to believe in a higher power to do that.

So a lack of faith, I would contend, is a dubious flaw to give a character if you are looking for a universal point of connection. I would suggest that you should give them a flaw to which we can all relate – no matter what we might individually believe about matters unknowable.

But, even if you give a character the “flaw” that they lack faith, you then face the problem of whether you can dramatise them overcoming that flaw – whether in showing them achieve this transformation, that action is going to trigger an emotional response. I’m sorry, but Indy “closing his eyes” isn’t an action that was ever likely to release in the audience a collective flood of tears.

Is Matthew’s conversion about faith in Dead Man Walking?

Dead Man Walking Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) at his execution by electric chair

Dead Man Walking is profoundly moving … but why?

Perhaps you find it strange that I would say that overcoming a lack of faith is unlikely to move our emotions when the image that sits at the top of this post is from Dead Man Walking. Some of you, I imagine, would see Matthew Poncelet’s pre-death-walk confession as a conversion to God. You are free to perceive it in that way. But many of us would not relate to the act of converting to a belief in a Christian God and if you only looked at the act in that light you could interpret it as self-serving: he’s about to meet his maker, so he’s clearing the slate.

But, I see the more universal interpretation of a man confessing to an act of which he is a grievously ashamed. You don’t have to be Christian to relate to that. I’ve had to fess up to things I’ve done that I’ve deeply regretted. It was hard. And extremely painful – for all concerned. But it had to be done – or my soul would have given me no peace. Most people who watch Dead Man Walking are profoundly moved and it’s not because they have a faith, or believe that everyone should share that conviction. They’re moved because they, like me, have been in a similar place where they have done wrong, and have had to make amends. This is a powerful climax and gives us a clue to what sort of transformation does tend to profoundly affect the audience.

What sort of transformation does profoundly move us?

It all comes down to the choice of the character flaw. You want a flaw to which we can all relate. And, a flaw which we can dramatise them overcoming in a way that will trigger a powerful emotional response.

And, if you look at the films that profoundly move us, there is a surprisingly small range of flaws.

In the films renowned for their moving endings, the hero will typically be shown to overcome one of two things:
Lack of courage. Or Lack of compassion.

Doubt me, by all means. But check it out …

  • In Dead Poets, Todd overcomes his lack of courage.
  • In Schindler’s List, Oskar overcomes his lack of compassion.
  • In The Apartment, Bud overcomes his lack of courage.
  • In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, R.P. McMurphy overcomes his lack of compassion.
  • In Thelma and Louise, T overcomes her lack of courage.
  • In Gran Torino, Walt overcomes his lack of compassion.

I could go on. Strictly Ballroom. The Lives of Others. Lars and The Real Girl. Kramer vs Kramer.

Forget about fear of heights or lack of faith. If you can dramatise your hero overcoming a lack of courage of a lack of compassion, there is a good chance their actions will profoundly move us.

Why are we moved by displays of courage and compassion?

Why does the transformation of these flaws move us so? Because they are flaws from which we all have suffered.

We’ve all lacked courage or compassion at various points in our lives – we possibly are lacking it at this very minute – and for sure and certain we will be found wanting of them again at some point in the future.

We know how hard it is to display courage or compassion, particularly when it runs contrary to our own interests, so we’re moved when we see that the protagonist is able to go where we generally fear to tread.

And, this is why people who say they don’t believe in character arcs “because people don’t change” are missing the point. We’re not talking about changing from being an introvert to an extrovert, or from being a philatelist to an extreme surfer. We’re talking about the moments that come along that define who we are at a character level. No-one is always courageous. Not morally. And most of us have lapses in compassion. The great stories remind of us our moral compass, regardless of whether we believe those morals to be God-given or bleedingly bloody obvious. But they don’t remind us by just telling us. They remind us by dramatising it. Here is someone not honouring their Higher Self. Here they are confronted with a choice that will define whether they are going to change or continue in their base ways. Here they make that choice that tells us that, in this moment at least, they are going to honour that Higher calling. And we are moved because of the shared experience of humanity.

But, even if you’ve given your hero a genuine and relatable flaw, there is another trick to getting this transformation to profoundly move the audience, which leads me to my next post …

Great Endings Step 6: Timing is everything with Transformation … which I’ll publish tomorrow.

Previous posts in the Great Endings series:
10 Steps to a Great Movie Ending
Great Endings Step 1: Hero Shouldn’t Get What They Wanted
Great Endings Step 2: Hero should get something more valuable
Great Endings Step 3: Hero should face difficult choice at climax
Great Endings Step 4: Hero can do in Act 3 what he couldn’t in Act 1

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeremy Dylan November 28, 2013 at 10:54 am

“a former student of mine, Jeremy (of whom I’m very fond)”

Well shucks.

James Brettell November 28, 2013 at 11:24 pm

Good read. Looking forward to tomorrow’s.

Bradley Stevens November 29, 2013 at 12:14 am

Allen, I’d be interested to read your views on tragedy. Perhaps it’s a matter of personal taste, but I am always deeply moved by a tragic story where a protagonist is -unable- to transform at the moment they absolutely need to, especially when it feels like they were so close to it

Allen Palmer November 29, 2013 at 7:38 am

Hi, Bradley,
I would say tragedy takes a number of forms.

In the first the hero transforms – but too late to avert what they’ve set in motion. Brokeback Mountain and The Lives of Others are like this and are both incredibly moving because we feel the additional anguish that they are in some way responsible for the tragedy. Love this form.

In another the hero doesn’t transform but regresses. The Godfather is like this. He starts as a man of morals, committed to his wife, but his competing obligations to his family see him part company with his higher self (and his wife). I find this moving, but I don’t love the ending of The Godfather as much as other films I’ve cited.

There is a third form, I guess, where the hero starts flawed and remains flawed and it’s possible for this to affect us but it’s much more difficult. Let There Be Blood I think probably falls into this category and I find that a most unsatisfying experience.

My preference is for stories in which the hero does ultimately draw on their Higher Self because it reminds me of my humanity, but I think there is tremendous power in having some tragic dimension to the finale. Hence the expression,”Ecstatic Agony“.

John November 29, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Just a quick note on Raiders of the lost Ark.
I haven’t read much other analysis at depth, but I disagree with some of the interpretations of Indiana Jones.

My contention is this.

Raiders is ultimately about the struggle to balance Reason and Faith.

Indy believes in Reason. Modern man, enlightenment, the power of Rational thought over all else. It rises above human weakness, from the fear of the natives in the first scene, the greed of the man who dies from the blow darts after betraying indy, to the arrogance and power hunger of the Nazis.

This is the trap. Indy, BELIEVES in reason. Reason itself IS faith. Belloq explicitly says so in the opening lines “Archaeology is our religion”

Belloq is the other side of the coin of Indy. He has come to a position balancing his faith vs Reason.
Indy’s balance between reason and faith SHOULD be more ethical, but why is Indy always a step behind with Beloq? Why is the bad guy winning? Indy has to fix the flaw in himself that he can’t see

The adventures in the movie are the tests of Indy’s use of reason, the new world of self created man vs the old world of religion and faith in ritual.
Key moment, a swordsman does a complex performance to threaten Indy. Indy shoots him. The perfect metaphor. Gun vs sword dance.

The Transformation.

Throughout the movie Indy is trying to save the Ark. This is his weakness and the weakness of Reason. Arrogance. The Ark protects itself. It doesn’t need human reason or self proclaimed good guys.

Indy’s Reason leads him to understand that he must close his eyes to protect him from the forces of God.

Closing eyes is the opposite of the intellectual curiosity that drives the religion of archeology. It is the opposite of knowledge at any cost, the betrayal of all ethics (Beloq’s flaw) Closing his eyes is Indiana’s renunciation of his religion of Reason. And it is Beloq’s death. Indy beats Beloq and his initial flaw because he rejects his religion that says acquiring knowledge at any cost is ethical.

The end where Indiana is suspicious of the Army intelligence officers to whom he entirely trusted shows his transformation. Even Reason is subjective and driven by the whims of human weakness, His own side may succumb to the lure of the power of the Ark. But ultimately Faith, a supernatural acceptance of the world we cannot know, will always be beyond us.
That is Indy’s transformation, from the illusion of knowledge through the religion of Reason to the acceptance of faith by humbly acknowledging there are things man can never see or know. A modern day Adam and Eve, but this time refusing the apple.

John November 29, 2013 at 12:43 pm

I missed a sentence.

Indiana closes his eyes in the face of ultimate knowledge. To see the ultimate truth of God, the goal of all knowledge and his religion of Reason, the quest for absolute truth and meaning.

That needs to be shoved in somewhere in the middle

Allen Palmer November 29, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Hi, John,
This might make sense rationally … but films aren’t played out in the head. The transformation you describe doesn’t affect my emotions. And I would discourage screenwriters from conceiving transformations that are internal. Have the character do something at the climax that dramatises the transformation externally – in a way that moves us. If it doesn’t move us, don’t bother having a transformation.

Robert Miller November 29, 2013 at 8:42 pm

Hi Allen,
The information that you have began to divulge in this remarkable series of Great Endings, is nothing short of astounding.

It’s stuff like this that never gets included in the majority of screenplay books, if any, as I have yet to come across such detailed excellence.

In fact, the only other areas that I have seen this issue of arcs and how they should be done in such detail, is in a bar as loose bar talk by my other screenwriting cohorts. (Ironically that in a bar are where the very best, and worst, ideas are born)

Looking forward to the other 5 points.

Thanks for your fine work, and remarkable site.

John G November 30, 2013 at 6:58 am

How about that tragedy Breaking Bad? I was thinking about this post and it seemed to me like like Walter White’s transformation has to do with courage. His tragic flaw of pride causes his downfall, but he transforms from a timid man into a courageous criminal.

Allen Palmer November 30, 2013 at 8:06 am

Hi, John G,
Given what Walt does over 6 series of Breaking Bad – taking on Gus Fring and any number of real bad asses – it would be hard to argue that he lacked courage. Yes, his final act required courage, but that wasn’t something we hadn’t seen before from him, and transformation is about what can they now do that they did not do previously.

I would say that what he lacked for most of the series, but which he ultimately found, was compassion. He didn’t care for the lives of the users of his drug. He killed anyone who stood in his path, many of whom you could say were on shakier moral ground than the protagonist. But he also allowed Jesse’s girlfriend to die and he poisoned Brock. You could say that he did care for his family, but his choices ultimately meant that their lives were enormously compromised. Having intended to kill Jesse, he ultimately saves him – which required courage but, in transformation terms, was about him gaining compassion.

Kent Pearson December 8, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Wow. These articles are great Allen. Thank you so much for sharing them freely.

All I would add is, I believe a character overcoming their flaw is only half the answer (overcoming their lack of courage or lack of compassion is the SET UP)…

While it’s the reward of LOVE (from another character) that these protagonists receive for overcoming their flaw that’s the PAY OFF and ultimately triggers the emotional response in the audience’s mind/heart.

This love can be in any shape or form. Be it romantic, friendship, etc.

I look forward to reading more of these articles.

Allen Palmer December 12, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Thanks, Kent.

Regarding the transformation being just a Set-Up … Yes and no.

While the Reward you mention (Elixir in Vogler’s terms) is often love – as addressed in Great Endings #2: Hero should get something more valuable – I would disagree that the transformation is just the “SET UP”.

Yes, sometimes we feel great emotion when the hero gets the Reward of love. Like in, say, Rocky. And The Apartment.

But I would say that more often it’s this moment of transformation where we are most profoundly moved. Like in Dead Poets Society. Strictly Ballroom. Cuckoo’s Nest. And the climax of The Lives of Others is more powerful than the Elixir moment.

In fact, the transformative moment in the middle of Act 2 can often be more powerful than the climax because seeing characters humbled like this seems to have a very powerful effect on us.

So, yes, you’re right that hero getting the love they’ve earned is affecting. However, I wouldn’t agree that it is typically more emotionally powerful than the actual moment of transformation.

A good story will use the Resurrection and Elixir moments in concert to deliver the audience this feeling of Ecstatic Agony that I talk about.

Matthew Hobson February 16, 2015 at 10:54 pm

Hi Allen, I love your post about the two most common types of character transformation: Lack of Courage and Lack of Compassion. But I think even a ‘Lack of Compassion’ also needs Courage to complete the transformation. I actually think all movies (that aren’t tragedies) no matter what the character flaw, are ultimately about finding courage.

Noemie July 17, 2018 at 6:40 am

Hi Allen,
Love love love the posts, although I seem to be very late to the party – not sure you’ll even see this comment?
Anyhow, I had a question about the hero’s transformation: is it possible for it to be both because of lack of courage and lack of compassion?
I can’t figure out which one my story needs, and am unsure whether this proves the story/character has a problem, or if it is just a question of settling upon one.

Allen Palmer July 17, 2018 at 7:34 am

Hi, Noemie,
The character arc and the theme of the film are inter-related. So the flaw of the character needs to relate to what you want to say. What is your story really about? Once you decide that bigger question, then you can work out what sort of journey the character should go on. What lesson do they need to learn that you think we all need to learn or be reminded of?

Another way to think about it is to think about your climax in Act 3. What is your character going to be doing to prove to us they’ve changed? If it’s to demonstrate courage – like in the King’s Speech for instance – then that’s what your story is about and their flaw is the lack of courage. If they’re going to be displaying compassion – like say in Toy Story for instance – then the flaw relates to that.

Choosing a flaw isn’t an academic exercise. The flaw is part of this larger more important picture. What is your character going to be doing at the end of the journey, after they’ve been altered by it, and what does that have to say for all time?

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