4 basic questions 90% of screenplays don’t answer

by Allen Palmer on May 18, 2010

in Screenwriting tips, Story structure

Number 4

Some writers want to talk about their film’s “symbolism”, “motif” or “layering”. That’s all well and good but these are higher order items. There are other more fundamental elements you need to get in place first – yet 9 out of 10 scripts don’t. Here are the 4 basic storytelling questions your screenplay must be able to answer:

  1. Who is the hero?
  2. What do they want?
  3. What’s stopping them from getting it?
  4. What’s at stake?

1. Who is the hero?

It’s amazing the number of scripts that don’t have a clearly identified protagonist. When you ask a lot of writers the simple question, “Whose story is it?”, they will say, “Well, it’s his story … and it’s hers too … but Fred is important too”. No.

Apart from multi-strand stories (e.g. Crash), there will almost always be one primary character whose journey we are following – even in romantic comedies. In trying to identify your hero, ask yourself:

  • Who drives the action?
  • Who grows over the course of the story?
  • Who is active at the climax of the third act?

In Star Wars, the hero is Luke Skywalker even though Han Solo is the more interesting character because:

  • Luke drives the action
  • Luke is one who needs to trust the force
  • Luke delivers the crucial shot that saves the day.

In When Harry Met Sally, it’s Harry’s story because he is one who needs to grow.

Even in an ensemble piece like Little Miss Sunshine, there is a hero. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is the character who has the most to grow and who is faced with the choice in Act 3 – take his daughter off the stage as ordered by the pageant matron, or get on stage and dance with her? He chooses the latter.

Having said that there is only one hero, some films separate the roles of protagonist and hero: the former drives the action and the latter exhibits the growth. e.g. In Dead Poets Society, Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) is the protagonist because he resurrects the Dead Poets Society, but Todd (Ethan Hawke) is the hero because he is the one who grows and is active in the third act.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest employs a similar structure with R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) as the protagonist who locks horns with the antagonistic Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) – and the Chief (Will Sampson) as the hero who grows, commits the mercy killing and is active at the climax.

And don’t get hung up on that “hero” term. In Dead Man Walking, the hero is Sean Penn’s character and he’s a red neck rapist murderer. Sister Prejean (Susan Sarandon) is the protagonist but he’s the hero because he is the character who grows and is able to confess to his crimes before heading to his death.

So the first thing your script needs is a character who:

  • drives the action to stop the audience from nodding off
  • transforms so we get an emotional release at the film’s climax

In most films these characters are one and the same. Who is the hero/protagonist of your screenplay?

2. What does the hero want?

What is the hero’s goal? What are they going to spend the next 90 mins chasing? And it can’t be peace and tranquillity. They might need peace and tranquillity – don’t we all – but that’s not an objective that’s going to drive the dramatic action of the film. Your protagonist needs to have a goal which is:

  • clear
  • external
  • concrete

In Groundhog Day, Phil Connor’s (Bill Murray’s) goal is to wake up on the day after Groundhog Day (his quest for Rita (Andie McDowell) is merely a measure of his progress). In Little Miss Sunshine, it’s to get to Olive to the junior beauty pageant in Redondo Beach. In The Hangover, it’s to find the groom.

What is your hero’s external goal?

3. What’s stopping them from getting it?

Drama is conflict. I’ll say it again, lest you skip over it. Drama is conflict. Conflict for breakfast, conflict for lunch and the mother of all battles for dinner. Even in love scenes, you want an element of conflict. So it’s not enough that you have a hero and they want something. There needs to be something or someone – preferably both – standing in their way.

These forces of opposition can come in several forms:

  • the formidableness of their antagonist
  • the ill preparedness of the hero
  • the flaw of the hero
  • the hostility of the environment
  • time – or the lack there of

Of these, the antagonist is almost always the most important. A hero can’t become great unless they overcome a great antagonist. That’s why Schindler’s achievement is so great – because Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is such a psychopath. It’s why Hannibal Lecter makes The Silence of the Lambs. It’s also why There Will Be Blood ultimately disappoints – because Eil Sunday (Paul Dano) is no match for Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis).

What monumental forces are marshalled between your hero and their goal?

4. What’s at stake?

This is where a lot of screenplays fall down. They might have a hero and they might have a goal and they might have an antagonist but there is nothing at stake. Why is that a problem? Because we just won’t care. And if we don’t care, how keen are we going to be to sit and watch events unfold over the next 90 minutes? Not very. Stakes are absolutely crucial.

To see whether you have enough at stake, ask yourself, how will your hero’s life be different if they don’t achieve this goal? Would it be an unimaginably horrible fate? It should be.

Death is the ultimate stake. In war movies and thrillers (e.g. North by Northwest), the hero is almost always risking their life.

Liberty is another high stake. e.g. In The Fugitive, Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) needs to find the one-armed murderer of his wife or he’ll spend the rest of his life behind bars. But stakes don’t need to be of that order to make us care.

In An Officer and a Gentleman, there is the famous scene where Sergeant Foley (Lou Gossett Jr) pushes Zac Mayo (Richard Gere) to breaking point. He threatens to expel him from the program and Zac’s too-cool-for-school veneer finally cracks: “Don’t you … don’t you … I’ve got nothing else … I’ve got nothing … “. His mother committed suicide, his father is “an alcoholic and whore chaser”, and if he fails to complete his officer training, the same fate awates Zac. What’s at stake? His one chance at a decent life.

In romantic comedies, the stakes are “only” love. So we need to feel that the hero’s life will be empty and barren if they aren’t able to get it together with the object of their ardent affection.

Are the stakes in your screenplay sufficiently high to make us care?

Did you get 4 out 4?

That’s it. Just 4 basic questions:

  1. Who is the hero?
  2. What do they want?
  3. What’s stopping them from getting it?
  4. What’s at stake?

Yet most screenplays either don’t supply answers or they supply answers that won’t satisfy an audience. That’s the tricky bit – being objective enough in assessing your work to answer the question, “Will the audience go on this journey with my character?”

If your screenplay does supply good solid answers to these 4 questions, believe me, your screenplay is already in the top 10% of scripts. You’re possibly still some distance from Oscar-winner but at least you’ve got the basics in place.

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