Have You Beaten Your Characters Lately?
Good screenwriting is driven by agenda, the goal a hero achieves or attempts to achieve in order to restore a shattered world. The central plot, the "A Story" upon which the narrative relies is a breadcrumb trail fraught with obstacles. Simply set your character in motion and all is well. The script writes itself. Connect the dots, go to the end credits. Boom. Done. Oscar. If plot is as easily crafted as an AAA roadmap, how can you possibly fail?
TIME TO CHANGE YOUR SHEETS?
Prepping a script, a screenwriter cuts plot down to a bullet point list of story beats. Known as a "beat sheet," the list reveals the goals, twists, and debacles a character must overcome within a three act structure. Now imagine a movie plot as if it were a long highway and your story’s agenda to be a car. Turn on the engine, hit the gas, drive from A to Z. It’s all good, bro! There’s only one question, "Who's behind the wheel?" Some movies are plot heavy but character thin. We call those films "dull." Lots of stuff happens but we don't really care. Explosions get bigger, the soundtrack swells, blood and limbs fly everywhere, dinosaurs dance, jets crash, people get naked, but you find yourself bored as hell. Why? Visually, it's a spectacular film, but emotionally it's bone dry. Lights on, nobody home. The viewers just wasted a hard earned 15 bucks. Critics call the film a disaster. Bloggers link the director's name with obscenities.
The film’s problem is not necessarily its plot. It's not the concept that failed or the vehicle. It’s the driver. You mean the director, producer, or writer? No, it's the film’s Hero, the script's central character, or rather the 98 pound weakling who's taken his or her place. Underdeveloped, soulless, without an emotional need or ambition to speed the audience down that big plot highway, the puny hero can barely look over the wheel. But I gave him muscles, lots of muscles, and a cool black suit! So what went wrong? If a hero lacks heart, angst, and an emotional need, big muscles or a saucy smile just won't cut it. That’s just window dressing fluff. So where’s the dang window?
While crafting plot into story beats,the screenwriter also needs to beat his hero. How? A beat sheet just for characters? Yes, never overlook the "Character Beat." Characters are built one beat at a time.
WHAT'S THE USE OF A GOOD BEATING?
There are two plots to everyone’s life, one external story driven by the everyday struggle to survive, work, eat, and deal with a chaotic world that’s always in flux. The other plot line is internal, driven by our desires, dreams, hardships, fears, longings, psyche, and soul. The internal plot determines our reactions to circumstances both in and out of our control. It’s both a moral and emotional compass, that proverbial little angel and devil on your shoulder, that nagging voice of a parent or loved one telling you to achieve beyond your abilities or just give up. It’s the human conscience at play. It’s our ability to rationalize an unsavory action in order to press on.
It’s this internal plot line of a character that communicates directly to an audience. It creates sympathy, empathy, or disdain for your characters whether it be a hero, villain, or love interest. What a character communicates through his actions, reactions, instincts, and decisions affects the audience. It can hook them into a film and give them a rooting interest. It gives them an emotional stake. It puts them in the pocket of your character and story and straps them in for the big ride. But if a character beat is internal, how can I possible show it?
CAN YOU THINK INSIDE OUT?
Not all scripted beats progress a plot line. The character beat is a prime example. By displaying a character’s decisions and actions beyond the mechanics of story progression, a script can portray a character’s soul. A film can breathe humanity into a mundane event. How? By allowing the audience to play judge and jury you create a emotional connection. Do we like this guy? Why did he just steal candy from a baby? Do we like this woman in the sinking ship? She paused long enough to save an old man’s diary. Was that insane, compassionate, heroic? How do we feel about that?
Character beats alone will never advance the plot. They can however progress our understanding and appreciation of a film’s central character. With a well crafted design, character beats make a movie worthwhile.
How Can You Beat That?