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Tying your character arc to great big stakes

Let's see if what’s important to your character can lead you to meaningful change.

 

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by Naomi in screenwriting

You know how sometimes you get an idea in your head and you just can’t shake it? Your brain keeps turning it over, examining it from different angles, making new connections? Like some kind of low-grade (but possibly useful) obsession?

(That’s not just me, right?)

This week I got stuck on story stakes. My brain has been turning that topic over and over. At the same time, I’ve been bingeing this podcast I just found wherein two Aussie brothers collaborate on a screenplay; each episode is the next step in the story’s development.

Anyway. The two things occupying my brain collided and formed a new theory that I want to test out. Bear with me. If it makes sense, it might help you figure out a neat way to show the character arc in your own story.

TYING CHARACTER ARC TO GREAT BIG STAKES

But first, let’s get on the same page:

Good screenplays exhibit connectivity

I think we can all agree that good scripts have a sense of cohesiveness, right? Like, all the pieces feel deliberately orchestrated to deliver one specific story.

There are a million tiny threads holding any great story together. Part of the delight of watching (or reading) a story is in discovering those threads. But in order for them to be discovered later by readers and viewers, the writer has to create the connections to begin with.

You know this. You do it in your own projects — putting thought and care into choosing the best main character to inhabit your story; the one who will allow for the most entertaining conflict, the one who has the “farthest to go” in his character arc, as Blake Snyder would say.

But what happens if we look closer? Can we find common types of connections between other elements? We understand the big pieces should all feel purposefully chosen. But what about the smaller pieces, like the WHAT and WHY of stakes?

 

A quick recap:

In case you didn’t see it, in last week’s article on the Save the Cat! blog, I wanted to look at how really effective story stakes usually have two clear components – the WHAT and the WHY.

In a nutshell:

“Good stories show us the stakes in two parts: WHAT will happen, and WHY it matters.

Most writers know how important it is to establish the WHAT. But if they haven’t also established the WHY, then the story feels shallow, artificial. The WHY shows the character’s specific, personal reason to care that those stakes might come to bear.

WHAT happens is plot; WHY it matters is story.”

(By the way, there’s a handy PDF of that blog post in the VIP resource library.)

Okay, great. Now we know what the stakes WHAT and WHY look like. What other elements show up in connection to those pieces? What I started to notice is that —

The character’s arc is often shown in relation to his or her big WHY.

Ooh, now this is getting good. Let’s see if this theory holds up.

Wait, what is character arc?

Often, at the beginning of a story, the character has some kind of flaw or deficit. That’s their starting point. Then they go on the journey of the story, and the experience causes them to change in some way, to address that starting-point flaw and become a better person.

So the character will exhibit one type of flawed behavior in the beginning and one type of healthier behavior at the end.

(And in the middle, the audience sees exactly how this journey caused that change in behavior. I’m not dismissing that very important part, but today we’re just talking about comparing Point A to Point Z in order to identify the change.)

In the movies I was researching for last week’s stakes article, I began to notice that the character’s starting point flaw often affected or played out in relation to the big WHY of their stakes.

For example: In Die Hard

(I know you’re sick to death of Die Hard, but since we’re riffing on last week’s post, let’s continue building on that analysis. Besides, Bill Martell even said:

“Every nuance, every twist and reversal, every shading of character is spelled out on the page; making “Die Hard” the ideal learning screenplay for the action genre.”

And because I love you, I’ll even put Die Hard in the VIP resource library for you to read + study.)

So, as I was saying, in Die Hard:

WHAT will happen if John McClane (Bruce Willis) fails to rescue the hostages, one of whom is his wife? They’ll be killed. What’s the deeper WHY that makes this meaningful? We’ve seen that John and wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) still love each other, despite going through a rough patch, and John really wants his wife back. If he fails to rescue the hostages, he’ll never get the chance to put things right in his marriage.

John McClane wants to fix his marriage. In the beginning of the screenplay, how does he go about it? He thinks all he has to do is show up and convince Holly she should come home with him. He’s not there because he knows he was wrong. Showing up is kind of the least he can do, and he thinks it’ll be enough of a gesture to get her to come home and go back to the way things were before. This is his initial idea of “fixing his marriage.” It’s a flawed, misguided approach to his big WHY.

In the end, what’s different? John has come to appreciate Holly for the strong, capable, accomplished woman that she is — his equal. They work together to defeat Hans. We can infer that their marriage will be different from now on. He has a healthier approach.

 

So that’s just one example. Is the flaw ALWAYS shown in relation to the character’s big WHY? Probably not. But I think it makes sense to do so.

The big WHY is something that’s very important to the character. If it’s very important to him, he’s probably actively trying to fix it or impact it in some way that he believes will make him happy. If he’s flawed or has some flawed belief at the start of the story (his Point A), he’s likely going about addressing what’s important to him in some misguided way.

If this is an active area of the character’s life, if it’s occupying his time and attention, then it’s an easy and organic place to showcase his starting point misbehavior.

Showing us a character who cares very much about something but is somehow shooting himself in the foot, is also a way to begin to build our sympathy for him, and to get us invested in his story.

And then, at the end of the screenplay we see the character behaving in a new, healthier way with regard to his big WHY. When the character applies his new, healthier perspective to the thing we know is very important to him, it not only shows the completed character arc, it also gives us an emotionally satisfying payoff because we know how much it means to the character.

That’s my theory: that, in keeping with the Rule of Screenplay Connectivity (don’t Google it, I just made that up), tying the main character’s arc to the WHY of his or her stakes helps create a more emotionally resonant story. And that a lot of good movies have used this little trick effectively.

Not satisfied with that tiny sample size? I wouldn’t be either. Reaching back into my memory vault to come up with a couple more examples:

Jaws (1975) Roy Scheider Credit: Universal Pictures

Jaws (1975)
Credit: Universal Pictures

Jaws

WHAT will happen if Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) fails to rid his beach of the killer shark? More people – whom he’s there to protect – will die. WHY does this matter to him? Sheriff Brody and his family are recent transplants to this little town; he’s an outsider, but trying to make it his home. If the shark wins, Brody will surely not be welcome here, and will also see their new home torn apart and traumatized.

In the beginning, Sheriff Brody goes along with what the town leaders want him to do so as not to ruffle feathers – he’s just trying to fit in – even though he doesn’t believe it’s in the best interest of the community.

In the end, what’s different? Sheriff Brody is willing to sacrifice all for the community, to protect his community.

The Ring

WHAT will happen if Rachel (Naomi Watts) fails to solve the mystery of The Ring video? She’ll die, because she’s watched the cursed tape. And WHY does that matter? Because she’s a hard-working single mom who’s trying the best she can to do a good job at raising her son. We see her struggle and want her to get the chance to succeed.

Rachel wants to succeed at single parenthood. At the start of the screenplay, she’s harried and late to pick her son up from school because she’s trying to do it all, all by herself, and she’s unwilling to admit that she’s not making her son her top priority.

In the end, what’s different? The payoff to her character arc is that we see Rachel is putting her son above all else and spending quality time with him. In keeping with the genre, we then also see her go into Mama Bear mode, as she passes on the cursed tape in order to keep him alive. So that’s how the movie ends, but I’d say her character arc is resolved when we see the change in her priorities.

 

I’m sure there’s also an argument to be made that this is all related to character want/need, but I’ll be honest – I’ve never been totally on board with the whole want/need philosophy. I feel okay admitting that since I’m not in bad company. As John August says here:

Trying to distinguish between characters’ wants and needs is generally frustrating and almost universally pointless. The fact that I can answer the question for Big Fish and Charlie after the fact doesn’t make it a meaningful planning tool.

I agree. Thinking about want/need can be useful as a back-to-front analysis tool, but I’ve personally never been able to really “get it” in the front-to-back process of developing my own stories. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to use it productively.

John August goes on to say that a better question is, “Why is the character doing what he’s doing?” Which — I’ll just put it out there — lines up nicely with the stakes WHY stuff that I’ve been on and on about this week.

Of course, all of this isn’t to say that my WHY/character arc theory is the only way to think about a story, either. I have no doubt that there’s an abundance of examples to disprove my thinking. Which is cool, you know? Because not all stories work exactly the same way. That would be boring.

Ultimately, what does any of this analysis get you? Well, if it sparks ideas and helps you make progress on your project, then I think it’s been worth whatever time you spent reading and thinking about it. Take what you can and try to apply it to your own projects. See if it works for you.

If you’re working on fleshing out your character’s arc, a good place to start might be to ask:

  • “What does my character THINK is the right way to approach his big WHY, but is actually misguided?”
  • “What does he learn through the experience of this story?”
  • “What’s his healthier approach to his WHY in the end?”

Now I ask you: can you think of any movies where this WHY/character arc connection plays out – or doesn’t? Send them to me, please! Or comment below! (This is a healthy obsession, I swear.)

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