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Building a Character Arc Through Every Scene

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by Naomi Write + Co. in character, screenwriting

Even if you understand what character arc is in concept, you may still feel confused about how to actually make it show up in your script.

The truth is, character arc shows up scene by scene. Thinking about it that way will help you build an effective character arc that deepens the story.

What’s the movie really about?

Theme is what the movie is really about, e.g. the message, meaning, or subtext. The character arc is the journey of accepting the theme. So what the movie is really about is the character arc.

It makes sense, then, that most scenes should contribute to this big, over-arching idea that the movie is about. Individual scenes are the building blocks of the character arc, or the steps along the transformation.

Character arc is a cumulative effect. Each point on the arc creates context for the others. They depend on each other.

If not enough scenes contribute then the arc is spotty, maybe not even a discernible, complete path at all, and what the script is really about doesn’t come through.

How character arc plays out scene by scene in The Family Man

Because it’s the holiday season, I re-watched The Family Man to use as today’s example. If you’re not familiar with this Nic Cage classic, here’s a logline:

A flashy, single investment banker wakes on Christmas morning to find himself in an alternate, suburban-dad version of his life, and tries to figure out how he arrived here in the hopes of getting his old life back.

And here’s a simple story chart so you have an overview of the story we’re working with:

Initially Jack measures success only by how much money he earns and how cushy his life can be, but as he spends more time in his new life he comes to value love and family more than money.

And that’s what the movie is really about: without love and family, our lives aren’t as great, no matter what we accomplish.

So when we look at individual scenes, we should be able to see how virtually each one contributes to the arc playing out over the whole movie.

Where the character arc magic happens

Act 1 is where we see the “before” picture, aka the character’s starting point. It shows us an attitude or behavior that is getting in the way of the character’s happiness, even if he doesn’t see it that way.

And Act 3 is where the transformation is confirmed, aka the character’s ending point. It’s where we see the shift in attitude or behavior that now allows him to be happier or healthier in some specific way.

But Act 2 is where the magic happens. It’s where this particular set of plot events challenges the “before” version of the character, and causes the transformation into the “after” picture.

In Act 2 of The Family Man, we see:

      • Jack is forced to leave Manhattan and drive his minivan back to the New Jersey suburbs. Making him actually experience this lifestyle is the first step in getting him to see what it has to offer.
      • Then Jack hangs out with a neighbor, his best suburban-dad friend, who shows off his man cave and tells Jack in conversation, “Don’t screw up the best thing in your life just because you’re a little unsure who you are.” It’s the first nudge toward Jack’s new point of view.
      • Jack goes “home” to his wife, Kate, who has been worried about him, and asks, “What kind of man does that? … You missed it. You missed Christmas.” This continues to introduce Jack to the new point of view. It’s a big deal to miss Christmas because family is what it’s all about. To Jack, this is a new concept.
      • Jack sees his closet. No fancy designer suits. “Unacceptable,” he says, but must live with it for now. Again stripping away what Jack thinks he needs to be happy.
      • Jack and Kate attend a neighbor’s holiday party, where he takes part in something entirely foreign: socializing for socializing’s sake. There’s no agenda here. He’s not trying to close any deals. And he sees Kate from across the room, regaling other guests with a story. He learns she’s a nonprofit lawyer. In the moment his takeaway is only that she doesn’t make any money, but ultimately he comes to see that doing good is more valuable than filling your bank account (a sub-point of the overall theme).

The process of change

The next several scenes are funny promise-of-the-premise-type scenes that show fancy city guy Jack in the life of a suburban dad: walking the dog in the snow, coming home to find Kate already asleep in her flannel pajamas, waking to a crying baby with a smelly diaper to be changed. And you might be thinking, “How do these scenes push Jack toward change?”

But you have to remember that transformation is a process. The character can’t be willing to change, especially not right away. If the new life is all rainbows and unicorns and there’s no reason not to be thrilled to be here, then where’s the conflict?

The eventual change feels more meaningful if we know what he’s giving up (quiet mornings, no dirty diapers, sexy time with ladies in lingerie). We understand that the new life is worth the trade off.

It’s also among these scenes that Jack sees the good stuff he gets with this life, too: a wife he’s still attracted to after all these years, and adorable, funny, clever kid(s), all of whom really love him. Yes this life is just as bad as he always assumed, but it’s also more precious than he ever knew. Every scene serves some part of that idea.

Breaking down to build anew

You can also think of the transformation as both deconstruction and reconstruction. Use this as a way to brainstorm the kinds of scenes you may need to fully build out the character arc.

It’s a way of thinking about how the events and experiences are forcing the protagonist to question, re-evaluate, and let go of the “old” way or identity, and then to see, accept, and embrace the “new” way.

Or deconstructing the “old me” and reconstructing the character’s point of view, life philosophy, or way of being and doing. Constructing a “new me” that we see by the end of the movie.

If we look at some scenes from the reconstruction portion of Jack’s arc:

      • Bowling with his team in the league finals, Jack gets a genuine thrill from knocking down a few of the pins (even though his teammates are baffled by how happy he is at his meager score). Jack is finding joy in simpler pleasures.

But things are never too linear along the arc. We want a little forward-and-backward, and some testing of the transformation that’s beginning to take hold.

      • Here, Jack flirts with a neighbor’s wife, who propositions him – and he seems ready to take her up on it.
      • Until his best friend reminds him that Kate “is amazing and you’re going to f*@& it up.” Causing Jack to consider – maybe for the first time – that there are some relationships so valuable that you should work to protect them, even if it means not chasing your own happiness or feeding your own desires all the time.
      • Later, at home, he and Kate have a fun, flirty time. But when things get intimate, he gives her the same dirty talk he would to one of his one-night-stands – and ruins the mood. He realizes that this relationship is different from any other he’s had.

And we could go on and on, through each scene, identifying the contribution to the character arc and what the story is really about.

Can you say the same for your screenplay?

How does your character arc?

Here are some prompts to get you thinking:

      • What are the starting and ending points of the character’s arc?
      • How does this plot situation cause the character to transform in that way?
      • What must be deconstructed? What must be reconstructed?
      • Think about Act 2, where the magic happens. In each scene, identify how the character is being challenged to change, to move along that path of transformation.

        **This is maybe the most important takeaway today. It’s not enough to have a funny set piece or challenging situation. It must also specifically challenge the character’s old ways and/or illuminate the path to the new way. Deconstruction / reconstruction.

And something we didn’t cover today but may be useful in your process: think about the supporting characters and how they help or hinder as the protagonist makes this transformation.

For example, Kate’s values and love for Jack are two primary forces that cause his change. And Jack’s best friend is there to nudge him in the right direction at key moments.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

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