The Lesson is the Destination


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.

As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in character, pre-writing, screenwriting

One thing I’ve noticed in working with writers to figure out their stories is the tendency to work chronologically. That is, trying to figure out the story from beginning to end, in the order it happens.

But a lot of times you actually need to know certain later points in the story in order to craft really effective earlier points in the story. (Or to even know what needs to happen at all.)

Specifically, it’s really helpful to understand the protagonist’s arc and what the character looks like at the end of it, in order to build a story that will effectively lead us there.

If you start at the beginning but don’t know where you’re headed, you’re going to do a lot of wandering until you get to the right spot.

What’s the point?

The protagonist’s arc – or transformation – plays out across the whole story and there’s a key lesson at the crux of it. That key lesson or realization is, essentially, the theme. That’s the point of the story. It’s the lesson or realization that you’re designing the whole story to deliver – to the protagonist, and to the audience by extension. The transformation as a whole shows us the importance or value of that thematic lesson.

At the beginning of the story, the protagonist has some deficit or flaw and is in need of the thematic lesson. Then the Act 2 Adventure challenges them and forces them to see what they need to learn. And then in Act 3 the character demonstrates they’ve learned the lesson through new (happier, healthier) behavior or way of being.

(Not always – but that’s sort of the default setting for movies, unless the point is that the character doesn’t change.)

The arc is the map, the lesson is the destination

With the character arc, just like with the larger plot, it seems there’s a tendency for writers to start at the beginning and try to work forward without really knowing what the destination looks like.

If that sounds familiar, I will let you in on a secret:

It’s so much easier to make every other decision in the story once you’re clear on the character’s arc. And a key part of understanding the character’s arc, is identifying that thematic lesson the whole thing hinges on.

But when you’re working forward through the story you may feel out of touch or unaware of what that lesson is. If you’re living in the “before” mindset of your character, it might be hard to see what the story is going to teach you.

So this week I’m sharing an exercise that can help you articulate the lesson clearly, so you can then use it as the golden nugget of truth that everything else in the screenplay is building toward.

The fortune cookie comes at the end of the meal

Toward the end of the character’s arc – which is the end of the movie – you’ll often see the protagonist state what they’ve learned from the experience we’ve just watched. They’ve just figured it out and probably kicked the tires of it a little bit themselves. And they’re so moved or affected by the lesson or realization they’ve now embraced, they just spell it out. (It is a transformative experience, after all.)

Sometimes it’s one line of dialogue, other times it’s a whole speech. Not in every movie, of course, but it happens a lot.

For example, in About A Boy, there’s plenty leading up to it but it’s one clear line when protagonist Will says:

“Every man is an island. I stand by that. But, clearly, some men are part of island chains. Below the surface they’re connected.”

In this movie he’s gone from a commitment- and responsibility-phobic single guy (an “island”), to someone who values and engages in real, meaningful relationships (“part of an “island chain”).

(His one-line “What I’ve learned” speech is just his particular way of saying, “Alone, bad. Friend, good.”)

“What I’ve learned…” and let me elaborate

Another example is the movie The DUFF. Protagonist Bianca goes from being someone who feels like she needs to change herself when she learns she’s considered the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend” in her group, to someone who accepts herself exactly the way she is. (And ultimately gets the boy next door, Wesley, who happens to date Bianca’s nemesis, Madison.)

Bianca’s transformed state is on full display at the big Homecoming dance at the end of the movie when she finally confronts Madison. Here, we see Bianca’s “What I’ve learned…” speech:

“Madison, you used to make me so upset. But now I just feel bad for you. Yeah, I’m somebody’s DUFF. Guess what – so are you. So is everybody. There’s always gonna be somebody prettier, or more talented, or richer than you. But it shouldn’t affect how you see yourself. You label everybody to try to keep them down, but you end up missing out on all this great stuff around you. You have Wesley and you treat him like he’s stupid, but he isn’t. People don’t like him because he’s with you – they like him because he’s an amazing guy. Look, I like myself. I wouldn’t want to be anybody else. And I realize now that none of this matters to me. But it does to you. It’s your dream. And I totally support that. Just don’t tear me down for not [caring] about your labels because in the end, they’re meaningless.”

The “What I’ve learned…” exercise

Now it’s your turn! For this exercise, think about the transformation your protagonist goes through in your movie, and the lesson they must embrace in order to reach that transformed state.

Then, write a speech the protagonist might give in which they tell us what they’ve learned from this experience. They could be talking to their antagonist, or to a love interest or mentor, or even a stadium full of people. Or you could imagine the protagonist speaking directly to the audience, either in voice over or by breaking the fourth wall.

You don’t need to decide exactly how the scene will play out. This exercise is about exploring what the protagonist would say once they’ve gone through the transformative experience. Once they were out the other side and could see what they needed to change and how they’re a better version of themselves now.

And it’s okay if you don’t know how to precisely or concisely explain the lesson yet.  Don’t worry about getting it “right” or perfect on the first try. If you write from the protagonist’s point of view and let yourself ramble on the page, I think you’ll find yourself circling the point you really want to make.

That point is the point of the whole story and once you find it, it acts as the North Star for your entire screenplay.

So put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes. Let your imagination go, and write what comes to mind when you think about how your protagonist is wiser, stronger, healthier, or happier by the end of the movie.

Whether what you write today makes it into your final screenplay or not, this exercise will help crystallize your movie’s thematic lesson and the transformational journey your story will take the protagonist through.


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.