Two Things to Set Up for an Effective Character Arc


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by Naomi Write + Co. in character, screenwriting

Every story ever told has some kind of desired response attached to it. We want to entertain, or caution, or inspire, or otherwise make the audience feel something.

Plot and structure help to achieve that reaction, of course, but we don’t want to overlook one of the elements that really does the heavy lifting to create the meaning of the story: character arc.

Character arc shows us what the story means by showing us how the protagonist is transformed by what they’ve experienced.

But how do we actually create meaning through the character arc? Really, it comes down to the same storytelling principles we always talk about, but in this case we want to think specifically about how to tell the story of the transformation. And just like our stories need a setup, escalation, and resolution, our character arcs need these basic components too.

Today I want to focus in on the setup part of that equation, and to go even more micro, to look at establishing the starting point of the character arc in the first sequence of the screenplay.

But first, the protagonist

Before we can begin to establish those qualities about the character that will be important to the character arc, first we have to make sure we know who we’re paying attention to, or who’s story we’re primarily watching. In other words, who the protagonist is.

If the audience is confused about this, then the work you do to establish character arc can’t be as effective as you want it to be. Because if the audience is focused on trying to figure out who to pay attention to, then they’re not focused on the one character you’re trying to draw them into or prime them to experience the transformation with. If we don’t know where to look we’re going to miss an important detail.

(Here’s more info if you’re curious about how to establish the protagonist effectively.)

The parts of the character arc

Looking at the character arc as a whole will help us understand how the parts work together and what we’ll need to put into the screenplay. This is the lay of the land so we know what we need to establish in the first sequence.

As I’ve talked about before, character arc basically happens over three phases:

    1. Needing to change
    2. Being forced to change
    3. Embracing the change

And the meaning of the story comes from seeing all of these parts of the character arc demonstrated in the script, as well as how they work together. We can’t fully understand the transformation unless we see how it all plays out – the cause and the effect.

But before we even get to the cause and effect, there’s a starting point. A B.C.A. – Before Character Arc. 😂 That’s the “needing to change” phase, and it’s largely established in the first sequence of the screenplay.

(Here’s more info on mapping out your character arc alongside your plot.)

Two things to establish in the first sequence

What I refer to as Sequence 1 is the part of the screenplay before the Inciting Incident.

You know the Inciting Incident kicks the plot into motion, and you know the Inciting Incident happens around page 10, 12, 15, (choose your guru) – somewhere in there.

But one thing that often stumps writers is trying to figure out what happens before the Inciting Incident. What do you put in the story in the section before the story gets going?

You might have been told that the first sequence (or those first 10 pages) is where you establish the character’s “normal world.” And that’s not wrong.

But what exactly does it mean?

One of the most important things you can do in the first sequence is establish the character – and specifically, establish the starting point of the character’s arc.

This is who the character is before the events of the story cause them to change. And there are essentially two components to it:

    1. What they want
    2. And how they go about getting it

So show us who they are by showing us what’s important to them and their dominant quality or strategy for trying to get it.

How do we know what’s important to them? Action defines character. We know it by what they’re actively doing – the action they’re taking

Starting point of character arc: Meet Cute

If you take a look at the Meet Cute screenplay, you might notice a few of the things we’re talking about here.

First of all, we meet the protagonist and we know exactly who to focus on.

Now, the two leads in this movie sort of operate as co-protagonists. Sort of. But for our purposes we’re going to look at Sheila, who drives the bulk of the movie.

When we meet her, what is she doing? She is staring at love interest Gary. The script puts it this way:

Unbeknownst to him, the woman, SHEILA, 30’s, a disarmingly disheveled type, stares at him with laser focus. She stares at him with the intensity of a thousand suns. She stares at him like she’s been waiting her whole life to meet him. Since childhood. Since forever.”

O-kay. I guess we know what’s important to Sheila at this point in time, huh?

But more than that, in Sequence 1 we see Sheila chat up Gary in the bar. They’re a little awkward, but it’s charming and they seem more and more compatible as the night goes on. And we can tell that Sheila really wants this evening to go well.

So even if we don’t yet know why Gary and this evening are so important to Sheila – these things will be revealed over time – we have a very clear, strong sense that they are. That’s the kind of focus that helps us understand what’s going on in the story you’re telling us.

And don’t forget the second component — how she’s going about getting what’s important to her. In Sheila’s case, it’s time travel. That’s right. It’s so important to her that this night go well that she must control it and redo it and rework it, indefinitely.

Later on, we’ll understand why she’s so desperate for this date to go well, and ultimately her transformation will show us that she’s able to let go of that and her need to avoid the scary unknown. But that change only registers with real impact because of the contrast. This setup shows us a clear “before” picture, so that we can recognize the change that’s occurred in the “after” picture.

Simplicity in the setup

Are you surprised at how simple this example is? I hope so – because the point I’m really trying to illuminate here is that you don’t have to do a lot of fancy stuff and throw in everything and the kitchen sink when you’re establishing a character.

And in fact, simplicity is often your friend, especially early on in the script. We want to get a sure sense of who the character is. When we meet a character we get a solid grasp on them by understanding the one or two things about them that are most important for this particular story. And a really good way to convey that is by showing us what’s most important to them and how they go about getting it.


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.