Recently, I read a script wherein the writer created one of the greatest disaster stories of all time. It was up there with Titanic, Deep Impact, Volcano, etc. All the elements of a disaster story were present – mass destruction of millions of lives and tens of thousands of square miles of property, the necessity for governmental opponents to band together to turn the tide, and last-minute heroics. What else would you want?
It’s got a cast of thousands, scores speaking roles, and numerous primary and secondary characters. Surely this is a potential blockbuster movie. This is a script that the studios create bidding wars over each seeking their next tent-pole summer extravaganza. There are numerous catastrophic scenes that will generate an eye-popping trailer… and if a movie is made from the current draft, it will bomb. What? Why?
During the process of constructing the plot and unfolding it through numerous character perspectives, the writer forgot the purpose behind telling the story. He forgot that the disaster plot is merely a vehicle for an implied theme and that theme comes from character arc. He also forgot that an audience could care diddly squat about events unless it impacts the main character in a life-changing manner.
Perhaps the Main Character is instrumental in stopping said disaster, but if there’s no challenge to his emotional armor, which was constructed early in life to protect from some primary wound, then all the so-called heroic actions in the world will not create an emotional investment in the audience.
Take the movie Titanic, for instance. If Rose had not felt hemmed in by her lifestyle and upcoming marriage, depicted by the hit-me-over-the head-with-it corset scene, and if Jack had not challenged her fear of breaking loose, all we would have had was a story about a sinking boat of which we already knew the ending. Rose’s character arc from a sense of powerlessness to emotional freedom is the story. The event of the boat sinking is merely the vehicle for telling that story.
Above, I mentioned that the writer tells the story through numerous character perspectives with a great deal of exposition through dialogue. Even if each of these characters had an emotional arc that complemented the others, which in this example wasn’t the case, every time the story shifts perspectives the audience goes back to neutral emotionally. They have to adjust to a new perspective, which is not a good thing, especially if there is no emotional arc to the character. A single perspective is best when telling a movie story.
Let me repeat myself here: the audience must connect emotionally with the main character. This character’s emotional need creates intention. Intention provokes a character’s desire to step beyond his emotional armor (reactive fearful behavior) toward some goal. As a result of some Call To Adventure (impending disaster?), he takes an action which provokes a reaction from a character (antagonist) that wants him to reconsider his quest.
The main character’s actions and antagonist’s reactions creates plot. Plot is the vehicle for theme, which comes from the shift in consciousness that the main character must make in order to achieve his goal. In other words, nothing happens except through character.
If the audience doesn’t identify with the main character and bond with him emotionally early on, it doesn’t matter what the event is, the story is hollow, empty, and vacuous. The boat sinks and so what? The audience can only identify with the disaster event through a character with whom they identify emotionally. Even National Geographic finds a way to anthropomorphize an animal in order for the audience to identify with and root for it.
The Main Character in a movie story generates every other story element – plot, theme, structure, action (dialogue is a refined action), reversals, and everything but genre. Genre determines the tone of the story and dictates the writing style of the description and dialogue.
Structure is the result of escalating emotionally challenging dilemmas and decisions made by the main character up to and including a seeming death of the quest, which brings atonement with the past and a new perspective and a new direction. Structure culminates in a final battle with the antagonist and a resolution of the main character’s quest.
My point here is that if you do not know your characters intimately, your story will not connect with the audience. No matter how great your plot points or story events are, if there is no emotional connection with character, your movie will bomb at the box office.