Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Turning Up The Heat

That blog title could refer to the stinkin' freezing temps that forced me to bring my son's equally stinkin' Corgi in the house overnight, but no. It means cranking up the pressure on our protagonists and making their conflicts, challenges, defeats, and victories more effective.

A friend of mine gave me permission to refer to his screenplay in vague terms for the purpose of this post. He liked my comments and said I should share my diagnosis with posterity. Yeah, okay. I'll give it a shot but I'm no expert.

Here's the deal. He has a good story that would, if I were the protagonist, be full of adventure, angst, and nail biting scenarios. I'm a wimp. So, if I were living out the story, the drama and uncertainty would be intense and the viewer would be doubting that my chubby legs (I've been working to shrink them for over a year now) could actually sprint across that wobbly rope bridge, much less stay on a horse or leap from a moving train. The threat of my sudden demise would be real.

But I'm not in the story. His character is. And, that character is more than qualified to run across a wobbly bridge, stay on a horse, and leap from a train.

Instead of helping the story, the character's invincibility hurts it. There's no tension. No fear. No anxiety. We know from the beginning that this character is a conqueror and the sky is the limit.

No fun. He can't fail. We need the threat of failure.

What to do.

The way I see it, this writer has a few options and this works for all genres, not just action films. This writer must find a way to turn the heat up on his character. That means either finding his character's Achilles tendon and exploiting it, amping up the challenges to fit the character, or making the character more vulnerable and human so the challenges feel greater and the viewer can relate to them. Or, all of the above. We need to know the character can fail at something.

Find his weakness. Turn up the pressure. Make him human.

John McClane (Diehard) could swing from a skyscraper on a fire hose. He's invincible. How the heck do we turn up the heat on a guy like that? Find his weakness. It's his wife and kids. Put the pressure on him. He's already fighting international terrorists so make him do something more personal like save his wife and hundreds of people from an exploding building. Then make him human so the viewer can relate to him. Let him walk barefoot through broken glass. We can all squirm in our shoes watching his feet bleed.

Indiana Jones is one of the most vulnerable action heroes ever written. That's why we love him. We love that he's terrified of snakes - weakness. We love that he's an ordinary professor saving humanity from a cursed Ark - pressure. And, we love that he's intimidated by his father but fearless in the face of Nazis - human.

Find his weakness. Turn up the pressure. Make him human.

One. Two. Three. Simple to diagnose. Much harder to go back and rewrite. Good luck, writer friend. You'll get there.


E.C. Henry said...

Great advice, MarryAn, your friend is lucky to have you in his corner.

If you're trying to shape up your legs you should try running.

Like the way you see yourself as facing the adventure this writer's protagonist is facing, but your reaction to it doesn't make you a wimp. I've always seen you as slueth of sorts. Got me wondering if you own a Sherlock Homes hat? Or perhaps a hand-held magnifying glass?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Ran when I was in high school but had problems with one knee. My sons are all medal winning runners. I just walk on the treadmill.

No Sherlock Holmes hat or magnifying glass but I do have a basket weave rice paddy hat. Maybe I'm more like Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong.

Fun Joel said...

Nice! Straightforward and to the point. :-)

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Highly out of character for me!

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