One of my favorite YouTube channels is one called Film Courage, which is a channel basically dedicated to interviewing screenwriters and screenwriting teachers. There are some fantastic interviews on there if you’re interested in writing in general, but especially screenwriting.
Case in point this interview with writing teacher Eric Edson 12 Useful Tools To Help Beginning Screenwriters Write A Better Screenplay.
Now, the title is total click bait, in that Edson really doesn’t offer anything resembling tools in this video except in the broadest sense. He opens with a semi-controversial statement that plot and story are the same thing and calls anyone who disagrees idiots (which some like John Truby and Martin Scorsese would argue with, but it comes down to definitions) and then goes on to offer some random screenwriting tips. Among these are some pithy observations that I think are worth talking about.
The first one is that main characters in film should always have one of four broad goals:
His reasoning for those categories is that main characters in film need an easily identifiable goal that includes a physical endpoint that the audience can visually see. Are there more possible goals? Yes. But these are all things that can happen up on the screen in front of the audience’s eyes, which Edson argues makes them the perfect goals for visual storytelling.
Let’s look at each.
Win– Technically, all movies have a character trying to “win” if the character has a goal, but in this case I think Edson is referring to a situation where there is a clear contest of some kind involved. This could be a naval engagement, making a relationship work, finding a killer, or trying to pass fifth grade, but there is a clear identifiable endpoint of victory involved. In a lot of ways, this is the catch-all category of the four.
Stop– The character wants to stop someone else from doing something or something from happening. This would be Armageddon, Independence Day, and even Star Wars: A New Hope could be considered a “stop” movie (since the goal is to stop the Death Star from wreaking havoc.)
Escape– The main character wants to escape from a bad situation. While there is a lot of bleed over with Stop, I guess the key here is that the main character isn’t trying to stop the opponent from achieving their goals, they’re just trying to get away from a situation. So this would include Titanic, Jurassic Park and Towering Inferno type disaster movies, but also include films about characters trying to get out of small town life, or kick a drug addiction. Their life sucks and they want out, however they can manage it.
Retrieve– The main character wants to get something (or someone) and bring it back. This could be personal (Apocalypse Now), physical (Raiders of the Lost Ark), emotional (rekindling a relationship), mental (finding lost knowledge), or even social (restoring a way of life). The key here is that the goal is simply to find something and then use it.
This ties in with Blake Snyder’s advice that a movie’s main character’s goal(s) should be primal in nature- something that human beings can all relate to because its part of our experience as people. Also, it’s very easy to visualize most of these goals, and they’re finite in nature, which gives structure to the story through the goal itself. (Once you win, stop, escape, or retrieve, the story is now over.)
On the flipside, this can lead to very simple stories where the main characters don’t have complex goals, but instead are acting like animals in a way. Yes, that lets us relate to them, but it also doesn’t go very far in plumbing the depths of the human experience. I mean, yes, you need to keep things simple in a two hour (or less) film, but this may be too simple at times.
Edson also argues that there are four emotions that characters display on screen:
These again being universal and easily identifiable emotions that audiences can react to and understand easily no matter who they are. They are also strong emotions, so they’re more likely to resonate with the audience and make the scene more interesting while being easier for the actor to display. He says that each main character should enter a scene feeling one of these emotions and then leave it feeling another to show that change has happened in the scene.
I’m not entirely sure I agree with this list, and plan to think about it more and watch to see if that’s what’s happening in the films/tv I watch. What I can say is that there should be a fifth one on that list – Neutral – a state where a character is feeling no particular emotion at all. Sometimes character’s emotions aren’t strong, or are hidden from the audience, and this could be at the start of a scene or at the end of one. Of course, if your characters are always in neutral, it might be hard to get a reaction out of the audience, unless you have other supporting characters making up for it.
This is basically all I think is worth taking from this video. Edson follows this by trying to briefly discuss some Hero’s Journey archetypes, but slightly flubs them and if you want to know more about that go read Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey or Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. (The Shapeshifter is not the Opponent, for example, they can be, but are often not the main opponent but a secondary one.)
Not one of Film Courage’s best videos (it mostly seems like a disguised pitch for Edson’s book), but it did have some interesting points I thought were worth noting. I’ll probably annotate some of their other videos in the future as well.