The following is the second in a series of articles about filmmaking from the story to the release stage. Keep visiting the blog for more.
In our last article, we talked about how story is the most important element and how it can make or break a movie. But what are a few elements that make a compelling story?
You would be surprised to know how many films have characters with literally no goal at all. Boiled down to the basics, a story is about a character wanting to do something or achieve a goal. Name any movie and you’ll see that this holds true – a policeman wants to stop a terrorist attack, a guy wants to get the girl of his dreams, a group of people want to escape a maniac killer and so on. This goal begins the character’s story and whatever happens throughout the film, it pertains to this one goal. While this is the main goal of the film, a character might have to go through several smaller goals to reach it. For example, to defeat the mob boss of a rival gang, the hero might have to first gain their trust and go undercover, kill the thugs and then reach the main boss. Never have a story where there is no goal.
Never have a story where there is no goal. No one wants to see a character roam around doing their daily loves without any sort of a motive. Though there are some very rare exceptions, these sort of movies always seem much longer than they are and wear down the audience and end up being a very tiring watch.
Read aloud some of the plot-lines that I’ve mentioned above and you’ll notice that there’s a real conflict based in them. The backbone of a story is that there’s conflict at the base of it and that drives the film. If ‘Titanic’ was about two lovers who fall in love on a ship and lead their lives happily ever after, we wouldn’t have an Oscar-winning movie but an extremely boring one. It’s the fact that the ship is the doomed Titanic that’s going to sink is the real conflict here and the entire film builds up to it. If in ‘Silence of the Lambs’, the FBI agent was given a clue by Hannibal and she went out and caught the serial killer the next day, it would be a laughably dull film because there’s no conflict. It’s because of the fact that Hannibal plays mind games with her and digs deep into her psyche while also planning out his own escape that makes the movie interesting. Add to the fact that the serial killer has kidnapped the Senator’s daughter and will kill her in a couple of days and you’ve got a very tense and suspenseful conflict right there.
A film where everything happens without any consequence or opposition is a fairy tale and a bad one at that. Because even some of the best fairy-tales in literature always had a conflict that drove them. It’s this simple aspect that will single-handedly make your film a much more compelling one to watch. As an audience, we are suckers for a tense situation brimming with conflict. How do you add conflict to your story? Make sure that your character has a goal and there are forces and obstacles on his way that are stopping him from doing so. As an audience, we are suckers for a tense situation brimming with conflict.
There’s a few things you can make sure your script has that will help give it lots of conflict:
- Stakes – When writing your story, always remember to have stakes. What will happen if the hero doesn’t finish the task? This is one of the most important questions to ask yourself and the higher your stakes are, the more intense and important the goal becomes. In ‘Silence of the Lambs’, Clarice has to work with Hannibal in finding the serial killer but what if nothing happens if she fails? Suddenly, the goal is boring. But in the movie, the serial killer has kidnapped the Senator’s daughter and will kill her in a couple of days. So now if she fails her task, the Senator’s daughter and an innocent life will be taken because of that. That’s stake and that’s what drives conflict even higher as the audience knows that each decision is most important. In sci-fi, the stakes could be the world ending. In comedy, it could be the guy losing his job or facing major humiliation. In drama, it could be death or losing a loved one. In romance, it could be not seeing the girl forever. Always remember to drive up the stakes whenever you can and you’ll have a very exciting and cinematic story.
- Obstacles – If your protagonist has a goal, make sure there are obstacles of every kind coming in from every corner trying to stop him from doing so. This makes for a very exciting story as the audience is never really sure whether the plan will succeed or not. If your hero has to win a boxing match to win the girl of his dreams and he’s already a muscular guy with the opponent being weak, there’s no conflict here and it’s a boring movie. Make the hero a skinny accountant who has never thrown a punch in his life. Make the opponent a World Heavyweight Champion. Make his boss someone who constantly blocks him. Adding such obstacles will make the hero’s journey from a loser to a champion not only much more worth it but a pleasure to see. Obstacles make conflict.
- Time Limit – This is more of a necessity for an action-oriented film but it’s important nonetheless. The sure-fire way to add tension and excitement to your story is adding a time limit after which the plan will fail. The world ends in 5 days, a bomb will explode in 2 hours, someone will be killed in 24 hours, the bad guy will arrive in an hour etc. If your main goal has no time limit on it and can be done anytime of the year, it saps out tension and suddenly isn’t so major. Movies like ‘Crank’, ‘Die Hard’, ‘Back to the Future’, and even recent hits like ‘Fast Five’ have a time limit in which the action must be done or it fails.
Think of all of your favorite movies. Movies that you’ve grown up with and are a part of your life. What made them your favorite? Ninety percent of the time, the answer is because it connected to you emotionally. The best sort of story is the one that the audience emotionally connects to. Depending on your movie, it could either be fear, laughter, thrills, drama or any specific emotion that you want the audience to feel. But remember – a film is most powerful when the audience connects to it. This is why it’s important that the characters you write are human and the audience can relate to them in some way or the other. Because if you don’t care about a character, you don’t care about anything that happens to him and that impacts the whole film.
What if Jack and Rose were someone who had been introduced five minutes before the ship begins to sink in ‘Titanic’? Would you care so much about them drowning? It’s only the fact that we got emotionally connected to them in the film that we got touched by the tragic ending. And most of you remember ‘Titanic’ not for the amazing special effects, but for the love story that connected to you emotionally. Even though ‘The King’s Speech’ was set in 1940’s Britain that most audience members knew nothing about, it’s emotional connection to the audience was through the protagonist trying to overcome his crippling flaw. Behind an elaborate setting, it was a basic human story. Within all the plot twists and amazing visuals you have in your film, always remember to add a human element that audiences can latch on to and experience. Even if it’s an action movie that usually relies only on the thrills and stunts, adding a human story underneath will make it stand out for sure. While ‘Die Hard’ on the surface was about a man trying to defeat terrorists who have taken over a building, it was actually about a man trying to reconnect with his wife again. Great characters and an emotional connection are the two factors that take your script even further. Within all the plot twists and amazing visuals you have in your film, always remember to add a human element that audiences can latch on to and experience.
So what do you need to build great characters? That’s a whole new topic altogether.
In the next article, I will discuss how to craft great characters that serve your story well and connect with the audience. Stay tuned for more!