The Re-writes Begin…
There are certain rules you have to stick to in order to write a successful movie script. If you would prefer to ignore these rules, write a novel instead. The rules of movie making are pretty much set in stone and you’d have to be either very brave or very stupid to break them.
Reservoir Dogs follows the rules. Casablanca follows the rules. The Godfather follows the rules. The Shawshank Redemption, Being John Malkovich, The Big Lebowski, Little Miss Sunshine, The Matrix, Gran Turino, Platoon, Raging Bull, Inception, Annie Hall, The Wizard of Oz… no matter how clever you think your favourite movie is, chances are, if it turned a profit at the box office it follows the rules.
You want to see a film STICKS IT TO THE MAN and THROWS THE RULE BOOK OUT THE WINDOW…?
Okay. Every film ever made tells the same story, which is… (drum roll please…)
Somebody Wants Something,
But They’re Having Trouble Getting It.
Identify who the ‘Somebody’ is, what exactly is the ‘Something’ they want and what exactly the ‘Trouble’ is lurking in their way, and hell, your script might be actually getting somewhere.
The story of this ‘Somebody’ will have Three Acts. Preferably no more, and definitely no less. If you must, you can dick around with the chronology (Memento, Pulp Fiction) later. Preferably in the edit suite.
The Three Acts
Act One is your set up. You must introduce your Somebody: your protagonist. Spell out what he or she wants and give us some idea of how he or she intends to get it. We should meet (or at least be aware of) the antagonist within the first few pages. Act One should cover the first 30 pages of the script.
If the protagonist isn’t revealed to the audience before the end of Act One, then you’re in trouble. You can, if you’re VERY lucky, manage to switch protagonists (Marion Crane/Norman Bates in Psycho), but this rarely happens, because it rarely works.
But the important thing is you MUST have a protagonist or the story will not work. Star Wars Episode I lacks a protagonist, which is just one of the many reasons why it sucks so bad. Some ensemble films (Magnolia, Traffic, Crash) have more than one protagonist, but the rules are the same: identify what their problem is, and spell out how they intend to overcome it. Ensemble films are notoriously tricky to get right, so I wouldn’t bother: in any case, they rarely set the Box Office ablaze.
Act Two is the journey. The protagonist MUST make a conscious decision to embark on this journey themselves (they then take the audience with them: if they’re tricked or simply following somebody else journey, they’re not the protagonist!). We have to see the protagonist develop and face challenges issued by the antagonist in getting what he or she wants. By midway through the movie, the protagonist should be flying high. Then it all goes horribly wrong.
By the end of Act Two, all should be lost. Your protagonist must seem as far from his or her goal as they could possibly possibly be. This is the turning point of the film, not just in terms of plot, but also in terms of character development. It’s now that the protagonist realises, like the Rolling Stones, they may not always get what they want, but if they try sometimes, they might get what they need. Act Two should cover around 60 pages.
By Act Three the protagonist has changed as a result of the journey. This gives them the tools, confidence, wisdom, whatever, to overcome the antagonist. It can consist of between 10 and 30 pages, but don’t overdo it, it’ll get boring very fast.
By the way, a tragedy (such as Being John Malkovich, Amadeus or Macbeth) runs along the same route except the protagonist gets what he or she wants too early on… when this happens, they become the antagonist. They’ll learn their lesson too late to do anything about it and lose everything by the end of the story. For a masterclass in this kind of character arc, see Walter Whyte in Breaking Bad.
For an example of exactly how not to do it, see Star Wars Episode III.
In a two-hour movie, especially if it’s the kind of action-orientated flick that might actually stand a chance of making millions, your protagonist will invariably be an archetype. Pretty much every great character in cinema history from Rick Blaine to Charles Foster Kane to Vito Corleone to Andy Dufresne has been a archetype. There’s nothing wrong with this: it’s still perfectly possible to get your subtle nuances across.
Save The Cat
The next thing you need to do is “save the cat”. Unless you’re writing the script for a film in which we all already know the protagonist (James Bond or Indiana Jones), we don’t know this guy, why the hell should we care what he wants? We have to like him. This is pretty easy to do, you just need a scene in Act One in which they (perhaps unexpectedly) do something heroic: ie, save a cat rather than eat one for lunch. It’s not like cinema audiences don’t want to manipulated.
Main Character vs. Central Character
Every film (with the exception of ensemble pics) has a main character and a central character. They can be the same person (Neo in The Matrix, Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, Forrest Gump in, er, Forrest Gump). But if you want to be clever you can make them separate people (or entities).
Consider: Mozart is the central character in Amadeus, the frikkin’ movie is named after him. However, we watch events unfold through the eyes of somebody else: in this case the jealous, vengeful Salieri. The same thing happens in King Kong, Ferris Bueller, Immortal Beloved and Atonement.
Generally speaking, the central character is what drives the plot forwards, but we see the story through the eyes of the main character. The major difference (and why this technique is used so often in historical movies) is that the main character can (and does) change during the course of the film, the central character can’t. Kong will be Kong until the day he is shot off the top of the Empire State Building, but without Kong nothing in that movie could possibly happen. Ferris Bueller isn’t the main character of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s Cameron that changes: he’s the one who trashes his dad’s car and says he’s happy to face up to the consequences. The film is actually about Cameron.
Even a film where it looks cut and dry, like The Shawshank Redemption, pulls this trick on you. At first glance, Andy is the main character, but think about it: he never changes. Red changes (think of the final parole hearing scene), which makes him the main character — we also see the events through his eyes, not Andy’s. This is one of the reasons Morgan Freeman was nominated for Best Actor, not Best Supporting Actor.
Sticking with Stephen King’s Different Seasons for the moment, in the story The Body (which became the film Stand By Me) Chris Chambers (River Phoenix in the film) was the main character, which worked fine in the book, but when translated onto the big screen it just didn’t work. Director Rob Reiner decided to pull a switcheroo and made Gordie the main character instead, and went on to create one of the most-loved movies of all time. Again, we see the film through Gordie’s eyes and Gordie is the character who changes at the end, not Chris.
As in Stand By Me, you’ll often have a group going on a journey together, but notice there’s still only one main character: Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Mikey in The Goonies etc.
It’s the comforting lie that Hollywood has been (very successfully) peddling for over a century: the fallacy that people can change.
But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
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Extra points for mentioning The Goonies!