I’ve been giving some thought to the way stories work and the way they might be shaped to hold and satisfy an audience.
First, you need characters we care about. We don’t have to like them – but we need to care about the way things are going to turn out for these people .
Then we show a little bit about the sort of person they are and the life they lead.
At the start of your story, life is going on in the same old routine, whether your hero is a medical student in The Last King of Scotland or a hitman in Grosse Point Blank.
Now you throw a spanner into the works of this ‘Ordinary World’ of your character. In Psycho, Phoenix officeworker Marion Crane meets her lover Sam in lunch breaks. She discovers they can’t get married as Sam has gives most of his money away in alimony. One Friday, Marion is trusted to bank $40,000 by her employer.
In Dead Man’s Shoes, paratrooper Richard (Paddy Considine), returns to his small home town of Matlock in the Peak District because his younger brother has become the victim a local gang. In Little Miss Sunshine, Olive learns she has a place in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California.
Something occurs which throws your character into a spin – something which turns their ‘Ordinary World’ on its head. This does not have to be a huge event – though its consequences will turn out like that. In The Verdict, the legal drama written by David Mamet and directed by Sidney Lumet, this ‘Inciting Incident is a minor squabble. Frank Galvin, an ambulance chasing lawyer, is thrown out of a funeral home where he was touting for work. For the first time, Frank sees the truth about himself. He catches a glimpse of the image the rest of the world has about him – the once promising lawyer is a drunk, sniffing around the bereaved to pick up compensation claims.
In response to this incident, the hero/heroine decides to do something. They make their first act break decision. In Grosse Point Blank, professional assassin Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack) decides to attend his High School Reunion. In Psycho, Marion Crane decides to steal the money. In a love story it will be the decision to woo and win the heart of another character: in The Verdict Frank decides to fight a risky, but righteous claim against the Catholic Church. In a police drama, it’s the decision to solve the crime: it may be to find the treasure, free the prisoner, sing at the Albert Hall.
Whatever it is, your central character now has a goal. If we care about them, we’ll want to see them achieve it. We’ll stick with that quest: we’ll follow them through that journey.
Though your character now has a goal – something they know they want – there may be something else that we, the audience, sense they need.
It may be your hero wants to rob banks for the loot – like Bonnie and Clyde – but we can see they need more – perhaps it’s acceptance by the rest of the gang: perhaps it’s revenge on the cop who framed their father. In Sexy Beast, Gary “Gal” Dove needs to rob the bank to free himself of his past and resume his life in Spain with Deedee.
In one script I’m working on now, the central character wants to save a child who is being trafficked – that’s the goal she knows she wants. But in reality, we can see her need is something else – the love of another human being. Tara lost her mother when she was a child and has been seeking to restore that loss ever since.
So the goal is what your character wants: the dramatic need is what the audience can see they need.
Where were we…?
Your character wants something at the end of the story. As writers, it is out job to put something in the way.
A beautiful illustration of this can be found in the short film Ralph, written and directed by Alex Winckler.
Ralph is dim, badly dressed and way out of his depth. He arrives in Paris on the Eurostar, toting a huge suitcase.
He wants to find Clair, an old (girl)friend. She gave him her number – but it seems to be wrong. He asks a passerby, but Ralph doesn’t speak French, so barely understands the answer. When he discovers there’s a number missing from Clair’s telephone number – he asks the French man which one it might be…
Ralph uses all the credit on his phone card. So he goes to a cafe where the owner cons him into buying a meal so he can get a card. He sits down to a meal he didn’t want: the waitress trips over his giant suitcase. When Ralph finally gets a card card his phone still doesn’t work. In fury he tries to smash the phone.
The waitress takes pity on him. When they chat about Clair, the penny finally drops for Ralph. Clair doesn’t give a toss about him.
He decides he likes the waitress better. But just as he agrees to leave with her, Clair turns up…Ralph is faced with a dilemma – try to reconnect with Clair, or follow the Waitress, who’s disappearing into the distance. Dilemmas are great!
So the obstacles between Ralph and his goal, meeting Clair, grow higher and higher. The stakes are raised. This is vital. The consequences of your hero/heroine not reaching their goal need to be raised all the time. We want to feel that uncertainty – what will they do? The ‘boom-boom’ moment in Eastenders, the bombshell that lands just before the theme music kicks in.
So – raise the stakes. For example, if your character’s goal is a good night’s sleep, it’s not a disaster if they’re on holiday and they don’t manage to drop off. But if they’re at work the next day it takes it to another level. You have raised the stakes.
If they have a job interview the next morning, it’s raised further still.
If your heroine works in a betting shop, it might be a real problem if they can’t sleep. But it’s only money. If lives are at stake, it’s raised again. If they work as a doctor others might die. The stakes are raised again. But not as high as if your heroine is a bomb disposal expert called to diffuse a device in a busy shopping centre…
The best stories are those where we can’t predict the ending. Whether you allow your central character to achieve their goal or not, it’s that journey that keeps the audience with you until the end.