In my last article I talked about the importance of making your screenplay zip along. Is it zipping down a backwoods highway with nothing but rocks and trees? Or is it flying along the main drag of a big city full of changing scenery and dangerous drivers? If the audience can always see clearly where it’s going, they may not appreciate the ride.
When we imagine our own futures, we visualize a successful path overcoming obstacles as we go. The reality is that some problems will hold us up for a long time or become complete blocks that we must detour around.
Hit movies are also full of conflicts and failures for the protagonist. A smooth ride is not what audiences talk about afterward. Hard times teach the main character “an important lesson about life” and that’s a must for every full length manuscript, not just screenplays. There are many kinds of this reversal of fortune.
Life is full of small problems depending on a person’s perspective. A cheating lover is a minor bump if the relationship wasn’t working anyway. And a major crisis if the character was planning marriage. How did you set up the relationship before the cheating was exposed? Minor problems keep a story interesting without throwing it off course. As you write, ask yourself what could go wrong. You need to keep yourself motivated to write the story too. If you know how the entire plot is going to work out, you can become bored with your writing. Your boredom will reflect in your story.
Large Reversals and the Changeover
Big problems are often the cause of changeovers. In case you’ve forgotten, the two major changeovers are what divide most movies into three parts. A situation so extreme happens that the main character or the theme of the story is completely changed.
The good protagonist becomes overwhelmed by sleazy business practices and chooses to fight back. No matter how immoral the behaviour of the antagonists your hero is up against may be, if they’re behaving within the law the character has transitioned into a villain. A later change can bring them back around. How you get them in and out of trouble is what makes your story unique.
Maybe a couple of changeover examples will help.
And then the zombie hordes overwhelmed the hero and chewed on him good. But he escaped before they could eat him and he became a danger to his friends. So, they left him behind. But as he changed into a zombie he kept on filming and narrating his videography. “I’m feeling a strong urge to eat someone. It needs to happen soon.” Where is this story going? Will the narrator be changing back?
The happy family is thrown into turmoil when one of their children needs an operation costing $250,000. The main character turns to some buddies from his high school days that were always up to no good. They plan a kidnapping together. The rich man they abduct doesn’t cooperate and sees one of their faces. The plan changes. Now the victim will have to die. Our good character gone bad turns back to the side of good to save a life. Runs off with the victim. How do you make this one end good? Would the victim be $250,000 grateful to a kidnapper who saves him from execution? You’ll need to ramp up the action with a changeover where the small gang of baddies turns out to be hooked into organized crime. Just keep making it more tangled and blow it all apart for the conclusion. Will the main character give his life to save the victim? Will his child get the operation?
The opposite of the good plan gone wrong is the poorly thought out idea that succeeds anyway. Your audience knows the plan can’t work but it does. Someone who cares about the character sees the problem and helps out. A government program kicks in. An enemy sees the coming failure and helps the plan along in hopes it will be a bigger failure, but more good luck pushes the idea through to completion. Some plans succeed because only one person is putting an idea into action and others want in on it. With enough people behind an idea, it’s going to go through.
The inverted reversal happens a lot in comedies and dramas. It can also work in action films. The two gangs that guaranteed failure can be so busy fighting each other that they fail to see the plan at work. Explosions and shootouts are great for removing problem characters.
How do you show the inverted reversal happening? You show the character as someone for whom nothing works out. Bad deals and bad plans all around. Dealings with dishonest companies. Business ventures that nobody is interested in. Failures also make characters more likeable. When they finally put the good plan into play, those friends are available as help.
That sets up one changeover. You still need a second to bring the screenplay into the concluding conflict. Opposition to the successful venture is a popular solution. Transforming the character’s idea is even better.
The Beginning of the End
As the end of your story approaches, readers and viewers are expecting loose ends will get tied up. This is a great time to make everything fall apart. The biggest problems the protagonist has been fearing come to pass. Enemies decide to resolve the “problem” once and for all. The bank forecloses. The psychotic killer has entered the building. The last plane has left the apocalypse.
If you’ve done a good job of setting up the main character’s life changing challenge early in the story, this is where they come up against the wall. They overcome their fear or desire and do the right thing against the odds.
Surprise twists and heroism are what audiences want and the customer is always right.
Article by Ivan Izo.