A short note about rules
One of the things that we're going to go through is rules.
Breaking rules is fine, but only if you know what you're doing. The reason for this is that breaking a rule has an effect. If you don't
know what that effect is, and that effect is not your intention, you
should not break the rule.
That, by the way, was the first rule. We're all geeks here and
we all spotted the self reference. Move along.
A narrative features one character, called the
protagonist. (There are exceptions to this which we will
deal with in a moment.)
Our story is the story of the protagonist.
You can spot a protagonist using the following guide:
- The protagonist is the character through whose eyes the story
is told. Note that this is not the same as the character through whose
eyes the story is filmed. Some films are set up as being shot
by a character playing the part of the director
(e.g. This Is Spinal Tap, Drop Dead Gorgeous and, with
a slightly different twist, The Truman Show). This "director"
is invariably not the protagonist.
- The protagonist is the character that the audience is expected
to sympathise with.
- If a character is the narrator, or speaks direct-to-camera, it's
probably the protagonist. Examples: Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) in
Counter-example: Austin Powers,
where Basil Exposition (Michael York) does what little narration there
is, but the protagonist is Austin (Mike Myers).
- If the story is told in flashback, the person flashing back is almost
always the protagonist. Example: In Edward Scissorhands,
the character of Kim (Winona Ryder) flashes back, and is the protagonist.
Counter-example: Saving Private Ryan, although the main story
in this film is arguably not a flashback as they are not Ryan's
(Matt Damon/Harrison Young) memories. Alternatively, this could be
interpreted as yet another weakness in what is already a very weak
- The protagonist does not die, except possibly at the very end.
Example: Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard,
Lester (Kevin Spacey) in American Beauty.
- The protagonist undergoes real and significant change. In
Toy Story 2, for example, Woody (Tom Hanks) undergoes a
big change but Buzz (Tim Allen) does not. This is a big clue that
Woody is the protagonist.
Counter-example: James Bond films. If you want to change Bond,
you basically have to hire a new actor to play him. This is
a special case, because Bond films are a long series where the
protagonist has already been introduced in the last 500 movies.
The last point is particularly important for the screenwriter.
If the protagonist does not truly change, the resulting movie will
seem weak. One upshot, for example, is that if you want to show a
character who does not change, you must put in another character who
does change to be the protagonist. This technique is used, for
example, in Amadeus, where the character of Mozart (Tom Hulce)
is shown through the eyes of Salieri (F. Murray Abraham).
It is also possible for a film to have multiple protagonists.
By far the most common situaiton is where there are multiple
One common organisation is the flashback narrative, where
one narrative is told in the "current" time and another is told in
flashback. As mentioned earlier, the character flashing back will
pretty much always be the protagonist in the "inner" story. In
Titanic, for example, Rose (Kate Winslet) flashes back
from the present (where she is played by
Gloria Stuart), but in the "outer" story, the protagonist is
Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton). Note that Rose undergoes real
change in the inner story, but in hearing the story, it is
Lovett who undergoes real change.
Another possibility is sequential or tandem
narrative. We see this in a number of recent films such as
Pulp Fiction, Short Cuts and Magnolia, which are
made up of a number of stories, each of
which has its own protagonist. Note that sequential/tandem
narrative does not need to have different protagonists in each
story. See, for example, Sliding Doors, where
Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the protagonist in both stories.
Yet another possibility is one story which just happens to have
a lot of protagonists. Films like this are very hard to write, and
generally they work by making all of the protagonists pretty
much the same and putting them in pretty much the same situation
(e.g. a party, a reunion, a siege (real or metaphorical), a
"road trip", putting them in the same college fraternity or
something like that). The movie then tends
to be about how they all react to the situation. At one end is a
film like The Big Chill, which has something like nine
protagonists, however the number is usually much smaller. Some
ex-Saturday Night Live-sketch films, for example, are based
around two protagonists which are pretty much the same (e.g.
The Blues Brothers, A Night at the Roxbury).
Some children's films which feature one or more kids in the same
situation are also multiple-protagonist films (e.g. Honey, I Shrunk
The Kids, The Parent Trap).
If, after all this, the protagonist is not identifiable, you
may have a film with an incoherent story on your hands. This
is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, films structured as
sketch comedy (e.g. Monty Python and the Holy Grail) are
usually pretty incoherent, but are great to watch anyway.
However, it can also be a sign of bad writing. In America's
Sweethearts, for example, the protagonist is Kiki (Julia
Roberts), but for various reasons she is not identified as such
until far too late in the film. Indeed, from the opening, you
would expect the protagonist to be Lee (Billy Crystal). (More
about the opening later in this article.)
The other main characters are best understood by how they relate to
the protagonist. The most important of these are the antagonists.
Generally, a story will contain at least two subplots,
which we will call the action line and the relationship
line. Each subplot has at least one associated character,
the action line antagonist and the relationship line
In an action film, such as a James Bond film, the action line
antagonist is usually the "villan" (i.e. the character who forces Bond, the
protagonist, into various actions to achieve his goal, namely to save
the world from the evil plot), and the relationship
line antagonist is the "love interest" (i.e. the "Bond girl").
In a romantic comedy, the relationship line antagonist is the
person whom we know the progtagonist is Meant To Be With(tm),
and the action line antagonist is the person who tries to keep
Ideally, each subplot should feed off
each other. The action line should force changes in relationship
and the relationship line should affect the action. Failure to get
this right can make a script seem weak. In the case of a movie based
on a TV series (e.g. The X Files: Fight the Future, Star
Trek: Generations) the effect
is usually to make the film seem like a long episode. The reason for
this is that this is how a TV series episode is often structured. The
epsiodes are supposed to be largely independent, and even if there
is ongoing development of the cast (relationship line), it will almost
certainly be separable from whatever thing the cast is doing this week
Aside: This effect is more subtle in some TV shows than in others.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of the most blatant serial
offenders. A typical episode could give you the impression that there
were two short episodes (one relationship-based and one action-based)
which were just edited together. TV shows which do not suffer from
this effect tend to be those which are planned out more in advance
(e.g. The Nanny, Babylon 5).
Occasionally, you might find a film where there is no action
line antagonist. We won't go into this in detail, but some notable
- The "disaster movie", where one or more protagonists are involved
in a natural or man-made disaster
(e.g. The Poseidon Adventure, Airport 77, Twister,
In such a film, the relevant force of nature plays the part of
- The "creature feature", where the antagonist is played by one
or more monsters (e.g. Alien, Predator,
Jaws, Starship Troopers etc). As in the disaster movie,
there may still be a "villain", such as Ash (Ian
Holm) in Alien, but the real antagonist is the creature.
- In some romances or romantic comedies, there may not be a
specific person keeping the would-be lovers apart, but it could
just be circumstance (e.g. When Harry Met Sally, Four
Weddings and a Funeral).
It is also possible to have multiple antagonists (e.g. Tea
With Mussolini, Time Bandits). The rules for this are
pretty much the same as
with multiple protagonist films: Make the antaongists all pretty
much the same and put them in the same situation.
Other notable characters
Protagonists often have sidekicks. They are often likable and
charismatic, and they spend most of the film in the shadow of the
The job of the sidekick is partly sounding board, partly source
of advice, partly source of gags (if it's a comic relief sidekick) or
some special jobs mentioned below.
The sidekick might be a spouse/lover (if said spouse/lover
is not the relationship line antagonist), a cute animal companion
(if this is a Disney animated feature, anyway) or part of the "team"
(if the protagonist is part, most likely head, of a team).
One role which a sidekick may play (though this role is not
limited to a sidekick)
is the foil. The foil is put in the same situation as the
protagonist, but acts differently. The job of the foil is then
to provide a contrast with the protagonist in
how they achieve their goals, invariably to make the protagonist look
good by comparison. The foil is often punished for his or her
One notable non-sidekick example is Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) in The
Matrix. He is
in the same position as Neo (Keanu Reeves), but Neo does the right
thing and Cypher does the wrong thing, and is punished for it.
A foil need not be a villain, however. It may simply be a team member
who attacks the foe in the obvious but wrong way, depite the
A special kind of foil is the Mercutio character named after
the character in Romeo and Juliet. A Mercutio character may or
may not be a sidekick, but the important point is that Mercutio's death
signals the "point of no return" for the protagonist. More on the point
of no return next article.
When designing your cast, less is more. Shrek, one of the
highest-grossing films of 2001, basically only had four characters in it
plus bit parts. (They were: A protagonist, Shrek (Mike Myers),
a relationship line antagonist, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz),
an action line antagonist, Lord Farquaad (John
Lithgow) and a sidekick, Donkey (Eddie Murphy).) Most films do not
have more main characters than this, and many have less.
More characters means more time you have to spend introducing them
and correspondingly, your script will be that much harder to write.
If nothing else, remember that stars are expensive, and we can't all
afford a Robert Altman cast.
I hope you all did your homework this week. I wanted you to notice
two main things: One is how long you have to grab the audience's attention,
and the other is how much of the set-up is done before the film even starts.
All of this is important when you design the opening.
One of the themes that will come up many times is that there is
one thing you cannot waste in a movie, and that's screen time. A novel
can be put down and come back to if the reader gets bored. An audience you
have captive for 100 minutes or so, and they will not forgive you if you
waste their time.
So how long did it take you to decide whether or not you were going to
enjoy the film? If you're like most people, it was ten minutes in.
One exception is if the film opens with an action sequence (e.g.
Raiders of the Lost Ark). If this was the
case, it was ten minutes after that sequence finished. This is the
amount of time that you have to get the audience hooked.
What do you need to do in this time? You need to introduce your
protagonist amd, if possible, clearly identify him or her as the
protagonist. The second thing you need to do is establish what
"normal life" is for this person. The third thing you have to do is
cause the inciting incident. This is the incident which starts
First thing first: Establishing normality. As a writer, of course,
you need to first determine what "normal" is. We'll look more closely
into this when we look at creating characters in a later article. For
now, we just need to determine what "normal" as contrasted with life
after the inciting incident.
What's an inciting incident? Linda Aronson in Screenwriting
Updated gives the example of a "shaggy dog story". "There was
an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman who meet a lion on the road."
The inciting incident (meeting a lion on the road) is the point at which
the story starts.
Now I should point out, in fairness, that many great works of cinema
have their inciting incident later than ten minutes in, however, novice
writers are well advised not to try this, because it means you need
something else to keep the audience interested for that time, and
that's harder to write. Sometimes, however, it has to be done, and the
usual reason is that it takes that long to get the audience understanding
the normal life of the protagonist. This is often a valid excuse in,
for example, historical "costume" dramas or science fiction, where the
universe of the film is sufficiently far removed from that of the
audience that you need the extra time to lay down the ground rules.
Another example is Rocky, written by Sylvester Stallone (and
deservedly winning a "best original screenplay" Academy Award(TM)).
The inciting incident is the heavyweight champion giving Rocky
(Sylvester Stallone), who is an obscure club fighter, a shot at the
title, however, it happens half an hour into the film. The
reason for this is left as an exercise (we'll discuss it in the
followups), but the point is that by doing this, out of necessity,
the writer set himself up for a difficult task.
The highest ranked story was the Orestia Trilogy set in a refugee
family of Polish Jews in New York in the fifties. This is a fascinating
idea, but it's way too hard for a collaborative exercise due to the
amount of research involved (I know almost nothing about the New York
of the fifties). Sorry, but
I said I might veto ideas. However, don't let this dissuade you. You
can still work on the exercises with this story if you want to, and if
you are a fan of uphill battles.
Second highest rank was equal with Othello the Hulk, and
Goldilocks in the 21st century. Let's
run with them and see how far we get.
First homework exercise is to (surprise surprise) see a film. For
the purposes of this exercise it might be worth using a film you've seen
before. Identify the protagonist. In one sentence, describe the
protagonist's normal life. What is the inciting incident? How long
into the film (or if the film starts with an action scene, how long after
that) does the incident occur? Who is the action line antagonist? Who
is the relationship line antagonist? Are there any other significant
characters, and if so, what roles do they play? Please report back
what you found; others may find it interesting.
Second homework exercise is to develop one of the above stories (or
your own if you don't like them). Identify the protagonist in your
prototype story (i.e. Othello and Goldilocks respectively). Choose a
character (it need not be a person of the same age, or even sex) to
be your protagonist. Describe their normal life in one sentence. Now
examine the inciting incident in the prototype story. How could this
incident be adapted to your scenario? Suggest a possibility.
Here's an example for you: Consider Jack and the Beanstalk. The
protagonist (Jack) starts off normal life poor. His mother tells him
to sell the family cow. How might this be adapted to the modern day?
One possibility is that our protagonist is unemployed, and doesn't
particularly want to be employed, and whose wife tells him to go and
get a job. (Pop quiz: This is the opening of
an actual film based on Jack and the Beanstalk. What film am I referring to?)
In part 3, which will appear in a week's time, we will look at the
traditional three act movie structure, the nine main points in a
three-act film and, if we have time, we'll start looking into the
concept of character.
Incidentally, I'm curious to know how well this format works. This
is partly an experiment in collaborative learning, and I want to debug
the process as we go if I can. Would, for example, people appreciate
followup material in diaries?