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We’re going to get into a lot of trouble for this one, because many times movies are different things to different people. But unless you’re a film student, a college student, or an iconoclast (and who isn’t once in a while?), movies are a character’s journey from being flawed to being less flawed. This journey may be geographical (“Star Wars,” “The Wizard of Oz”) or it may all take place in one location (“Casablanca,” “The King’s Speech”) but the emotional meat of any movie is your main character coming to grips with some weakness or flaw and, with courage and fortitude, overcoming that flaw to triumph. (There are lots of movies where the hero fails to triumph, but these are irrelevant to your story, so we won’t go into them here.)
What’s the Flaw?
Make a list of your ten favorite movies (be honest, now) and you’ll find that this is true of all of them. For instance, one of our favorite movies from last year was “Inception.” The question hanging over the entire movie was, could Leo’s character let go of his dead wife and get his life back? His law is he can’t move on, and it’s costing him, his friends, and his remaining family. For all its exquisite concepts, twists and turns, the movie at its root is about a man coming out of mourning. Another one of our favorite movies of all time is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” wherein a man who’s always wanted to leave his town is forced to stay. He struggles with self-loathing and resentment all his life, even as he builds a… well, a wonderful life. And when his crisis comes, he must realize the value of what he’s done and what he has. If he doesn’t realize this value, he will cease to exist. We could go on, but in the interests of time and space, we’ll make a deal with you– make a list of your ten favorite movies, and if you can’t see how the hero overcomes an inner flaw in any one of them, send them onto me, and we’ll point them out. But movies, especially commercial movies, are always about a character confronting an inner demon and overcoming said beastie. ** Send your list to [email protected] and we’ll get back to you asap!**
Story and the Inner Flaw
Inner flaw is the meat. How we serve the meat is the story. The story is the mechanical circumstances that force the hero to confront the inner demon. Let’s say that you have an issue with being responsible. The very idea of responsibility scares the crap out of you. And let’s further say that you have become very adept at avoiding responsibility. You have set up your life so that you are independently wealthy, with enough money to last you until you’re 95, and you sit on the couch all day playing Nintendo. Actually, that sounds pretty good. Excuse me…. Okay, back to reality. Watching you on the couch, gradually ripening and rotting as you ratchet up the high scores, would make a great life, perhaps, but a terrible movie. Nothing interesting happens, and we see no growth from you, apart from your gradually widening ass.
The Inciting Incident
So what needs to happen? Something needs to shock you out of your comfort zone and move you into activity. In movies, this is called “The Inciting Incident.” The event from the outside that launches our hero into action.
Now, if the inciting incident is that you run out of soda and Doritos, that’s not very compelling. It’s an easy problem to solve– take a sliver of your independent wealth and go to the 7-11. Problem solved. You can get back before the TV goes into sleep mode.
But, if the inciting incident is more along the lines of, a
phone call from an old girlfriend with the news that she’s pregnant with your baby, now you’ve got something. Why? Because this problem directly confronts the character’s inner flaw– his fear of responsibility! And the audience gets it immediately; how is this fat-ass frustrated adolescent going to get himself together and take care of a child? It’ll never happen! Or will it? Let’s watch!
Desire Line. Plan. Goal.
To recap- Inner Flaw; Inciting Incident. There’s one more piece of the puzzle you need to have, and that is the Desire Line, or Plan, or Goal. The Desire Line is something that the hero wants or needs to accomplish, outside of himself. In this case, maybe he wants to win the world championship at Mario Kart. The contest is in one month, but he can barely crack the qualifying scores. (Make the desire line difficult, not easy). Then he gets the phone call from the old girlfriend. He decides to… what? Pay her off with his world championship winnings, or an endorsement deal? Or does he abandon the contest and become a Dad? Or… what? This is your story. When it all comes together, what you should have is a character with an inner flaw and a dream. He decides to pursue his dream, either because of the inciting incident or just because, and the pursuit of that dream ultimately forces him to confront his inner flaw. The inciting incident could launch his pursuit of the dream, or it could be the sudden road block or conflict. Conflicts force the hero to confront the inner flaw as well.
Don’t duck this. It is your responsibility as a screenwriter to line up your main character’s inner flaw, desire line and inciting incident. Commercial movies require a set-up that includes all three. Your skill as a writer will be shown in how artfully you disguise these elements, so that they don’t look and feel like the writer is trying to include everything.
Let’s take another look at Star Wars. Their
opening scenes establish the world and justify the title, as well as set the story in motion. Princess Leia is captured by Darth Vader, but she gets a ship sent off with a message. The ship crashes and the droid winds up with Luke. Luke is our main character. We learn pretty fast that he wants to join the rebellion and fight the empire (set-up– the hero is frustrated and unappreciative; inner flaw) His parents refuse permission, and send him out to clan the droids. He gets Leia’s message, (inciting incident) and instantly falls for the girl. His desire line kicks in– he wants to save the damsel. His path is cleared by the empire, which has killed his parents. Off he goes with Obi-Wan on an adventure that will take him
to the heart of the war he wanted to fight in the first place. This is how it all ties together. Accept that all commercial successful movies have these elements, and your writing will vastly improve! These elements will clarify the story for readers and audience alike, and they can relax and enjoy the hero’s journey.
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