Raise the hood of any play or screenplay and you should see its motor staring back at you. And without a doubt, in the vast majority of cases, that motor is the script’s central character and his or her main want and/or need that somehow has to be satisfied. This is what drives the story from the beginning to the end of the journey, what pushes it forward and gives it ongoing momentum.
Just this week I’ve been struck again with how critical this basic tenet of good script writing is. I’ve been reading a client’s screenplay that is filled with wonderful moments and lovable characters. Clever and witty humor abounds. But the story never fully springs to life and gets me entirely engaged in the first act because the writer has not clearly defined the main external want and dominating internal need of the central character. I found myself not being able to focus on the story and get swept up in it’s unfolding early on because the motor was not yet firing on all pistons.
What is often deceiving in these situations is that, in spite of this problem, it’s clear who the central character is. And he or she can have great appeal and be full of life. But what I frequently find is that the character’s main dilemma is not clearly defined up front. And this dilemma is best defined as the main thing the character consciously wants desperately to achieve and the inner need the character unconsciously has to satisfy.
Making these two ingredients clear early on is what will fuel your story and give it its driving forward momentum throughout. All first act scenes should somehow contribute to establishing these elements. Then the reader/audience will “lean into” your story and get caught up in how the character’s dilemma will be resolved–which is, after all, what your story is really about in the first place.
All of this, of course, has to be accomplished with subtlety and finesse, woven into brilliant dialogue and interesting and often surprising action. But without question it has to be laid in solidly in your first act and reinforced throughout if your script is going to spring fully to life and sustain the driving forward movement required to keep those pages turning.
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In addition to being an independent film producer and script consultant, I’m the Program Director for a low-residency MFA degree in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.