COLUMN D: Main Character Arc – First Ten, Last Five

Drew Yanno is a screenwriter, author, script consultant and teacher. Follow Drew on Twitter @drewyanno.

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main character arc I want to talk to you today about one of the most effective ways you can show the growth of your main character over the course of your story.

You’ve heard me and probably a million other people say how much Hollywood loves stories where the main character “arcs.” If you’re not familiar with the concept, that means the hero goes from rock bottom at the start of the film to “the top” at the end. Audiences love those underdog tales for their obvious emotional uplift.

Now I like those stories as much as anyone. Some say that every script should feature a main character transforming in such dramatic fashion. However, not all great films have a main character who takes such a dramatic journey.

Sometimes it suffices if our main character just transforms in some fashion.  For instance, in Jaws, Chief Brody is basically the same guy at the end as he is in the beginning, except for overcoming his fear of the water. That’s no small thing, but it’s not exactly Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, a story that provides one of the greatest transformations in all of literature or film.

Naturally, it’s up to you to determine the extent of the transformation of your hero based upon the story you’re trying to tell. However, beyond the basic terms “beginning” and “end,” I think there are two important elements of screenplay structure that can really help the audience see and feel whatever that transformation will be.

You may recall that in a previous post I talked about the first ten pages of your script (roughly) showing your main character in their “ordinary world”. This is a crucial part of the screenplay because it allows the audience to see the character before all the “stuff” starts to happen to him/her.

More specifically, it’s before the inciting incident, which is the event that irrevocably changes their life and forms the basis for the story.

It’s also before the first act turning point which, most often, is the main character’s reaction to that inciting incident and the start of the pursuit of their goal.

As I said in that earlier post, their “world” before those two events should demonstrate to the audience just how disruptive that inciting incident will be, as well as how difficult that goal will be for them to achieve.

If you’ve done a good job with showing that, then I maintain there should be a corresponding (and contrasting) scene or scenes at the end demonstrating just how complete the transformation of the main character has become after the trials and tribulations of the second act.

As I say in my book The Third Act – Writing a Great Ending to Your Screenplay, a great denouement is essential to a great ending. Accordingly, if you are going to have your main character transform or arc over the course of your story, then what we see following the outcome of the final battle should be related thematically to what we’ve seen at the very beginning (that “ordinary world”).

For example, the film Rocky opens with Rocky fighting in a dark, dingy athletic club in Philadelphia in front of a handful of desperate-looking spectators. After a less than brilliant show of pugilism, Rocky knocks out his opponent, but gets booed bitterly by the crowd.

He then leaves the ring and stops to bum a cigarette from one of those spectators on his way into the locker room, where he eventually receives a payout from the promoter totaling about thirteen dollars after expenses.  Some world, huh?

By contrast, in the denouement, Rocky is once again in the ring after a fight, only this time it’s following the biggest bout of the century. And he’s just gone fifteen rounds with the world champ who he knocked down and nearly defeated.

As the split decision is announced, Rocky is showered with cheers from the adoring crowd and ultimately greeted by his new love Adrian, a sharp contrast to the beginning where he is most decidedly alone following the fight.

Similarly, in the beginning of The Descendants, we see Matt King (George Clooney) in his “ordinary world” where his wife is in a coma in the hospital, his youngest daughter is getting into trouble at school, and his older daughter is getting drunk and misbehaving at the private academy she attends on another of the Hawaiian islands. Matt is at a complete loss as to how to raise the girls and keep his family together with his wife about to die.

In the denouement, following her death and his closure regarding her infidelity (aided in the process by both of those daughters), we see the three of them together back at home, on the couch, sharing ice cream and a blanket while watching TV. Hardly a word of dialogue is spoken, yet we’re left with no doubt that they will survive and stay together as a family. It’s a beautiful visual demonstration of just how far Matt and his daughters have come and at the other end of the spectrum of what we saw at the start.

So remember: those first ten pages and last five pages are where you can really show the audience the transformation of your hero. Rookie screenwriters often forfeit this opportunity by writing a denouement that has nothing to do with the main character or their transformation. Don’t make that mistake.

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