Notes from the Margins: Five Stages of Grief For Your Character

Danny Manus is an in-demand script consultant and founder of No BullScript Consulting and author of No B.S. for Screenwriters: Advice from the Executive Perspective. Follow Danny on Twitter @dannymanus.

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five stages of griefWhen something traumatic happens, it’s said that we all experience the five stages of grief. So as your character goes on their journey – which should be full of trauma, drama, action and emotion – it stands to reason that they should go through the same steps.

I believe that part of the test to see if you have fully fleshed out and emotionally genuine characters is to have them go through the Five Stages of Grief. And if you look at most films out there, you’ll see what I mean.

It usually occurs around pgs 17-25 or so, though not always. But it’s in these pages where your character, now faced with whatever issue, problem, question, situation, etc., you introduced with your inciting incident, reacts and realizes what has to be done.

Your inciting incident basically is, in many ways, the destruction or intrusion of something into your character’s world – and when your world is turned upside down, you grieve a little bit. So it’s in these pages where your character goes through a cavalcade of emotion before finally landing on acceptance.

The inciting incident should cause your protagonist to feel a certain emotion. And the first emotion – the first stage – is probably denial. They refuse to believe that whatever is going on, is actually happening. This is almost always used in comedies because denial is funny.

Look at The Hangover when they wake up the next morning, Knocked Up when Katherine Heigl gets pregnant, Liar Liar when Jim Carrey realizes he can’t lie, Shaun of the Dead when they realize there is a zombie attack, or Toy Story 3 when the toys learn that their owner is leaving for college. In The Kings Speech, Geoffrey Rush shows how he can help Colin Firth’s character in a new way and Firth denies it.

In horror movies like Insidious, Paranormal Activity, Nightmare on Elm Street – the inciting incident occurs and tells the characters something terrifying is going on and the characters deny it’s happening. “No, she’s not possessed – she’s fine!”

And the higher your stakes are, the stronger the denial should be. “No, absolutely not, not me, this is not happening, no way.” Sometimes this can be seen as refusal, as Chris Vogler says, but denial is funnier and more emotional.

Then comes Anger – they are PISSED this thing is happening. Look at Juno when she finds out she’s pregnant. Or look at basically every action hero – even Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or Shia LeBouf in Transformers – they get angry when the new adventure comes around. It can be anger at the situation, anger at the antagonist, anger at anything really. They may lash out, they may scream, they may throw things – especially in a drama. In a comedy, anger should be played for big laughs. In horror or thrillers, anger is played for conflict amongst the characters which usually leads to a bad decision and usually a death, especially in a slasher film.

Third comes Bargaining – this can be where your characters debate over what they are going to do. Or it could be where your lead character debates within themselves or makes a deal with themselves – like, “Okay, I’ll go here, but that’s as FAR as I go.” “I’ll do this, but I’m not doing anything more.” “Fine, I’ll follow you, but I’m still in control of my own destiny.”

Basically, that’s what they are saying. They are giving in to the situation, but only enough so that they still feel like their old world which you’ve set up in the first few pages, isn’t completely changed and they are still in charge. Of course, the reality is, it’s too late – they are no longer in charge. But they won’t realize this for a little while still.

Fourth is Depression, which can be expressed in a number of ways – even in just a look. Now sometimes, this can be taken literally – if the inciting incident is a death or divorce or a move. Sometimes depression is saved for when your character REALLY realizes how dire the situation is, which may come later in the story. Depression is more than just crying, it’s a deeper and more psychological emotion, and having this moment in your script can flesh out your characters and make their inner journey a bit stronger.

And finally, Acceptance. They know what they’ve got to do and have accepted that it’s their place to do it. They may be the reluctant hero, but they are now officially, the hero. Once acceptance happens, this is also where your characters take the next step in their arc.

Your characters can be willing or unwilling heroes. If they look forward to what the inciting incident has to bring, they may not experience a couple of these stages until later.

Immediate acceptance is usually just a false confidence, like in horror movies. Ya know, they all plan to go away to an uncharted island or out of the way place because it’s gonna be “awesome” – they move to new house that no one else has lived in for 30 years because it’s gonna be “awesome” – they just don’t know what they’ve agreed to do or what the inciting incident will actually mean for them later on.

Many times in family films, especially where kids are charged with going on an adventure, this is what happens. Every kid wants to go on a cool adventure – right? But they don’t know what is in store. From Jumanji to Bridge to Terabithia to Harry Potter to Narnia. Most of those kids are willing heroes just looking for a good time, so they may only go through 2 or 3 of these stages – usually denial, bargaining, and acceptance. But in pretty much every movie, once the inciting incident or catalyst occurs, your characters will go through AT LEAST 3 of these stages.

All of these reactions can be brought out over time or just in ONE moment or one line or all on one page. The perfect examples of this may be in Juno and Bridesmaids, as Ellen Page and Kristen Wiig’s characters go through all of these when Wiig’s best friend is getting married and Juno finds out she’s preggers.

Think of this moment as a chance to let your actors, act. Think of this moment as the one that’s going to attract a name star, show their emotional or comedic range.

Make sure your characters are more humanized by making sure they experience what we do – a full range of emotion and the five stages of grief.

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