Rewrite: Tips for Strengthening Your Protagonist’s Aim

The protagonist is really on three journeys: the “A” story — the plot; the “B” story — the relationship; and the “C” story — the internal journey dealing with [a] flaw. And every one of these stories has a seven-point structure. And every point along each of these journeys is defined in terms of the goal: reaching the story goal; creating or mending a relationship and thus reaching the emotional goal; changing into a better person (learning something about life that will help him), and thus reaching the personal development goal.

These journeys are intertwined and interdependent. Often, a plot point for the A story serves as the same point in the B or C story. In fact, the better integrated the three stories, the better the screenplay.

If you’re like most professional screenwriters, you didn’t just sit down and start to write your screenplay. You thought about it, you wrote notes, you may have even done some character sketches. And, if you followed procedure, you at least did a beatsheet, if not a complete treatment (that’s the subject of another book). A beatsheet is a list of the scenes of your story.

Every writer does it differently, but most write at least a line or two to remind them what each scene will be. But the beatsheet you wrote when you started your script might not correspond to what ended up in your script. You may have added scenes, changed them, taken some away. That’s the process. When you’re writing the beatsheet, it’s easy to shift scenes around, insert new ones, take out ones that don’t really move the story.

When you do your rewrite, you’ve got to be ready to do this, too, so you need a new beatsheet to get the lay of the land. The best way to do this, according to some screenwriters, is to write each beat on an index card. Then shuffling is a cinch. But with the way computers work these days most screenwriting programs give you the ability to do the same thing, so you can choose. This will take some time, but don’t worry, I’m patient. Come back when you’ve got a one-line description of each scene including who’s in it and what the conflict or character point is of that scene. Do not include transitions such as riding in a car or establishing shots. Number each beat for convenience. The beatsheet will probably be three single-spaced pages or so, with anywhere from 30-75 scenes. I’ll wait here while you do that.

Developing Subplots

You’re back. Good. Let’s talk about subplots, because they’re easier to talk about than to layer into your story. You should, by this time, be thinking of the two main subplots — that is, the “B” and the “C” story — the emotional subplot and the personal growth subplot. In most stories, the central story is the “A” story. In romantic comedies, it’s the emotional, or “B,” story. There are others, too, because there are always other things going on in a protagonist’s life — he could have a story with the barista at the local Starbucks; there could be something happening with his dog; he might have an issue with his floor wax. These should reflect his main issue in some way, but don’t necessarily have to.

The protagonist is not the only person in your movie. He has friends, lovers, enemies. Each of these people can have a subplot of his own. The more important supporting characters can have a story with the seven points. Lesser characters can have stories that merely have a beginning, middle, and end, so three story points are all that are needed. But the main issue here is, do the subplots somehow illuminate or reflect any of the central character’s stories or issues? If they don’t, you’ll need to ask yourself why you need them.

Raising the Stakes

If the biggest, hardest barrier to your protagonist reaching his goal comes at the beginning of the story, where do you go from there? It would be all downhill, and not very suspenseful. So you’ve got to set up your story so that at each step, it gets harder and harder for your protagonist to get past the obstacles in his way. But there’s more.

What is the penalty if your central character doesn’t achieve a short-term and, eventually, the long-term goal? In other words, what are the stakes? What is the jeopardy for the protagonist? If he drives too fast, his car will slide off the road. If he fails a test, he’ll have to start all over again. If he forces himself on the girl, he’ll lose her. Or his life.

The consequences of failure should be dire in terms of your character. He could lose a fortune. He could lose his house, his children, or his job. The country or world could be destroyed. Whatever it is, it has to be worthy of our attention. Going after a goal that is not worthy will make your audience not care enough. If they don’t care, they won’t watch. And as you progress in your script, you should be continually raising the stakes. Do you?

To Do

What happens to your central character if he fails in his quest? What are the consequences of failure? Write one or two lines describing the stakes.

The Barriers

Some words of reminder about barriers — they come from within and they come from without. The barrier within is your protagonist’s flaw. It’s what will prevent him from achieving his goal unless he overcomes it. So we need to be reminded what that flaw is, and we need to see it affect the outcome of attempts to overcome barriers. In other words, you have to set up learning situations for your protagonist. Have you? And have you set up situations where the antagonist force is making life difficult for your protagonist? Again, ask yourself, is it tough to reach the goal or is it easy? It had better be tough.

The tougher the better.

Who Is the Real Hero?

One of the most difficult things about writing a feature film is to figure out who the hero is. Yes, hero. Even in a romantic comedy. Even in a teen sex romp. Even in a horror picture, there is a hero. The hero is the person who has to overcome adversity to reach his goal. And he must be the person who does this in the final challenge (sometimes called the climax). In other words, the main character must be the agent of his own salvation.

The cavalry can’t come riding in at the last minute (as it does in Fort Apache). His best friend can’t save him. A virus can’t save the world from Martian invaders (one of the main flaws of War of the Worlds). It has to be the protagonist who fights and perseveres and overcomes whatever final barriers there are between him and his goal (Luke in Star Wars, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz). If not, the audience will be unsatisfied. They might not know why, but they will not be happy with the movie.

To Do

Write in one line what your protagonist does to overcome the big barrier in the final challenge. He can have help, but he must lead the charge, whatever form that charge takes.

You’ve done some major work in this chapter, so it’s time for a little reward. Think of something mindless that you don’t ordinarily make time for. An hour reading the newspaper at Starbucks. Bowling a couple of frames. A trip to the library for no reason at all. I like to exercise after completing a stage in a rewrite, so I’d be on my mountain bike by now, challenging the Verdugo Mountains. Go do something other than writing (or even thinking). Then come back.

9781615931576_p0_v2_s260x420_smallRead the full first chapter of Paul Chitlik’s Rewrite: A Step by Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Character, and Drama online. Get Paul’s full book at The Writers Store.

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3 thoughts on “Rewrite: Tips for Strengthening Your Protagonist’s Aim

  1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

    Paul, this is fantastic advice. Another trick I use is color coding the beatsheet index cards – white for Plot A, yellow for Plot B, etc. That allows me to see the flow of the subplots and how they’re woven into the overall story. Again, great article. I’ll be linking it on our Scriptchat site and sharing it on Twitter.

  2. al bergstein

    Thanks very much to Paul for sharing these great tips with us. I’ve been working through my first significant screenplay, and find this, along with the exercise on backsheet to be very useful. Don’t have the time or money to go to UCLA to study with him. Wish I could make it to LA in late August to hear his thoughts first hand.

  3. Pingback: Strengthening your protagonist in rewrites | writewhatyoudontknow

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