The single most devastating note I could ever hear on one of my scripts (if readers were brutally honest enough to say it), would be, “I didn’t care.” I would go as far as to say that my single biggest job as a writer is to make readers and audiences care: to get them emotionally invested enough in what’s happening in a story to want to keep reading or watching. What this really means is they must care about the character at the center of it – to deeply relate to what they’re going through on a human level, and want to see them solve whatever big problem the story is exploring.
The book Save the Cat’s title comes from Blake Snyder’s admonition that the “hero” of a story must “save a cat,” – or do something similarly sympathetic – in the first ten pages of a screenplay, so that readers will think this person is worthy of their attention and time. While I agree with that, I would go further: I believe we need to get the reader inside the main character’s perspective on things – inside their skin, almost – so that it feels like what’s happening to that character is happening to them, throughout the story.
The first script I wrote professionally was an episode of the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. The one I chose focused on an individual astronaut with a problem, which seemed like it would keep him from ever flying in the Apollo program. I identified this situation as having good story potential, in comparison to some of the other episodes, which focused on missions which did not necessarily have such a likely potential main character who audiences might get invested in. So far, so good.
But when I wrote the first drafts of the script, I got so caught up in the research, and the responsibility of accurately documenting all the key events of the Apollo mission this episode was focused on, that when I gave the script to another professional screenwriter who was involved in the project, he clearly didn’t care about the story. He was nice enough not to put it that way. What he said was that he thought it needed more of a clear point-of-view.
What that meant was not just that this character needed to be at the center of events – he already was. But the audience needed to experience what he thought, felt and wanted from inside his perspective more. It had to become an emotional journey for them. It’s not enough for them to be somewhat interested in his situation, and the mission he ended up flying on. The real goal is for them to care – to relate to this human being and really want him to achieve the goal this story was focused on.
How does one achieve that? Well, the first point I would make might seem an obvious, but also stifling rule: they should be in virtually every scene. I remember how much I chafed against this idea when my college screenwriting professor first offered it, and how I sought out movie examples with main characters that weren’t in many of the scenes, in order to try to prove him wrong. (I don’t remember how far I got with that, but I don’t think I was a big success.) Of course, you don’t need to be slavish about this, but you might be surprised if you looked at successful movies you have loved, to discover just how many scenes the main character is present in. I would wager that they’re in the vast majority of scenes – and in the ones they’re not, there’s a very clear and important story reason (which probably has a lot to do with them, even though they’re not physically present).
But it’s not just that they’re present. Usually, they should be driving the action of the scene: what they want and are trying to do should be the main thing each scene is about. And it takes all the scenes of a movie for them to finally achieve their goal. That’s how hard and complicated the problem is.
Of course, there are stories which have more than one “main character,” but I think they’re rarer than you might think. A true “ensemble” movie is one in which multiple characters each have their own mini-stories that interweave, as in Crash, The Big Chill, or He’s Just Not That Into You. But you’ll notice that even in these movies, in any particular scene, we are squarely within the emotional perspective of the “main character” of that storyline. In other words, things aren’t told “objectively,” from above.
In many scripts that I read, that’s exactly what it feels like: we’re looking down on events, and not experiencing them emotionally from inside the main character. We may not even be fully aware of what the main character is thinking, feeling, wanting, or trying to achieve. Or there might not be a clear main character – just a bunch of characters experiencing a story, none of whom we are really inside of.
I recently contributed a “beat sheet” for the Save the Cat website, analyzing The Kids are Alright. In writing it I discovered that this movie had no one main character, but actually explored all five of the central characters’ points of view on the story they’re all involved in. This is another kind of “ensemble” approach that is rarely used, but can be effective if done right. But again, in every single scene, we’re really focused on a particular character’s emotions as they are experiencing what’s going on. We’re made to feel, intimately, what it’s like to be each of these characters.
I believe emotional connection and resonance is what storytelling is all about (along with entertaining – if we want to find an audience). The best way to achieve this is to give your main character a big, difficult, complicated, important problem with huge stakes for them – which challenges them to go on a “mission” that will take the whole movie to solve. And then, to dramatize that mission from their perspective – to be with them as they attempt to achieve their goals, as they fail, change plans, run up against unintended consequences, and get pressed to their limit, before things finally get resolved. In other words, to get us so invested in their point-of-view, that it becomes our own.