By Jennie Jarvis
“What’s My Motivations?”
It’s a silly and now clichéd question that actors have been pestering their directions with for years. Even people who aren’t familiar with the craft of acting or the process of making a movie have heard this saying in one way, shape or form. I’ve heard kids, barely out of elementary school, call it out when they walk across a stage. I’ve seen it in skit comedy, and I’ve seen it on the Internet. But as much as this line has become the butt of jokes and instantly calls to mind an image of a demanding actress who refuses to leave their trailer unless they have fresh lilies and Perrier delivered to their poodle, there is a reason why this question is so popular.
Coming from an acting background, I spent years learning how to create character from the actor’s point of view. When I first started, I genuinely thought that the job of an actor was to just memorize lines and then say them in a way that “sounded” good. But acting is so much more than that. It was more than just delivering the lines in a certain way; it was making sure that I was thinking a certain way. As an actor, my job was to take the script that I was given and break it apart in order learn what made my character tick.
And I wasn’t allowed to ask the writer to tell me these things. While I sometimes had access to that writer, my job was to discover these things on my own. I needed to look at the script that I was given and analyze it in order to make the role my own. Actors are not, after all, puppets for the writer to control. They are artists who must learn how to take the roles that they are given and make them their own.
One of the most useful tools that I learned in order to analyze a script was a paradigm known as the Major Dramatic Curve. This paradigm provides a guide to navigating my character’s arc through whichever play or film in which I am acting. Unlike the more literary character arc that I learned about in school that dealt with how a character would change emotionally over the course of a novel, this arc dealt specifically with a character’s goal and how they fight to win that goal over the course of the narrative. I didn’t need to look at how a character would react emotionally in a scene. What I needed to look at was what tactics they would use in order to obtain their goal in that scene, and the character’s personality would result as a byproduct since how we react to the events around us is arguably the best way to show the world what kind of person we really are.
For me, character is primarily revealed by asking one very important question – what singular goal motivates their every action and line of dialogue?
As I turned from actor to film director and writer, I discovered that this way of approaching character – from a goal driven perspective – allowed me to create protagonists that were much more cinematic and engaging to producers and audiences. Unlike a novel, which tends to display character through thoughts, voice and some actions, a film can’t expose the viewer to the character’s inner thoughts unless they use a voice over (and this is an overused cliché in amateur screenwriters’ scripts). In most successful screenplays, the audience learns who the character is by what they say and how they behave, not by what they think or feel. So, in using the Paradigm that I used as an actor in my writing, I was able to more clearly convey who my character was to the person reading my script or watching my film.
The Major Dramatic Curve, which was adapted from Freytag’s Triangle, contains seven main components: the initial resting period, the inciting incident, the rising action (conflict), the crisis, the climax, the falling action and the new resting period.
In the initial resting period, the character is in their normal world. We have to know who they are before their world is thrown off kilter or else we don’t really get to see how they react when their world falls apart.
The inciting incident is the external event that launches the character after their major goal (also known as a super objective). I say an EXTERNAL event because the character can’t just wake up one day and decide to go on a quest. Something needs to happen to make them decide to leave. What’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back and makes them want to change their life? It can be as small as a boss pinching the butt of the protagonist or it can be as large as aliens invading the Earth. As long as something happens to change their world, this serves as a solid inciting incident. In screenplays, this event usually happens on page ten (no later than page twelve). If it happens sooner than this, then we don’t really have enough time to get to know the character before their life is thrown out of whack. If it happens later than this, then the audience will get bored, wondering when the story will finally get going.
The rising action (conflict) of the script is the main chunk of the story. Every scene in this section (which starts on page ten and can last up to the last few pages of the script) should show the protagonist and other characters as they ACTIVELY pursue their goal. I say actively because it can be very boring to watch someone who just sits around and whines about not having something but doesn’t do anything to get it. For example, if the protagonist of the story wants to win the heart of the girl of his dreams, he needs to be trying to win her heart in every scene. He can’t just sit in the distance “being shy,” and wishing he could win. Hopes and dreams don’t come true by hoping and dreaming. They come true with action and more action.
Within the rising action, there are two essential elements – tactics and obstacles. Tactics are like mini-goals that the character uses in order to achieve their larger goal. For example, in the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games, Katniss’s overall goal is to protect her sister, Prim (this is true in the book as well, but I’m just going to focus on the movie for the sake of this post). Since she knows that she is the primary provider for her sister, winning the Games has more to do with getting back home to Prim than it does with survival. She uses multiple tactics over the course of the film in order to win this goal: she volunteers to fight in the Games, she promises Prim that she’ll try to win, she urges her mother to keep her head on straight, she begs Gale to keep them from starving, she does what she can to win sponsors, she avoids other competitors in the arena for as long as she can to stay safe, she actively feeds and protects Rue (who is a symbolic double for Prim), even killing another competitor, and she fights to win the Games so she can get back to her sister.
Regardless of how hard she tries to win her goal, there are plenty of obstacles that stand in her way. I always like to think that, for every tactic in a story, there should be at least one to two obstacles to match it. The road to success can’t be too easy or else the film becomes boring. Katniss runs into plenty of obstacles to keeping her sister safe including the other competitors who want to kill her, the lack of attention that she receives from the Gamemakers because she is from District Twelve, her own arrogant personality, the death of Rue, the bobby traps that the Gamemakers provide and even her growing feelings for Peeta.
With goals, tactics and obstacles, the best ones are always the ones that are external and visual. In other words, the best choices are those that you can point a camera at, because this film, and film is a visual medium. A character’s goal can’t be something internal like love or self- acceptance because you can’t point a camera at the moment where they win or lose. However, if self-acceptance equates getting into the Evil League of Evil (Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog), which you can point a camera at, then you have a good goal. While Katniss’s growing feelings for Peeta are one of her obstacles, which is an internal and not visual concept, the screenwriters were smart enough to present this obstacle in a visual way. We see Peeta sick and almost dying. Katniss watches until he falls asleep and then runs off to get his medicine, risking her life in the process. This shows the obstacle (her growing feelings) without just having her sitting in a corner pining for him.
The crisis is another point on the Major Dramatic Curve paradigm, and it can be one of three different items: a lowest moment, new information that solves the major mystery of the story, or a crossroads where the protagonist needs to make a life changing decision. In some cases, you can have all three, but it’s pretty common to use just one or two of these ideas. Depending on what kind of story you are writing, it will determine which kind of crisis you use. For example, if you have a horror or mystery, you need to have that “ah-ha!” moment where the protagonist discovers that last bit of information needed to catch the killer. If you have a drama, then a lowest moment is the way to go. Romances, especially romantic comedies, tend to use the life changing decision – do I continue to fight for a visa so I can stay in the country or do I do the right thing and tell my assistant’s family that we were never engaged (The Proposal)? The important thing about the crisis point is that it tells the audience the end is near. This point can happen as early as the second plot point (around page 90 in a 120 page script) or as late as halfway through act three.
The climax is the moment where the character wins or loses their goal, and this can happen as late as the last page of the script – and honestly, it really should be on the last page or very close to the last page. Once the character wins their goal, the film is over. People have seen the full story, and now they want to go home. Katniss arrives back in District Twelve and sees her sister on Gale’s shoulder. This shows that she won her goal. There is only one shot after that moment, and there is really no need for anything else. If the story continues after the character has won or lost their goal, then it can feel like the ending is dragging on; this was the major problem with the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Frodo wins his goal – he saved the Shire by destroying the Ring. We needed the scene of seeing him wake up in Rivendale to know that he was okay, but everything after that felt tacked on, even if it was true to the story and really beautifully shot. When I first saw the film in theaters, half the theater left because they thought the movie was over, but there was another 45 minutes of film! While Peter Jackson could get away with 45 minutes of film after the climax, I don’t recommend for anyone else to try.
It’s important for me to stress that the climax of the Major Dramatic Curve is not the same kind of emotional climax that we generally tend to think about. The “climax” doesn’t have to be when something blows up or the villain dies. It has to be when the protagonist wins or loses their goal. There are often two “climaxes” in this way in many films. In The Hunger Games, the emotional climax is winning the games, while Katniss arriving home is the goal-based climax that I already mentioned. In The Fifth Element, there is an emotional climax (they save the world), and then there is the climax of the Major Dramatic Curve (Corbin and Lelu together as a couple). Since Corbin’s goal throughout the film is to win the heart of Lelu, saving the world doesn’t tell us if he won his goal. Seeing them kissing afterwards does.
The falling action in a screenplay can be as long as three pages or as short as one scene. This is just a brief moment where we can tie up any lose ends. Seeing an angry President Snow in The Hunger Games is enough to tell us that the Capitol isn’t going to let this rest. This can often be combined with the next and final piece of the Major Dramatic Curve:
The new resting. This is where we get to see how our character has changed (or not changed) as a result of the actions of the film. Many times, we will see that someone has become a better person as a result. Luke Skywalker went from whinny boy to heroic man. Sandra Bullock’s character in The Proposal went from mean, scary lady to kind hearted and humble professional. However, sometimes, it’s interesting to see how a character doesn’t change as a result of the journey. This is what makes the end of There Will Be Blood so chilling. Our protagonist goes through a roller coaster of actions but then he is the exact same man at the end of the story as he was at the beginning.
Using this paradigm to create character has been a successful tool for many of my students over the years, whether they came to me through my academic teaching jobs or through Film Festivals or Conferences at which I taught a workshop. It’s not a structure that is taught in many film books, but I highly recommend that every screenwriter try it at least once.