I’m sure every one of you asks yourselves some variation of How the hell do I break in? on a weekly basis. What is the damn secret sauce?? If someone can just TELL ME what I’m missing, I’ll start doing it! I promise! Since every writer is different, I can’t give you a universal answer to this question. But after reading 250 screenplays and watching 225 of those fall by the wayside, I can tell you the biggest difference between the writers who made it and the writers who didn’t. This, my friends, is the secret to the next level. Are you ready?
The human condition.
That’s it. That’s the secret. Until you start caring about the human condition, about people, about what goes on inside a person’s head, about how people affect each other on a psychological and emotional level, your writing will never be up to Hollywood standards.
This is why you see a lot of good scripts for 25 pages, and then they fall off a Yellowstone-sized cliff. It’s not just that after 25 pages, your script moves into the dreaded second act. It’s that in the first act, you don’t have to get into your characters much. You set up their issues, you set up their situation, and you prepare us for their journey. But most of that stuff is skin deep. Once you move to the second act, you need to explore your characters on a much deeper level, and if you a) don’t know how to do this or b) don’t have any interest in doing it, your scripts won’t resonate with people. Because the scripts that resonate with people are the ones that hit readers on an emotional level. They move the reader somehow. That’s the only way to write something memorable.
And the good news? Doing this is actually easier than you think. As writers, we write from a place of omnipotence. We see and know everything, like God. If you want to write an emotionally affecting character, however, you must move away from this vantage point and place yourself inside the character’s head. Then ask yourself, “What is going on in my mind as I try and deal with this situation?” Once you find the dominant fear/conflict/obsession in that character’s head, you blow it up and make it the theme of your character’s journey.
So let’s take The Martian. After you’ve put together your outline or even written the first draft of the script so your plot is in place, put yourself in Matt Damon’s head and ask what he’s thinking about at this moment. What is a man stranded on a planet who can’t be saved thinking? He’s thinking about his mortality. He’s lonely. He’s afraid. He’s wondering if he can survive. We have several directions we can go here.
Ultimately, the movie chooses to focus on the survival aspect. How does someone overcome certain death? They fight until the bitter end. They try to survive until they have nothing left to give. And when we watch The Martian, which has a wonderful plot, the part of the story we relate to the most is actually the main character’s fight for survival. That’s the human element. This movie doesn’t resonate in the same manner if Matt Damon isn’t worried. If he isn’t fighting to stay alive in every single frame.
Let’s take another recent film – Deadpool. I’m picking this one specifically because it’s a high-profile studio release that you’d assume could care less about feelings and emotions. Oh but contraire mon frere. We’re going to approach this in the same way. Wade (Deadpool) has been tortured, his face burned beyond recognition. Put yourselves inside the head of that character. What are you most afraid about? The way people would look at you. Of always being considered a freak. Of never being loved again.
Ahhhh, that last one hits hard, doesn’t it? When you find something that hits extra hard, it’s a sign that you want to build your character around it. So it’s no surprise that Deadpool’s emotional through-line is built around Wade’s fear that the love of his life will never love him again. So he avoids her to spare both her and himself. This inner conflict drives him mad. And it’s why this movie made 350 million dollars when the studio thought it would make 80. Because it got beneath the audience’s skin and actually made them feel something.
Where do people go wrong with this process? Where do they screw up? A good place to look is Zack Snyder. Zack is like a lot of young writers in that he thinks you stir up emotion through melodramatic imagery. A slow-motion scene where a man visits his parents’ grave, for example. On the surface, this seems like it should work. We have dead loved ones, which everyone can relate to. We see how sad the character is, which we can relate to. Theoretically this should create sadness in us, right?
The reason it doesn’t, though, is because it’s a trick, a calculated equation inserted specifically to milk emotion from the audience. Audiences are too savvy for that. They know when you’re manipulating them. The way you make characters resonate is by exploring what’s going on inside of them throughout the entirety of your movie. Issues need to be embedded into the character, not given a 2-minute highlight reel.
So again, learn to put yourself inside your character’s head. Figure out what they’re thinking, what they’re scared of. When you identify what that is, blow it up and make it the theme of the character, taking it all the way from the beginning to the end of the movie. That doesn’t mean every single scene will deal with the issue. But the issue should permeate every pore of the character’s body regardless of whether they’re dealing with it or not. For example, Deadpool may not be stumbling around the city in every scene lamenting the loss of his girlfriend, but his overuse of humor when he fights the bad guys is clearly a defense mechanism to hide the pain he’s suffering. So even though the issue isn’t technically there, it’s still there.
Now get back to your latest script and beef up those characters!