Hollywood Scriptwriter, February 2006
Magnolia Provides No-Nonsense Examples of How to Write Powerful Character Arcs
One of the biggest challenges facing screenwriters lies in crafting believable transformation. You know you have to get your hero from one emotional state to another – but the question remains how to do so in a seamless, believable way. Fortunately, close examination of P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia provides some accessible clues to get you on track.
Find the Driving Want That Connects All Your Hero’s Actions.
No ifs, ands or buts about it, your hero needs to possess a single motivating force that connects his every moment on the screen. Magnolia’s dying game-show host Jimmy Gator, for example, always performs a role to deny a deeper ugly truth (let’s call it The Show Must Go On goal): Jimmy intends to wipe the slate clean with his family but in a way that completely ignores his worst crime of all, the molestation of his daughter; on the professional front, Jimmy intends to hide his illness from coworkers by executing his regular hosting duties. The scene-specific goals may change – reconnect with my daughter, carry out my job, wipe slate clean with my wife – but every moment remains rooted in Jimmy’s overarching desire to hide the truth.
Meanwhile, former whiz kid Donnie Smith is in a mad scramble to form a romantic bond with a handsome bartender (the “I Have to Give My Love Away” goal). First, Donnie aims to get braces to impress the bartender; then, he defends the right to his job so he can afford the braces; then, he resorts to stealing the money. Again, every moment of Donnie’s existence works in service toward the one unifying goal of giving love.
Identify What Parts Your Hero Plays to Get What He Wants
Jimmy Maintains the Show in two specific ways – he either plays the repentant cancer victim that wants to die with a clean conscience (but with no acknowledgement of his past molestation) or he plays the part of the competent emcee. Jimmy never deviates from either of these roles. When dealing with his daughter, Jimmy Gator uses gentle language and quiet repose to achieve his scene-specific goal of reconnection. Claudia’s ensuing hysteria only causes Jimmy to commit further to his methods as he sadly announces news of his imminent death (“You win. I’m going to die,” he solemnly informs her). He never matches her hysteria or blames her – that’s not his way.
Donnie, on the other hand, pursues every impulsive idea or thought that comes to mind and uses his childhood stardom as justification for his behavior. Every single scene with Donnie features some form of rash action or monologue that ultimately devolves into a tirade about the tragedy of his life. Meanwhile, Linda Partridge intends to deny the reality of her husband’s imminent death (the “I Don’t Want to Hear That” approach) by drowning out all of the attendant professionals, literally shouting over them with curse words and reactive confusion.
Fight Like Hell!
Your hero needs to match mounting conflict with an increasingly committed fight of his own. On set, Jimmy responds to increased physical debilitation by always scrambling back with the preplanned banter. When he outright physically collapses, Jimmy fights the hardest yet as he literally screams, “Let me back on stage! I’m alright!” Faced with the reality that she will have to render her husband a vegetable, Linda fights back by losing herself in a literal haze of lethal asphyxiation. If your hero is a brawler, he must start out brawling and end up fighting an army; if she’s a thinker, she must start out intellectualizing and end up using her brain as a weapon of destruction. The transformation through-line comes from establishing specific methods of pursuing a goal – and taking them to their utmost extreme.
The Moment of Surrender
Eventually, the conflict grows so heightened that your hero reaches a dead-end and must surrender his approach to life. This surrender enables the hero to finally accept what he has been running all this time. The Show finally ends for Jimmy when his wife refuses to let him evade questions about whether he molested Claudia. He tries so hard to maintain the Repentant Cancer Victim Act but finally acknowledges the truth of his actions by attempting to shoot himself.
Conversely, Linda’s suicide attempt gets undermined when her husband’s medication beckons from the passenger seat – Linda simply cannot avoid her responsibility to administer the painkilling morphine, she must make the hard decision she has been avoiding. Donnie’s near-arrest for burglary causes him to finally realize that he has been fighting a losing battle and further acknowledge, “I have a lot of love to give. I just don’t know where to [properly] put it.” In essence, the surrender of the fight allows the hero to acknowledge a deeper truth about himself.
So, let’s apply this to your script. Grab a pen and some paper and let’s explore (don’t think too hard, just write):
*What is my hero’s unifying want? (remember, you’re looking for that driving desire that will unify every single one of your hero’s actions.)
*Come up with an unofficial slogan for this want (“The Show Must Go On,” “I Have to Give My Love Away”); write it down, tape it over your work desk. This will be your hero’s anthem in every scene. If you’re ever stuck, refer to it.
*What are the top two ways your hero fights for what he wants? (Jimmy plays the repentant cancer victim and the jovial TV host. What parts does your hero play? Seducer? Intellectual?)
*What does it look like for your hero to play those parts to an extreme? To fight until the dead end? What is the truth on the other side of surrender?