In the Bedroom
Reveals How to Use Your Hero as a Tool for Developing Tight Structure
This series develops an internal, organic way to discover your movie’s unique design. Using anti-structure hits In the Bedroom and Traffic as examples, this first essay discusses ways to develop your hero’s core motivation and the ensuing essays will demonstrate how to use that core motivation to lay the foundation for an dramatically cohesive structure.
Let’s face it – for every paradigm or formula that’s peddled as a surefire way to successful screenwriting, your mind immediately offers up a list of favorite movies that undeniably defy the rules. It can become quite a quandary for both the aspiring and the seasoned screenwriter trying to find a personal story: on the one hand, virtually every expert in Hollywood will emphasize the importance of defining a unique voice as your biggest asset; on the other hand, these same experts will then apply some universal formula for structure that causes you to stretch and squeeze your story to fit predetermined rules rather than empowering you to discover a more organic, individual rhythm all your own. Will a “mid-act pinch” really help you to write your Magnolia, your Goodfellas, your Boys Don’t Cry, your Traffic?
So, let’s take a step back and breathe a huge sigh of relief that we don’t have to scramble to wrap our minds around charts, boxes, pinches, reversals and a whole lot of other nonsense that has become synonymous with the craft of screenwriting. And let’s instead take a look at one key principle so universal that it can unlock the heart of any story and yet flexible enough to allow your voice to powerfully come forward: your hero must possess a single driving force/goal/spine that motivates his every action on screen.
In other words, your hero must possess a specific emotional fight that shows up in every area of his life.
Exercise: The next time you watch a movie, grab some paper and jot down what the hero’ wants in every scene. Keep it simple. Just pay close attention to what the hero hopes to accomplish or get done and write it down in a few simple words. By the end of the movie, has a pattern emerged? Can you connect the dots into a single spine that holds the movie together?
Let’s take a look at a few recent anti-structure movies to see how this principle plays out. In the Bedroom serves as a great example precisely because main character Sissy Spacek defies all conventional screenwriting logic in the simple fact that she lacks a consistent external goal. The much talked about minute-45 murder of son Nick Stahl shifts Spacek away from a low-key family drama about a controversial new girlfriend into a more extraordinary world of murderous vengeance. Though the curveball external events suggest that Spacek lacks a consistent character spine, closer examination of her onscreen behavior reveals an undeniable thread that keeps the movie thematically unified.
In the first section of the story, Spacek intends to prove a point about son Nick Stahl’s inappropriate choice of girlfriends in Marisa Tomei: each scene shows Spacek either making passive-aggressive digs against Tomei’s background or outright proclamations as to why the relationship won’t work. Spacek’s fight becomes immediately clear: she always wants to make a point, prove her case, hold her grudge. Then, at minute 45, Spacek loses her son altogether and launches into a whole new mourning chapter of life. The filmmakers immediately show Spacek purposefully withholding her feelings and then blaming her husband for not being more sensitive to the very feelings she actively chooses to keep to herself: she wants to hold a silent grudge, she wants to silently punish. Later, Spacek dismisses a priest’s comforting story of another local woman that lost a son by observing that this woman had other surviving children: she wants to victimize herself over the lack of other children, she wants to hold a silent grudge. As the movie continues, these different scene-specific goals add up to an undeniable pattern that transcends the circumstances at hand: Spacek always works to maintain her anger, a fury somehow related to not having surviving children.
The filmmakers provide the answer to this emotional mystery in the climactic fight when husband Tom Wilkinson finally confronts the fact that Spacek has always resented him for being too busy with work to not conceive more children – that’s why she nitpicks every detail of Stahl’s life, that’s why she actively holds onto the grief of now having no children, that’s why she victimizes herself at every chance. In this one scene, the filmmakers clarify the emotional spine that has connected all of Spacek’s actions regardless of the specifics of the story. She’s a woman that intends to silently punish others over a decades-long grudge and it shows up in every aspect of her life – with her husband, with her son, in mourning. Even the ensuing court injustice becomes fodder for her indignant sense of lifelong victimization. Spacek’s every righteous moment on screen comes back to this genesis seed of having an axe to grind and it holds the movie together in the most sublime manner possible.
Traffic offers several examples of characters committed to a specific, unifying fight – but let’s focus on Michael Douglas’ judge since he straddles both political and also domestic worlds. The movie introduces Douglas as en empty policy maker, a stubborn conservative whose aptitude for spouting the party line has landed him a coveted job as government parrot. On the job, Michael stresses that he needs to send “the right message” to the American people regarding the war on drugs. This driving want motivates Douglas’ approach to family life as well; when his wife suggests that they exercise leniency with their drug-abusing daughter, Michael literally exclaims that such negligence would not send “the right message” to the American people. And when the drug war worsens, Michael takes definitive action as a means of – you guessed it – sending a message that the government will do its job. Again, Douglas’ fight to send a message permeates social, political, personal and all arenas of his life.
Whereas Spacek is The Silent Punisher for a crime committed years ago, Douglas remains committed to the role of The Messenger. The hero’s methods may change as conflict progresses – Spacek holds a grudge by criticizing her son and then through martyred mourning; Douglas sends a message by first condemning his daughter’s drug use and then adopting a more proactive stance in the war on drugs – but the overall approach remains the same. These so-called anti-structure movies rest on their heroes’ unifying wants.
Once you have arrived at that succinct motivating force, your screenplay acquires an organic momentum that simply cannot be otherwise achieved. Whenever you’re stuck or frustrated, you can always return to your hero’s emotional fight and ask yourself how he might recommit to it. Here are some exercises to get you going on the path of discovery.
#1: If you already have a rough draft or an outline, take a look at the key scenes (pick at least 2 per act) and answer the following questions in long-hand: 1) What does my hero want in this scene? 2) Why does he want it so much? 3) What will happen if he doesn’t get it? (this exercise can also be done with any scene ideas that have popped into your imagination)
#2: Make a list of the hero’s primary relationships in the movie: 1) What does the hero want from each relationship? 2) What defines a “good moment” in this relationship – why? 3) What defines a “bad moment” in this relationship – why?
#3: Complete the following sentence: “My hero wants…” and write for at least 10 minutes per session. Ideally, you should return to this question several times per week while the story grows and develops.
Eventually, you will distill that core motivational force that lies behind all of your hero’s actions. Write it down on a piece of paper (“Silently Punish,” “Send a Message”) and tape it above your work desk – this is a powerful tool in the outline and writing processes.
Make sure to check back next month for an essay discussing the psychological motivtion that powers your hero’s fight.