One huge problem novices make is writing scenes filled with characters who take action, but who seem flat like puppets, simply taking action because that’s what the plot needs at the time. Scenes should never be about characters just doing something. Scenes need to be about revealing characters and the best way to reveal characters is to have them pursue a goal.
When characters are pursuing a goal, we can then see what they do and how they do it, which reveals their personality. A shy, timid person might respond far differently than a hardened, Special Forces operative. That’s because they’re different people so they should respond to identical situations differently.
So in every scene, identify what each character is trying to achieve. Ideally, each character is trying to pursue mutually exclusive goals so that way only one person can win. In “Legally Blonde,” Elle goes to dinner with her boyfriend. Notice how each character has mutually exclusive goals:
- Elle expects her boyfriend to propose and she’s ready to say yes.
- The boy friend is planning to dump Elle.
Conflicting goals sets off a ticking time bomb because now we’re waiting to see the disaster that’s about to occur. Goals need to be more than just physical goals but emotional goals as well. In “Legally Blonde,” Elle’s emotional goal is to have a man take care of her since she doesn’t think she’s strong enough to survive on her own. Her boyfriend’s goal is to dump Elle because she doesn’t fit his vision of the type of woman he needs to have for his future.
To see what happens when characters don’t have an emotional goal, look at “Bullet Train.” There’s a scene where the hero (Brad Pitt) winds up fighting an assassin hidden inside of a Japanese anime character costume. These two people fight each other because their physical goal is to survive and kill the other person.
Yet there’s no emotional goal driving this physical goal. Why does Brad Pitt’s character want to kill this assassin in the anime costume? Why does this assassin in the anime costume want to kill Brad Pitt’s character? There’s no explanation, which means their fight is just a short, meaningless, stunt-filled spectacle that has no significance whatsoever.
Examine all the characters in “Bullet Train” and you’ll see that none of them have an emotional goal they need to resolve based on a character flaw from their past.
On the other hand, “Legally Blonde” clearly shows Elle as smart, clever, and strong, but she doesn’t see that in herself yet. When she finally triumphs in the end by becoming the smart, clever, and strong woman she’s always been, she resolves her flawed past and becomes a better person as a result.
By the end of “Bullet Train,” none of the characters have become better people because we never knew the flaw from their painful past that they’re trying to resolve. As a result, the characters in “Bullet Train” are all flat, one-dimensional, which creates a visually interesting story to watch but one empty of emotion.
You can’t tell a good story without emotion and you can’t have emotion without a painful past that characters are trying to overcome from their past.
In “Silence of the Lambs,” Clarice is trying to overcome her painful past trying to save the lambs from getting slaughtered.
In “Bullet Train,” there’s no backstory to any of the characters so there’s nothing for them to resolve. Hence the flat story and forgettable characters.
Characters need an emotional backstory because that drives them to achieve a consistent goal in every scene. When characters strive to achieve a consistent goal based on an emotional past, that creates unified action, which reveals itself as a full character who feels real.
That’s why every scene needs a character to pursue a goal based on his or her emotional past, because that shapes characters as real and sympathetic. Keep this in mind when writing your own scenes so you don’t write a flat screenplay like “Bullet Train.”