In every good movie, the hero changes. In most cases, the hero changes to become a better person and live a happier life, but sometimes the hero changes for the worse to live a more depressing life. In any case, every story is about the hero’s change. If you don’t identify how your hero changes, you don’t have a story.
Every story is about what happens and that what happens is about who it happens to and what he or she does. Basically, a story is about how your hero changes.
Pick a bad movie like “The Last Action Hero” and you’ll find that the hero doesn’t really change. No change, no story. No wonder “The Last Action Hero” bombed.
Now take a classic movie like “The Godfather” or “Star Wars.” In “The Godfather,” Al Pacino changes into a meek man to the domineering godfather. In “Star Wars,” Luke changes from a farm boy to the hero of the rebellion. It’s all about change. It’s never about the visual special effects of giant robots smashing cities or blowing up buildings with missiles in giant explosions.
Before you start dreaming up your visual action scenes, start by asking yourself how does your character change? Notice that however your character changes, it’s an internal, emotional change and has nothing to do with billion dollar special effects. That’s the beauty of focusing on character change since without it, all the special effects are meaningless but with it, all the special effects enhance your story.
There are three parts to identifying your hero’s change:
- What kind of person does your hero need to become?
- Where does your hero need to begin?
- How does your hero change?
You probably already have a rough idea how your hero will win in the end, but you need to identify how what type of person will your hero have to become to achieve the final victory? In “Rocky,” Rocky simply needs the emotional strength to believe in himself. Since we can’t see an emotional change, we must see that emotional change reflected through a physical goal, and in “Rocky,” that means standing up to the heavyweight champion of the world.
Once you know who your hero has to become, you can look at the opposite side and you automatically know who your hero must be at the beginning. In “Rocky,” Rocky must think of himself as a bum. In “Star Wars,” Luke must think of himself as stuck on a farm.
Finally, when you know who your hero will become and the opposite, who your hero started out as, you need to identify how your hero will change. This change can come through a billion different ways, but you just need to identify one way that change occurs.
Change always comes through the hero’s mentor. The mentor teaches a lesson or skill that the hero needs to learn to change. By changing, the hero is able to defeat the villain. By not changing, the hero will lose to the villain.
In “Star Wars,” Luke learns about the Force from Obiwan, which Luke uses to help him blow up the Death Star. In “Rocky,” Rocky learns boxing skills from his trainer. These new skills give Rocky the confidence that he can stay on his feet the whole fight against Apollo Creed.
So before you start writing your screenplay, take a few moments to identify who your hero is at the beginning of your story (and how that has trapped your hero into a dead end life). Then identify who your hero needs to become to defeat the villain. Finally, identify how your hero will change along the way. With these three chunks of information, you know how your hero must begin, how your hero must change along the way, and how your hero can ultimately defeat the villain.
What happens if you hero doesn’t change? Then you have a boring story with lots of action, but no substance behind it. Watch the last “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull” to see a movie with a bunch of meaningless action but no character change, so all that action is pointless.
What if your hero doesn’t defeat the villain by changing? Then you have an unsatisfying ending. Think of a bad movie where the hero suddenly defeats the villain by pulling out a gun and shooting him. Unless using the gun has some relevance to an emotional change the hero went through, suddenly pulling out a gun to kill the villain leaves the ending feeling empty. This is exactly how the animated carton “Wizards” ends, and it leaves the ending flat and boring. In case you never heard of “Wizards,” it’s because the ending is so unsatisfying that nobody cares about the rest of the movie either.
So make sure you know who your hero is, who your hero needs to become, and how your hero will change during your story. Identify all these three points and you’ll have a story that can at least attract the attention of an audience for more than three seconds, which is a lot longer than any special effects can ever do.