One of the first role-playing games was Dungeons & Dragons. If you ever played this game, one person, called the Dungeon Master, set up the game world while the other players participated in it. The hardest part was simply creating a compelling adventure for players to tackle, but if you can understand the tasks of a Dungeon Master, you can use those same techniques to create a compelling world for your screenplay as well.
In Dungeons and Dragons, the simplest adventure involves a dungeon filled with treasures and monsters. The players simply have to find a way to get into the dungeon, fight the monsters, and then get out with the treasure. Simple story plot, yet this is crucial because these characteristics define the story:
- The Goal — In a simple dungeon adventure, the players want the treasure. A goal gives characters something to work and struggle towards. Without a goal, any story will feel aimless and pointless.
- Obstacles — Something has to get in the way of the goal. Nobody wants to see a character achieve a goal too soon. Imagine a movie where James Bond wants to stop an evil villain from taking over the world, and five seconds after the movie starts, James Bond walks into the villain’s hideout and kills him. Boring, right? That’s because there are no obstacles.
- A Hero — In Dungeons & Dragons, each player is a hero in his own mind. A dungeon filled with treasures and monsters is pointless if nobody’s going to go after the treasure.
In a role-playing game, you have to set the basic story by defining the goal, the obstacles, and the hero. The better you define the goal and obstacles, the more enjoyable the game. Likewise in a screenplay, the better you define the goal and obstacles, the more enjoyable the story.
First, the goal of any story can be anything. What matters isn’t what the goal is, but why that goal is so important to the hero trying to get it. The goal has to be the most important goal for the hero to achieve, so you need the right hero for every goal.
In Dungeons & Dragons, a simple goal might just be treasure so all the players are simply greedy and want it. While this works, a more interesting story might be a lost relic that was stolen from one of the players, and now the heroes have to retrieve that relic. Even if that relic isn’t as valuable as gold bars, that relic is more important to the heroes, especially if that relic belonged to an ancestor and has been in the family for 100 years.
The more detailed and important you make a goal to your hero, the more interesting the struggle to get that goal will be. James Bond never has a goal of having sex with a beautiful woman because it happens to him all the time, so putting James Bond in a story where he’s trying to get laid by a beautiful classmate would be pointless. James Bond is simply the wrong character to achieve that goal.
When creating your own screenplay, you must craft your hero to be the right person for a particular goal. “Rocky” needs to go into the boxing ring to prove his worth, but “Thelma and Louise” would never need to achieve that goal. The key is to make a goal so personal and so important to a hero that we have to see the hero get it or die trying.
In bad movies (“Clash of the Titans” or “The Last Airbender”), the hero has fewer reasons for achieving a goal. Think of a bad movie where the hero just did something because it caused conflict for no apparent reason.
A goal must be customized to the hero so that goal is crucially important just to that hero. If the hero doesn’t achieve that goal, it’s literally a life or death situation. It may not be a physical death, but it can be an emotional death.
In the 1955 movie “Marty,” the hero is an ugly man who wants to find a woman. Right away, the story sounds dull, but because the hero is such an ugly man who’s not only nice but lonely, that goal is the most important goal in the world for him at the time.
Once you customize your hero to your goal (or vice versa), the next step is to create your obstacles. Your obstacles must be customized to your hero and the goal. In “Marty,” the hero wants to find a girl to date and eventually marry. Some of the obstacles he faces includes his own shyness but also his friends, who prod him into looking for a prettier girl than the one he likes best.
What if a sea monster came out of the ocean to stop Marty from meeting the girl of his dreams? That would be dramatic, but it’s not as interesting as seeing Marty struggle with wanting to be with his friends but also wanting to be with a girl he likes even though she’s not the prettiest one around.
In writing your screenplay, your goal and obstacles must be customized to provide the maximum amount of pain for your hero. A sea monster stopping Marty from seeing a girl would actually be less painful than Marty having to overcome the peer pressure of his friends.
Make sure your goals and obstacles provide the biggest challenge to your hero. Think of a screenplay as a role-playing game where as the Dungeon Master, you have to set the stage for an interesting story. You can create generic goals and obstacles where the only excitement is battling the monsters to get to the treasure, or you can create a customized goal and obstacles that are uniquely tailored to make your hero miserable at all costs.
The key to a successful role-playing game is to set the environment up for maximum tension and excitement, and creating a screenplay is no different. If you create your story world correctly, writing the screenplay will be the least of your worries.