The five questions that the Exposition has to answer for every movie.
Act I, the Exposition, sets the stage for the rest of the movie. Whatever you introduce in Act I is pretty much all the tools you’ll have to use throughout the rest of your. Think of Act I as setting pieces on a chessboard. After you set out your pieces, Act II and III shows what happens to those pieces. You can’t just suddenly introduce a new piece halfway through; you can only play with the pieces you introduced in Act I.
The first question that the Exposition needs to answer is, “Who is the hero?” The sooner you can identify the hero, the sooner the audience can start rooting and cheering for the hero. The second question you must immediately answer next is, “Why should I care about the hero?”
Every hero, no matter who they are, must be likable in some way. If the audience doesn’t like your hero, they won’t care if they succeed in their goal or not. In fact, an unlikable character might even have the audience rooting against him or her, or just being completely indifferent. If the audience doesn’t care about your hero, they won’t care about your screenplay either.
Two common ways to make a character likable is to make him an underdog or show him doing something sympathetic, which author Blake Snyder calls “save the cat.” Harry Potter is a typical underdog, living in a cramped bedroom under the stairs and generally unwanted and unloved. Rocky is another underdog character, a lovable loser who seems fated to be a loser all his life.
Sometimes a character may not be an underdog, but circumstances show him getting the raw end of a deal. Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” isn’t an underdog. He’s a smart, whip-cracking, archeologist who saves himself when he’s left to die by his fellow explorer who convinces Indiana Jones to toss him the artifact. Then he callously drops the life-saving whip on the ground and walks away to leave Indiana Jones to his fate. In this case, Indiana Jones isn’t inherently an underdog, but circumstances made him so, which makes him likable.
If a character isn’t an underdog, then you can show him in a “save the cat” moment where he does something nice to someone even more downtrodden than he is. George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” is shown saving his brother from drowning and keeping a druggist from accidentally giving the wrong medicine to a customer, which would have proven fatal. Because George Bailey is constantly doing nice things to people, he becomes likable.
So some ways to make a character likable include:
- Make the character an underdog.
- Make the character a victim of circumstances not of his own doing.
- Show the character “saving the cat.”
The third question the Exposition must answer is. “What does the hero want?” This is the tricky part because what the hero wants must be something tangible, even if it’s an intangible goal like “love” or “self-esteem.” You can’t see a person striving for love, but you can see a person striving to win over another person. You can’t see a hero fighting to gain self-esteem, but you can see a hero fighting an impossible battle to prove to himself that he’s worthy of self-esteem. (Think “Rocky”.) What the hero wants is something concrete.
The fourth question the Exposition must tell us is, “What would happen if the hero fails?” If the hero fails, something really bad has to happen. In “Independence Day,” if the hero fails, the world will be conquered and everyone will die. Naturally, most movies aren’t quite so dramatic. In “Slumdog Millionaire,” if the hero fails to keep winning on the Who Wants to be a Millionaire game show, he may never find his true love again. While not as dramatic as the death of the human race, this goal also involves something as definite as death. If the Slumdog Millionaire hero fails, he will lose his true love forever, which is a form of death.
The fifth question the Exposition must ask is, “Who or what is stopping the hero?” Usually the antagonist is a single person, such as Rose’s fiance in “Titanic”, who is trying to marry Rose while Jack is trying to save her life. Other times the antagonist or villain is an outside force such as the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park,” the aliens in “Independence Day,” or the weather in “The Day After Tomorrow.”
Ultimately, your Exposition needs to pose these questions:
- Who is the hero?
- Why should the audience care about your hero?
- What does the hero want?
- What horrible thing will happen if the hero fails?
- Who or what is trying to stop your hero?
When your Exposition can clearly answer these questions, you’ll have set the stage for the rest of your screenplay to tell your story. If you fail to answer these questions, you risk losing your audience because they either don’t care about your hero, don’t understand what your hero wants, or don’t think the hero’s goal is worth rooting for. Watch a bad movie and chances are good you won’t care about the hero and may actively cheer against the hero. Watch a great movie and you’ll want to cheer the hero along while living vicariously through that hero’s experiences at the same time.