Character Arc

In every scene, there’s a character arc. That involves three items:

  • Change
  • Goal
  • Conflict

Change means that the character’s situation is different at the end than it was in the beginning. This change can be physical or emotional. In the opening scene of “Die Hard,” John McClane arrives in Los Angeles in an airplane. By the end of the scene, he’s leaving this airplane, which represents a physical change.

On the other hand in “Legally Blonde,” the hero, Elle, goes to dinner with her boyfriend, expecting that he’ll propose to her. Instead, he dumps her. That change is emotional because Elle thought one outcome was going to happen but an entirely different outcome occurred instead.

What helps drive change in any scene is a goal. Each character in a scene must have a goal. Therefore in every scene, each character is busy pursuing a specific goal, which leads to physical or emotional change. Sometimes the goal may be blatantly obvious but often times it’s hidden.

In “Rocky,” the goal for Rocky in the boxing championship fight is to stay on his feet for the entire match, which is something nobody has ever done before against Apollo Creed. That goal is obvious, but in “Harold and Maude,” an early scene shows Harold hanging himself in a room while his mother comes in to make a phone call. As Harold dangles from the noose, his goal is less clear, but the subtext is that he wants to shock his mother.

In any scene, two characters are each pursuing their own goals, but because each goal is mutually exclusive, only one character can win. This creates conflict. In a boxing match like in “Rocky,” only one boxer can win because they both have the same goal of winning the championship. This conflict forces both characters to fight as hard as they can to achieve their goal.

Think of a bad movie where a scene is boring. Chances are good that scene didn’t involve change of any kind. A scene that doesn’t change the characters physically or emotionally serve no purpose. Watch the deleted scenes off your favorite movie’s DVD and you’ll find that those deleted scenes often serve no purpose, which is why they weren’t included in the original movie.

Bad scenes also get boring if there’s no clear goal the characters are pursuing. Then the scene just appears to be directionless and aimless, making for a boring scene.

Finally, bad scenes may lack conflict. If there’s nothing opposing the character striving to achieve a goal, there’s nothing of interest. In one deleted scene from “terminator 2,” the evil Terminator has killed John Connor’s foster parents. The deleted scene shows the evil Terminator searching the house for a clue where John Connor might be, and that’s when he discovers the letter from Sarah Connor that includes the address of the prison where she’s being held.

Yet this scene lacks any kind of conflict because the evil Terminator is just strolling through the house, looking for a clue where John Connor might be. There’s no danger, there’s no opposition. The evil Terminator could stay in the house for as long as he wants and there’s no threat. As a result, this scene is extremely dull and deservedly got cut from the original movie.

When writing any scene, make sure there’s change (physical or emotional), make sure each character has a goal they’re pursuing, and make sure there’s conflict where only one character can possibly win. Add in change, goals, and conflict, and you’ll be sure to write a far more interesting scene.

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