Common People in Uncommon Situations (and Vice Versa)

Take a story about an ordinary person. That’s generally boring, so to make the story more interesting, put that ordinary person in extraordinary situations. These situations don’t need to be dramatic like putting the hero in the middle of a Cold War espionage world like “North by Northwest” where an ordinary man is mistaken for being a spy and is hunted by espionage agents across the country. In “Captain Phillips,” an ordinary sea captain is thrust into an extraordinary world when Somalian pirates take over his ship.

In “A Quiet Place,” ordinary people have to survive in a world where they must be silent or else risk getting killed. In “Get Out,” an ordinary man is caught in a plot to take over the bodies of black people. In “Coco”, a boy who dreams of becoming a musician finds himself trapped int he land of the dead. By putting ordinary people in unusual situations, you suddenly have an interesting story because audiences will ant to know how that ordinary person will survive.

You can also go the other way and start with an extraordinary person. Most superhero movies follow this formula such as “Wonder Woman” and “Deadpool 2.” When you have extraordinary people, you need to make them relatable by making them ordinary. In “Wonder Woman,” the hero has a simple desire to help the less fortunate in her quest to stop Ares, the god of war. In “Deadpool 2,” the hero loses his girlfriend and spends the rest of the story trying to find out how to make his life worth living again. These are fairly ordinary goals, which makes them understandable and relatable to any audience.

What happens if you put an ordinary hero in an ordinary situation? It risks becoming dull. Even a story like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is an interesting story because the situation isn’t ordinary. A woman decides to post her protest as a series of billboards outside of town. That’s definitely not ordinary.

Now what happens if you put an extraordinary hero in extraordinary situations. That’s when you get bad James Bond movies where the hero is so perfect and he survives bizarre attacks without breaking a sweat. That creates a boring story because there’s no sense of danger. Compare this to “Skyfall” where James Bond is older and appears washed up with declining skills. Now he’s facing the prospect of getting old, which everyone can related to. That makes his story far more compelling to watch.

So if your screenplay starts out with an ordinary person, put that person in an extraordinary situation. It can be an unusual setting such as criminal masterminds as in “Baby Driver” or a captured amphibian man in “The Shape of Water.” If you have an extraordinary person like a superhero, focus on making that person face ordinary problems like Spiderman trying to get a date in “Spiderman: Homecoming” or John Wick trying to get revenge for thieves killing his dog in “John Wick.”

The ordinary goes with the extraordinary to provide contrast and that’s what you need to create the foundation of your screenplay.

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