Every Character Pursues a Goal With Optimism

Most novice screenwriters get so focused in telling a story they forget they also have to grab and hold our interest as well. The end result is a bland, dull screenplay that exists solely to feed information to the audience even though the audience has no reason to care.

Part of what makes novice screenplays so dull is that characters exist solely to serve the plot, but they have no purpose of their own. This creates boring, faceless, meaningless characters who stand around and clutter scenes with their presence.

A far better solution is to identify all the characters, even the minor roles, and ask yourself what goal are they trying to achieve? Initially, not only is every character trying to achieve a goal, but they also think the path towards that goal will be easy.

Imagine a scene between a man and a woman in a bar with a bartender standing nearby. A dull way to write this scene would be to have the man talk (revealing exposition), then have the woman talk (revealing more exposition), and then have the bartender make a useless statement like, “What can I get for you?”

A far better way to write this scene is to clarify the goals of each character. Perhaps the man really wants to tell the woman he wants to break up with her. Then the woman might really want to tell the man how much she loves him.

Right away before either character speaks, you have conflict and conflict is the stuff that drama is made out of. Without drama, you have a dull story. It’s as simple as that.

Now add in the bartender and suppose he’s attracted to the woman, but doesn’t know the man and woman are a couple. So the bartender starts flirting with the woman and the man suddenly gets jealous. Even though he was planning to break up with the woman, the bartender’s unwanted attention towards the woman makes the man hesitate. The big question is will the man go through with breaking up with the woman?

Then the woman was going to tell the man how much she loves him, but with the bartender flirting with her, she’s enjoying this extra attention that the man stopped giving her. Now she might want to hang around the bartender instead of the man.

Notice that before anyone even speaks a word, all of these conflicts helps elevate the drama of the situation far beyond a dull meeting between a man and a woman with a bartender mindlessly serving drinks to them.

When characters have goals right from the start and begin pursuing them with the full expectation they’ll reach their goal, that’s where you can introduce conflict between the other characters. Then the scene crackles with suspense and tension.

So don’t write boring, useless scenes where characters have no goal other than to reveal exposition in dialogue. Give each character a distinct goal and make them work to get it despite any problems that get in their way. That’s interesting and gives us a clear way to determine if they reached their goal or not by the end of the scene.

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