From Selfish to Selfless

One way to roughly structure your screenplay is to divide it into two halves. The first half shows the hero striving to achieve a selfish victory (the False Victory). The second half shows the hero striving to achieve a new selfless victory.

Split a screenplay in half and you’ll see that at the halfway point, the hero achieves a False Victory that appears to solve the hero’s problem, but actually doesn’t. In “Ratatouille,” Remy the rat’s False Victory is when he can work and control the human to secretly cook in a restaurant. In “WALL-E,” this False Victory is when WALL-E finally gets to dance with Eve and wins her love.

The False Victory is the point where the hero achieves his or her own goal, but the rest of the world is still out of whack and problems with other people still remain. In the second half of a screenplay, the hero needs to tackle and solve the problems to help other people.

The hero begins as a good, but flawed character, then grows to achieve his or her goal. However, this False Victory is simply a selfish goal. After the midpoint, the hero needs to evolve from selfishness to selflessness.

During the second half of a screenplay, the hero is working for the benefit of others. In “WALL-E,” WALL-E is working to save everyone on the ship by getting back to Earth. In “Star Wars,” Luke has rescued the princess (False Victory) and now he’s going to rescue the rest of the galaxy by blowing up the Death Star.

The second half of a screenplay is where the hero works to help others. Although the hero could technically shrug his shoulders and just walk away, something must compel him to keep going.

In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis succeeds in a False Victory by finally contacting the police. He could just hide and wait for the police to take care of everything, but then the police raid screws up and the police officers in the armored car are helpless. That’s when Bruce Willis has to intervene because his character just can’t let that happen.

After he saves the police officers and blows up some more terrorists, he’s confronted with another problem. The terrorists are planning to take the hostages to the roof and blow them all up.

Of course, Bruce Willis can’t let that happen, so he has to save the hostages as well as continue his overall goal of saving and getting back with his wife.

The second half of a screenplay is about the hero learning to be selfless. Ironically, by being selfless, the hero gets what he or she really wanted but failed to get by being selfish.

In every good screenplay, the hero’s actions directly affect others and the hero becomes a better (or worse) person. In most movies, the hero improves, such as Marlin who learns to let his son grow in “Finding Nemo.” In some movies, the hero actually degenerates as in Al Pacino’s character in “The Godfather.” Whether the hero changes for good or bad, the second half of the screenplay is about how the hero’s actions affect everyone around him.

So you can effectively divide any screenplay into two halves. The first half is about the hero achieving a selfish goal (False Victory). The second half is about the hero learning and achieving a selfless goal, which also achieves the hero’s original goal. Thinking of a screenplay as two halves can keep your story from dragging or wandering in meaningless directions, which you can see too often by watching any bad movie that Hollywood produces these days.

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