Learning the Mentor’s Lesson

Your story’s theme represents the lesson your hero needs to learn. To teach that lesson to your hero, you need to demonstrate that lesson (your theme) in a visually interesting manner so the audience learns this lesson (theme) too.

In “The Karate Kid,” the hero learns the mentor’s lesson through seemingly trivial and meaningless exercises. Only when the hero is about to storm off does he realize what he learned. In “Terminator 2,” the hero (the good Terminator) learns the lesson about not killing people when he tries to save John Connor by nearly killing some guys who ran over to rescue him. When John Connor realizes how close the hero came to shooting perfect strangers, he orders the hero never to kill again. This threat of death and conflict hammers home the mentor’s lesson.

In “Star Wars” Luke learns the mentor’s lesson about the Force by being blindfolded and trying to protect himself from a drone shooting laser beams at him. That’s visually interesting. Make the mentor’s lesson visually interesting and it will grab our attention so we won’t forget it.

Think of your story’s theme and then think how to demonstrate that theme visually. That’s the mentor’s lesson and that’s a crucial part of your story. The mentor’s lesson is the first step towards guiding the hero towards changing. In “Avatar,” the hero learns to become more aware of nature by learning to ride a flying creature. The mentor’s lesson becomes visually interesting when it incorporates one or more of the following elements:

  • Conflict
  • Something unusual
  • Something dangerous

Conflict implies danger although that danger doesn’t need to be physical. In “Star Wars,” that conflict is simply the danger of getting hit by a laser beam that stings but doesn’t wound. Watching Luke try to block laser beams is also unusual and somewhat dangerous.

In “The Karate Kid,” the mentor’s lesson hits home when the hero is fed up with the seemingly meaningless exercises the mentor has given him. That’s conflict. When the hero realizes what he really did learn, the audience realizes that too. The trivial tasks are unusual but not necessarily dangerous. The hint of danger only appears when the hero is ready to storm off in disgust from the mentor.

In your own screenplay, think about how your hero will learn the mentor’s lesson (theme). This scene needs to be a crucial part of your story and ideally one of the more memorable scenes. If you can think up a visually interesting and memorable way for your hero (and the audience) to learn your story’s theme, you’ll be much better able to structure the rest of your screenplay.

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