Making Life Hopeless for Your Hero

The beginning of your story lays the foundation for the rest of your screenplay. Create a strong foundation and you’ll have a great story. Create a weak foundation and your story will flounder long before you can reach the climax, if you ever get there.

Every story is about someone, whether that someone is a person, a fish (“Finding Nemo”), or even a robot (“WALL-E”). The basic storytelling formula looks like this:

A hero wants something impossible, but one day something new appears in his or her life, making the goal possible. However, a villain wants the same thing as the hero. If the villain wins, not only will the hero lose, but other people will suffer as well.

In “WALL-E,” the WALL-E robot wants love, but he’s isolated on a dead planet. That’s his impossible goal. What makes his impossible goal possible is that he discovers a plant and sees a female robot land, who is looking for a plant.

In “Rocky,” Rocky wants to be a winner, but he’s a fading, over the hill boxer. His impossible goal is to prove he has worth as a human being. First, he meets Adrian to love. Next, he gets the chance to fight the world champion.

In “Ratatouille,” Remy the Rat wants to be a chef, but he’s stuck living the life of a rat eating garbage. His impossible goal is to prove that he’s a great chef. His big break comes when he gets separated from his family and wanders into a restaurant where he helps a novice chef cook.

The start of every story begins the same way. Who is your hero and what does your hero want?

Next, make life difficult for your hero by giving him or her an impossible goal. Then introduce something new to the hero’s world that gives him or her a chance to achieve that impossible goal.

Finally, introduce a villain who wants exactly the same thing that the hero wants. Now your hero not only has an impossible goal, but someone directly opposing him or her.

Later, we’ll find out what horrible consequence will occur if the villain wins and the hero loses, but for the beginning of your story, you only need to identify:

  • Who is your hero?
  • What goal does your hero have that’s impossible to achieve?
  • What new thing will give your hero a chance to achieve an impossible goal
  • Who will directly oppose the hero (the villain)?

Identify these four items in the beginning of your story and you’ll hook an audience to stick around to find out how it ends. Ignore any of these four items and we’ll be left scratching our heads wondering, “What the heck is this story about and why should I care?”

You want your audience to care, so create a hero, an impossible goal, and a scary and powerful villain, and you’ll be on your way to creating a great story.

There’s a reason to give your hero an impossible goal. It creates suspense for the rest of the story so we’ll want to find out how it ends. In “The Hunt for Red October,” a Soviet submarine captain tries to escape to the West with the Soviet’s most advanced submarine. That’s a big and nearly impossible goal. The more impossible the hero’s goal, the more likely you’ll hook us from the beginning and keep us glued to our seats so we can find out how it ends.

A great beginning won’t make a great story, but it lays the foundation for creating a masterpiece.

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