Show Us the Worst That Could Happen to the Hero

In every story, two things must be crystal clear:

  • What is the hero trying to do?
  • What’s the worst that could happen if the hero fails?

We must know what the hero wants right from the beginning, even if that desire may not be clear to us at the moment. By letting us know what the hero wants, the story can then tease us as the hero gets closer and further away from getting what they want. If we don’t know what the hero wants, all the action in the world won’t make a difference because we won’t know what the hero is trying to achieve.

What the hero wants can be concrete and specific (uncommon) or vague and abstract (far more common). In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero (Olive, a little girl) wants to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant so the entire story is about her and her family struggling to get to the beauty pageant so she can compete.

In most movies, the hero’s goal should be defined as soon as we meet the hero. In “The Shawshank Redemption,” the hero (Andy) gets thrown in prison for murdering his wife and her lover. Now we know that Andy’s goal throughout the story is to get out of prison.

However, just knowing that Andy wants to get out of prison isn’t dramatic enough unless we also know the Horrible Consequences that could happen if he fails. In other words, what’s the worst that could happen? In “The Shawshank Redemption,” the worst that could happen is that Andy could be stuck in prison for the rest of his life.

The following scene shows the villain (the warden) killing the only witness who would possibly prove Andy’s innocence so he can get out of prison. Once this witness is killed, Andy’s hope of getting out of prison seems impossible and if he should try, the threat of getting killed is all too real.

Showing us the worst that could happen to the hero creates greater tension and suspense, making us root even harder for the hero yet fear the hero could lose. In “Top Gun: Maverick,” the worst that could happen is that the mission will fail and the hero could die. To show that threat, the following scene shows two dangers.

First, there’s the danger that the hero could blackout and lose control of his plane, which would lead to his death. Second, if the hero’s plane does go down, the hero will need to eject before the plane crashes to save himself. So this scene shows another pilot blacking out and barely waking up in time before his plane crashes. Then another pilot’s plane gets hit by birds and the engines flame out, causing the plane to nose into the ground until the pilot and her weapons officer eject at the last second. Both of these dangers highlight the threat that the hero could crash.

Until we know the worst that could happen to the hero, we’ll never care about the hero. If we don’t know the worst that could happen to the hero, we’ll simply stop caring about the hero. Think of those bad James Bond movies where James Bond gets dozens of men shooting machine guns at him, yet he avoids all the danger without a scratch.

Because James Bond (in the bad movies) never feels threatened, we never feel like he’s in any danger. As a result, we don’t really care what he does because there’s no feeling he could fail.

Think of the worst that could happen and make sure we see that in your screenplay. When the audience (and you as the screenwriter) know the worst that could happen, your story will feel more emotional and dramatic.

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