The Past and Future of Screenwriting

You can learn from the past on how to write screenplays by studying what has worked before, and what has always worked has been a solid story with likable heroes.

Hollywood is in love with remakes. You see remakes of old TV shows (“The Brady Bunch”), old movies (“The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3”), and old cartoons (“Transformers”). You can even see remakes of of remakes such as the endless Batman films of varying quality.

However, what makes a good movie are the same qualities. You need a sympathetic hero who strives to do what’s right, reaches a low point, and ultimately succeeds. Strangely, Hollywood keeps forgetting this simple formula, especially when they make endless sequels of movies that were at least good enough to be hits.

If you watch any of the early Marx Brother films, they’re basically chaotic with wild men who attack anyone in their path for no reason whatsoever. Their later films, starting with “A Night at the Opera,” focused more strongly on a believable storyline, sympathetic characters, and a point in the story where all appears lost. This was actually a drastic break from their previous films, yet it turned out to be a major hit for them, validating the importance of a story.

To recap, every story begins with a sympathetic hero who gets the audience to root for him or her. Next, the hero runs into seemingly insurmountable obstacles, reaches a low point where all appears lost, and suddenly finds a way to win.

That basic storyline helps the Marx Brothers way back in the 1930’s and its idea can still work today. Watch any bad movie and you’ll notice one of these items is either missing or not fully developed.

“The Soloist” with Robert Downey Jr. is a serious drama about an LA Times journalist who helps a homeless man who’s a musical genius. Not surprisingly, the movie isn’t really a hit and has received mixed reviews. First of all, the hero isn’t really that likable. He’s not unlikable — he’s just not all that endearing. I didn’t want him to lose, but I really didn’t feel any emotional connection, and that weakened the story for me.

The obstacles that the hero faces in “The Soloist” are scary, but without strong sympathy for the hero, the obstacles didn’t feel like my obstacles but simply obstacles that I’m watching someone else go through. In great movies, you actually get drawn into the emotion of the story and obstacles feel like they’re your obstacles as you wonder, “How is the hero going to get out of this jam?”

In “The Soloist,” that feeling is more curiosity than emotional commitment, and that’s its fatal flaw. Think of your favorite movie and the key is a hero who you feel sympathetic and care about. Now think of a movie that left you detached and bored, and it’s likely that you never felt any concern for the hero.

So the lesson for today is simple. Make your hero likable and sympathetic. Make your hero an underdog who deserves to win, and then make us want to see him or her win. This simple change worked for the Marx Brothers and it will continue to work for every screenwriter from now until eternity.

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