Last time we did this, I talked about how every character needs a false goal and a true goal, but now I realize that there’s a corollary to that. Most screenwriting books will tell you that the hero needs to have a statement of philosophy, preferably in the first scene. So I dutifully followed along and did just that...
But I’ve only very gradually realized that this is no good. I was allowing my heroes to state the overall source of personal strength that was going to get them through the whole screenplay, but my heroes’ characterization felt flat because I was ending the story before it began. When the screenplay begins, heroes shouldn’t yet suspect what they’ll need to know to win. That’s the whole point. They have to go on this journey to figure it out.
But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a statement of philosophy right up front. This is your chance to show how wrong they are. This is your chance to establish their false expectation that life will work a certain way. That makes it all the more upsetting when it suddenly doesn’t. So I still end my first scene with either a blatant or an inadvertent statement of philosophy from my hero, but it’s a false s.o.p. Then, ninety minuets later, after the many stunning reversals of Act 2, they have their hallelujah moment and discover their true s.o.p.
Once I realized this, I started seeing it everywhere, but let’s just focus on two examples: Tommy Lee Jones is a smart actor, and he cleverly stole The Fugitive from Harrison Ford when he ad libbed his own false s.o.p. Ford points a gun at him and says “I didn’t kill my wife.” Jones looks at him like he’s crazy and informs him “I don’t care,” which wasn’t in the script. This sets up Jones’s big reversal at the end nicely. Of course, the most famous false s.o.p. would be Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “I stick my neck out for no one”. Only later does her reverse himself and declare that his problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world.
Screenwriters talk a lot about ways to “raise the stakes” of the plot, but a false s.o.p. raises the emotional stakes. It shows the imposing size of the internal barrier the hero must overcome in order to succeed.
So now your hero has a big journey ahead of them, but before your audience ready to join them, the hero is going to need to show some aptitude, or else your audience will soon give up on them in disgust. We’ll talk about a hero’s resourcefulness next.