are about a hero trying to solve a personal problem. The problem becomes acute in the first
scene and it’s resolved (or peaceably accepted) in the final scene.
the way to get from scene to scene is not determined by “Where does my hero go
next today?”, or even “What is the fallout of this scene?” Instead, the next scene should be the
next step in the escalation or solving of the problem, whether that happens
immediately after the previous scene or two years later.
established this rhythm, the audience will subconsciously realize that they are
following the path of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s life. And as the audience engages with the
story, they will begin to attempt to guess: Will the hero’s problem get worse or better in this scene?
done your job and made them love your hero, then they will be rooting for the
problem to get better. But what
does that mean? It depends on the
scene. In most scenes, the
audience will want the same thing the heroes do: the heroes pursue a goal and
we root for them to achieve it.
But in some
scenes, the audience will be rooting for some heroes not to get what they want. For one reason or another, we know that they
are pursuing a false goal and what they’re attempting to do will only make
their problem worse. In
these scenes, we root for the hero to realize that what they want is not what
they really need.
we find ourselves rooting for both outcomes, causing a pleasant cognitive dissonance. I’ve written before about Psycho: we want Tony Perkins to get help, so we don’t
really want him go get away with hiding Janet Leigh’s body, but when the car
bobs back up out of the lake, we gasp for fear that he will be
discovered. Hitchcock is forcing
us to root for what Perkins wants (to get away with it) and what he needs (to get
professional help) at the same time, even though they conflict.
we’re straightforwardly rooting for a good-guy protagonist to succeed, that
doesn’t mean we’re always rooting against
the bad guys.
- In a movie
like The Fugitive, we root for the
both the protagonist and the antagonist in alternating scenes, even
through they’re working at cross purposes. Ultimately we’re rooting for them to realize that they share
the same true goal (arresting the right man) before they kill each other.
- In The Rock, we see that Ed Harris is
basically an honorable guy so we root for him to achieve his ends (exposing government
corruption), but not through these means (taking hostages).
- Die Hard is an even more interesting
case: we hate that Hans is threatening our hero and his wife, but we find ourselves oddly
cheering for him to kill off the FBI, because they’re lunkheaded jerks (who
have insulted our hero) whereas Hans is clever, witty and sophisticated.
telling a straightforward story, then there’s nothing an audience hates more
than to have no rooting interest in a
scene. “Why are they showing me
this? This isn’t moving the story
forward. I can’t even figure out what’s
supposed to happen here, or how to feel about it…” Instead, you must either trigger straightforward feelings in
your audience (stand up and cheer!) or trigger ambiguous feelings (I want the
hero to succeed and fail, and I can’t
decide which I want to see more…).
As soon as a
scene begins, let your audience know that one of a few things might soon
happen, then get them to root for one or the other, or maybe even, if you’re really good, for more than
one irreconcilable option. Once
they’re rooting for a certain outcome, then how you end the scene will either
make them feel good, make them feel bad, or make them feel something more
complex… but you must make them feel something.