I generally tend to agree with the advice of Robert McKee (even if I find his tone far too lofty), but not always. For instance: he insists that audiences always wants to the hero to go on the longest possible emotional journey, all the way from A to Z.
But as I pointed out before, Black Swan didn’t start Natalie Portman’s character off as a happy-go-lucky ingénue who is dragged all the way from sunshine to darkness. Instead, when the movie begins, she’s already pretty far gone, worn down to a state of near-madness by years of maintaining an inhuman amount of discipline in order to get to her current position.
You might think that this would make her too unsympathetic, or not worth rooting for, since she may already be too far gone, but we actually care more about her because she’s not an everywoman. She’s already given up so much, but now she fears that she’ll have to give up her last shred of dignity in order to cross the finish line. We respect her accomplishment, empathize with what it has cost her, and feel anguish over this final crisis.
Why waste screen time dragging her all the way from happiness to the crisis point? In my original write-up, I predicted that Portman would win Best Actress, because she got to spend the whole movie going from Y-Z, which gave her time to explore the full emotional intensity of that crisis.
Compare this to another Portman role. The graphic novel “V for Vendetta” begins when anti-fascist terrorist V saves a miserable young girl from entering a life of prostitution and invites her to live in his secret refuge, where he gradually grooms her to be his successor. Even though the girl has already lost everything she ever loved to the fascist government, she’s still horrified by V at first, and reluctant to embrace his extreme ways.
The limp movie adaptation has many problems, but one of the biggest was the baffling decision to start Portman’s character off as a strong, independent go-getter assistant at a TV station whose biggest problem is an unrequited crush on her boss. We’re supposed to believe that this girl will soon decide to become an anti-government terrorist leader??
The book takes her from rock-bottom refugee to terrorist over the course of 300 dense pages, which makes for an emotionally devastating journey. The movie takes her from rom-com heroine to terrorist in under two hours, which is just silly. Feel free to start your characters out on the edge of a crisis, and trust your audience to be willing to jump right in up to their necks as the story begins.