Screenwriting Instructors Pilar Alessandra and Michael Huage on Character Arc and the Hero’s Journey

By July 21, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

By: Andrew Schwartz

On The Page is a weekly podcast hosted by Pilar Alessandra, a writing teacher and former story analyst for Dreamworks SKG. Her podcast focuses on breaking down and understanding the craft of screenwriting and features many prominent voices in the industry. Episode 513 (embedded above) titled, Character Arc, features the best-selling author of novels such as Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read and Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hauge. In it, Pilar and Michael discuss the protagonist’s arc and how it relates to both their internal and external journey.

On Character Arc

Story is always about change. The most exciting change occurs when it takes place within the character. A character wants something, and at the end of their journey they may have it or they may not, but something will have changed; the world will be different; they will be different.

Ask yourself: How has this journey changed my protagonist in some way? Here is a question that any writer needs to ask to get to what their hero’s arc is: what does my character have the courage to do at the end of the movie that they didn’t have at the beginning of the film?

Two Journeys 

The outer journey — the journey of accomplishment. Take a superhero movie; the protagonist’s primary goal may be to stop an alien invasion. In a romantic comedy, the goal is to win the heart of another. These are the external/outer journeys that drive the plot.

The inner journey — the inner conflict is invisible. It’s the tug of war within the character that prevents them from getting what they want. It’s a journey from living in fear to living courageously. Do I stay in my protected emotional state and give up on my destiny or do I go after my fate and be scared to death the whole time?

The Silence of the Lambs: balancing both journeys — to defeat the serial killer at the end of the film, Clarice Starling has to reconcile her past by confronting the inner fears that haunt her. Hannibal Lecter forces her to explore her inner journey to get through the external journey successfully.

Good Will Hunting: burying the back story — you want to look for your character’s wound. Will Hunting is beaten by his father throughout his adolescence — his source of internal pain comes from past wounds that never healed. Protagonists always believe they have overcome this, but the truth is they haven’t.

Because of his past, Will thinks he deserved the mistreatment; that belief is his fear. It’s the fear that anyone will see him for what he is, so to counter that he creates emotional armor. Will does everything in his power to avoid letting his true self be known, including the fact that he is a genius with a photographic memory and a keen affinity for complex mathematics. Will chooses to work as a janitor, because he is afraid of anyone knowing his real identity.

On Conveying the Inner Journey Without Cliches and Overly Expository Dialogue 

Recognize that the protagonist is only able to go so far in his external journey because he is holding himself back through his internal fear. Acknowledge that you’re going to have to reveal some back story through dialogue and sometimes even through flashback.

Baby Driver vs. Good Will Hunting — Baby’s (Ansel Elgort) past is brought up and shown through flashbacks while Will’s tormented past comes through in his counseling sessions with Sean (Robin Williams).

Show the Inner Journey —

One way to externally show someone’s internal process is through the development of a skill.

Chopping onions in Julie & Julia — Julia is initially bad at chopping onions. We see her struggling to do so in a class room full of sneering, doubtful men. Then, we see her at home surrounded by chopped onions. Last, we see her back in class, out-chopping the other men and proudly yelling, “Ta-da!”

Learning how to chop onions is showing Julia battle her insecurities of amounting to nothing in her life. The action in her outer journey conveys what is going on in her inner journey.

Expanding the Hero’s Goal 

In Shrek, his internal goal is to be alone in his swamp isolated from the rest of the world. He does this because of his traumatic childhood where people rejected him for being an ogre. At the end of the second act, his goal is expanded upon when he realizes he wants Princess Fiona. In the end, Shrek obtains his goal and can return home with The Princess.

On structure 

Hollywood wants a simple story well told. Your script can be great, different and successful if you’re willing to follow the basic skeletal structure of story. What makes movies great is not how they veer away from the tried and true foundation of story, but because there are wonderfully complex characters, and dialogue, that occur as they follow a particular structure. As a writer, the choices you make, the events that occur and the decisions a character makes are all yours and should be original and never done before.

Complexity vs. Complication 

Do not over complicate the narrative. You can have a complex story, but complications come from when a writer isn’t entirely clear on what finish line his or her protagonist is trying to cross. When you know what that finish line is, you can structure your script very clearly so the hero can move through the beats of the story.

An exercise — go to boxofficemojo.com and look at the most successful movies coming out of Hollywood in any given year. Try to find a film that you can’t summarize in one sentence.

Character Arcs in TV 

Episodic TV — With the same people in every episode and no end in sight, there are never complete character arcs. Multidimensional characters in episodic TV come from giving them fears, past wounds, etc., and causing them to confront that fear without over coming it. Characters are the same in the first episode to the last, but the fun comes from the different situations they are put in to bring their internal struggles out.

Serial TV — Hourlong ensemble dramas typically have a cast of characters all acting as their protagonist. Over time, it is essential for characters in the primary ensemble to have an arc.

Breaking Bad & Walter White’s Tragic Arc — Vince Gilligan always knew the over arcing story of Walter White; it is the classic tragic arc measured in small increments building up to a dramatic conclusion. Episode by episode, and season by season, Walter White goes deeper and deeper into the dark side because of the internal tug of war: wanting to see himself as a good family man vs. getting off on being a violent, powerful guy that he could never be before getting diagnosed with cancer.

Anti-Heroes in Film; The Different Approach to Character Arc 

Hollywood likes happy endings and doesn’t typically like anti-heroes, but loves mob stories. Most movies are about a character living in an identity and then finding the courage to become what they always had the potential to become. Michael Corleone is driven by the desire to protect his family, but he undergoes a change from starting off as wanting to do what’s right to choosing to be in the family business, eventually shutting out his wife. It doesn’t take much to trigger the internal struggle for power, and what we are watching is those triggers, or external conflicts, challenging the protagonist.

As an audience, we go into a theater knowing that organized crime is bad, but by the end, we are rooting for a protagonist who has taken us deep into the dark side because we are aware he once believed in justice.

Arc makes you feel like the story has gone somewhere without just being dropped into a day in the life of a particular character.

We may never be gangsters, FBI agents or ogres, but we’ve all been afraid of exposing the truth of ourselves. It’s on this emotional, inner level that you create a strong connection with your audience. Whatever theme you are trying to convey to your audience; whatever prescription you are giving them for living, you now have laid the groundwork for them to do that. What the hero has to learn in their journey is what you are subconsciously conveying to the audience.

For more episodes from ‘On The Page’ with Pilar Alessandra, click here!