By Eric Owusu · December 7, 2014
“Want” is an essential aspect of any story. Whether it’s a novel, screenplay, school play, or TV show, the characters’ desires make audiences interested in their stories. And what those characters do to chase those desires keeps us watching. So it is very important for a writer to clearly show what their characters want and what they are doing to get them. If you desire to write this effectively, here are a few pointers.
1. As the writer, you must know what the character wants and why. It all starts with you. In this world you’re creating with your characters and their stories driving the story, what do they want? For screenplays, it’s not enough for the characters to want intangibles that take a long time to get, like in novels. Screenplays have to be action-driven and that action has to serve as the characters’ means of getting what they want. So establish the desires of your characters well before you even establish your first scene. Give them goals to obtain.
2. When you introduce your main characters, have them [creatively of course] say what they want and do things to indicate their desire. You can do this in dialogue between characters, with the help of a narrator or well worded action lines. Goodfellas and Blow are good examples of a narrator leading the audience with information that doesn’t feel like they’re laying out more information than is necessary.
3. You can also have your characters show their desires through actions. In Tarantino's Django Unchained, Django wants to save his wife Broomhilda from bondage at Candyland. He iterates his desires to Dr. Schultz when they meet and make their arrangement to help each other attain their desires. But Django shows that he wants to save his wife by going along with Dr. Schultz’s plan to pose as a buyer and his advisor instead of launching an assault on Candyland and taking Broomhilda by force.
If a character in a screenplay got what they wanted the first time they are shown trying to get it, it would make for a very short and boring movie. The essential conflict would be missing and the screenplay would be devoid of struggle, which audiences love to see emotionally invested characters overcome. Show your characters being upset or defeated when they don’t get what they want. They lead them down paths where he or she can either overcome the stuggle or succumb to it and feel the wrath of the consequences as a result.
In the end of the second act of Django Unchained, the villains at Candyland discover who Django and Dr. Schultz actually are and send Django to a mining company to be physically and mentally broken. All seems to be lost for Django and his desire to rescue his wife and leave Candyland with her and Dr. Schultz. Show your characters being upset at not achieving their desires by placing them in a completely lightless situation and show how they deal with being in that situation.
One of the great things about the “all is lost” situation is that it (hopefully) makes the audience actually think that there isn’t any hope for the characters to get what they want. But most screenplays end with the characters succeeding by taking advantage of a big break or summoning the courage or strength to prevail (built by other obstacles he or she has overcome previously in the story). Show them a rise to the occasion. At the end of Django Unchained, Django escapes going to the mining company, makes his way back to Candyland, rescues Broomhilda, and kills Stephen and the rest of the violent antagonists. After an entire screenplay of being a slave, an impersonator, an almost-prisoner, and a man without his mentor, Django gets his wife and their freedom; a happy ending indeed. And one that is much deserved for our main character.
Your screenplay may not function exactly like Django Unchained does; in fact, it shouldn't; but the principle of having your main characters achieve their goals should be present. They don’t have to achieve all their goals. Maybe your protagonist gets most of what they want but loses things and people along the way. That’s OK. As long as you show your character actively longing for certain desires, doing everything they can to get them, and actually getting what they want, audiences will desire to see your character through to the end.
Clip and Photo Credit: Miramax