Every good story is about an interesting somebody (character), who wants something badly (want) and is having trouble getting it (obstacles), and the story is worth writing because it illustrates some kind of universal message (theme).
Story = [(Character + Want) x Obstacles] x Theme.
S = [(C + W) x O) x T
Once you have developed a compelling character, in order to set him or her into action, you must provide a clear want. The want is the character’s main objective, the ultimate goal, or intense desire that he or she wants really bad. The obstacles are all the roadblocks put in the character’s way, making it difficult to accomplish the want.
And because there are many roadblocks along the journey, character plus want must be multiplied by obstacles. As a rule of thumb, when we think it can’t get worse on the protagonist, it gets worse. And when there is no possible way something else can go wrong, it does. And then… it rains. It always rains.
There are many narratives—movies and novels—that follow the (C + W) x O equation, yet despite an interesting character, clear want, and multiple obstacles, many stories fall flat because they fail to exemplify a relatable theme within the current culture. In order to write a full and satisfying story, you must apply all four variables.
First Variable: Characters
Interesting and unforgettable characters should possess a myriad of strengths and weaknesses, attitudes and values, ironies and hypocrisies, and unique little quirks. And when it comes to a movie protagonist, you only have about ten to fifteen pages to present a complex and compelling character that grabs our attention, transfixing us and making us want to invest in his or her journey.
Inglourious Basterds – Lt. Aldo Raine
Tarantino never fails in delivering complex, quirky characters, and Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) in Inglorious Basterds is no exception. We first meet Raine as he addresses his brand new eight-man Jewish American “army.” His thick southern accent, unusual good looks and menacing charm captivates us. This guy is a nut, and we can’t wait to see the havoc he’ll cause on the Nazis. Not to mention he has “apache blood” running through his veins and expects 100 Nazi scalps before their journey is over.
Second Variable: Wants
Despite captivating an audience by introducing a cinematic character, the strongest identification of character still comes through his or her motivations. Without a goal, characters are immobile. They need an objective that they will go to great and surprising lengths to attain. The more they want it, the more the audience will as well.
Inglourious Basterds – Raine’s Want
Lt. Aldo Raine has a somewhat outrageous objective: to rid Nazis from the face of the earth. He tells his men that they will be dropped behind enemy lines to do nothing more than cause havoc to all Nazis they come across and bring fear into the heart of the enemy. Of course, we’re rooting for him. Despite his extremely violent and gruesome methods of justice, he’s fighting for the greater good of mankind. He may not be able to eliminate Hitler’s followers all at once, but he’ll go about achieving his objective one soldier at a time.
Third Variable: Obstacles
If a character achieves his or her goal too easily or too quickly, then well… there’s little to no story. But the higher the hurdles a character must leap in order to achieve that goal, the stronger the character becomes. Consequently, if a character fails to achieve success in the end, the character is weakened. Many of the best characters endure both.
Inglourious Basterds – Raine’s Obstacles
Lt. Raine’s plan to bomb a Nazi theatre event goes array after a meeting ends in bloodshed in the basement of a French Tavern. The German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is the only one who escapes, unknowingly leaving her slipper for evidence. After Raine interrogates Hammersmark, he decides to continue the operation against the cinema. But when two of Raine’s best men, who will be the suicide bombers, can’t deliver convincing Italian accents at the film’s event, and Hammersmark’s slipper gives her betrayal away, Raine must think quickly to save himself and preserve his plan.
Fourth Variable: Theme
Humans have the capacity to change, and therefore, if your protagonist, or antagonist, doesn’t change or grow in some way—even Darth Vader finds salvation in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi)—then the story becomes futile. There needs to be a larger point to it all. It's the why in why we tell it, which is theme. The story is worth telling because it illustrates some kind of larger, more universal message that is relevant within the cultural landscape of today’s society.
Inglourious Basterds – Theme
“Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France…” This is the largest weakness with Quentin Tarantino’sInglourious Basterds. The historical period is Nazi occupied France, and there’s no getting away from the problematic theme of sadistic revenge. Not only is this theme hard to take seriously in a film that is filled with such an extravagance of comical, if not absurd, stylized “popcorn” entertainment, but this theme serves to undermine such a troubling and complex period in world history.
Story = [(Character + Want) x Obstacles] x Theme.
Tattoo this equation in the forefront of your mind, because following it will result in a fully developed story.
1. Create a compelling character that we can hope and fear for through both failures and triumphs.
2. Give that character a goal, one in which he or she will do almost anything to achieve.
3. Provide multiple obstacles (internal and external) that the character must struggle to overcome.
4. Your theme should illustrate a larger, more universal message that is relatable within the current culture.
S = [(C + W) x O] x T
Complete this equation. It will lead you to the foundation of a great story. Then all you have to do is write it.
Michael Schilf, co-founder of TheScriptLab.com, is an acclaimed screenwriter and highly sought after script consultant, with nearly twenty years of experience teaching screenwriting at the collegiate level. His latest work, a memoir, The Sins of My Father, hits bookstores later this year. Visit his blog for insights on story, character, and structure, and follow him on Twitter.