J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is about 1200 pages from the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring to the end of The Return of the King. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is about 8 1/2 hours long. But most of us have read it. And we’ve seen the Peter Jackson films enough for them to collectively gross almost $3B. And, let’s be honest, we’ll probably watch them again.
What keeps us coming back, over and over? Really? The special effects? The acting? Do we really love Viggo Mortensen that much? I think it’s because when you sit down to watch the Hobbits run through Middle Earth, swinging swords and dodging magical spells, it’s because you want to get down to the truth of the story. It’s about a young boy coming into his own, who has a job to do. And we’re rooting for him.
Frodo Baggins’s objective ties together almost 9 hours of film with one question: What do you want?
It’s not an easy question. Tolkien’s character wants several things: Respect, Love, Friendship, Loyalty, and an Adventure. But what drives us, what drives the film, is that quest to get the One Ring back to Mount Doom.
Why do we love the first three Star Wars, and by first three, I mean 4,5,and 6, but loathe the second trifecta? Does it feel that forced? (Yes.) Are midichlorians really that dumb of an idea? (Yes.) Is Hayden Christensen’s acting really that bad? (Unfortunately.) True Star Wars fans can probably give me a hundred reasons, but the main, I believe, is the Hero’s Spine. Whereas A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi focus on Luke’s story, and his ultimate quest to become a Jedi, the other three focus on… what, exactly?
For argument’s sake, let’s just say that the second trilogy (1, 2, and 3) focus on Anakin’s journey to becoming Vader. But here’s the problem with that. Anakin has no ultimate objective to become the Lord of the Dark Side. He has no objective to be the ultimate baddy. He simply just falls into it with some stupid decisions and some juvenile thinking. The three films’ only character objectives come from the Federation’s desire to do away with evil. But the Federation is a group of about 12 characters, some of which have only a few one-liners in a sit-down meeting. In comparison to Tolkien’s Rings, Lucas gives us the Fellowship, but without the Frodo. Without the character who has the ultimate desire, and has to make the ultimate sacrifice. And without that, what’s the point?
As a writer, the question “what does my character want?” haunts me every time I sit down to write. It’s impossible to count the number of times I’ve written a likable guy, who wanders around for 45 pages with absolutely nothing to do. But at some point, the scenes become un-writable. Twists and turns stop feeling organic and exposition sounds just like somebody trying too hard to explain things. It’s usually at that point when I stand up from my desk, frustrated, tired, and slapping myself for becoming a writer in the first place.
Any writer can relate, and it’s about that point where you look at your last few hours, days, weeks, or sometimes months worth of work and think, “This SUCKS.”
As a new writer (or any writer for that matter), it’s almost impossible to write a great film without a specific objective. The Coens might be an exception to the rule, but even in such an anti-hero film as The Big Lebowski, they still have a character with a main objective: a dude who wants his rug back. (“It really tied the room together.”) A specific objective. Literal. Physical even. It’s always important to have something that ultimately keeps your character moving. It’s natural for us with full hearts and big dreams to try to write a story-thinking: “My character wants love, wants respect” sort of thing. But the problem enters after we write the cool opening and get past the great line, when we realize that love and respect aren’t something that a person can actively seek.
Find the specific objective, and create your character’s journey. Become a Jedi. Destroy the ring. If he wants love, fine, but specifically, get it from one girl, like in (500) Days of Summer. If he wants respect, fine, but from who? The great films are all stories about a character who wants something. Schindler’s List wants to keep Jews from going to the concentration camps. Chinatown wants the truth of the water scandal. Jaws wants to kill a man-eating shark. They’re all films you can watch over and over again, and all films that push the edge of story telling.
When you find your specific, reachable goal, the writing becomes less about looking for something, and more about how they get there. You can begin to expand your world. You can write scenes that push the character forward, like getting the help of a Wizard in White, and you can feel great about writing the scenes and great characters that knock them completely back, like Gollum. It’s at that point when you can start running through index cards, thinking of all the cool moments, the great lines, and taking your journey to it’s ultimate end.