June 16, 2017

Watch: Lessons from 'True Detective' on How to Write a Character-Driven Plot

Focusing on a character's struggle to obtain their desire will give you a more organic story.

On its face, the first season of True Detective didn’t have many elements that really separated it from the typical buddy cop story. Two cops, riding around in a car, sometimes disagreeing and hunting down a mysterious serial killer certainly doesn’t qualify as re-inventing the game. So why exactly is the series so memorable?

In Daniel Netzel’s latest video essay for Film Radar, he argues that it's the excellent character development which makes the season feel so fresh. It serves as a masterclass on how to write complex characters.

One question Nic Pizzolatto would ask himself when writing the season was, “Wait a minute, is this just people walking around trading information? Or is it people living with each other or against each other?” A writer should be focused on character motivation and not aesthetic qualities. The reverse often leads to mind-numbing exposition.

Screenwriting teacher John Truby says, “The mark of a really good storyteller is that plot comes from character. You create a goal for your hero which will eventually force that person to deal with their deep weakness. If you do that, the plot comes from the deep source of the character and you’ve told a great story.”

So how do you write a plot that comes from the character? Aaron Sorkin is famous for his advocacy of “Intention & Obstacle,” or in other words, somebody wants something but something is standing in their way of getting it. In True Detective, this shows up in a number of different ways:

  • Assumed Intention: Characters can misunderstand each other’s intentions, which presents an obstacle.
  • Intentions Become Obstacle: One character’s intentions become the obstacles of another.
  • Fundamental Character Flaws: A character’s personality just won’t let them resist an obstacle that will undoubtedly throw off their intention.

Every character has an intention in every scene of True Detective, which is what makes them so compelling. In the same sense, all plot progression should come from motivation and action.

This way, you’ll keep the audience on their toes, wondering if these characters will ever overcome their flaws to reach their intention. You certainly don’t want the outcome of their journey to be obvious from the get-go. By putting them in situations where they have to make a choice between their obstacle and their intention, the plot will just progress organically from the point of their decision.      

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