How Plotting Can Kill Your Character

Se7en
The number one reason most screenplays don't get finished might surprise you.

Every story begins at your initial stimulus: that spark of an idea that captured your imagination. The thing that got you excited and revved up. That initial flash of creativity you just knew would make for a great movie idea. In fact, a Harvard University study went as far as to suggest that the novelty of your initial stimulus can determine how creative your output is.

There’s a related factor that affects your creative work even more than just your initial stimulus. Simply put, it’s your inspired connection to that basic story idea.

Having an inspired connection to a story idea is significant because inspiration is significant. It’s important to recognize that inspiration comes from passion, whereas motivation may not. When you’re motivated to do something, you usually want to accomplish that objective and then move on. Because inspiration stems from passion, it causes you to personally invest in what you’re working on and connect to it emotionally. In short, motivation can be fleeting, while passion endures. 

It’s also the thing that can cause your story to crash and burn, killing your character in the process.

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in 'Fight Club'
Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in 'Fight Club'

The initial stimulus can come to us in many different forms. It can be an intriguing character, like the dark side of Tyler Durden in Fight Club. It can be fascinating subject matter or event that interests you, such as the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film, Selma or one woman’s inspiring activism portrayed in Erin Brockovich.

Or the initial stimulus can just be a simple “what if” that comes from the ether of your own imagination. What if a serial killer used the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi? (AKA the “what if” David Fincher’s Seven.)

No matter how it comes to you though, it’s important to understand the psychological impact that the initial stimulus has on the overall creative process. Having an inspired connection to your story idea is crucial to story development.

Why? Because it’s the driving force behind why you want to tell a particular story. It provides the momentum that will sustain you throughout the lengthy process of developing and writing a feature length screenplay. But, be warned: it’s also the thing that can cause your story to crash and burn, killing your character in the process. 

David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 'Selma'
David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 'Selma'

A pitfall of initial stimulus

Having taught Screenwriting at the MFA level for almost two decades, as well as having professionally consulted on north of five-hundred screenplays and films, I can say that a pervasive mistake I see all too often is that the writer gets so excited about their initial stimulus, that they instantly jump in and start plotting. 

The mistake is in never stopping to first define the single most important building block of story: character. Character is the narrative cornerstone in creating a screenplay with emotional resonance that an audience can connect with. 

Jumping right in and plotting your story is the equivalent of eagerly hopping into your car to go somewhere cool and exciting…only to have no idea where you’re going or how to get there. 

People tend to be vertical thinkers, so sequencing and creating order (or plotting) is something that comes naturally to us.

It doesn’t make any sense. So why do screenwriters do this then? Two reasons. 

One, because plotting a movie is one of the more creatively exciting parts of the entire story development process. It’s one of things that gets the artistic adrenaline pumping. It’s enjoyable to do. Secondly, people tend to be vertical thinkers, so sequencing and creating order (or plotting) is something that is intuitive and comes naturally to us. 

Think about it, if a person looks up at the stars at night, the first thing their mind will do is to form shapes and patterns out of the stars. They’re intuitively trying to make order out of chaos. The phenomenon in called “pareidolia,” or when the mind perceives a familiar pattern of something where none actually exists. This is actually hardwired in us as humans. 

Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich in 'Erin Brockovich'
Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich in 'Erin Brockovich'

The negative effect of plotting first

This natural instinct of wanting to jump in and instantly create order by plotting our screenplay ends up causing all sorts of narrative repercussions. 

Most notably, of course, we end up with un-compelling characters that are afterthoughts and therefore lack authenticity. Instead, they become broad characterizations that are devices whose sole purpose is to serve our plot. They end up being human chess pieces, moved around in a story in order to oblige a plot’s end result. Which is hands down the quickest way to cut the life of your screenplay short. 

Not to mention, by putting the cart (plot) before the horse (character), we often end up losing track of that inspired connection (initial stimulus) we had with the basic story idea to begin with! 

Putting plot before character is the main reason why there are more unfinished screenplays than finished ones.

This is the main reasons why there are more unfinished screenplays than finished ones. More first drafts that never see the light of day than do. And more just plain bad spec scripts out there than good ones. 

So once your initial stimulus in place, and you begin to develop your story idea…stop!  Resist that urge to jump in and start plotting the story. Fight that feeling of wanting to instantly work on plot. Instead, first develop and define the key building block of all successful stories: character. 

In doing so, you’ll be able to better craft a plot with emotional resonance that an audience can connect with.     

Tim Long is a screenwriter who has sold, optioned, and pitched feature film projects at the studio level, and has had original screenplays in development with Academy Award® winning and nominated producers. He’s also a nationally recognized screenplay consultant and taught screenwriting for nearly two decades at the MFA level in a top ranked University film program. He’s currently Founder of PARABLE, a game-changing screenplay development process. Follow him on Twitter.

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4 Comments

Can you go more into detail on Character? You kind of go on at length (in a good way) about what NOT to do, and I feel like you're right to some extent (try giving this advice to Michael Bay), but you don't talk about the next steps much. I'd love to see some tips and maybe more references,

July 31, 2016 at 1:13PM

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Edmund Lloyd
Cinematographer/Director
267

August 2, 2016 at 6:48AM, Edited August 2, 6:48AM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
9948

If your characters are well developed, the plot becomes pretty apparent. The conflict is already there, the details just need to be filled in.

August 10, 2016 at 9:18PM, Edited August 10, 9:19PM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
889

Good read. This is why I like the "but/therefore" approach to plotting of Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park, Book of Mormon et al). It helps me think about the characters first and foremost when plotting and why things happen because of their character rather than, as you say, devices to fill a plot.

August 24, 2016 at 7:08AM

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Jonathan
Writer
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