How do the best movies balance character development and plot stakes?
We've written about how to write internal and external conflict before, and how the two things weave together, but more and more screenwriters are following the same playbook and it can easily become stale, and worse than that fail to get your script to stand out from the pack.
What does it mean when people talk about "show don't tell" as one of the most important story maxims?
Movies are an art form, and they're constantly evolving, today we're going to look at how the idea of character development has started to obscure something that can plenty effective on its own; stakes.
If you fixate on developing characters, and not on how they develop, or why, then you could end up "telling" far more than you show. Your script will be "on the nose" as they say, rather than having tense scenes that draw the audience forward in the story.
Remember the best character development is one we discover because we can't look away from a compelling plot.
So how do you do that?
Are Our Characters Over-Developed?
Sometimes it feels like screenwriters have been skipping leg day at the gym, and just going big on their biceps. The results are a little imbalanced looking, metaphorically speaking.
Character development is always important to a good story, and it's something of a 'catch-all' phrase. It both means how well a character is fleshed out to start, in terms of back-story, but also how well the story illustrates how the character changes.
Change is the core value of any story, dating back to our earliest mythology. But not every story needs to show how a character grows and changes in great detail, because sometimes a story is more about how the world changes, or how events change.
Let's get out of theory and into practice though. We'll hop into a few different prime examples of great movies over the years and start talking about what is happening character development wise, stakes wise, and why.
Character Development in Raiders of The Lost Ark and Star Wars
Why not start with some big, beloved, and blockbusting George Lucas stories?
Raiders of the Lost Ark is, from a screenplay standpoint, has a pretty solid foundation. The protagonist of the movie is Indiana Jones, he's an adventurer/archeology professor. He's recruited to help find the Ark of the covenant before Hitler and the Nazi's do.
This is some real straightforward high stakes stuff. If he fails, evil can win. That core value pushes the story forward more than anything else about Indy personally.
In terms of backstory, we don't know much about this character. We learn a few things as we go, for example, that he had an affair with his mentor's daughter Marian Ravenwood. We know that he has some old friends around like Salah. We know that he doesn't really believe in the "mumbo jumbo" of the Ark legend. We know that Belloq is something of a rival who's beat him at the treasure hunt game before.
All of those breadcrumbs probably amount to less than 3 minutes of screentime. If you blink, you might miss them all.
What about how Indy's character develops through the story?
A few things could be pointed two as to how Indy changes. In one pivotal moment, he chooses not to blow up the Ark, he later becomes a believer in the magic "mumbo jumbo" of it. He seems to learn to recognize the value of Marian and their relationship as well.
These aren't the reasons the movie is compelling. These aren't even the reasons Indiana Jones is one of the most iconic and beloved cinematic icons of all time.
What is really the engine that drives Raiders of the Lost Ark?
The pressure is essentially on, and we are on the ride, from the moment the Paramount logo fades into a mountain. The movie's plot continually raises the stakes. Indy goes from the frying pan into the fire over and over again, until the movie ends. It's a thrill.
Does Indy change along the way?
Kind of. But it doesn't really matter.
What matters is that Indy finds a way, and the Nazi's don't take over the world. Phew.
Mistaking character development for why the movie works would be like thinking that by wearing a fedora you are as cool as Indiana Jones. Which is to say, people seem to do this but boy is it a bad look.
Star Wars leans a little bit more on character development. Luke Skywalker has some serious back story, so does the whole galaxy, and he learns to let go of technology and trust in the force to save... everything.
Han Solo has a character arc of his own. From non-believing loner to a man who comes back to help his friend, and wishes him well with the force to boot. Hey does Harrison Ford have to have the same arc in every movie?
Once again, writers should consider the ratio of screentime devoted to this character development and backstory. How many minutes of Star Wars is about Luke and Han changing, or wrestling with how they must change? Not much certainly when compared to how much screentime is spent showing them running from Stormtroopers.
Most fans will point to Empire Strikes Back as being the 'better' script and story in the Star Wars franchise. Who's character develops in that one? At least on an internal level the onyl character who undergoes any major change is Leia, who learns to express her love for Han.
Think about it. There isn't much that happens in either Luke or Han's action-packed storylines that is about character development. They are just going from one high stakes situation to another higher stakes one.
It's a good movie, about good characters. But the kids of on the nose character development you see more and more today isn't a focal point.
When Characters Are Too Developed
There can be such a thing as too much of a good thing. Character development can be over-developed. We want a little bit in the right places but think of it like salt.
Without a little salt a lot of food would be flavorless, but if you put in too much then that's all you can taste.
If you saw LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part this weekend, you saw a movie about a LEGO mini-figure with more personal angst and on-screen development time than Luke Skywalker.
That just seems... off.
There is plenty to like about devoting the time to give Emmet Brickowski of LEGO movie franchise fame this kind of character development. But in a movie of that nature, aimed mostly at kids, isn't raising the stakes enough?
It's good to keep things simple. Emmet is battling with the way his LEGO world has changed. He's battling with alien forces who kidnap his friends. He's fighting visions he's had of the apocalypse. He's battling how his best friend wants him to grow up and change. He's also dealing with his admiration and jealousy over a new character who is a lot like him, only cooler.
That's a lot to lay at anyone's feet!
That's certainly a lot for a screenplay to try and work out, let alone one aimed at kids. And this is all to say nothing of the B-Plot about the actual kids playing with the Lego's in the first place and their conflict/inner conflict and on it goes.
There is nothing wrong with reaching for big ideas, and it would be great if every movie regardless of genre was willing to go for it.
Character Development versus Plot Stakes Isn't A Battle Between Art and Business
It might be easy to disregard some of this as being that blockbusters and high-octane movies don't focus on something arty and psychological like character development, but that would be a mistake.
How much screentime does the Godfather devote to setting up Michael Corleone's psychology? We get that he's separating himself from his family.
But from there we witness events that turn Michael into his family. Literally. The biggest scene in terms of Michael's development is this one:
He remains mostly silent. The scene is driven by tension. What is at stake here is the murder Michael must commit. What will happen if it goes wrong, or goes right? How it will affect everyone else in the story. Michael's character develops in the Godfather but it does so through actions, and through the plot.
Massive emotional shifts for the character take place in singular actions. If you set up one simple action properly, it can do all the character developing for you.
These moments of external stakes and actions can take on significant meaning if you craft them properly.
Because actions not only speak louder than words, but the right metaphorical actions and characters can speak volumes.
Raising the Stakes and Character Development Through Metaphor
What if instead of trying to roll big character development ideas into big external plot stakes, we let the stakes do more of the work on their own... as metaphor.
Metaphor can be a complicated device, but try this one out for size.
Die Hard is perhaps one of the most celebrated action(Christmas) movies of all time, and screenwriters and development executives love how the movie incorporates character development snugly into its high stakes terrorist situation plot.
The story is set up so well: rough n' tumble NYC cop John McClane is coming to Los Angeles to try and win back his wife, now Holly Genero, from her high powered job atop a skyscraper. He's old school; she's a modern woman. By the end, the family unit is restored when he rescues her and the rest of the office after taking on the entire terrorist organization barefoot.
But all that stuff about Holly Genero-McClane isn't really why the movie works. It's not. The movie works because it's 85% John McClane being a badass against all odds.
What happens when you execute a good external conflict and keep raising the plot stakes, is that the audience starts to see your plot as a metaphor.
The screenwriters didn't write every scene about how John McClane is winning back his wife his way in a manner that was clumsy and on the nose. Instead, they worked in moments and scenes that embody the spirit of this theme, even if they aren't addressing it literally.
Take the character of Harry Ellis, for example.
Harry Ellis represents something. How people handle problems in Holly's new world. He represents maybe a different kind of masculinity than John's. One that 'negotiates' and makes deals rather than just swoops in and saves the day with action.
However you want to interpret it, Harry Ellis is in the script, and the plot, for valuable character development reasons. He's not there so John can talk to him about where he came from, or how he wants to address this problem. He's there, first and foremost, to raise the stakes.
He poses a threat to John in the first scene, as the new kind of man in Holly's life. He becomes a piece in the chess game between John and Hans later. He becomes another death (spoiler alert) later in the story, suggesting that hostages will continue to die.
But all the while he's a metaphor for what John is defeating, and what Holly is missing.
That's character development in plot, as metaphor. But it's surprisingly uncomplicated and elegant.
Up Next: Writing More Plot and Less Character
You've heard it before, "character is plot' or you've heard some version of that cliche.
What it really means to each writer is different. The truth is the best character development will always be what happens to the characters, which is plot. It's not what they think about, or why they do things. It's what happens to them, and how they behave.
If you want to take your plot to the next level then learn how to write the best plot twists. That's one way to move the story forward by raising the stakes and avoiding familiar plot devices.
What do you think? Do you think characters tend to be over-developed?