What is the difference in storytelling between boring, so-so and enthralling? I believe it relies on the element of Character Intensity. The common, ordinary person living a microscopically dull and predictable life is NOT interesting because 99.9% of the population lives that life. However, putting an ordinary person in jeopardy and FORCING a change creates an atmosphere the audience can relate to and care about. Why? Because they want variety and challenge in their lives and want to see how someone else deals with all that in theirs. They WANT make-believe. The writer has to be willing to go to extremes to create Character Intensity the audience wants to live vicariously.
Act One of any story sets up the ordinary world the main character is dealing with. The audience is introduced to the character’s “ordinary” . . . but also has to wiggle a bit with the angst and frustrations of the main character coping with this present world. The PURPOSE of the entire set-up is to show the audience who the character is, the underlying mindset and value system, the potential waiting to burst forth and this character’s most common coping mechanisms at work.
When filling out a Character Profile, the writer has to create that nudging potential to be and want more out of all that has gone on before in the character’s life. In the actual writing the character has to blatantly demonstrate what is important, what is wanted and the lengths he or she will go to in order to achieve that goal. In other words, the audience has to be nodding heads, appreciating and understanding, IDENTIFYING with this character. They have to vicariously enjoy the challenge of living this person’s life and share the emotion of wanting to be more.
Some stories evolve out of the exotic or imagined environment and others out of the really common man experience. The setting “frames” the story and acts as a catalyst but is NOT the story itself. The story is the main character wanting to do and be more than what he or she is in their ordinary existence in Act One.
IDENTIFY JEOPARDIZING CHALLENGE
In every Character Profile a writer has a vast array of potential twists and turns that will shove the character into the fire. No one (except a masochist) wants to get burned. So the question has to be “What means so much that the Character is WILLING to face the unknown, willing to be burned, willing to risk death.” Does that seem melodramatic? “Death” does not always mean “end to the living existence.” It can also be end of the safe, known ordinary world . . . or self-image . . . or body image . . . or family beliefs . . . or any endless number of other “safe” concepts of life the character has come to accept and trust. The daughter realizes her possessive parents’ anger is because they no longer see her as a child they can control but as the sexual partner of a groom who will take her from their sphere of influence. An injury ends an athletic career that person spent an entire childhood working toward. A charismatic outsider makes a young person question the community’s humble way of life. A treasure or influential role promises a better way of life but it comes with a cost..
The key is to identify and assault the most dramatic element in the character’s life that will create a cascade of cause-effect consequences challenging the character to change, to WANT to step into the fire, to HAVE to step into the fire.
1) A writer can’t think microscopically or be a minimalist when considering how to shove the character into a “New World” beyond the comfort zone. The jeopardy has to impact that character’s very soul.
2) The challenge and the character’s reactions have to be visually demonstrated and NOT explained. Audiences like to experience WITH the character, not receive a sermon guiding how the writer wants them to respond.
3) The jeopardy has to have a domino effect of worsening circumstances the character must learn how to deal with. The innate personality strengths seen in Act One give the audience a basis of expectations, but the enthralling story makes the character stretch and become more than he or she thought was possible and takes the audience along for the exciting ride.
So, throughout Act Two you want maximum stress visually demonstrated that forces the character toward greatness. That “greatness” need not be something the world will laud; it merely needs to be a sense of being MORE in the character’s own self-awareness. After the horrific self-doubt at the end of Act Two, the character must attain a level of confidence the audience wants to share.
GO TO THE EXTREME
Especially when moving into Act Three, many writers fear melodrama wherein characters become “over-the-top” exaggerated and obnoxious to the point of stupid. These writers back off and skim the vitality of life that makes for great characterization. They paint with faint watercolors and miss the vivid hues that “pop” on film. That vivid energy is vital to a successful, memorable Act Three.
As I see it, the key is to identify the very extremes each and every cinematic character is willing to go in each scene. Seriously, each scene, even from the beginning of the story, but especially in Act Three. The writer has to ask “How far is this character willing to go when backed into a corner? What will he say NOW that he would never say any other time? What emotion does he have to control? What can he force to happen now?”
Cinematic characters are innately dramatic. They FORCE confrontation and change because that is part of their restless personality. They drive forward changing their lives and the lives of those around them. Yes, sometimes they back off, but the audience KNOWS they are preparing a new assault, a shift to come at the problem from a different angle. When that extreme assault happens immediately--instead of gradually--the story tension tightens and the audience is drawn into the character’s emotional force. On-screen emotion is absorbed by the attentive audience vicariously living the story. If the character is underplayed or too intellectually guarded instead of vivid, the audience loses empathy. If the character doesn’t care enough to risk the fire, neither will the audience.
Act Three is about the pay-off of all the tension that has come before, every last nuance. The visual energy pops rather than glides. The character realizes the fullest potential of the story moment. Words and wants became action. The action PROVED the value of the character.
Ramping up character intensity from FADE IN to the breath-taking FADE OUT makes for enthralling storytelling.