Reader Question: Should you plot out the Protagonist’s arc or just go with your gut?

Some words of ‘wisdom’ from legendary Hollywood producer Max Millimeter.

A tweet from @CaveDude21:

Do you actually plot out the Protag’s Emotional Arc, or just go with gut?

I’m tempted to go to my default point: There’s no right way to write. Every writer is different. Every story is different. But you know what? I’m going to pull legendary Hollywood movie producer Max Millimeter into this conversation to lend some, shall we say, reality to the conversation.

Okay, first off, I gotta be frank. I hate that word “arc.” You writers throw that around in meetings all the time, arc arc here, arc arc there, here an arc, there an arc, everybody’s got a fucking arc arc.

Know what I think? Writers use that word ‘coz it makes it sound like you got some deep insight into a big fat mystery what a character’s about.

Bull shit! It ain’t rocket science. It’s about who a character is and what they go through. Boom! Easy peasy, let’s get sleezy.

So arc that!

Max Millimeter as a boy.

Now let’s say I got a story. And I got back-to-back meetings with two different writers to see who I’m gonna hire to write said story.

Writer A, she comes in and while she goes on about the Protagonist’s arc, which as I just said drives me a little nutso, at least she’s telling me what I wanna hear: The Protagonist starts out over here being one way, goes through some shit, then ends up over here being another way. The story changes them, they’re like a different person, you know.

Okay, so it’s Writer B’s turn, and he comes in, and let’s say I’m tryin’ to be real nice, meet him on his turf. I say, “So what about the Protagonist’s arc?” And he says, “Well, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that, and instead of laying it out for you, I’ve decided to go with my gut in figuring it out.”

Now, you tell me: Who do you pick for that project, huh? Miss Here-Is-The-Protagonist’s-Arc-All-Laid-Out-Beginning-Middle-And-End or Mister-Go-With-My-Gut-You-Just-Gotta-Trust-Me-And-My-Artsy-Fartsy-Process?

See what I’m saying?

Look, you wanna write a spec script and you decide not to figure shit out before you type FADE IN, be my guest, ‘coz evidently you live in a world full of petunias and ponies, rainbows and ribbons la la la.

But you wanna live in my world, or better yet, work in my world, where it’s deadlines and competition and I need a script yesterday and just bottom the freakin’ line for me, yeah, you better damn well figure out your Protagonist’s arc, or else it’s bye-bye Hollywood, hello Radio Shack.

That still doesn’t mean I like that word ‘arc.’

An additional point: The Protagonist is almost always the single most important character in a story. As their Want defines the shape of the Plotline, the story’s physical journey, so too their Need defines the shape of the Themeline, the story’s psychological journey. It is critical to determine what both of those are for you to be in touch with the structure and soul of the story.

As to the subtext of the question: “Do I have to do the hard work of figuring out the nature of a Protagonist’s metamorphosis in Prep, before I write the script, or can I just type FADE IN and figure it out along the way?” A writer can choose to do anything they want. However I side with Max here: Work through this type of thing in Prep. Face it: You’re either going to figure it out then or figure it out while writing the script. You’re much better off working that out before you type FADE IN so you don’t get lost, frustrated and quit before you get to FADE OUT.

GITS readers, what say ye?

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Reader Question: Should you plot out the Protagonist’s arc or just go with your gut? was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Reader Question: Should Antagonists think they are the Protagonists of their own stories?

Hey, even Bad Guys have mothers!

Reader question from @farrtom via my recent #scriptchat appearance :

Should the antagonist think he’s the protagonist of his own story, or does that make him too relatable?

I provided a brief snippet of a response in the #scriptchat conversation, but there is an important point here worth delving into more thoroughly.

@farrtom: Yes, by all means, the Nemesis / Antagonist should think they are the Protagonist of their story. You know why? Because they are the Protagonist of their own story! Indeed, every character is their own Protagonist. They experience the story universe through their specific senses, their own perspective, and as a result develop their own world view.

So at the very least, you would be wise to spend time when developing your Nemesis character(s) to spend time with them seeing the story universe through their eyes. Sit with them. Talk with them. Experience how they relate to the other characters, what each represents to the Nemesis. The same questions you ask a Protagonist, e.g., What do you want, What do you need, What are you most afraid of, etc, ask of your Nemesis.

What is the value of these exercises? If you immerse yourself in the life of your Nemesis, you are much more likely to craft a multidimensional character, one a script reader may find compelling. And a more complex Nemesis who we can relate to and understand, even if we don’t sympathize with them, becomes a more interesting, engaging one, a more effective character in the context of the narrative, and an appealing figure for actors to want to play.

As to the second part of your question — does that make him too relatable — I suppose there is a risk a writer may so demystify a Nemesis, the character loses some of their power over our imagination. It’s one thing to be dealing with a mysterious Bad Guy/Gal, it’s another if the character has qualities which remind us of our pipsqueak brother. Then again, maybe not.

“I miss my wives.” — Immortan Joe, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

If your Bad Guy/Gal is worthy of being a Nemesis, they won’t be much like your pipsqueak brother at all. The more likely challenge in your work is to make the Nemesis more relatable. Why? Because when a script reader can find something within the Nemesis they can relate to, that shrinks the emotional and psychological distance between the reader and the Nemesis. That character is no longer an IT, rather they become a YOU.

I call this humanizing your Nemesis. It reminds me of that line from a writer I saw somewhere: “Even bad guys have mothers.”

So yes to doing character work with your Nemesis in which you look at the story universe through their eyes as a Protagonist.

And yes to digging into the Nemesis character’s inner life to find dynamics with which script readers and eventually moviegoers can relate.

That path will lead you beyond one-dimensional Bad Guys/Gals… into a world of complex, compelling Antagonist figures.

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[Originally published May 18, 2015]

For more of the Go Into The Story Reader Question series of posts, go here.


Reader Question: Should Antagonists think they are the Protagonists of their own stories? was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium