TWO STORIES ARE BETTER THAN ONE
by David Trottier
Originally appeared in Creative Screenwriting
Involving producers emotionally with your story is one way to involve them financially. And the best stories are actually two stories in one. The first is the outside/action story and the second is the inside/emotional story. To fully appreciate how these two work together and crisscross, we must first understand the motivating element that underlies each.
Goals and Needs
Crucial to any drama or comedy is your central character's goal. The goal is what your character outwardly strives for, what she actively tries to acquire or achieve. The goal is something tangible or easily visualized. "To be happy" is not a goal. It is too vague. "To cope with life" is not a goal. "To go 15 rounds with the Heavyweight Champion of the World" is a goal.
In addition to the goal, your character may have an inner need. The need is what the character inwardly yearns for, what he needs in life to be happy and fulfilled. Often, the character is not fully aware of this need until the crisis of the story forces it into full consciousness. Even if the central character is aware of the need, she is not actively striving to fill it.
For any story to work, there must be an opposition. The outside goal is opposed by someone or something outside the central character. In other words, there is an opposition character trying to stop the central character from achieving the goal.
The inner need, as you might guess, is opposed from the inside. This opposition comes in the form of a flaw. The flaw blocks the character from the need. If the flaw can be overcome, then the need will be filled.
Two Stories in One
In ROMANCING THE STONE, Kathleen Turner has a very definite goal. She wants to recover the stone to save her sister from the kidnappers. This goal drives the outside/action story. To insure conflict to the end, four other characters want the same stone for different reasons.
What does Kathleen Turner need to be happy and fulfilled? She needs romance. This need drives the inside/emotional story (sometimes referred to as the emotional through-line). Well then, if she needs romance, what's stopping her from finding it? Her flaw stops her. She won't try. Even her closest friend (her editor) can't get her to show an interest in men. She just stays home with her cat and writes novels about her underlying need--romance.
The Real Story
But she finds romance! How? By striving for the goal. Through her efforts to save her sister she inadvertently finds the love she needs. Keep in mind that Kathleen Turner is not trying to find romance. She is not striving for a relationship with Michael Douglas. And yet, it's her relationship with Michael Douglas that lies at the heart of the screenplay. It's that relationship in connection with Kathleen Turner's need that touches us as an audience. That connection is the emotional touchstone the writer has with her audience. Like all good subtext, it's what's really going on underneath the action. It's the real story--Kathleen Turner finding romance.
The outside/action story is exciting. It keeps us interesting in what's going on. But the inside/emotional story gets us emotionally involved. That's why I call the inside story the real story. Despite the importance of the inside story, remember that it is dependent on a well-structured outside story to give it movement. In other words, the outside/action story gives the inside/emotional story a track to roll on.
Danny DeVito wants $5 million. That's his goal. He needs the love of a family, of a brother. The flaw blocking this need is his selfishness--he was abandoned by his mother and now he's going to make sure he nails everyone before they nail him. There doesn't seem to be a way for his brother to break through this defense and give DeVito what he truly needs.
At the crisis point, DeVito already has his $5 million in hand, but someone holds a gun on his brother. Although not revealed through dialogue until a later scene, this is the moment where it enters DeVito's consciousness that he needs his brother more than he wants the money. The goal and the need now directly oppose each other. Danny must choose. He returns the money to the gangster, thus overcoming his selfish, greedy flaw.
In the end, he gets what he needs to be happy (his brother and his mother) and a couple of million bucks besides. The real story, of course, is Danny DeVito finding his family and his true self.
The Love Interest
We often read and hear of the importance of a love interest in a screenplay, but the best inside story runs deeper than that. The love interest often represents an inner desire for some basic human need--love, self-respect--that is blocked by some basic flaw--selfishness, pride, or greed.
In some movies, however, the central character has a goal but no need. James Bond doesn't have a need. He simply accomplishes his mission. He's a super hero who doesn't grow and that's the nature of that genre. The same is true of many action/adventures, thrillers, and horror movies. I admired DIE HARD because the attempt was made to give Bruce Willis a need along with his powerful goal. That need had to do with improving his relationship with his wife.
As you can see from the above examples, the need relates directly to the character's potential for change. The more character-driven the screenplay, the more important the need and flaw become. At the heart of the inside story is a relationship.
Common Problems That Are Really Solutions
In a great many scripts that cross my desk, the central character's apparent goal is happiness or coping with life or trying to improve a self image. These are not good movie goals, but they are a place to begin in planning your story.
Ask yourself: What could my character be specifically doing to find happiness? (A thoughtful moment may reveal a goal suggested by those actions.) On the other hand, it may be that the goal, whatever it is, will not help your character find happiness. Instead, it (the goal) may be a manifestation of a character flaw or moral lack that must change in order to find true happiness. (A thoughtful moment may reveal an inner need hiding in that non-productive goal.)
Some writers like to start with the character's flaw or need in building their stories. Dustin Hoffman (KRAMER VS. KRAMER) needs to be a good father and love his son. How does he actively attempt to fill that need? By seeking custody--and that, of course, becomes his outside goal. In the end, he will choose between the goal and the need. He will decide against putting his son on the witness stand because it could destroy him. Instead, he'll give up custody (give up his goal) to truly demonstrate that he has become a loving father.
If Dustin Hoffman's inner need is to become a father, what is blocking him from achieving that? It is his flaw or moral lack. In his case, this flaw is manifest as a form of selfishness. Character growth is generally the process of a character overcoming this flaw by facing adversity in striving for the goal. But where does this flaw come from?
The flaw or moral lack usually exists because something traumatic happened to the character before the movie began. This event or series of events continue to bother the character and motivate the flaw. The past event is called the back story.
In ORDINARY PEOPLE, two brothers go boating on a lake in a storm. The boat is capsized. Buck drowns, Conrad survives, but blames himself for Buck's death. Conrad tries to kill himself. This is the back story that gives rise to his flaw of trying to control his emotions so he doesn't have to feel. But he needs to feel and not blame himself.
In TWINS, the back story is DeVito's mother's abandonment of himself as a baby. Now he thinks he's genetic garbage. In the end, he realizes his goodness. In ROMANCING THE STONE and KRAMER VS. KRAMER, the back story is not apparent. That's fine--every story has its own way of unfolding.
In FOUL PLAY--and many other romantic comedies--the central character was burned by a previous love and is afraid to get close to anyone again. This is the flaw blocking the need to love again.
Another benefit of integrating a good back story into your script is that it gives your character a past and makes him more believable and sympathetic to your audience.
Remember in developing your screenplay, to focus on the outside story as well as the inside story. The two together are like a one-two punch that stands a better chance of knocking out your reader and landing a deal.