The Hero Project: The Archive

This is where it all began.  I decided to branch out from my Storyteller’s Rulebook pieces and start thinking seriously about story, and charted my thought process in real time.  A lot of this ended up in the book, in a very rewritten form, but a lot of it didn’t.  My favorite one that didn’t: Hitchcock In The Shadowlands

The Hero Project #30: Putting It All Together!

Did you spot it? In yesterday’s post, I pointed out that there was an unacknowledged discrepancy in the “change” and “individuation” arcs that I laid out before. Even though I claimed that these were two different ways of looking at the same events, I actually moved one event… In the “change” arc, I had put the hero’s lowest point at the midpoint of the movie. But in the “individuation” version, I moved the lowest point to the three-quarters mark. You blog readers, who play the role of my therapist, listening to my daily confessions, should have jumped on the discrepancy. Every therapist knows that the big breakthroughs hide inside minor discrepancies…

At the time, I just ignored the difference, even though I should have dug into it and tried to figure out what it was trying to tell me. Did it mean that movies with an earlier “lowest point” were change-movies and those with a late “lowest point” were individuation movies? Or could it mean that the same hero can be on two different simultaneous arcs and will hit two different “lowest points”, one external and one internal? This week’s pieces have unexpectedly forced me to go back and deal with this discrepancy. Because now I think I have the answer. I’m ready to offer an all-new integrated change/individuation arc! Try to contain yourselves!

Yesterday, I considered the possibility that every hero is a Luke (an inherently good person who thinks he’s a failure, then learns to know his own strength) or a Han (a moral failure who thinks he’s a good person, then finds he has to change his ways). But actually, most heroes have aspects of both arcs. Even Luke and Han aren’t all-Luke or all-Han, since they each get more complex over the course of the trilogy. By the third movie, Luke is on a change arc (going from wanting to kill his father to trying to save him) and Han is on an individuation arc (learning to accept and own the heroic, love-smitten role that had grated so badly against his instincts in first two movies)
Considering this, something that superstar writer Simon Kinberg once told me suddenly came back to me. (I think he said that he was quoting someone else, but I don’t remember who.) Simon said that every hero should first be endangered socially, then physically, then spiritually. I realize now that this explains the discrepancy in my multiple lowest points. The midpoint is the hero’s lowest point in terms of safety, but the three-quarters point is their lowest point spiritually! And of course, their social-jeopardy lowest point would be the inciting incident itself! Suddenly, a whole new unified structure appeared to me out of the mist… Behold:
  1. First quarter: We meet a hero who knows what they want but not what they need. They’re clever and responsible about pursuing their short-term goals, but clueless about their own true nature.
  2. Inciting incident: They discover a scary-but-promising opportunity to get what they think they need. This often happens in a humiliating way, increasing their unhappiness with their social situation.
  3. Second quarter: They pursue this goal the easy way and have some fun doing it. It looks like they’re going to get a lot of gain for a little work.
  4. Midpoint crisis: Everything comes crashing down. They lose their place of safety. They realize that they stand to lose more than they every hoped to gain, but it’s too late to go back now…
  5. Third quarter: They start over, doing it the hard way, and begin to make real progress, but this progress ironically makes the task even more personally painful, due to both external and internal consequences that it brings about for them.
  6. Spiritual crisis: As a result of their hard work, the hero finally confronts what they haven’t wanted to admit about themselves (either an inner strength which they finally accept or an inner flaw which they finally reject)
  7. Final quarter: adding their newfound inner breakthrough to the external progress they’ve been making since the midpoint, the hero resolves their problem in a way that gets them what they need, without necessarily getting them what they originally wanted.

Okay, Let’s try it on Luke…
  1. We first meet Luke as a frustrated farmer who wants to be a rebel pilot.
  2. Inciting incident: He gets yelled at for purchasing a droid that keeps trying to run away and join the rebellion (exposing Luke’s own inner desire to do the same). Luke tries to solve R2’s problem…
  3. This leads him to Obi Wan, who tells him about his greater destiny. He waffles on this, until the empire makes the decision for him…
  4. Midpoint crisis: Luke realizes his waffling has had horrible consequences: Dallying with rebels has been enough to get his whole family killed, even though he hasn’t really helped the rebellion at all yet. He commits fully.
  5. In the third quarter, Obi Wan teaches him to use the force and become a hero.
  6. Spiritual crisis: Obi Wan is killed, sending him back to his original goal, become a pilot for the rebellion.
  7. In the final battle, he hears (imagines?) Obi Wan’s voice telling him to use his inborn skills, not try to be like the other pilots. He does so and saves everybody.
Let’s try it on Han (Han is only in the second half, so everything is foreshortened):
  1. Han is hiding out in a wretched bar after screwing up his last job. He gets a huge opportunity to do a sketchy job that will get him the money and maybe even a hot chick.
  2. Inciting incident: While he’s deciding to take it, a bounty hunter comes to kill him but Han shoots first (got that?), forcing him to commit…
  3. In this shortened arc, we get only a brief period of things going well. His new clients turn out to be honorable guys and he impresses them with his lightspeed piloting, but…
  4. Midpoint crisis: He loses his beloved ship to the empire and finds himself flushed down the garbage chute surrounded by enemies. Even the girl is unimpressed with him.
  5. In the third quarter, he fights back, gets his ship back, impresses the girl, and even gets paid!
  6. Spiritual crisis: He tells his new friends that he’s off to pay off his creditor even though this is just when they need him most. Luke tells him “Take care of yourself, Han. I guess that’s what you’re best at, isn’t it?” Han feels humiliated. He realizes, but won’t admit, that he’s always wanted the wrong things in life.
  7. He leaves but, at the last second, comes back and saves everybody, no matter what the personal consequences.
This works! The same structure can describe both change and individuation! This is rock solid, baby! This changes everything. Now I want to go back to every movie I’ve ever seen and re-map them onto this new paradigm. Or… even better, write some great movies that use it!

The Hero Project #29: Is Every Hero A Luke Or A Han?

So I spent all this time asking whether Luke really had to change or merely accept himself, (and if it’s the latter, then what does that do to the Hero’s Journey?), but all this time I’ve been ignoring the fact that Luke is hardly the only portrait of heroism we get in Star Wars. What about Han? There’s a guy who really needs to change. What can we learn about alternate versions of heroism by looking at his arc?

Think of the end of the movie. Luke ends up attacking the empire, which is exactly what he wanted in the beginning, though he never thought he would get there. Even when he’s there, he thinks he has to succeed by being like the others, until Obi Wan tells him he can only succeed by using his unique, inner strength. Han, meanwhile, also shows up at the end to attack the Death Star, but this is the last place he wanted to end up when we met him. He still refuses to do it until the last minute, and with good reason. He’s just gotten paid off and he needs to go get a bounty off his head, but suddenly that goal pales in comparison to the new, unfamiliar feelings of heroism that seize him. As we’ll see in the next movie, he has indeed lost his last chance to pay Jabba back, but in this movie it’s worth it, because he now values his friends more than his own skin.

When we meet him, Luke is a great person who thinks, incorrectly, that he’s a failure (because he didn’t go off to join the rebellion with his friends). Instead, he discovers, ironically, that the rebellion needs his farm skills (shooting at womprats) more than any skills he would have learned at pilot school. Han is the opposite. Han starts off as a failure who thinks, incorrectly, that he’s a great person. He needs to develop self-doubts so that he can become a hero by doing the opposite of his instincts. Both journeys make for strong stories. Overlaying the two journeys on top of each other was genius.

I am nothing if not a fan of easy dichotomies, so this leads me to ask a big question: Is every hero a Luke or a Han? If the hero starts out with low self-esteem, does he need to discover that he’s been wrong to doubt himself—and vice versa, if the character starts out with high self-esteem, does he need to discover that he’s been wrong to value himself so much? Maybe this is one reason why some of my heroes have been underwhelming! The problem was not so much that they were Worst Possible Picks, but that I was writing about heroes with low self-esteem who tried to achieve success by doubting themselves even more. But that’s a journey that lacks irony. Audiences love irony: they like the lowly to be wrong about themselves and those with swagger to be wrong about themselves.

Or can the two separate ideas exist within the same journey? In my original post about change and individuation arcs, there was a blatant discrepancy between the two structures, though I ignored it at the time. (Can you spot it?) Suddenly, this discrepancy is resolving itself… A new unified structure is dawning in my mind… Come back tomorrow!


The Hero Project #28: The Monster At The End Of This Book

So there’s all sorts of reasons why a hero could get plunged into despair right before the climax, despite all the progress they’ve made. Yesterday we looked at those inconvenient revelations where the hero discovers that someone very close them is the source of the evil, making them wish they’d never started this investigation. But ever since Sophocles, there’s been one source of villainy that’s guaranteed to cause even more pain to the hero: when the hero finds out that the monster at the end of the book is way too familiar-looking.

Oedipus was unable to forgive himself, gouged his own eyes out and went to live as a hermit. Grover, on the other hand, found the whole situation to be quite groovy. Most hero/villains are somewhere in between. Dana Andrews in Where the Sidewalk Ends thinks that all of his own sins will be forgiven if he can just catch the big gangster, and he’s right, but then he discovers to his chagrin that he can’t accept getting away with it, so he suddenly confesses his murder. Michael Clayton, on the other hand, realizes that he’s crooked (“I’m the guy you buy off!”) just in time to turn himself around.

Many romantic comedies end this way. In idiotic movies like 40 Days and 40 Nights or How To Lose A Guy In Ten Dates, the hero realizes that the thing standing in the way of true love is the arbitrary anti-true-love rule they adopted at the beginning of the movie. Well, duh. In better movies like Annie Hall or (500) Days of Summer the hero stops blaming everybody else and starts blaming himself for his romantic delusions, no matter how painful that is.

But to a certain extent, this should happen in all stories, to all characters. In real life we often believe that we can’t better our lives (get a better job, find a spouse, deal with injustices) because, if we were to try, there would be external forces that would knock us back down. But on those occasions when some inciting incident forces us to get off our ass and try it, we discover that, even after all the obstacles are cleared, we’re still unwilling to change our lives or the world. It’s horrible to discover that you were merely using external obstacles to justify your own mental paralysis. Now that you’ve cleared your excuses away, you have to face the last enemy: your own wretchedness. This is a big part of any story, and one of the hardest parts to write.

At the conclusion of the initial run of the Hero Project, I wondered if quests were really about the hero’s need to change himself (ala Freud), or acknowledge his already existing power (ala Jung). Scott Myers calls this the difference between change and individuation. In my original summation, I showed how Luke’s journey in Star Wars could be seen either way. But though Luke may not actually have to change, he’s got a co-protagonist who certainly does. What about Han? Let’s go there tomorrow…


The Hero Project #27: Inconvenient Revelations

So we’re searching for solutions to a paradox: how can the hero make a lot of real progress and yet somehow reach his lowest point right before he triumphs? We talked about the worst version -his progress was all illusory- and a somewhat better version –his progress gets someone close to him killed. But neither of these extreme solutions is necessary. After all, this isn’t just some arbitrary rule that storytellers impose on themselves. It’s true of real life. Haven’t you heard-- It’s always darkest before the dawn. Why is that? Usually because the truth sucks.

Heroes are investigators. They turn over rocks, exposing worms, but sometimes they find that they can’t root out those worms without undermining their own foundations, at least temporarily. Sometimes, they find out that someone close to them is a traitor (L.A. Confidential, The Matrix), maybe even their love interest (The Sting, The Verdict) Even worse is when it turns out to be a parent, because then they realize that they have the same evil DNA inside them.

Luke Skywalker has an arc in each Star Wars movie, but he also has a big arc over the whole trilogy and his lowest point is obviously when he finds out that Darth Vader is his father. This ruins his adventure, takes all the fun out of his quest, and makes him doubt his own destiny, but ultimately, it provides him with the crucial information he needs to defeat the empire and become a better jedi.

Even more shattering is the realization Dennis Christopher has in Breaking Away. His father runs a used car lot and rips off the local college kids. Christopher rejects his family and chooses to idolize Italian bike racers instead. His dad tries to break him of this mania and forces him to take a job on the lot. One day, some kids his dad ripped off try to return their car and Christopher naively gives them their money back. His father tries to physically block them from pushing the dead car back onto the lot, almost killing himself with a heart attack. Christopher runs off to join a race with his Italian idols, but they betray him too, cheating and running him off the road.

Christopher returns home tearfully to his dad and bitterly laments, “Everybody cheats. I just didn’t know.” He can no longer hide behind the imaginary heroism of the Italians, which means he must accept his father’s wickedness. It’s just about one of the most devastating moments in any movie I’ve seen. But it’s not really a step backward. Christopher is moving forward. This gives him the strength he needs to fix his life and his family, even though it’s incredibly painful.

But there’s another type of lowest point that’s even lower than facing the villainy of a loved one: when you realize the villain is even closer at hand. We’ll get to that tomorrow…


The Hero Project #26: Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me

When last we left off, way back in October, I was talking about the ways that writers sacrifice likability in the hopes of boosting motivation or conflict. For instance, I pointed out movies in which the hero suddenly learns, 2/3 of the way in, that everything they’ve done has all been according to the villain’s plan. What a reversal! Unfortunately, this jacks up the conflict at the expense of making your hero look like an idiot. It’s unsatisfying. But the fact remains that, while no two guidebooks agree on what every beat of a proper story structure looks like, they all state firmly that your hero should suddenly be plummeted down to their lowest point somewhere between halfway-to-3/4-of-the way through.

So what if your hero isn’t an big dupe? What if they’ve been tackling their problem with pluck and verve, cleverly making real progress the whole way? Shouldn’t they be making their way up the mountain? How can a steady progress of heroic action paradoxically result in a reversal where it feels like they’ve lost everything? We’ve examined the bad version: it was all the bad guy’s plan and all the hero’s progress was false. But what’s the good version? This is what I’ve been thinking about during the long snowy months of the Hero Project’s hibernation...

The simplest way, of course, is to have the hero’s positive actions unexpectedly result in a very negative result: their partner or loved one gets killed by the antagonist. This way, your hero’s action weren’t misdirected or for naught, but they caused a more dire reaction than they could have anticipated. They can still continue from where they left off, but first they have to do some soul searching and decide if the whole thing was worth it. See The Untouchables or Basic Instinct or Dark Knight or a million others.

Of course, that question gets much trickier if the person who gets killed is the only person they were trying to save. Movies like Man on Fire will sometimes try to switch gears on the viewer, going from hopeful rescue thriller to grim grindhouse revenge flick in an instant. It’s not a fatal decision for all audiences, but it is a hard sell.

Even more problematic are those movies where, in the end, the moral calculus just doesn’t add up anymore. Martin Campbell is my favorite action director, and I’ve always wanted to see a good mountaineering thriller, so I had high hopes for Vertical Limit, but it just didn’t work (and not just because they cast Chris O’Donnell): Four people are stranded on a mountain. Six people set off to rescue them before a storm comes. By the time the movie’s over, only one of the rescuers survives, and he only manages to rescue one of the people who was stranded. Yay? If this had been a grim survival drama, maybe that would work, but that was supposed to be a stand up and cheer ending! In the end, the audience doesn’t want to feel that everybody would have been better off if the heroes had just stayed home!

Ultimately, this is a fairly unfulfilling way to knock your hero down before he triumphs. What are some more satisfying reversals? Our next two have one simple phrase in common: The truth hurts. We’ll look at those next…


The Hero Project #25: Two Villains, Two Heroines, One Good Movie

One final Hero Project essay has spilled over from last week…
Of course, it’s hard to compare the plot twists of different movies made in different times with different concepts. If only there were a way to scientifically study the effect of good or bad plot twists in a pure environment, eliminating all other differences… Oh wait, there is! Here are two movies made the same year with very similar stories. One had an underwhelming twist, but the other pulled it off very neatly. 

2005 saw not one but two movies about confident career women who board overnight flights only to find themselves the target of an international super-criminal. In both cases, he has been watching her for weeks, hoping that, by endangering one of her family members, he can force her to help him with a bomb plot. The part of Goofus in this pairing is played by Flightplan. In this pseudo-remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Jodie Foster goes to sleep on an international flight and wakes up to find that her daughter has disappeared. The one friendly face who helps her out is a flight marshal played by Peter Sarsgaard, but, of course, he turns out to be the bad guy—after she runs around in a panic for a while, he tells everyone one else that she’s a hijacker and they have to pay her off. He doesn’t let her in on the plan, and she doesn’t know that he’s framed her, which keeps too far behind the audience for way too long.
Ultimately, this is another situation like Total Recall, where we discover that all or our hero’s clever actions were totally predicted by the villain, weeks in advance, and everything she’s done has merely fulfilled his plan. But for the life of me I can’t spot the moment in which his plan falls apart. She finally realizes that everybody else is speaking to her as if she’s the terrorist and so she demands that everybody but Sarsgaard get off the plane. This hardly gives her the upper hand, but it seems to baffle him, and while he thinks about it, she whaps him in the head with a fire extinguisher. Then they chase each other around the plane until he dies.
Jodie Foster is hardly the worst possible pick to be the heroine. In fact, she designed the plane, but that knowledge doesn’t seem to be either the cause or the solution to her problem, as far as I could tell. When she should be succeeding due to those special skills, she instead relies on blind luck or predictable reactions. We never know why she was chosen to be the target of this elaborate plot or what unpredictable personality trait allowed her to get out of the trap. And there’s certainly no “Wrong Person to Pick On” moment.
Goofus did everything wrong, but, as usual, Gallant got it right. I’ve already written up Red Eye as an Underrated Movie. As you may recall, Rachel McAdams is a hotel concierge who rushes through an airport while chatting on the phone with her overprotective dad (Brian Cox). Though she’s coy, she slowly gets to know her cute-guy seatmate (Cillian Murphy), who claims to know women so well that he can guess everything she’ll do, which, despite herself, she finds charming… But it soon turns sinister: as soon as they take off, he admits that he’s been watching her for weeks and he’ll have his men kill her dad if she doesn’t call her hotel and help him arrange an assassination.
McAdams tries a number of clever stalling tactics but eventually it all comes down to a final do-or-die moment. All along, he keeps reminding her that he knows everything about her from watching her. But she has a secret. And this secret doesn’t come out of nowhere, either—it sheds new light on everything we’ve seen so far (over-protective father, wariness about flirting)… Her secret is very simple: She’s been the victim of random violence before, and she promised herself that next time she would fight back. That’s it. 

As hidden qualities go, it’s not much, --it’s not like she’s secretly a navy SEAL-- but it’s enough. We see the moment Murphy realizes that he’s misjudged her, that she had something he couldn’t see from afar. This was the wrong person to pick on. It’s a nice moment, because it works on many levels—it’s a plot turn and a character reveal and a theme moment. It foils the villain’s plan but it also refutes his worldview—he has contempt for who she is and what she is (a successful young woman) but he learns the hard way not to make easy assumptions about his targets.
Anybody can become a hero, but they can’t become a hero by doing what anybody would do. They have to succeed because of something unique about them, not just because you put them up in a tree and threw rocks at them.

The Hero Project #24: He Knew You Were Going To Do That!

All this week, I’ve been talking about the false allure of a certain type of plot twist—those moments that jack up the conflict and intensify the main character’s motivation, but actually harm the movie by making both the hero and the villain weaker. One version of this twist is a particular pet peeve of mine…

I call it the “everything the hero has done is actually part of the villain’s plan” moment. I mentioned before that I always want to send a shiver of dread up the script-reader’s spine and pull the rug out from my characters with a big reversal. Well there’s no bigger reversal, I’ll admit, and it’s an undeniably chilling moment: All the heroic actions we’ve been cheering for are suddenly undone! Even worse, they’ve all been exactly what the bad guy wanted to happen! All of the clever things that the hero has done turn out to be totally predictable—the villain obviously knew in advance everything the hero was going to do. In fact, they were counting on it!

But these moments are risky. Not only do they weaken the hero, but they’re often very hard to believe. You start thinking back through the movie and trying to imagine how the villain could have guessed the hero’s every move. And they cause another problem as well: if the villain really planned this far in advance and predicted everything, then they must be a super-duper-genius! So how will they ever lose? Their plan so far has been utterly brilliant, so if it falls apart now, it had better be for a very good reason.

And that’s where these moments always fall short. So far the hero has done nothing but blunder into the villain’s elaborate trap. They’ve been ten steps behind. Now they need do something so brilliant that they instantly leap eleven steps ahead. But, inevitably, the hero gets out of it by doing something utterly obvious. The same villain who predicted their every move up until this point fails to realize that they’ll fight back after the big reveal.

I first noticed this problem in Total Recall. Nice guy Arnold Schwarzenegger goes to Mars and winds up leading the mutant revolutionaries against the big bad corporate overlord (Ronny Cox). But at the last moment our hero gets the mutant leader killed and gets himself captured. Then he finds out that his whole revolution was all part of Cox’s plan. Even worse, Cox’s partner was Schwarzenegger himself—he’s actually a bad guy who has had a false heroic personality implanted in his brain in order to infiltrate the good guys! Twist!

Cox successfully set this all up over the course of “a year’s planning” and the heroic version of Schwarzenegger, unaware that he’s actually a bad guy, walked right into the trap! Now all Cox has to do is restore Schwarzenegger’s evil personality. So he straps Schwarzenegger into the “re-evil yourself” machine, kicking and screaming the whole way. Cox cackles for a while and then leaves the room...

What could go wrong now?? What’s the one thing Cox didn’t count on? Well… nothing much. Schwarzenegger keeps struggling and gets his arm free. That’s what goes wrong. Cox guessed his every move a year in advance, but it never occurred to him that Schwarzenegger might try that. Cox just went from world’s smartest villain to world’s dumbest villain in about two minutes!

Okay, this is getting a little long, so we’ll push the big conclusion back to next week. Twist!

The Hero Project #23: Why Do They Fail?

If you want to write a big, exciting story, then you need a big, exciting problem. Your hero isn’t just in a bad situation, he’s in a bad situation from hell. The villain has all the cards! Our beleaguered hero seems to be at his lowest point, but at the last possible moment: victory! Why? What changes? So many times in movies, the villain’s plan falls apart without a good reason.

If your story has a villain who is clearly improvising, then we might forgive them if their plan has some holes. But if your story is about a villain who has spent weeks (or longer) laying a trap for your hero, then we are going to hold them to a higher standard. And if your villain describes their entire plan to the hero, then it should really be foolproof. There has to be a good reason for them to confess everything and we have to understand why they thought that this wouldn’t mess up their plan.

For examples, let’s go back to two thrillers I’ve already picked on before:

In Collateral, hit man Tom Cruise gets driven around by cab driver Jamie Foxx. When one of Cruise’s victims falls out a window onto Foxx’s hood, Cruise has to try to win Foxx over to the dark side. I’ll cut this one some slack because Cruise is clearly improvising. Still, why did he think that Foxx would go along with it? And shouldn’t he have figured out that you don’t want to threaten a guy and then leave him sitting in his cab to think it over?

Training Day is a far more ludicrous example. Bad cop Denzel Washington spends the first half of the movie trying to corrupt a rookie played by Ethan Hawke. Hawke doesn’t go for it. Then Washington reveals his real plan: he wants to frame Hawke for all of his crimes. Okay… why tell him that? It makes for a big dramatic “raise the stakes” scene, sure, but it hardly helps him with his plan. And why is he surprised that Hawke fights back? Wouldn’t anyone? Maybe if Hawke had had a history of corruption himself, and today was the one day he unexpectedly decided to be a good cop… but no. This is a classic example of a plot twist that gives the hero more conflict and more motivation in the short run, but ultimately makes both the villain and the hero look weak.

Both movies lack that “this was the wrong person to pick on” moment. The hero just muddles through. It’s no accident that they both attracted a big-money star to play the villain and a smaller star to play the hero. The villain gets to run rings around the hero until the very end.

Nevertheless, both of those movies were nominated for Oscars, so what do I know? Here’s a movie that wasn’t nominated for an Oscar: the Steven Seagal vehicle Under Siege. Nevertheless this one makes a lot more sense. Tommy Lee Jones has planned his villainy down to the last detail, because he wants to highjack a battleship filled with Navy SEALs! That’s a big goal! Unlike Cruise and Washington, Jones has done his homework and thought of everything. He successfully disarms all the SEALs and locks them up. But there’s one thing he hasn’t counted on: the cook has a secret history. He used to be the toughest commando of them all before he got busted down to the kitchen. It’s understandable why Jones didn’t think of that. It’s his bad luck that he ended up a hero who happened to be the wrong person to pick on.

Tommorow we’ll look at the riskiest way of all to escalate conflict...


The Hero Project #22: The Wrong Person to Pick On

I pick my heroes a lot more carefully than I used to. I now sit down before I start writing and I go through my checklist. I give them a brief chance to stand proud before I start pushing them around. But, as I explained before, their strength leaches away as I write. When they won’t do what I want them to do, I respond by simplifying their motiviation. The easiest way to do that is to make them less proactive and more reactive. And whenever the script hits a dead spot, I amp up the conflict by giving the villain a bigger advantage over the hero. It’s hard to make the villain stronger (they still have to be defeated, after all) so I make the hero weaker. By the end of the first draft, I’m left with a limp noodle for a main character.

Here’s the problem: I never really wanted to make people cheer. Just the opposite: I always want to send a shiver of dread up a reader's spine, or to make them blush with furious indignation at unfair treatment, or to yank the carpet from under their feet with a shocking reversal of fortune. Whether I’m writing a bio-pic or a thriller or a comedy, I love to put my hero and my audience through the wringer.

Making an audience feel is great, but it becomes a problem when all they feel is pity. Nobody ever said: “I just saw a great movie, the hero was totally pitiful! I hope he comes back for a sequel!” The audience wants to invest emotion in a hero, and they only invest if they can expect a satisfying pay-off. To get that investment, you have to write about the person they would pick to be the hero, the person that they would choose to root for.

I had the wrong idea that the best way to amp up the conflict is to maximize the challenge to the hero. But then I figured it out: You’re supposed to maximize the conflict for the villain. This changes everything.

Take Die Hard. A building full of bankers is taken hostage by a terrorist (Hans), but there’s one off-duty cop in the building (John) who has just happens to be there to reconcile with his ex-wife (Holly). Who should we choose for our hero? John doesn’t actually have the maximum amount of conflict, does he? He’s having a bad day, sure, but the bankers are all having a worse day-- They’ve never even fired a gun before! If the goal was to pick a hero with the maximum amount of conflict, why not force one of them to save the day? What if John hadn’t been there visiting Holly that day? What if she had brought her kids to the party instead, and now she was the one person who was free to act? That’s a pretty exciting movie! A forty-something mom in a business suit has to crawl around in airducts and rescue her kids? Maximum conflict! Huge motivation! Lots of dread! Lots of tension!

But in that case, more conflict would have meant less excitement. Here’s the problem: if Bonnie, with no training and no experience, could take out Hans, then we would suspect that anybody could take out Hans. Ironically, we would feel less tension, not more, with every moment she remained free, because this whole plan would start to seem half-baked. After all, Hans knew that the building would be full of bankers. At the very least, his plan should be banker-proof!

The writers didn’t start out by asking “how do we maximize conflict for our hero?” They asked “How do we maximize conflict for our villain?” Hans drives the movie, and the audience secretly loves him, and he has a great plan. But then a terrible thing happens to him. Something he never could have prepared for: our hero. This was another a-ha moment: The hero needs to be the wrong person to pick on. Let’s pick up there tomorrow.