The Writing Journal #31

A very interesting script crossed my desk this week, which provided a fascinating reminder to me of the importance of an active protagonist in a story. So fascinating, in fact, that I thought it a reminder worth sharing (although, of course, with the details removed for the sake of privacy).

The first half of this particular script knocked it out of the park! From the very first page, it was packed with intrigue and absurdist quirks that constantly kept you guessing about the world you found yourself in. To compliment this, there were massive tonal twists that accomplished the rare feat of being shocking whilst making complete sense (as much as complete sense is possible in an absurdist narrative), meaning that by the half-way point of the script, I was completely engrossed with the story and eager to see how it would end.

Then it all fell flat.

Not necessarily because the story tailed off. The absurdist tone was consistent to the last, and there were some truly shocking, stark action beats in these final pages as well, but when I reached the last page I was completely deflated, and indeed disappointed, by where I’d been left by the story. After such a fantastic set up and premise, I was left to wonder how I could end the script feeling so differently. And then, on further contemplation, it hit me.

I had little investment in the protagonists, because they had been so passive in determining their fate.

Everything else worked. The antagonist was fantastically drawn, with a wonderful blend of low-stakes ambition and high-stakes methods of achieving them that was perfectly suited for an absurdist story, giving the whole story a volatile, unpredictable edge.  The situation that he had created for our protagonists was, again, full of conflict and jeopardy and had, perhaps, the highest stakes any story can ultimately have – do everything I say perfectly, otherwise someone will die. But whilst that sort of situation does create a fascinating tight-rope for our protagonists to walk along, it also leaves them susceptible to being too reactive to the whims set by the antagonist, which is ultimately what went wrong in this script. Everything that happened, including the ending, was decided by the antagonist, with the protagonists doing their best to comply without challenging him in any meaningful way. On a universal level, that plays on our sympathies – it’s easy to understand why you would comply to such demands when the life of a loved one depends on it. But on an individual character level, it didn’t give the audience a personal challenge or conflict to rally behind, which ultimately damaged that direct, emotional attachment to the story and, as a result, made it difficult to care much beyond the surface sympathy for people who find themselves in such a horrific situation.

I still think the script is fantastic on the whole, and there are enough hints in there that, with a little bit of work, it can add some more character-specific conflicts to give the ending the weight it deserves. But as a wider point of screenwriting theory, I have never seen something illustrate quite so clearly the importance of the mantra that a protagonist must be active rather than reactive. It’s also a good reminder about how much can be gained from reading other scripts, produced or otherwise, to help your own writing when you come to put (digital) pen to paper.

I really can’t tell you where May has gone, and it seems ridiculous that we’ll be into June the next time The Writing Journal rolls around. The last few weeks have felt very discombobulated, but hopefully by next week I will have some new goals in sight, ready to plough on into the summer.

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