Film is escapism. Once the lights dim, we retreat from our banal lives and enter the world on the screen. The good ones strap our emotions in for a roller coaster ride. They let us experience joy, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and anticipation, often in under two hours. It’s an invitation to feel.
So, how does a screenwriter offer these emotions to an audience? One way would be to simply say they “feel it.” While experience certainly shapes the telling, there are tools to enhance depth and meaning. A protagonist must have goals. Internal goals are generally a direct representation of the theme. The emotional core and arc of the protagonist relies heavily on these, but the narrative utilizes more moving parts:
Your main throughline (or story “spine”) usually flows from your protagonist’s pursuit of his/her External Goal. The opening and ending of your story and the arc of your protagonist are often dictated by your Theme. The protagonist’s dialogue is often influenced by their skill and misbehavior. The fascinating mystery that the audience hopes will be solved is defined by the Central Dramatic Question. The list goes on. 1
So what separates the good from the bad? Take a look at Casablanca, a film that has survived in our collective conscious for over eight decades now. What kind of film is it? Who is Rick? What does he stand for, if anything? The film’s structure plays with our expectations at every turn…
At best, the film’s diegetic present provides partial and conflicting evidence concerning Rick’s possible future choices. Because other precedents have been overcome, we suspect that Rick’s stalwart “I stick out my neck for nobody” is similarly in jeopardy. When Victor first approaches Rick for help, we see Rick bitterly denying any assistance, seemingly as a vindictive refusal to help the woman who once hurt him. After an appeal from Ilsa, he makes arrangements to deliver both letters of transit to Victor. Meanwhile Rick arranges for Renault to arrest Victor, enabling Rick to leave with Ilsa. Given these mutually exclusive plausible possibilities presented by Rick’s actions, how do we judge among them? How do we interpret events such as Rick’s sale of his club to Ferrari, events that could lead to several different futures? 2
Rick’s a cynical man. First and foremost, that’s the appeal. Think of all the people you know. Even those who are the most optimistic experience moments of cynicism when the world knocks them around. With Rick, what makes Victor’s cause worth sticking his neck out for, if nothing is worthwhile and integrity doesn’t exist? We’ve all been there. We empathize with the man and most of us want to see him to do the right thing. After all, if a man under those pressures can walk away with his integrity in tact, so can we.