Friday, August 12, 2011


I'm working on an analysis of Billie Letts' book WHERE THE HEART IS for my Early Bird Workshop at the annual American Christian Fiction Writers Conference September 22 in St. Louis. Because I use movie clips in my presentations, I will illustrate my analysis of Letts' book with clips from Matt Williams' movie, the screenplay of which was written by the two guys in the picture, Lowell Ganz (left) and Babaloo Mandell (right).  Ganz and Mandell are two of the most sought after writers in Hollywood, with a long list of credits and awards to their names.

In an Ari Esiner article with the writing duo:
Ganz says his earliest writing lesson came from actor Jack Klugman on The Odd Couple TV show. When presented with Ganz's script, Klugman walked up to the writer and promptly shouted in his face, "What do I want?" And there endeth the lesson on the foremost rule of writing for the young television scribe: always have your characters want something. 
In the last month I've reviewed the work of numerous writers (both professional, and students) and this Ganz observation must be one of the most often violated principles of story writing. Characters always need an outward motivation, a physical goal — they must always want something. They don't necessarily NEED what they want, and what they want might be impossible to achieve because of an inner flaw (a psychological vice).... but they must want it. 

AND, the audience or reader must know they want it.

While screening KNIGHT AND DAY, starring Tom Cruise (Roy Miller) and Cameron Diaz (June Havens), I was astonished at how quickly writer Patrick O'Neill and director James Mangold tell the audience what the main characters want... on a number of levels. The movie is one long chase scene, so to keep the plot and the chase interesting, giving depth to the characters, both Roy and June have multiple goals related to different aspects of their lives.

  • Roy's professional goal is to keep the Zephyr battery and its eccentric inventory away from the bad guys.
  • Roy's personal goal is to take a vacation by driving to Cape Horn.
  • Roy's romantic goal is to keep June from harm.
  • Roy's family goal is to be reunited with his parents who think he is dead.
  • June's professional goal is to restore her dad's GTO (she owns a garage back in Boston).
  • June's personal goal is to give the GTO to her sister to keep it in the family.
  • June's romantic goal is to land Roy.
  • June's family goal is to get to her sister's wedding.
Thus, depending on the scene, the audience always has several things to root for. 

Now, why do we root for characters? Why do we want them to get what they want?

Because we like them. 

In narrative theoretical terms, we identify with them. Michael Hauge says there are five ways you, as the writer, can foster likeability in a character:
  1. Make the character sympathetic, the victim of undeserved misfortune.
  2. Put the character in jeopardy. We ID with people we worry about.  Many stories start with an orphan.
  3. Make character likable, kind, goodhearted. They need to be relatable, not likable.
  4. Make characters funny. We like to be with people who make us feel good about ourselves or have the courage to say things we don't.
  5. Make characters powerful, or very good at what they do.

So, do we like Roy Miller and June Havens? Sure. June is undeserved in her misfortune of being tangled up with Roy, and is therefore in great and repeated jeopardy. She's also an orphaned traveler being kicked off her flight. She is goodhearted and kind. She's funny and encouraging. And she's very good at what she does, which we discover as she explains to the TSA agent the tailpipes and carburator in her carry on baggage. It also doesn't hurt that June comes packaged in Cameron Diaz's body,  quirky smile, and damsel in distress persona.

Likewise, Roy seems to have been thrown undeserved misfortune when he is overpowered by both the Federal government and the bad guy cartel. We worry about him, because he's a spy without backup, and later a boy without his mom and dad -- a orphan. He's goodhearted in that he repeatedly protects, selflessly hapless June. His nonchalant way of dispatching bad guys is sarcastic and funny. And he's very good at what he does. Oh, yes, he has a million dollar smile and he's a hunk with sex appeal.

All together these are personas we'd like to hang around with. We wish we had them for friends. So, we root for them and hope they get everything they want. And by the end of the movie it seems they do. Cape Horn sequel anyone? Mom and dad and flying down.


Myra Johnson said...

Hi, Stan! After a thousand-mile move to another state, I'm finally finding time to visit some favorite blogs again. When I noticed the reference to your upcoming ACFW workshop, I had to pop over. REALLY looking forward to meeting and learning from you in person in a few weeks!

"What do I want?" I don't know how many times my agent has drilled that question into my brain while picking apart a character's motivation in a manuscript I sent her. It's a lesson I'm still learning!

See you in September!

Pepper said...

Loved this movie and was amazed at how likeable Roy's character was despite job.

I just ordered the Moral Premise based on recommendations from Natasha Kern and Siri Mitchell.
Can't wait to receive it this week!!