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How to Write a Script: Push Your Protagonist to the Edge

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig Tags: Brian Klems, online editor blog.

The climax is the ultimate test. The protagonist’s facing his/her ultimate fear, and usually requires a final challenge of the character’s growth or change. A deep understanding of the needs, wants and fears that drive the hero allows for the creation of an “ultimate” test, action or crucial symbolic “graduation” that is the best fit for that particular protagonist, genre and film. Choose wisely.

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Guest column written by Neil Landau, who is co-author of the bestselling 101 Things I Learned in Film School (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). His numerous film and television credits include the cult teen comedy “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead,” and the new 3D animated feature “Tad, The Lost Explorer” (Paramount, 2012) – which just opened #1 at the box office in Spain, and will next premiere in China, France, UK, Russia, and all over the world. In addition to his numerous TV credits, including “Melrose Place,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “The Secret World of Alex Mack,” “Twice in a Lifetime,” MTV’s “Undressed,” plus one-hour drama TV pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, and Lifetime, Neil is also an in-demand script consultant, and worked for Sony Pictures, Freemantle, and Universal; Pictures.  He is currently serving as Executive Producer on several new TV projects, for HBO-Europe and Fox TV Studios. He currently teaches in the MFA in Screenwriting and Producing Programs at both UCLA School of Film & Television (his alma mater), and USC School of Cinematic Arts. Check out his new book, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap: 21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story.

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I believe that all movies are, on some level, coming-of-age stories – no matter the age of the protagonist.  For it is this test that shows us, the audience, if the hero has, in fact, grown.  After the climax, there are usually only one or two scenes of resolution, reaffirming that the hero has really changed, and then the film is over.  Sometimes the change is substantial.  Sometimes the change is almost imperceptible.  What matters most is that we care.

Heighten the climax.

The anticlimactic ending is predictable and lacks dramatic heat.  A potent climax will be surprising and even explosive.  Some touchstones for an effective climax can include making the protagonist:

a) confront the true antagonist;
b) overcome character flaws;
c) come-of-age (a rite of passage);
d) deliver the truth; e) face an ultimate moral dilemma; and
f) emerge as a freer and/or truer self (aka catharsis – more on this below).

In “Jerry Maguire,” Jerry (Tom Cruise) is great at friendship, but terrible at intimacy.  In the climax, he puts himself completely out there for love.  His audience is a bitter group of divorced women.  He tells Dorothy (Renée Zellweger) that she completes him and then waits.  He is emotionally naked, raw and vulnerable.  Will she love him back?

In “127 Hours,” Aron Ralston’s (James Franco) lowest point at the end of act two is when he finally gives up hope and resigns himself to death.  But then he wills himself to live – intentionally snapping the bone in his arm and cutting off his own limb with a small, dull blade.  After he extricates himself, he’s still not home free; Aron must hike back to civilization for medical attention and sustenance. The worst thing that could happen at the climax would be for him to have come this far and still not survive. His subsequent rescue is the resolution. The marvel of this unconventional film is how our expectation of his self-amputation is not even his ultimate test.

In “50/50,” Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), our mid-20’s protagonist gets diagnosed with life-threatening cancer, which he fights through chemotherapy and counseling.  In the end, he finds a deeper connection with his best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), the spark of real love with his mid-20’s therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), and a more grown-up relationship with his mother (Anjelica Huston).  The “worst thing” that could happen after all that growth is for him to die before he has a chance to really live.  The climax is when he says his goodbyes before the potentially deadly surgery, knowing that whether he lives or dies is out of his hands.

In the comedy, “There’s Something About Mary,” Ted (Ben Stiller) has dreamed about Mary (Cameron Diaz) for decades since his unfortunate prom night zipper accident in high school.  Twenty years later, he goes through hell to reconnect with her, they hit it off, and are beginning to fall in love.  The “worst thing” that could happen at this point is that she would find out that he set one or more dangerous “stalkers” loose on her in his quest to find her – and Ted could lose Mary forever.

There is often a difference between the emotional (story) climax and the physical (plot) climax of the movie. 

In “Juno,” the emotional climax occurs when the cynical, too-clever-for-her-own-good Juno (Ellen Page) discovers that Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) are splitting up and not planning to offer her baby the idyllic, two-parent home Juno had hoped for.  This is a major rite of passage for Juno – her loss of innocence.  Juno rushes out of the Loring’s house, gets into her vehicle, and takes off.  The snarky, happy-go-lucky Juno’s bottled-up emotions get the best of her. She pulls over to the side of the road and starts bawling, like a baby.  Her protective, maternal instincts are kicking in – and the ordinarily insouciant Juno feels lost, vulnerable, and scared.  She’s a high school girl and can’t handle all of this right now.  She comes home and reaches out to her meddling stepmom and dad for emotional support and guidance.

On the plot level, the physical climax of the film is when her water breaks and she goes into labor.  This is the highest level of conflict in the plot, but Juno is less vulnerable here because she’s evolved into a more balanced, mature young woman.  And even though she decides to go through with placing the newborn baby up for adoption – with the soon-to-be-single mother, Vanessa – Juno is now ready to admit her true feelings for Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera).  She emerges at the end more authentic.  It’s an unpredictable, bittersweet, and emotionally satisfying ending, offering no easy solutions.  The gravitas of what begins as a superficial response to her pregnancy is impacted by morality, irony, truth and consequences.

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