Sable Jak is a former actress and dancer and has, like so many other writers, been writing ever since she can remember. She works and writes for Jim French Productions, Inc., is an audio dramatist, a columnist with Absolute Write, has radio mysteries running on Virtually American, and is the author of Writing the Fantasy Film: Heroes and Journeys in Alternate Realities. Follow Sable on Twitter @srjak and check out her site.
I don't know a screenwriter, produced or not produced, who has not been asked my least favorite question: "How do you write a hit movie?" Sheesh. If I had the answer to that I'd be holed up in a cottage on the Welsh coastline writing like crazy and coming home only for my Hit Movie premieres. I tried to explain to someone once that you don't write hit movies, you "just write from the heart and the rest follows."
I know, it sounds like a cliche.
But, "write from the heart" is good advice. The problem is: What does it mean? What IS heart? What makes one movie have heart and another not? As I have never written a Hit Movie, I can only make an observation on those hits that I've seen and how I perceive their "heart."
The following is what I managed to glean from Die Hard by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. De Souza and Moonstruck by John Patrick Shanley.
Please know, I decided to ignore the many different subplots in the stories and concentrated only on the hero/heroine's goals. Here's what I came up with:
On first examination, the hero's goal in Die Hard is to save his wife. The idea of saving a loved one has been used so often it's beyond cliche and, in a bad storyteller's hands, is deadly. Why? Because the bad storyteller never goes beyond that level. Fortunately Die Hard digs deeper to show that if the hero saves his wife, he has a chance to save his marriage. Okay, that's an old ploy, too. But a third level is added. The hero (at least how I saw him) is at a crossroads in his life and he's not happy with where he is, or where he thinks he's going. We see, early on, that his marriage and his wife are important parts of his "self." Therefore, if he saves his wife and his marriage, he also saves himself.
As the majority of us have loved ones who helped mold us into who, and what, we are (our "self"), we can all relate to the hero in Die Hard.
In Moonstruck, the heroine is settling for a safe and logical marriage. She's not thrilled with it, but it beats being alone, so she thinks. What her real heart's desire is, is romantic love. She demonstrates that when she dyes her hair and buys a red dress and killer shoes to go out with a new man. Sure, she has feelings for the man she's agreed to marry, but they're not heart stopping-break-into-song-dance-a-jig-whirl-around-until-you-barf-with-joy feelings. Who among us hasn't imagined what it would be like to be that wildly in love? The audience has no problem relating to the heroine.
I'm sure there are many different analyses of Die Hard and Moonstruck and why they were so appealing to audiences. For me, one individual viewer, the explanations I've given are the ones that touched my heart the most. The hero and heroine are just people, like me, or you. They have their loves, sadnesses, compromises and points of no return where they are forced to make the best decision they can for themselves. They, and their stories, show me a side of myself I hope exists and will be there when I, too, reach my point of no return. This is the heart of the story that touches me.
So how do you write a story that will appeal to an audience member's heart? You write one that will appeal to your own.
Keep writing, no one else will do it for you.
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