Paul Peditto examines famous movies with great character arcs to explore where the character arc begins, where does the character change, and where does he/she end up by the end of the story.
Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago and has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
Let's examine some famous movies with great character arcs. I point these out not to say that the characters in each of your scripts must make such journeys, only that you should define the journey. This is a variation of the David Mamet 3-Act structural system of the same name. Where does the character arc begin (Point A/ORDER), where does the character change (chaos), and where does he/she end (Point Z-Reorder). You want an ending that feels inevitable, but also surprising – defined by action that would never have happened at the top of the movie.
Let’s look at some examples…SPOILERS apply!
Richard Gere plays a wheeler-dealer multimillionaire who tires of Vogue models and decides to pick up a streetwalker (sure, I buy that!) who happens to be Julia Roberts (Buy that too! All street walkers look like Julia Roberts) What follows has followed since the time of Pompeii and Herculaneum. They go back to his place for martinis, a romp in the mud bath, the cash left on the bed, etcetera. Only…
There’s a complication. Julia Roberts being Julia Roberts, she’s just so damn quirky, charming, and smoking hot…multimillionaire Gere falls for her! The mixture of bourgeois and proletariat is a strict no-no in Gere’s social circle and Roberts causes quite the commotion at the Polo Club. Her identity is revealed, causing even greater ripples of scandal among the bon-vivant crowd. The idea of Gere cavorting with a common prostitute is an outrage. Gere’s lawyer does everything he can to break them apart and appears to succeed. But…
Love triumphs in the end! Julia Roberts being Julia Roberts, no way Gere lets her walk away. The multimillionaire and the prostitute will marry! The chances at the top of the movie (Point A) that Richard Gere ends up marrying a street prostitute are not great, yet here we are at the end of the movie(Point Z) and it feels right–to the tune of a 460+ million box office take.
Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a writer and family man. He takes a job as caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, hoping the solitude of the gig will help in his attempt to finish his novel. With him are wife Shelley Duvall and their freckle-faced boy Danny. The family is awed and inspired when they get to the hotel. Staff is leaving, winter is upon them, the snow soon to come.
Redrum! Flash forward a month: Jack’s writing is going nowhere. Shelly and son entertain themselves in the shrub maze around the vast grounds. Snow knocks out access to the hotel and the phone lines are down. Also, with the solitude, some flat-out weird shit starts happening at the Overlook Hotel: Jack walks into the somehow populated Gold Room to be told by Grady, the ghost of a previous caretaker, that the joint is located on an old Indian burial site. Danny sees a pair of twin girls who lead him to Room 237 and a crazy woman. Danny’s bruises lead to Shelley thinking Jack has smacked freckled-face Danny around and they argue. Grady tells Jack he’s going to have to discipline his family. Shelley, freaked out, comes down to discover the novel Jack’s been working on for months is page after page of gibberish. Jack, in all-work-and-no-play-makes-Jack-a-dull-boy mode swings his baseball bat at her, she races back to the room to find Danny drawing RED RUM backward in lipstick and…well, life could be better.
Jack is on the loose with his axe, killing psychic Scatman Crothers, truly becoming the ‘Honey, I’m Home!’ bloody caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, stalking Shelley and Danny, ending up as a frozen meatsicle when they elude him in the maze. A close up of an ancient photo reveals that Torrance was, truly, always the caretaker at the Overlook.
Bucket of Blood
Walter Paisley is a busboy at a beatnik cafe. He digs the scene and is a likeable enough fellow. He doesn’t have the artistic pretensions of seemingly everyone around him, and is sometimes the butt of their intellectual jokes. Walter would love to be touched by the muse, but as he goes home for the night, no one would ever confuse him for an artist.
Walter accidentally kills the landlady’s cat. Trying to cover up his mistake, he finds a leftover supply of plaster and mortar kit, sealing the cat in plaster. He brings his “sculpture” back to cafe, calling it Dead Cat, his first sculpture and artistic statement. It received by the bohemian artists as a powerful first artistic achievement. They hail Walter and welcome into the realm of artists. Walter is trailed back to his apartment by an undercover cop and accidentally kills him too, making him into sculpture two. The bohemians at the cafe are blown away, calling Water a genius, pressing him for now sculptures. Walter has a problem – to further his artistic career, he’s got to keep killing people. Walter dispatches a worker in a lumber yard, then kills a blonde model and he makes her sculpture #4. A show of Walter’s art is planned, a celebration of Walter’s transformation into artistic wunderkind.
The showing of Walter’s sculptures is going wonderfully, until a piece of plaster chips away, showing a human finger. Screams and commotion among the bohemians. Walter has walked home with the girl of his dreams with the bohemians and police in full pursuit. They chase him back to his apartment to find Walter in the place where all serial killers and bad sculptors eventually go. The journey from busboy to wannabe Jackson Pollack, complete.
Clint Eastwood is Walt Kowalski. He's doesn't talk to chairs in this one, but he's close to that level-an ex-factory worker, recent widower, who just wants to live out his days in peace in his suburban Detroit house. When his estranged son recommends he move into a retirement community, he’s shown the door. Walt’s hates his own people, but he really, REALLY hates the Asians who have moved into his community and, he feels, destroyed it. Gang violence is everywhere. Walt is not a happy camper.
When a Vietnamese family moves in next door, Walt saves the son from a gang with his M1 rifle. The gang swears revenge and the family, in gratitude, has the son do odd jobs for Walt. Gradually, respect grows between Walt and the kid. When his sister is kidnapped and raped by the gang, he goes to Walt asking for the gun to revenge his sister and his family’s honor.
Walt locks the kid in his basement, dresses in his military best, and heads to the gang house, armed with only a cigarette and lighter. Walt dies, but not before taking every gang member out with him. Blaze of glory. Giving his life up for this Vietnamese boy is something that would never, ever have happened at Point A of Walt’s story. At Point Z of the character arc, it feels not only believable, but inevitable.
Devil Wears Prada
Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is a recent Northwestern grad looking to pay off her $40,000 student debt. She interviews for Runway magazine and the notorious Amanda Priestly (Meryl Streep). More journalist than fashion-conscious diva, overweight as a size 8, she’s not so much laughed out of the interview as ignored. Leaving, she somehow gets chosen by Miranda despite her fashion ignorance.
Andy is welcomed into the chaos of Miranda’s world. She learns about Jimmy Choo shoes, loses weight and looks great. She begins to neglect her friends and boyfriend. All that she mocked about Miranda’s world is synthesized by Andy–what she once mocked, she now becomes. There’s some industrial espionage, a trip to Paris, betrayal and twists. Andy loses her boyfriend and friends. During this crisis of conscious, she loses touch with who she really is.
The industrial espionage works itself out. Miranda is still on top, ever powerful. Andy, now the trusted assistant, decides to throw it all away. She quits Miranda and Runway magazine. She makes amends with her ex-boyfriend, her ex-co-worker, and finds a new job outside of the fashion world. Pure journey of self-discovery, the “to hell and back” character arc couldn’t be clearer.
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