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Why Spec Scripts Fail: Relationships Not Consummated, PART 2

In PART 1 of Relationships Not Consummated we discussed the emotional bond that a writer must develop between the character and the audience. The progression, of the audience bond we graphed last time, is an essential journey that unites the story a writer is asking the reader to take. However, to start this journey the writer must develop a means to hook the reader.

The character to reader bond is a “personal reality” that the writer evokes by the use of empathy, sympathy or both. A strong hook alone will create interest and possible sympathy. But, a hook’s staying power fades over time. While it may create a degree of sympathy, and interest, only genuine empathy will cement the character – audience bond. If the writer fails to show the protagonist is worthy of support by forging this connection early in the story, the reader will not consider him or her worth caring about and rapidly loose interest. Loose interest not only in the character, but the story and quite possible the writer and any further stories from the writer. It is an unfortunate industry fact that a writer may have just one chance to impress.


How do we “Set The Hook”?

Consider a fishing example. Just dangling a bait on the end of a hook may result in in the fisherman snagging a fish. On the other hand the fish could just escape with the bait. The angler must set the hook by pulling back on the line with just the right force at just the right time.

The analogy for the writer is the creation of a protagonist with flaws that must be overcome. Yet a protagonist who has honor or is some way deserving of our empathy. A writer must bait and set this emotional hook. How do we create this empathy? How does the writer forge a way into the reader’s heart?

Look back in your life and recall the time when you formed an opinion about someone based on first impressions only to realize later you were wrong. What changed your mind? What was the emotional stimulus, positive or negative?

Consider an opening scene with a young, scruffy teenager who steals fruit from a street vendor. A Dickensian style scene. Interesting but this person and his actions are not compelling. With no backstory you are unlikely to think of him as more than just a common thief. You can’t empathize with the kid. You have no reason to care much for a common thief.

What if you find out that while he is barely a teenager himself, he’s trying to provide for his younger siblings after their parents were killed by a car bomb in Iraq? Now we see him in a different light. We see a hint of his character, his sense of responsibility, his misguided altruism or his desire to bring some level of protection and stability to what is left of his family. Now we have an interesting character who instead of being a simple criminal stealing for himself, he has taken on the responsibility of provider for those less able.

The reader’s curiosity is piqued. Why did he stay? What made him take on this responsibility vs take off on his own? Many more questions arise. What made him think of more than himself? Will he be able to pull it off? When a reader starts asking positive questions about a character they are “playing the movie” on the inside of their forehead. They want answers. The writer has found the correct bait for the hook. By later answers to these questions the writer sets this hook.

These question are more compelling when the reader discovers that the youngsters are not his real family. Is he a younger Fagin or simply a reincarnated Oliver?

Exploring the why shows us who the thief is. The why of the behavior tells the reader that this is someone worth getting to know over the next 100 pages. This exploration goes to his character and sheds some light on which principles and values are important to what turns out to be more than just a common thief. Now, this character’s behavior i.e. actions/reactions reveal his personality. This is something the reader can identify with, someone whose journey is worth getting to know and follow.

Even in the worst of characters must exhibit just a glimmer of redemption or greatness. This is what creates empathy to justify a reader’s emotional bonding. Even if they hate the antagonist at least the reader is emotionally involved.

Assuming that the story, dialogue and craft are top notch, now we can justifiably give a damn about what happens.

Artfully bonding the characters to the audience is how a writer “Sets The Hook” and consummates the relationship between character and reader.

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