Crises and Catharsis: Creating moments of peril, perseverance and triumph for your lead character . . . by Peter Fox [August 2011]

“When things aren’t working, it’s like walking through a desert; you don’t like it, but you keep walking.”

Fernando Leon De Aranoa, Screenwriter,
Los Lunes al Sol. (Mondays in the Sun, 2002)

Emotional investment by the viewer/reader of your movie is, by necessity, established quickly if you are to be successful. By page three, we, the audience, who are always smarter than you, the writer, will be in love with the character and asking ourselves, “What now?” if you have grabbed us, set
us down in our seats and demanded our attention.

It is the humanity of the character, established quickly, that accomplishes the goal of instantly grabbing the audience effectively; more than any camera gimmick, special effect or shock treatment or cute quirky dialog. This is best done through imagery, not dialog. The sight of a human being, in the act of being themselves, gathering knowledge of having knowledge of a problem’s multi-faceted conflict that exists in two places. These two places, which I am about to explain, each having, in turn, several layers within themselves. These places are:1. The soul of the character, which we are about to explore. 2. The plot, that is, the problem or obstacle that the character has encountered in order to accomplish a goal. Granted, most of the details, or rather, images which will be juxtaposed in order to expose this problem to the audience, have yet to be revealed at this very early stage of the writing of your story. At first glance, we don’t know the character. We don’t see the train coming down the tracks. Or, the loss of a loved one, the sudden but irrefutable evidence of betrayal by a lover or spouse; the theft of one’s safety or security, or wrongful accusation. All of these will leave the hero with a challenge. This challenge, as it relates to the plot, is not usually known by page three.

But if you are writing effectively, many things can and will be known at this juncture. That is because you will take your character and have him or her jump out of the proverbial gate from word one, page one of your screenplay. One of my favorite examples of this comes from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS by Ted Tally. In the opening frames, Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, runs up a steep hill at the F.B.I training center. Take a moment, crank up the movie and have a look at the first three minutes of the film. No dialog; many close-ups and medium shots of her character’s face. What can the audience surmise about Clarice Starling? What do we see? Many things are being communicated in this now famous sequence. All of the images succeed in begging the following questions:

-What is this beautiful woman doing at the F.B.I. academy?  We instantly know, upon the first two or three seconds of film, that her character is on a mission. On her face, we can find pain, loss, resolve, determination, passion, compassion, strength and a soulfulness borne by the most character building experience of them all: loss.

-What is the nature of her loss?  She runs up a hill, climbs up a rope, hurdles obstacles down the trail. When she comes upon an obstacle, she digs down deep and reaches down to find the strength to best that which is in her path.

-What does she want? And why does she want it? There are many women in law enforcement. But, while this is true, men outnumber women in the F.B.I. academy by a large margin. Also, Clarice runs in the forest alone. Without being conscious of it, the audience is being informed that our hero is special, unusual, different and maybe even exotic in terms of her character.

By the time the first dialog is uttered by the teacher, (who requests that Clarice immediately report to the office to meet with a mentor figure), we are already on board. Has anyone ever viewed this film who was not completely in love with the character of Clarice Starling by the third minute of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS? I doubt it.

These first few precious minutes of action are the key to the film. Without them, the resolution of the central conflict would be less satisfying. They set up both questions regarding character and plot. Those questions are:

1. What is the nature of Clarice’s psychic injury?

2. What is the special task that she has been assigned to undertake?

Each question, answered with uninflected images that are juxtaposed in a sequence that provides the audience with clues to the answer, provide the blueprint for the story. And each aspect of the character’s being in the context of the cinematic story, those two aspects being character and plot, informs the other. Here is an example…

In the story, we learn that Clarice had suffered, in early childhood, a catastrophic loss. That loss was the murder of her father, a small town policeman, when she was young. This loss is what is referred to as her psychic injury. The psychic injury must be known to you, the writer, before you set out to render the story in screenplay, or even beat sheet format. It is discovered while writing your character’s history, (this has been covered at length in previous issues). It’s effects how your character reacts in different situations as they relate to the plot, or what happens.  Consider this: Let us suppose, for example, that Clarice’s character did not suffer this psychic loss as a child, but, rather, was the daughter of a happily married, retired, senior level  F.B.I. agent. Both parents happy, proud and still alive. How would this alternate character history affect the screenplay, or cinematic story, of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS? Would this change make the story more interesting, or less interesting?

The answer is less interesting. Why? Because the level of tension and conflict would be reduced; diluted. A trainee with a family legacy at the F.B.I. would have less to overcome, and their actions would not be informed by a sense of loss, isolation and fear. Thereby, the conflict is diluted. It is that simple.

By showing the audience, through images, without dialog, the character, their humanity, their grace and composure under fire, in a truthful manner, with minimal description, you will grab your audience. Which leads us to the principle of catharsis.

For a moment, consider our alternate, privileged version of the character of Clarice. Consider the end of the film where Buffalo Bill is killed by Clarice. Play the scene out in your mind’s eye. What is the audience left with? Sure, the bad guy dies. But, in the context of cinema, so what? What was in it for our alternate version of Clarice’s character? Were as many inner demons slain? Not at all.

It is the introduction of the character that holds the key to the catharsis at the climax of the main conflict and the solution to the conflict. The audience may or may not see the psychic injury prior to the plot. Sometimes it is covered in flashback, most times it is not. But as the writer, you must know what that injury is, and you must find a way to communicate its effect on your character to the audience. Without this, your character is stilted,  or propped up.

Grab the viewer/reader from word one, page one. Show us why we love your hero.

Peter Fox is founder of The Inside Track Workshops for Writing and Cinematic Structure. He has worked as a story analyst and development executive at Paramount, Universal and Columbia Tri-Star. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting from The American Film Institute and lives in Essex, CT.