A Good Want is Hard to Find

Published on: October 5, 2015

Filled Under: Thought Processes

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Before you enter that next screenwriting contest, there’s one aspect of your script that you should scrutinize which could spell the difference between winning and losing.  Surprisingly, it’s not that hard of a fix.

Do you have a great want or goal for your main character?  Without something any judge can root for, your script doesn’t stand a chance.  There are far too many scripts lacking a clear cut, yet simple want that their character is trying to reach for throughout the story.  The want is the thread that everything else in the story is tied to.  I’ve been a judge for many contests where the want is “sort of this” and “kind of that”.  The want is not something that should leave people scratching their head, it’s a definitive thing.

For example, in Up In the Air the protagonist wants to get Ten Million frequent flier miles with American Airlines, something only a handful of people have attained.  As the character puts it, more people have walked on the moon.  The beauty of having a want is that as the writer you can decide if the character achieves it or not.

An interesting twist is to have the character get what they want, but then it is revealed to be a hollow victory.  Either way, the want is something binary – either the character reaches it or they don’t.  In many action movies, the want is for the good guy to get the bad guy.  In sports movies, it’s winning the big prize.

The important thing to remember – and this can’t be emphasized enough – is keep it simple.  It can’t be “Well, the main characters wants to get his job back because he wants his wife to take him back in, because he wants to fix the relationship with his son so that together they can build that house in the mountains, which is what the main character has always wanted to do.”

If it’s too complicated, that tells the judge that the story is going to veer off in different directions.  Another thing the want can’t be is something nefarious.  It can’t be closure on a bad situation or finally coming to grips with a fractured family dynamic.  Why is this?  Because it’s too hard to define, and it’s hard to tell when the goal the has been reached.  How do we know if the character has closure?  Is having closure a big enough want?

How many movies have you seen that have “closure” as the want of the main character?  Look at your favorite films, see what the goal – the carrot at the end of the stick – is for your protagonist then study how the journey was handled.   In the end, you’ll find that the best wants are the universal ones.  Create a simple, universal want that anybody can tune into, and you’ll have the attention of the contest judge all the way until the last page.

You’re putting your script out there to several screenwriting contests, this makes for a nice ice breaker when you meet new industry people.  When they ask you what it’s about, you tell them it’s difficult to sum up, but you could provide them with a copy to read.  Understand why no one will read your script if you can’t pitch it.  Pitching, The Art of Not Striking Out.

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