While reading a really interesting essay by Neill D. Hicks, author of Screenwriting 101, on none other than writer’s block (hmmm, we writers don’t know anything about that), I came across an issue that Hicks describes as the problem writers often have of injecting too much of themselves into their own work so that it actually impedes the writing process.
We regularly tell ourselves that we are basing a character on Cousin Charlotte or Uncle Max… but the truth is, all characters are you. Who else could they be? You, the writer, are probing your own soul to touch the vulnerabilities until you discover that the real-life stingy Cousin Charlotte becomes an eccentric millionaire as a character; and the real-life, good-natured Uncle Max evolves into a screenplay psychopath.Why, of course, I think all writers can benefit from a good dose of cognitive behavioral therapy. The issue comes when, unable to solve the problems of our own dark places, we find ourselves unable to solve our main character’s problems either. Hicks warns: “You aren't required to solve your complex inner needs, but [only] the character's relatively uncomplicated hurdle."
It can be delightful to give life to those quirky parts of your personality that you rarely show in public. But discovering that part of your essence that is angry, demented, wounded, or just desperately confused, can [also] suck the spirit right out of your soul.
Hicks and I essentially had a discussion about this exact topic the other day before a presentation he was doing on a new book he is writing on genre. While we often want to create very complex characters who are very flawed, as that makes better drama, it’s actually necessary to, say, select one flaw from that mix, and that’s the particular problem the character comes to terms with at the end of the story.
The reason this is so crucial deals with another issue: that of the importance keeping your journey simple. The second-act journey, essentially, is the journey you hand-select to be the path that is going to be best-matched to your main character’s flaw. Case in point: If you have a character who suffers from commitment phobia, you are going to choose a second-act journey that puts them into a situation where relationships are everywhere. This is why romantic comedies that are focused around marriages often have main characters who suffer from commitment phobia. If I recall, The Wedding Planner with Jennifer Lopez, was about a wedding planner, who spent her waking moments planning weddings, although she was terrified to be in a relationship herself. Or, if you have the story of an ordinary man, who is pulled into a high-stakes situation in which he must take action, it is helpful to set up a main character who has trouble committing to anything. He can’t finish his book; he doesn’t want to look for a better job; if he sees someone getting hurt on the street, he’s the person who just keeps walking. He doesn’t want to get involved. That is, until he's forced.
It's ultimately very important to keep your second-act journey very simple in screenplays. You only have 110 pages for your main character to save the world and solve his inner issues, so that he can become a new and better-fuctioning human being. Unless you're trying to write a three-hour epic, I advise you keep your story simple. And I wouldn't advise you produce that three-hour epic screenplay unless you're Francis Ford Coppola. For all you aspiring screenwriters out there, who are actually hoping to get a screenplay sold some day: keep that story new and fresh, yes, but also simple!