Screenwriting Lessons: Michael Arndt [Part 5]

November 16th, 2012 by

Unless you’ve been living under a proverbial rock, you know that screenwriter Michael Arndt has been hired to write Star Wars: Episode VII. This week we are delving into Arndt’s observations about the craft.

Today: Arndt on story beginnings.

I don’t know who went to the trouble of creating this doc — if someone out there can find the source, I’ll be more than happy to update with an attribution. In the meantime, I am reprinting this in its entirety.

Michael Arndt

Eight Steps for “Setting the Story Into Motion”

One of the hidden gems on the 4-disc Toy Story 3 Blu-Ray package from Disney is a ten-minute short film by screenwriter Michael Arndt. In it, Arndt reveals the eight step process that he found in films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles that helped him in writing Toy Story 3. Despite its short length, Arndt’s theory is an excellent contribution that deserves a closer look.

1. Show Your Main Character

Introduce the audience to your main character. As most of the story follows their perspective, you need to establish him in the mind of the audience. In the case of Toy Story, this is Woody. He is a toy that comes alive when humans aren’t watching.

2. Introduce the Universe that They Live In

Give your audience a chance to see the world that the protagonist lives in. In the case of Toy Story, we see that Woody lives in Andy’s room with the other toys.

3. Show Your Character’s Grand Passion

Show your character doing the thing that they love the most. What is their Grand Passion? In Woody’s case, his grand passion is his place as Andy’s favourite toy. He has the favoured position Andy’s bed and the introductory playtime sequences always show him as the star of Andy’s imagination.

4. Show Your Character’s Hidden Flaw

Only boring protagonists are perfect. Show the audience your main character’s flaw. Give them a flaw that comes out of their grand passion, that comes out of the thing they love doing the most. In Woody’s case, it’s pride. As Andy’s favourite toy, he has a lot of pride about his place in Andy’s bedroom. It is only natural that he gets his comeuppance.

5. Hint at Storm Clouds on the Horizon

Very subtly, hint to your audience that there is trouble out on the horizon. In the case of Toy Story, those storms clouds are Andy’s birthday party. All of the other toys are afraid of being replaced. Only Woody, proud of his status as Andy’s favourite tool, is unworried.

6. Turn Your Character’s World Upside Down

Something comes into your hero’s life and turns it upside down. It takes away their grand passion. In the case of Woody, the introduction of Buzz Lightyear changes everything. Because Buzz is such a cool tool, Andy and all of the other toys prefer him. Woody finds himself relegated to the Toy Chest while Buzz gets the preferred spot on Andy’s bed. Woody has lost his greatest possession: his status as Andy’s favourite toy.

7. Add Insult to Injury

If that is not enough, you have to add insult to injury. It is not enough to take away your protagonist’s grand passion, you always have to humiliate him in the process. In the case of Toy Story, not only does he lose his place as favourite toy to Buzz, Buzz has no idea that he’s a toy! As Woody loses favour, you can see his frustration at Buzz’s cluelessness. He’s being replaced by an imbecile! This step is important to show your character’s frustration at a world that is completely unfair.

8. Have Your Character Make the Wrong Choice

This is the big one. Bring your main character to a fork in the road. At this fork, they have two choices: a right choice and a wrong choice. Of course the character makes a wrong choice. Having seen what he has gone through, we understand perfectly why he makes the wrong choice. We even WANT him to make the wrong choice. This wrong choice comes out of his grand passion and provokes a crisis that sets us on our way to Act 2. Let’s take Toy Story again. In Toy Story, Woody, having been displaced and insulted by the deluded Buzz Lightyear, decides to try to knock Buzz behind the dresser so that Andy will have to take him to Pizza Planet. The plan goes awry, Buzz is knocked out the window, and the other toys blame Woody, leaving him no choice but to find and return Buzz to Andy’s room. That leads us right into Act 2.

Arndt shows us the same structure at play in Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. The structure works well because the plot develops from the hero’s internal character, making it more personal. It also gives us something that character, alongside the main plot, must resolve inside himself. In the case of Toy Story, Woody not only brings back Buzz safely, but he also learns how to overcome his flaws and earn the friendship of Buzz. The hero’s journey becomes as much metaphysical as physical.

When you boil it all down, Act One is fundamentally about two things: (1) Setting up your story. (2) Setting the plot into motion. We can see that here in Arndt’s eight items:

Setting Up Your Story

Show Your Main Character
Introduce the Universe that They Live In
Show Your Character’s Grand Passion
Show Your Character’s Hidden Flaw

Setting The Plot Into Motion

Hint at Storm Clouds on the Horizon
Turn Your Character’s World Upside Down
Add Insult to Injury
Have Your Character Make the Wrong Choice

And if you follow Arndt’s approach, which is knowing your ending first, then you craft a story beginning that is tied directly to the ending. The Protagonist’s “grand passion,” the Protagonist’s “hidden flaw,” the storm clouds, the wrong choice, all of those need to be linked to your story ending.

Just like Billy Wilder said: “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”

I trust you have enjoyed this week’s foray into Michael Arndt’s approach to the craft of screenwriting. Here’s hoping The Force is with him on Star Wars: Episode VII.

One thought on “Screenwriting Lessons: Michael Arndt [Part 5]

  1. Meg T says:

    This certainly deserves more consideration. Read this at the right time for something I’m working on. I’ll probably print it out and read again for inspiration in structuring my work on this current project. Thanks Scott!

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