I recently read a book titled ‘Writing Screenplays that Sell’ by Michael Hauge and was fascinated to see how psychologically informed screenwriters create engaging stories with meaningful plots and entertaining characters.
Although Hollywood sometimes gets bad press for promoting materialistic and unrealistic goals for the audience, I do believe that we can learn some valuable life lessons from dissecting the common elements of screenplays that result in successful movies.
Here are eight insights that I believe are important:
#1 — Be the hero of your story
Every movie has a hero that we identify with and develop empathy for. Screenwriters do this deliberately because we are likely to care more about the story and become involved in the movie if it focuses on one character and their perspective and challenges more than the other characters.
In real life, the person whose perspective we can most tune into is ourselves, and we feel the emotional impact of our experiences whether we like it or not (even though many people try to tune these out). It, therefore, makes a lot of sense to ensure that we are the hero of our own life.
Unless you believe in reincarnation, it is generally accepted that we only have one life. Once we become adults, no one else is entirely responsible for our life’s direction except for us. We are the screenwriters, directors and the main character in our story — unless we give that power up to somebody else. This is a scary thought but also a potentially liberating one.
Although there are limitations to our abilities and dreams, and it is essential to have realistic expectations, I see too many people that put up roadblocks and barriers where they don’t need to be.
So if we are free to do what we want with our lives and responsible for how they turn out, what do we want to do? Live the life that someone else expects of us or follow our dreams and hopefully achieve our goals.
#2 — Challenge yourself if you would like to grow
Screenwriters are taught that a movie should start slowly and build pace as the film progresses by increasing the magnitude and difficulty of challenges that the hero faces until the film’s climax. A resolution is then typically achieved, and all of the loose ends are tied up before the movie concludes with the hero being a much better person than they were at the beginning of the film. It is from overcoming bigger and bigger adversity throughout the film that the hero develops and grows. Without challenges or difficulties to master, this growth and character development would be impossible, and people would find the movie dull.
In real life, I see a lot of clients who want a life free of challenges. They strive for a life of inner peace without stress or anxiety and believe that they can achieve this by consistently remaining in their comfort zone. So they do the same thing each day, don’t take any risks, and generally feel okay. A lot of them will tell you that something is missing, however.
We need to push beyond what feels comfortable to grow, and with this comes a certain amount of stress and anxiety. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can be a good indication that you are sufficiently challenging yourself so long as you are not feeling completely overwhelmed. Just remember to start small with tasks that feel a little scary but are also achievable, and as you build up confidence, move onto more significant challenges. As long as the challenges are consistent with changes that you would like to bring about in your life, you will feel more energetic and alive than you ever could by remaining in your comfort zone, even if you fail.
“The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
#3 — Conflict leads to more intense emotional experiences
Screenwriters are taught to create conflict in every scene where possible, usually by having two characters who have different views and objectives. This is because conflict creates emotional involvement far more than general exposition ever could, leading to a more engaged audience.
In real life, especially in relationships, this isn’t always a good thing. We might feel a more significant attraction or more intense emotional experience with someone who is actually opposed to us in what they want. I see it often when individuals who are anxiously attached (like being close to their partner and worry when they are apart) end up in relationships with avoidantly attached individuals (like their independence and autonomy) and then feel trapped and smothered if they are too close). Each time it leads to an emotional rollercoaster ride, with lots of conflicts, big ups and downs, and greater emotional involvement. It keeps both parties occupied and interested but will do more harm than good in the end.
Finding someone who wants the same things that we do may be less exciting initially but can also lead to greater satisfaction and well-being in the long run. Be aware of the emotional trap, and use your head and heart when determining if a relationship is suitable for you.
#4 — Have clearly defined goals
All heroes will have the primary goal or external motivation that they will pursue throughout the film. Screenwriters are encouraged to make this evident to the audience to cheer on the hero as they make their journey through their challenges in pursuit of their goal. For example, it may be to escape from or kill the bad guy in a horror movie. In a heist movie, it may be to steal the money and get away with it. In a romantic comedy, it is to win the affection of the love interest. A coming of age story is to learn something, and in a sports movie, it is to win.
In real life, it is essential to think of the big picture at times and ask yourself where you would like to be in 1, 2, 5, 10 and 20 years from now? How would you want to be spending your days? Whether owning a business, buying a house, getting married, having children or running a marathon, these external, observable goals help keep us motivated and focused on our destination or where we would like to see ourselves in the future. Once these goals have been achieved, you can tick them off the list. It then becomes vital to elicit and develop further goals to pursue.
“Believe big. The size of your success is determined by the size of your belief. Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big success. Remember this too! Big ideas and big plans and often easier — certainly no more difficult — than small ideas and small plans.” — David Schwartz
#5 — Understand why you want to achieve these goals — clarify your values
It may not always be explicitly stated, but a hero in a movie will still have an internal motivation or reason for pursuing a goal. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth them overcoming all of the obstacles they face to achieve the goal at the movie’s end.
Two people may want to buy a house or run a marathon, but their reasons for doing so could be completely different. For example, one home buyer may want security and a place to call home, whereas the other person wants to make their parents and family proud of them (to gain love, approval or acceptance). Likewise, one marathon runner may decide to enter the race to become healthier and lose weight. In contrast, another may do it to spend more time with their friend or partner that loves running (for greater connection or intimacy).
Values, unlike goals, can never be ticked off the list but are guiding principles that can either be followed or not from moment to moment. For example, if honesty is an essential value to you, you can be honest whenever you tell the truth and dishonest whenever you lie. By living honestly, you will be feeling more fulfilled, and by being dishonest, you will likely feel dissatisfied or guilty. So firstly, clarify which values are most important to you, and then set short, medium and long-term goals that are consistent with the guiding principles you choose.
“To be truly rich, regardless of his fortune or lack of it, a man must live by his own values. If those values are not personally meaningful, then no amount of money gained can hide the emptiness of life without them.” — John Paul Getty
#6 — Have mentors that can help you to achieve your goals
Screenwriters call these characters reflections, and they are there to help the hero learn and grow along with their journey towards their ultimate goal. This is Robin Williams to Matt Damon in ‘Good Will Hunting’, Mr Miyagi to Daniel-son in ‘The Karate Kid’, and Morgan Freeman in most movies (‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Bruce Almighty’, ‘The Dark Knight’). They usually don’t have a big character arc because they are already evolved in the areas the hero is trying to improve. However, they know what the right thing is and help guide the hero on their path.
In real life, it is important to have mentors or people that have done what you would like to do that you can turn to for help when you get stuck, have questions, or need advice. By seeking support through individuals who are more knowledgeable and experienced in the areas that you are hoping to build skills, it is possible to learn from their insights and mistakes without repeating them yourself, leading to a more effective learning and growth process. Furthermore, if they can be honest and direct in their feedback of your strengths and weaknesses, they can also help you see the real you and guide you towards what is right, authentic and true, even if you don’t exactly want to hear it. Mentors can be friends or relatives or can even be paid for or hired too. It is why people have psychologists, personal trainers and life coaches. It is also why I obtain regular external supervision to keep improving towards becoming the best psychologist that I can be.
“The way for you to be happy and successful, to get more of the things you really want in life, is to study and emulate those who have already done what you want to do and achieved the results you want to achieve.” — Brian Tracy.
#7 — It is our actions that define who we become
In his book ‘Story’, Robert McKee, a famous screenwriter, says that the hero’s character is truly revealed not in the scenes when everything is relaxed and calm, but in the choices they make when the going gets tough are under pressure. The greater the pressure, the more revealing the scene is of the hero’s essential nature. Notice it is not their intentions or things they may speak about doing earlier in the film, but what they actually do when it really counts.
How will you react in the most significant moments in your life? With courage and persistence despite fear or challenge, or with avoidance, excuses or procrastination? With compassion, generosity and respect, or criticalness, selfishness and contempt? Will you talk about all of the great things you want to do or the things that you could have been, or focus on what you can still do and get out there and do it? It doesn’t just have to be big moments either.
“Don’t wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great” — Orison Swett Marden
Dr Damon Ashworth