In my Hero’s Journey classes I explain how in great movies, any form of movement is full of meaning. Too many writers don’t understand how to handle movement. And really, if you don’t write movement, you’re not writing a movie.
by Karel Segers
A chase is never just a chase.
Have you noticed that the biggest scenes with movement, travel, running, chasing etc. usually happen at particular times in great movies? Have you ever taken the time to reflect on this? Believe me, this is no coincidence.
In the Hero’s Journey, these scenes or sequences are called ‘Threshold Sequences’. The hero travels, not only from one place to the next, but from one state of mind – or state of being – to the next. So these stages of movement occur whenever the hero is ready to move on, usually after an important turning point: the Act One Climax, the Mid Point or the Act Two Climax.
Most screen stories are about change. Change for the characters (triggered by the world around them) or change in the world (triggered by the main character).
Change is about moving on. And moving on is symbolized by movement.
The mythical dimension of movement can take many forms, at least as many as there are functions of mythology. It can be about having faith and being ready to dive into the unknown. Or about exploring (and imagining) uncharted parts of the universe. Sometimes it represents a ‘movement’ in our society but most often it is about completing a psychological stage. This can be coming of age, overcoming fear or grief, etc.
An escape or chase can be about embracing change but still being afraid of the past catching up. The obstacles in these stages of movement are called ‘Threshold Guardians’ and they represent the characters’ reluctance to embrace the change.
Great movies have lots of movement.
Just look at the structure of last year’s Toy Story 3 to see how often Woody and his bunch are traveling, running, driving, flying. First there is the travel from home to Sunnyside. Next, Woody chooses to return to Andy and at the beginning of Act Two he leaves the other toys to embark on a fabulous threshold sequence through the corridors of Sunnyside, crossing the bathroom, climbing the roof, sailing over the playground and finally landing in a tree.
The second half of Act Two constitutes what is probably Pixar’s most elaborate and impressive threshold sequence. It starts with leaving the toy room, followed by crossing the playground where Baby is a major threshold guardian. Next the toys climb through the garbage chute and end up in the garbage truck. In any other movie, this would signify the Ordeal but it is effectively only a modest taster. The threshold sequence keeps moving even after the toys arrive at the tip. They end up on the conveyor belt that will transport them to the Cave. An unforgettable, instant-classic sequence of pure cinema.
Movement is inherently cinematic.
If your script is full of dialogue and talking heads, you may end up with interesting drama but it will never be mythical. Your movie will never be big. Pure cinema shows characters in motion at those points in their journey when they require it. To understand how much movement a good story can absorb and where to best place it, have a look at the structure of the biggest movie ever.
Remember, the word cinema comes from the Greek word “kine”, which means “motion”.
Refusing the Travel
I’m working on a screenplay with a highly experienced team and the story rocks. Until the third act. After the mid point, the hero decides to follow the love interest to an exotic destination but just before the end of the movie, the hero decides against it and stays put.
It feels wrong.
We’ve gone through so much trouble with this character and at the end she decides to just stay where she is. Now, the character has a perfectly valid – and emotionally understandable – motivation to NOT travel. But it still doesn’t work for me. It feels like a story for a small audience. The decision not to travel feels very much like a refusal to change. And audiences want to believe that the hero – and they themselves – are capable of change.
You are writing a Road Movie
The road movie is the ultimate ‘vehicle’ for a character on a journey of reflection and change. Have you noticed that every main character in every movie reaches the destination a different person? And even if they don’t reach their destination, like e.g. Thelma and Louise, they are fundamentally transformed characters.
In my Character Development seminars on 9 and 10 October, I will show more examples of different types of movement in stories and explain what this means for the characters.
Movement is essential for change.
Travel as a symbol for change was probably never deliberately introduced as a story device. Its origins go back much earlier than any written story tradition and it is effectively part of the collective unconscious, which some say is hardwired in our brain. Just look at the oldest surviving culture on our planet and its rite of passage called “walkabout” to support this theory.
Do you have lots of movement in your story? In the right places?
– Karel Segers
Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+. Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia. Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 5-year old son Baxter and anyone who listens. He is also the boss of this blog.