Yves Lavandier’s book Writing Drama currently rates as the absolute favorite of our book reviewer Jack Brislee.To give you the opportunity to delve into Lavandier’s amazing knowledge and insight, we will be publishing a weekly excerpt from the book.
The Objective’s Effectiveness
It is not enough, if you want to write a story successfully, simply to set your protagonist an objective. The writer must also make sure his story meets the following four conditions.
- Firstly, the objective must be known by the spectator, or at least perceptible to him, early on in the story. The narrative does not really begin until the spectator has worked out, more or less consciously, what the protagonist wants, and until that happens the spectator will be unsure of what he is being told. After a while, the spectator will find this disagreeable. In order to avoid this, the writer must himself be sure in his mind what his protagonist’s objective is. Only then can he make sure his story is rigourously constructed.
the objective must be known by the spectator
- Secondly, the motive for the protagonist’s objective must be clearly indicated so that the spectator can share it. If the spectator does not understand (let alone approve of) the protagonist’s objective, he will have no sense of there being anything at stake.
the motive for the protagonist’s objective
must be clearly indicated
- Thirdly, the objective must be particularly difficult for the protagonist to achieve. This does not mean the writer should make it too hard or, what is worse, impossible to achieve: one of the hardest skills for writers of drama to master is getting the right balance between difficulty and ease in overcoming obstacles. I shall discuss this more fully in the next chapter.
the objective must be particularly difficult
- Fourthly, the spectator must feel that the protagonist is utterly and irrevocably committed to achieving his objective. The protagonist must on no account give the impression that it would not matter too much to him if he had to give up en route. The more the protagonist is pledged body and soul to getting what he wants, the more the spectator will become involved in the story.
he protagonist is utterly and irrevocably committed
- Antigone (Antigone) who is prepared to risk death in order to give her brother a decent burial;
- Galileo (The Life of Galileo) who takes on the whole world, and even risks catching the plague, in his determination to discover, and prove to others, new truths about the Earth’s place in the universe;
- Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) in Children of Paradise who is thrown out of a window by Avril (Fabien Loris) and who comes back in through the door—usually, with people who strongly want something, it is the other way round: they leave through the door and come back in through the window;
- Hildy (Rosalind Russell), in His Girl Friday, who to obtain a scoop chases after a witness, even though she is wearing her business clothes, and brings him down with a rugby tackle;
- Ethan (John Wayne) in The Searchers, who spends 15 years scouring the vast expanses of the American West to track down his niece;
- McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who is so determined to see a baseball match that he invents one on a blank television screen, commentating on it as if he can actually see it (see analysis page 519);
- Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor) in Where Is the Friend’s Home? who pesters his mother (Iran Outari) for permission to go out until at last she gives way;
- Krimo (Osman Elkharraz) in Games of Love and Chance, who gives everything he owns (roller-blades, trainers, video-player,etc) to Rachid (Rachid Hami) for the right to play the role of Arlequin, enabling him to be with the girl he wants to impress;
- Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), in the very first episode of Desperate Housewives, who mows the lawn at midnight, in an evening gown, to prevent her husband finding out that she’s having an affair with the gardener.
If the protagonist does not show that he is doing everything he can to achieve his objective, the spectator will feel cheated. In The Freshman, for instance, the protagonist (Matthew Broderick) is duped on innumerable occasions—even getting himself forcibly married—but does little more than protest vaguely. Ineffectual in his efforts to save himself, he allows himself to be swept along by events.
How can the spectator be expected to side with the protagonist if he is indifferent, fails to take action or even refuses to act? This is the reason for the failure of Secret Agent, as Hitchcock himself clearly understood : “It didn’t really succeed, and I think I know why. In an adventure drama your central figure must have a purpose. That’s vital for the progression of the film, and it’s also a key factor in audience participation. The public must be rooting for the character; they should almost be helping him to achieve his goal. John Gielgud, the hero of Secret Agent, has an assignment (ie. to kill someone), but the job is distasteful and he is reluctant to do it.”
your central figure must have a purpose.
In fact, it could be argued that the protagonist of Secret Agent has two contradictory objectives: the first, to kill someone, has been supplied by his superiors; the second is to get out of having to achieve the first. Unfortunately for the quality of the film, the protagonist does not really get to grips with the first, and the second is simply not dealt with. Secret Agent is one of those works based on the premiss that the protagonist, often a soldier, a policeman, a spy or a detective, is given a mission to accomplish. For a drama of this kind to work, the protagonist has to believe in the importance of his mission and commit himself fully to achieving the objective he has been set.
protagonist has to believe in the importance of his mission
To conclude, a protagonist must be active; at the very least he can be reactive, but not passive. And he must appear utterly obsessed with pursuing his objective.