A lot being said in the screenwriting blog-o-sphere about the NY Times article on the work of producer Lindsay Doran, and what makes movies emotionally satisfying to an audience. You can read all about it here –
Loads of good stuff in there, but the section I found most interesting was about the difference in what appeals to male and female moviegoers.
In movies aimed at men and boys, she said, “there is the goal, the thing the hero is trying to accomplish.” Then, she continued, “there’s the relationship, usually with a woman, child, friend or father. Usually at the end the hero realizes the relationship is more important than the accomplishment.” But in most movies geared toward women, she realized, the relationship is the accomplishment.
The relationship is the accomplishment. Sounding familiar to anyone? And not just from rom-coms either.
Looking just at recent male-focused movies, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Sherlock Holmes 2 both incorporate relationships that give real value to the hero’s accomplishments. Whether it’s a team forming out of disparate individuals, or two friends cementing their friendship in the face of one’s marriage, both films are actually about the impact the action has on the characters’ relationships.
Undercover cop movies, which I’m thinking about a lot at the moment, are also relationship-driven. The protagonists (the cops) of Point Break and The Fast And The Furious don’t get what they want – and neither do the reflections/ attractors (the gang leaders). In traditional ‘accomplishment’ terms, they end the movie worse off – the cops disgraced, the criminals on the run or worse. But their great accomplishment as characters is forging a meaningful relationship with each other, a friendship that survives even when they find themselves on opposite sides.
And why shouldn’t characters’ accomplishments be given meaning by relationships? It’s a basic tenet of writing that characters do things for a reason – and most reasons are personal. When we act in the wider good, we’re often doing it because it helps our nearest and dearest as well. Even the famously cold James Bond doesn’t just want to stop the world being blown up by the villain – he also wants to save the life of his squeeze of the moment.
And using the relationship to focus the threat onto a single character or small group of characters (family, friends, criminal gang) also makes the threat, and the stakes, easier to grasp. If I’m watching, say, The Thing, I don’t really know what will happen if the creature gets out and away to civilization. Maybe it’ll wipe out humanity; maybe it’ll get hit by a bus the moment it reaches a town. I can’t see all the variables, and anyway, it’s hard to summon empathy for the whole of humanity. However, I do know what will happen to the people at this base if they don’t kill that creature – and I have empathy for them, because they have relationships with each other and with me, the audience. Effectively, I understand the stakes through that small group of characters and their relationships.
If your character wants to achieve something, it’s probably connected to someone he cares about. Tie his accomplishments to his relationship, and you provide two levels of emotional satisfaction for the price of one!