One of the most important ingredients of a successful story is momentum. When you mix momentum with mindset, you root for the achievement of the goal. Many TV shows and films make the mistake of not having enough momentum and not having enough character development. Understanding the use of these two things will help you to elevate your story both in life and on the page.
I’ve been studying and analyzing story for over twenty years. I am an author of three books, a Writing Instructor for Writers on the Verge at NBC and a story/career consultant for writers. I read and analyze an average of two to three scripts a day. One of the areas of story that I’ve noticed can make or break a strong script is momentum. How do you create strong momentum? You start your story with a strong trigger incident that leads your central character into a powerful dilemma. Then, the choice made in the dilemma is what defines the external goal. You add momentum to this formula when you set up the personal dilemma and the stakes. We should always be clear about what the worst that can happen is if the goal is not achieved. It’s when we don’t know what’s at stake or why we care that the story loses momentum.
With regards to mindset, I’ve often taught the idea of ego versus spirit. In the first three quarters of the story, the central character wants to achieve the goal for ego-related reasons. It is in the last quarter of the story, after hitting a number of obstacles that the character’s motivation shifts to spirit. They now want to achieve the goal for the betterment of the greater good. I am currently reading an incredible book titled “Mindset” by Carol Dweck that made me take a deeper look into this idea. In her book, Carol discusses the idea of the “fixed mindset” versus the “growth mindset”. Carol writes; “The fixed mindset creates the feeling that you can really know the permanent truth about yourself. You don’t have to try for such-and-such because you don’t have the talent. You will surely succeed at such-and-such because you do have the talent.” She goes on to talk about the growth mindset. She writes; “By the way, having a growth mindset doesn’t force you to do something. It just tells you that you can develop your skills…. The fixed mindset stands in the way of development and change. The growth mindset is a starting point for change, but people need to decide for themselves where their efforts toward change would be the most valuable.” I love this! Even though she discusses it in relation to real life, it also applies to story. When you shift the mindset of your character from being a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, you add depth and momentum to your story.
Recently, I watched a show that had a very strong first season. This was due to a very strong season arc as well as strong episode arcs that built in momentum as the season went on. By doing this well the first season, the writers established an expectation from the audience. Then, during the second season, I’d say that the biggest mistake that was made was that you didn’t care about the season arc. There were three co-protagonists. The wounds/personal dilemmas were well developed for two of the three characters. The third character whose wound was developed the least was the one who had the most at stake within the season arc. Since we didn’t know enough about this character’s wound or understand his shift in mindset, we didn’t root for or care about the outcome. With the other two characters that were well developed, we rooted for them to find their peace but their stakes were not reflected in the season arc. If there had been more momentum in the season arc and we had understood the mindset of that third character in a stronger way, it would have made all the difference in the success of the season. I choose not to name the show simply because I admire all writers that put their heart and their soul on the page so that we can all use it to learn.
In life, momentum is the fuel that leads us toward our goals. When we understand how to utilize the idea of “what is the worst thing that can happen if we do not achieve our goal?” we ignite our possibility. When we allow our mindset to evolve from being a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, we open ourselves up to more opportunity. This thinking not only helps us to achieve more of our goals, but it also opens us up to find more fulfillment in the process. Momentum and mindset are key ingredients in our success in life and in the stories that we tell.
Watching what works and why it works in TV is something that is a part of what I do for a living as a Story/Career Consultant for writers. I am always looking for ways to teach story that reflect the brilliant work that is currently being done on TV. I’ve noticed that the shows that draw strong audiences and that I find myself returning to week after week are shows that have strong serialized character arcs within the closed-ended professional arcs. The personal dynamics contribute to the central conflict of the show and create longevity. The audience responds to these character arcs emotionally, and when you touch an audience on an emotional level, like me, they want to return each week.
Shows that successfully utilize this formula include: The Blacklist, The Americans, The Good Wife, Scandal, Masters of Sex, House of Cards, and Ray Donovan, to name a few. People connect with personal struggle. So, if you create story arcs that contain a powerful question within the personal story that you answer by the end while showing the central character in pursuit of the professional arc, you add a depth of emotion and increase the rooting factor.
Connecting to emotional situations is what sets a new series apart from the pack. The key is creating character dynamics that drive the audience to return each week. If there is a strong central conflict in the personal lives of the characters, you increase your chances of ratings success. When there is a strong personal arc within a professional scenario, today’s audiences return week after week to discover more often than not, what happened in the personal situation.
The Good Wife is a strong example. When the show started, we were drawn to Alicia’s plight and the question: How is Alicia going to bring security back to her family after her husband, Peter, goes to jail for his involvment in a sex scandal and illegal activity? The answer came in the character of Will, her old flame that gave her a chance by hiring her to be a lawyer at his firm. The dynamics of the triangle between Alicia, Peter and Will really drew us in by creating questions about Alicia’s ability to be successful as a lawyer as well as what she would do given the opportunity to leave her husband for Will. The writers really knew how to utilize these questions from week to week while exploring legal cases at the firm. The triangle and how Alicia was going to play her role within it was very universal. You had those that rooted for Alicia and Will and others that rooted for Alicia and Peter. With the major change that happened this season, what drew us in was a new question: How will Alicia emotionally respond to what happened and how will this affect her marriage with Peter? When you explore powerful emotional questions between the characters at home while they are in the midst of professional pursuits, you build your audience.
A recent episode of The Blacklist, posed the question, “Did Red kill Liz’s father?” The exploration of this question along with the existing dynamic of their relationship elevates the professional story to a whole new level because we understand the conflict that is going on in their personal relationship. This season, the writers also explored the personal story arc between Liz and her husband, Tom. Red warns her about Tom, but Liz doesn’t listen. Then, when Liz realizes that Red was right about Tom, it opens up a whole new can of worms. Liz’s relationships with Red and Tom provide an emotional core to a show that has a professional goal that usually opens and shuts each week.
In Ray Donovan, you wonder how far Ray will go to keep his father who gets out of prison in the pilot, away from his family. All the familial dysfunction of a broken childhood unravels during the series. We see what fuels Ray in his profession as a “fixer” for his celebrity clients. Ray feels he failed at fixing things in his own home because he didn’t protect his brother from being sexually molested by a priest. His memories of a broken family drive him to fix things for other people through his work. When the writers juxtapose Ray’s desire to “fix” against the demons that he faces in his personal life story, they create a series that draws us in and makes us want to return each week to see what happens.
Masters of Sex gives an inside look at the sexual tension between Masters and Johnson, the pioneers of human sexuality whose research touched off the sexual revolution. Seeing the sexual tension in their own relationship is mesmerizing to watch each week, as they make ground breaking professional strides in the understanding of human sexuality. The show draws us in because we want to see how their personal connection to each other leads to their professional breakthroughs in the area of sex. This show takes place in the 1950s, yet the conflict between the personal and the professional is something that we can all connect with no matter what the time period.
When you give people an inside view of who your characters are and what fuels them to do what they do, you create a connection. Your audience will return each week to experience this connection. In today’s television landscape, the personal arcs in your story are the key to the professional success of your series.