According to Hollywood producer Lindsay Doran, what an audience connects most strongly with in a story are the relationships.
Although an exciting, novel premise may induce people to buy a book or movie ticket, such as robots that box in Real Steel, what moves the audience is watching what happens to the relationship between two characters. (In Real Steel, that relationship is between the father, Charlie, and his son, Max.)
On the Scriptnotes podcast, three A-list screenwriters echoed Doran’s thesis that effective movies focus on a key relationship. The below comes from episode 152 of Scriptnotes, which featured a conversation between Aline Brosh McKenna, the screenwriter of The Devil Wears Prada and We Bought a Zoo; John August, the writer of Big Fish; and Craig Mazin, who wrote The Hangover Part II as well as the Chernobyl series on HBO.
Aline: [E]very movie I’ve written in any genre, you always start going — someone always says, or you say to yourself, “This is really a love story about these two people.”
Craig: All movies are.
Aline: Always. All movies are.
Craig: If they’re done right.
Aline: They’re always a love story between two people.
John: 21 Jump Street is a love story.
Aline: Sometimes you have the wrong people. I mean, name any movie we love, ET, even movies that are — every Hitchcock movie. I mean, they’re love stories.
John: Cast Away.
Craig: All movies have a central relationship. All of them. And knowing your central relationship and playing that through. And [Lindsay Doran] has this great thing. She talks about how some movies it’s do a thing, and then you get the relationship. And some movies the relationship is the thing.
The talk Craig is referring to is a TED talk from Lindsay Doran, who has produced The Firm, Sense and Sensibility, and other movies. I’ve included the TED Talk at the end of this post, but Lindsay’s main point, which I alluded to earlier, is that all of the emotional power of a story is contained within the relationships and that people go to the movies to see relationships, not accomplishments.
The subject of relationships in stories is so critical that the hosts of Scriptnotes recently devoted an entire episode to the subject. Here is part of what they said in episode 360:
Craig: It strikes me that nobody really talks about relationships when they’re doing their clunky, boring screenwriting classes and lectures. I mean, I’m sure some people out there do. But so often when I skim through these books they talk about characters and plot. They don’t talk about relationships. And I guess my point is I don’t care about character at all. I only care about relationship, which encompasses character. In short, it doesn’t matter what the character of Woody is until Buzz shows up.
Craig: Woody, until Buzz shows up, is – well, his character I could neatly fit it on a very small index card. Woody is the guy who is in charge and has sort of a healthy ego because he knows he’s the chosen one. So he’s kind of the benevolent dictator. OK. Boring. Don’t care. That’s why movies happen. We don’t want that to keep on going. What we want is for Shrek to leave the swamp and meet Fiona. Then the characters become things that matter because they’re in – go back to our conflict episode. Everything is about relationship. They should only talk about plot and relationships as far as I’m concerned. We should just stop talking about character. It’s a thing that’s separate and apart.
I think a lot of studio executives make this mistake when they take about character arcs. I hate talking about character arcs. The only arcs I’m interested in are relationship arcs.
John: Yeah. Shrek is not a character, but Shrek and Donkey together is a thing. Like that’s–
John: There’s no way to expose what’s interesting about Shrek unless you have Donkey around to be annoying to him. So you have to have some thing or person to interact with. Yes, there are – of course, exceptions. There are movies where one solo character is on a mission by him or herself and that’s the only thing you see. But those are real exceptions. And I agree with you that so many screenwriting books treat like, “Oh, this is the hero’s journey and this is the arc of the hero,” as if he or she is alone in the entire story. And they never are. And it’s always about the people around them and the challenges.
All of the above should jibe with your own experience of life. That is, in real life, just as in stories, the thing that reveals our character most effectively is how we interact with other people.
Examples of Central Relationships from Movies
Sometimes, there is just one relationship in a story, but other times there are multiple relationships, although generally one of those relationships is the principal or most influential one.
For example, in Real Steel, the central relationship is between Charlie and his son, Max, but Charlie’s relationship with his girlfriend also contributes to his growth.
Here are a few additional examples of central relationships in movies (other than the Woody and Buzz one already mentioned):
— Russell and Mr. Fredricksen in Up
— Pat and Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook
— Walt (Clint Eastwood) and the Asian teenage boy next door to him in Gran Torino
— Red and Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption
— Tom Hanks’s character and the volleyball, Wilson, in Cast Away
— Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca
— Danny and Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid
— Bertie and Lionel in The King’s Speech (a film that is so much a love story that it even features a break-up scene)
For each of the above movies, the central relationship is the movie. That is, the central relationship is the reason each of these movies is so moving and memorable.
Using Relationships To Guide Your Story Development Process
If you read my page on story structure, you know that a good story is an emotional and/or philosophical journey for your protagonist. And on that page, I said that figuring out how to get your character from their starting emotional and philosophical position to the one they end with requires that you figure out the relationship or relationships that will induce that change.
So, if you want to figure out your story through the relationships in it, you might follow the below steps:
Step One: Determine the broad strokes of your character’s emotional and/or philosophical journey. Is the journey just emotional, as in Billy Elliot (discussed below), or philosophical as well?
Step Two: Come up with a central relationship that will cause your character to change.
Step Three: Determine what other relationships contribute to your character’s growth.
Step Four: Write out, in general terms, the beats of the central relationship arc as you see them, starting with the nature of the relationship at the beginning and then writing out how the relationship changes and where it stands at the end of the story. It might be helpful to picture in particular the last happy moment between the two characters that your audience or readers will experience.
Step Five: Do the same for the other relationships in the story.
For the above, you can, of course, also start with how the relationship ends and then work your way backwards to how the relationship begins or its status at the start of the story.
How the relationship ends is what people sometimes refer to as the payoff. The payoff is the resolution of a scene, sequence, or story.
The payoff consists of two parts: 1. the resolution of the tension (the character achieves the goal, solves the mystery, or resolves his or her problem) and 2. the celebration with other characters as a result of that success.
As Lindsay Doran convincingly argues in her talk, it’s that second part—the rejoicing with other characters—that movie audiences actually care about.
Now, of course, not all endings have to be happy. You could also do a sad ending or a bittersweet ending, but in either case, we should understand that ending through the context of a relationship.
In the case of sad ending, you might reference the absence of the relationship—perhaps showing a character all alone, like Michael in The Godfather 2, as evidence of how he’s made the wrong choice.
Case Study: the Central Relationship of Billy Elliot
A good film to watch to understand these ideas is Billy Elliot, which has as its central relationship the relationship between Billy and his father. The story of the movie is told through their evolving relationship, which starts off as strained and tense and ends in a much more positive state.
Billy Elliot is set in a coal-mining community in 1980s England. The father of Billy Elliot, along with the other miners in the community, is on strike.
In the first scene we see between 11-year-old Billy Elliot and his widowed, coal miner father, Billy is playing the piano badly, and his father tells him to “leave it.” Billy stops, but he says that his mother would have let him play. The scene serves to demonstrate the tension in the house over the fact that Billy’s mother is dead.
Later, at Billy’s boxing lesson, his father watches as his son dances around in the ring, too scared to engage his opponent, and then gets punched and knocked down. The trainer says that Billy is a disgrace to his father and boxing. His father watches, clearly frustrated and embarrassed.
The strain between father and son grows only worse when Billy’s father discovers that Billy has been taking ballet lessons secretly. The two argue over this, and his father comes close to assaulting him, before Billy escapes.
Another important thing the film does during these middle sequences that helps set up the powerful ending is that the family’s financial and emotional circumstances keep getting worse and worse.
Things reach their lowest point in one sequence a little more than halfway in. In the setup scene, the father has to chop up their mother’s wooden piano to create wood to use in the fire. As the piano burns in the fireplace, the father toasts his family, “Merry Christmas,” and then promptly breaks down in sobs. This is arguably the lowest moment for the family, the bottoming out of the story emotionally before it begins a slow climb to the final payoff scene.
(The piano scene is also a great example of imbuing a physical object with emotional meaning. The initial scene with Billy playing the piano sets up that the piano is associated with the mother. The piano, in effect, is the mother. And so when the father has to destroy the piano, it is like he is losing his wife and Billy’s mom all over again.)
Later, that night, Billy’s father finds Billy dancing in the gym. And we get this scene:
Although the film initially presents the father’s reaction to seeing his son dancing as ambiguous, in the next scene, his father has gone to Billy’s dance teacher’s home to find out how much the Royal Ballet School will cost. In other words, the father, seeing Billy’s gift, is now on his side.
I often write about how a movie’s story is designed to heal the protagonist. In Billy Elliot, though, Billy Elliot doesn’t need to be healed; the father does. And many of the story events—his son taking up dancing, his other son striking and getting thrown in jail, his family struggling in general—are meant to heal the father, to push him to grow as a person. To make him walk off the picket line, become a scab, and begin to heal his family.
Some scenes later, the father accompanies Billy to an audition at the Royal Ballet School. Billy gets in, and then we get the payoff of the movie, which takes place after Billy is fully grown.
The scene combines the two elements Lindsay Doran describes: an accomplishment (with Billy now the lead ballet dancer) and the sharing of that accomplishment with characters the protagonist loves. All of the emotion of the scene comes from seeing how the movie’s central relationship has gone from his father nearly beating Billy because he wanted to dance to this complete turnaround:
Additional Notes on Billy Elliot
— Is knowing the central relationship enough?
One way to figure out the spine of your story is to identify the central relationship of the story and the scenes that show its progression, all the way to the end.
Billy Elliot, for example, also features a number of scenes relating to the strike, Billy’s relationship with his brother, Billy’s relationship with a sexually curious female peer, Billy’s relationship with a male peer who likes to cross-dress, Billy’s relationship with his ballet teacher, and Billy’s relationship with his absent mother.
But just as you can chart out the central relationship prior to writing a story, you can chart out the beats of these supporting relationships as well.
— Billy Elliot doesn’t have a central dramatic argument.
Another important aspect of Billy Elliot to note is that there is no philosophical journey for the characters or central dramatic argument (CDA) (so far as I can tell). Although I enjoy movies with a CDA, it’s not a requirement, and Billy Elliot shows that having a powerful emotional journey alone can be enough to create a great movie.
If you want to learn the basic structure of movies with a CDA and how the CDA can help guide you in plotting out the story, I suggest signing up for the below Holy Grail of story design, which also comes from one of the hosts of Scriptnotes.
— Billy Elliot doesn’t have a goal for much of the movie.
This is more evidence that, contrary to what you may have been told, your characters do not need goals; that is, there is no rule that your character must have a goal. The goal of Billy getting into the Royal Ballet School doesn’t enter into the movie until about halfway in.
— All good movies have a payoff scene featuring the conclusion of the relationship arc.
It’s not just Best Picture nominee movies that have a good payoff scene that concludes the relationship arc. Nearly all good movies do.
Take, for example, Minority Report, which features several payoff shots in the climax: Tom Cruise’s character, the father whose son died, is shown back with his wife, who is now pregnant, while the three pre-cogs are living on an island, where they can live in peace with their gift.
Starting with a Central Relationship Arc Gives You a Strong Story Spine
If you can figure out the central relationship of your story, you’ll be in great shape, with the most important story developments figured out. Sure, there are other aspects of your story to determine, including other relationships, but you’ll have a strong story spine in place.
And you’ll have a considerable advantage over all the writers who may have never realized that . . .
What an audience connects with most strongly in a story are the relationships.
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