Focus on the Protagonist

When stories stray from the protagonist and the events of her journey to serve up “interesting” secondary characters’ lives and/or large, intangible world events, the result is often a fuzzy narrative that doesn’t captivate its audience.

The elemental principle here: Focus on the Protagonist.

Holding focus on a single person throughout a narrative satisfies our unconscious, innate need to relate to a single life outside of our own as a means to finding deeper truths within ourselves. Stories mirror us. It’s one of the reasons we’ve gathered around campfires for millennia and it’s why our most resonant stories follow a single hero as they struggle to break through their obstacles.

A recent screening of Love and Other Disasters (written and directed by Alek Keshishian) offers a good example of narrative fuzzy focus. This film’s logline:

A hyperactive and high-fashion American transplant living in London and working for Vogue magazine does her best to enhance the lives of those around her while remaining blissfully unaware of the man who longs to profess his true love to her.

So that puts our focus on the girl as protagonist. The film, however, plays out around her roommate’s search for true love as embodied in a chance encounter with one man. And truly, his storyline was the most compelling. Why? For one, he was the one with the problem and with something to lose. He was the one for whom some life-changing external event forced change in his life. He was the one around whom friends rallied support and, lastly, he was the one who learned a life lesson (before she) in the end. Sounds like the making of a hero, no?

What may have happened is that the writer/director wanted to tell the stories of two people, bound by the their friendship for each other and their similar attitudes towards love. That story goal could have been reached had the story’s events shifted to revolve around the roommate with the “American Transplant’s” adventures mirroring his. (It’s likely that casting had a major impact on the outcome of this film as the most bankable star was not the roommate character.) A better solution would have been to craft a stronger story goal.

Check the logline. See a hint of troubles to come? The section that clearly states what the hero wants–what she’s going to risk everything to get–says, “[she] does her best to enhance the lives of those around her.” She’s missing a pressing problem. She’s missing a reason for us to be compelled to stick with her. According to this, we’re watching a do-gooder on a regular day (see Vera Drake for a more successful take on that theme) and that just isn’t riveting, meaningful cinema.

What’s needed for most mass-market entertainment is a throughline that will pull the writer and audience to the end of a story, and that throughline–even in ensemble pieces–usually focuses on a single hero battling their personal obstacles, breaking their mold, and changing along the way.

Photo credit: Mute* on Flickr

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  1. This is awesome stuff.

    I was going to say more, but I think “awesome” covers it.

    bekbek says:

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