The worst that can happen? Maximising drama in The Last Jedi
When he sat down to write Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson made a list of the worst things that could possibly happen to the characters.
Johnson wanted to maximise the drama of the story by confronting them with the biggest possible challenge. In other words, he drew on the old writing maxim that you should put your characters in a tree and throw rocks at them.
The goal is to show how your characters deal with the most testing of obstacles. As in real life, their true character is revealed by how they act when they're hit by rocks, and hit rock bottom.
There are various ways of throwing metaphorical rocks at your characters. Let's take a look at how Johnson went about it in The Last Jedi.
Take away the thing they want the most
Rey's greatest desire is to find her parents and make sense of why they abandoned her. She longs with every fibre of her being to learn their abandonment had some meaning, some larger purpose. But the answer she gets is the very opposite of that.
Goals are the main driving force of a character and their story. So to make a character face the worst, snatch away the thing that drives everything they do.
A moment threatening the characters' greatest desire is seen in many movies around the end of the second act, when it appears all is lost. Examples from other films include Indiana Jones losing the Ark to to the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Seb and Mia breaking up in La La Land. In fact, characters often break up or fall out with each other around this point, as this is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to any romance or friendship.
Make their absolute worst fear come true
In The last Jedi, General Leia must face the possibility of the rebellion ending. Not only has the Resistance armada been destroyed, but even worse, no-one has answered their distress signal.
As in real life, your characters must face their fears in order to conquer them (or not). In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne adopts the Batman alter ego to keep his loved ones safe, but Rachel is still endangered. In La La Land, Seb fears selling out, and that's exactly what he ends up doing.
Sometimes when characters face their worst fear they learn it isn't as scary as they thought. For example, the Nazis get their hands on the Ark, but things don't go the way Indy feared. This is a great opportunity for a dramatic, unexpected twist, when a character faces their fear and it doesn't turns out the way they (or we) expect.
Challenge their core belief
Poe Dameron passionately believes that one man can make a difference, as we see in the opening scene when he attacks the vast Imperial Dreadnought alone.
But as the film progresses he's confronted with the realisation he is reckless and selfish, and that he needs to work as part of a team to achieve a collective goal.
Force your characters to confront that they may be living a lie by placing them in situations that shine a harsh light on the ideology that drives them. By facing their self-deception, or understanding that the world is more complicated than they thought, they can grow to new understanding.
In another example, Finn believes he has replaced the evil of the First Order with the righteousness of the Rebel/Resistance cause. But when he realises that both sides are tied together as part of the galactic military-industrial complex, he must face the realisation that things are not as clear-cut as they seem. Between the Light Side and the Dark Side there are still shades of grey, making it hard to know how to do what's right.
Get in their head
Note that the very worst thing to happen is something that challenges a character's beliefs and ideology rather than something that threatens their physical wellbeing. The actual stuff that happens to them - the places they go, the things they do, the people they encounter - is their external life, which provides the exciting backdrop to their struggle. But the stuff that goes on inside their head - their hopes, their dreams, their fears - is their internal life, and this is what audiences identify with.
So an external conflict is an actual argument or fight, like a space dogfight or lightsaber battle in Star Wars. An internal conflict is when a character is torn by their hopes, fears or beliefs.
External conflict can lead to physical consequences, like losing your job, being injured or even killed. But internal conflict leads to a fate worse than death: rejection, humiliation, self-loathing and other emotional disasters.
For example, in The Last Jedi Kylo Ren and Rey have to defeat the red-robed guards in a lightsaber battle. That's an external conflict - they might die. But the real battle, the one we connect with emotionally, comes immediately afterwards, when Rey and Ren argue about their future. That's driven by their internal conflict, based on their hopes and desires and fears.
Die Hard is another great example of the way internal and external goals are linked. John McClane's goal is to get his wife back, which is both an external and internal conflict. Externally that means literally rescuing from the clutches of terrorists. But the internal battle is much tougher: he must win her trust and love. If he loses to the terrorists he gets killed, which is pretty bad. But if he loses her love, he'll be emotionally destroyed, which is of course way, way worse.
The thing about external conflict is that you can be as fantastic as you want, creating something real people will never face - battling terrorists or duelling with laser swords on a spaceship. What makes that fantasy resonate is if it's rooted in universal emotions.
We all want to be loved, like Rey.
We all want to make a difference, like Poe.
We all want to be good, like Finn.
When you challenge your characters and see them grow, you allow the audience to have the same experience.
What can we learn?
Your characters' goals, hopes and desires drive your screenplay. Take the audience along with them on their emotional journey by making things as bad as they can get, both externally (what happens) and internally (what they think, want or feel).
To create drama, put your characters in a difficult situation - put them up a tree.
To reveal their character, make the situation worse - throw rocks at them.
To maximise the drama and emotion, make things as bad as they can be. Destroy the last spaceship. Reveal the saviour to be a traitor. Trap your heroes in an ice cave.
Test your characters to their limits by making them face the very worst thing that could happen to them.
Set the damn tree on fire.
If you want insightful feedback and constructive suggestions on your screenplay, drop me a line about script notes or coverage.
After all, what's the worst that can happen?