Screenwriting 101: The Protagonist

They ask me to come to Hollywood to work on an animated movie about ants. It is 1995.

I’ve written screenplays before, I am not a neophyte, but I this is the big leagues and I have to be smart.

I’m in a room with Nina Jacobson and Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald and Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, and they’re all sitting there looking at me, waiting for me to say something really smart, and here I am, a guy who normally does no-budget experimental plays off-off-Broadway.

And I’m talking about this animated movie about ants and “what it means” and and what kind of world it takes place in and what its central metaphors are and where it fits in with movie history and how it reflects different levels of social truth, and after about fifteen seconds of this bullshit Jeffrey Katzenberg closes his eyes tight and puts his fingers to his temple as though he has a piercing headache and says “Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! WHAT DOES THE GUY WANT?

The “guy” Mr. Katzenberg refers to is, of course, The Protagonist. The reason for Mr. Katzenberg’s mounting anxiety and anger toward my presentation is that I am wasting his time. I am describing the movie we’re making in every way but the way that matters. Because structurally, the only thing that matters in a screenplay is What The Protagonist Wants. There is nothing else.

(Mr. Katzenberg repeats his question to me many times during my work with him, so many times that I finally write it down on a postcard and stick it up over my desk. And if you are an untested screenwriter reading this journal, I advise you to do the same.)

Simply put, What The Protagonist Wants is the reason the movie is happening. Charles Foster Kane wants love on his own terms, Sheriff Brody wants to rid Amity Island of the shark, Henry Hill wants to be a gangster, Michael Corleone wants to distance himself from his family, Roy Neary wants to meet the aliens, Indiana Jones wants to recover the Ark of the Covenant, Luke Skywalker wants to get the hell off Tatooine. The movie is nothing more or less than the protagonist pursuing his goal and the things that get in his way. The stronger the protagonist’s drive, the better the story will be. The more formidable his opposition, the better the story will be.

And that is all a screenplay is. The Protagonist pursues his goal, and forces get in his way. And either the Protagonist gets what he wants or he does not, and sometimes, during the pursuit of the goal, the Protagonist’s goal changes. So Michael Corleone starts off wanting to distance himself from his family and ends up becoming the family patriarch. Luke Skywalker starts off wanting only to get off Tatooine and ends up saving the galaxy. And in some of the best movies, the protagonist’s goal changes so much that, by the end of the story, we are left with a profound, exhilarating sense of life as it is lived.

Is it formula? It is not. It is storytelling. This is how it works. There are millions of possible variations to this idea, but this is how it works. When a movie gets boring, it’s because the moviemakers have strayed too far from the protagonist’s pursuit of his goal. If a movie is uninvolving from the get-go, it’s because the screenwriter has failed to invest his protagonist with sufficient enough ardor in pursuit of his goal. Or worse yet, he has failed to give his protagonist a goal at all. The antagonists are unfocused, the protagonist gets off on a tangent, the big musical number (or action sequence) stops the show but does not raise the stakes.

Somewhere in the back pages of this journal I referred to screenplay structure as a boat. You’re building a boat. If you follow the rules, your boat will float. If you are proficient in your skills, your boat will sail. If you are remarkably talented, your boat will zoom across the water, win the race, impress everyone and bring you millions of dollars. If you don’t know what you’re doing, your boat will sink. And if you are an “artist” with some brilliant “new idea” about what a “boat” is, you will have a work of art that is not a boat.

Why does it have to be this way? Why is this rule so ironclad? Why does it work? I don’t know why it works. I’ve learned through practice and experience that it does and that’s good enough for me.

Let’s go back to that meeting again about the movie with the talking ants. Mr. Katzenberg asks me “What Does The Guy Want?!”

What do I do? This is what I do: I stammer and look at my notes and say “well, he wants to change society,” or “he wants to find a better way to live” or “he can’t help but think that somewhere there is a better world.” All these, it turns out, are the wrong answers. The protagonist’s goal cannot be vague, ideological or symbolic. It must be concrete and physically attainable. John Connor may ultimately fight for freedom, but his goal in Terminator 2 is to get his mom out of the hospital and destroy the evil robot from the future.

Why must the protagonist’s goal be physically attainable? Because movies are made of pictures. A movie is not a novel, it can’t get inside a character’s mind very efficiently. What movies do best is record physical activity: the man runs, the car leaps off the bridge, the dinosaur attacks, the man and woman kiss, the building explodes, the spaceship glides silently across the vast reaches of nothingness. Serious movies about characters thinking deep thoughts are not going to capture a very big audience, but the dumbest movie in the world about people outrunning orange fireballs and large metal objects flying through the air will capture an enormous audience.

This is not to say that a movie cannot be about serious things. Ingmar Bergman made some of the greatest movies ever made about very serious things indeed, but his movies work because, beneath his experiments in formalism, he has a remarkably strong, even old-fashioned, sense of drama.

And if you can find a movie about subjects more serious than the ones in The Godfather, let me know.

The protagonist’s pursuit of his goal can be drawn clumsily or with great subtlety and sophistication. It can be boldly stated from the first scene (“All my life I wanted to be a gangster”) or it can remain mysterious and unsettling to the end (I’m looking at you, Daniel Plainview). It can be done so elliptically as to confound (remind me to tell you about the structure of 2001 some time) or it can be hammered home with a big iron mallet (“Let My People Go”).

Can there be a movie with a passive protagonist, where the protagonist doesn’t want anything in particular, and things just kind of happen to him? Yes. I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but I’m sure there’s one out there somewhere.

Oh wait, I’ve thought of one that comes close: Bambi. I can’t tell you why a movie with no plot and a passive protagonist can be such a classic narrative and a crushingly emotional experience, but Walt Disney (Walt Disney!) pulled it off somehow.

(I often imagine Walt Disney finally becoming unfrozen one day and showing up at the studio that bears his name, and everyone there is so glad to see him and they ask the master if he has any great new ideas for movies and he says “Yeah, how about a 2 1/2 hour plotless movie that celebrates the art of symphonic music and a 61-minute cartoon about a baby elephant who learns how to fly while he’s in the middle of an 8-minute-long alcohol-induced hallucination?”)

(Perhaps we could say that Bambi wants To Learn. He wants to learn the names of things, how to behave, how to be safe, how to have fun, so forth, and in the end he learns a few lessons he would have rather not learned, and finally, through experience, achieves Wisdom. Boy, that movie blows me away.)

Even The Dude wants something — to solve the mystery of the missing girl. It takes him 90 minutes to arrive at this desire, but he finally gets there. And I would say that if there is one solid reason why a movie as brilliant as The Big Lebowski failed at the box office, The Dude’s lack of ambition would be it.

Can there be movies with multiple protagonists? Yes there can. As a rule, they don’t do as well as movies with single protagonists. Pulp Fiction would be the exception to this rule. Hannah and Her Sisters is another one.

The key to analyzing a movie’s structure is to identify the protagonist (not always as easy as it appears to be) and then trace that character’s path through the narrative. The protagonist’s path through the narrative is the meaning of the movie. I can’t think of an exception to this rule.

When I get done writing the ant movie, I sit down and watch all my favorite movies again. Now that I have the key to analyzing structure, somehow they’ve all become different movies. Things that once seemed weird or mysterious or confounding now seem obvious and baldly stated. Narratives that were once gorgeous and sweeping now seem as dry and clinical as a schematic. For a period of time, all movies are ruined by this process, I’m not seeing a movie anymore but a structure with pictures hung on it, but finally I am able to absorb this idea into my gut and enjoy these movies again, not just for their screenplays but for the moviemakers executions of their screenplays. If you have an interest in writing movies, I suggest you submit to this process.

There are many many books out there about screenwriting that have all these terms, dozens of them it seems, for all these different beats that every successful screenplay supposedly has, and I’ve tried reading a few but I can’t make any sense of them. On the other hand, I found Robert McKee’s Story to be hugely illuminating and useful. McKee gets a lot of stick from the screenwriting community and I’m not quite sure why. What Story did for me was not promote formula but identify tools. There are names for all the different parts of stories just like there are names for all the different parts of a boat, and up until reading the book I was just kind of fumbling around in my toolbox grabbing hold of whatever felt right, sticking my boats together in whatever way pleased me, whereas after reading Story I was able to look at my work and see where I had built well, where I had patched over a hole with a bit of shiny metal, where I had forgotten to attach a tiller, et cetera.

Also, I found David Mamet’s On Directing Film extremely helpful.

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17 Responses to “Screenwriting 101: The Protagonist”
  1. Now that’s a manifesto!

    I’m enjoying your concise writings on writing.
    I find those screenplay books intimidating- they always mess with my mojo-

    I do find David Mamet’s On Directing Film a helpful read when I’m trying to bulk up for a new project-
    as well as Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player
    & Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer

    As far as the Dude is concerned I think he just wants to be left alone to live his life, but people keep getting in his way.
    He only becomes a “hero” in the end because it will allow him to get back to being left alone (or maybe he just wants to go bowling).

    • Todd says:

      Rebel Without a Crew makes me feel like a whining crybaby because I complain about how nobody is producing my movies and Rodriguez shows how to get up off your ass and make your own goddamn movies.

  2. 55seddel says:


    That was incredible. McKee’s book was the textbook for my screen writing course.

    You are amazing to read, I applaud this!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Leaving Las Vegas

    Leaving Las Vegas, I think, has a protagonist who doesn’t want anything, unless you count drinking yourself to death as wanting something.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Leaving Las Vegas

      Self-annihilation seems like a pretty strong desire to me. The protagonist of Fight Club has the same goal, although it takes him a little while to figure that out.

  4. Thanks!

    P is for Protagonist
    That’s good enough for me!

  5. teamwak says:

    Wow, just now terrifying was it having Jeffery Katzenberg shouting “But what does the guy want?!” lol

    Did you dare ask Senior Spielbergo for his autograph?

    • Todd says:

      Plenty terrifying.

      I will tell you of my interactions with Mr. Spielberg another time.

      • teamwak says:

        I remember seeing a documentary about Wallace & Gromit creaters Aardman Studios in the UK a few years ago, about the time Dreamworks bought them for multi-millions. It was big news here as W&G are national treasures (track down Shaun the Sheep if your a fan of W&G. Genius!)

        They were interviewing a Hollywood talking head about it. They mentioned that Jeffery was personally over-seeing Aardman and the man looked genuinely surprised and said “Poor bastards!” lol. That told me everything I needed to know about JK.

        • Todd says:

          My nickname for Jeffrey is “The Story Nazi.” I mean it as a compliment. The bad news is, if you’re not giving him what he needs, he’s incredibly rude and dismissive. The good news is, when you do give him what he needs, poof! your movie is getting made.

          I greatly admire his understanding of story, which is the basis for all his success and is extremely rare for a Hollywood executive.

  6. dougo says:

    What does Chance the Gardener want?

    Off topic, but what do you think of the Sarah Connor Chronicles? I think it’s pretty good, but I’m realizing that my bar is a lot higher these days (and the show hit on a lot of my pet peeves) so I removed the season pass after three episodes. But I’d like to hear your take on it.

    • Todd says:

      Chance is an interesting protagonist, in that what he “wants,” to the extent that he wants anything, is to remain a child — to have someone take care of him, to not have to make any decisions about anything. He doesn’t want to connect, he doesn’t care about other people, he’s completely self-centered. He succeeds remarkably well at achieving his goals, and he is tenacious in his pursuit — he lets nothing whatsoever get in his way, including dying men, horny women, international incidents or hinted-at godliness.

      I have not yet seen The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

  7. Anonymous says:


    Can what the protoganist wants switch during the course of a screenplay, or does it simply need to be a desire that encompasses all of his or her actions?

    For example, say a protagonist desperately wants to get married. Halfway through the script, he realizes that he actually loves being single and needs to avoid committment at all costs. Does that mean his WDTPW shifts, or would be said that his true WDTPW is to be happy?

    James Frazier

    • Todd says:

      The protagonist’s desire can change as often as the drama requires it to. Many of the greatest, most popular screenplays have a protagonist whose goal begins as one thing, then changes into something else by the end of the movie. Kramer vs. Kramer, for instance. Or The Godfather.

      • Anonymous says:

        Actually the Dude just wants his rug back 🙂
        Then his new goal is to make a buck off of the whole situation.
        But these are both external goals, goals plot-wise.
        We all know of course that all the Dude wants is to be left alone, smoke pot and play bowling.

        Great blog, Todd.

        – Dob

        • Todd says:

          Ah, but does the Dude want his rug back? Because he doesn’t think to pursue the rug until Walter suggests it. The Dude is buffeted about by any number of external influences until 90 minutes into the movie. Which even Mr. Katzenberg admits is okay, for a comedy.