In the above climactic scene from Winter’s Bone, we witness Ree’s character arc climax. Character arc climaxes are different than what you might find in a commercial action film. In an action film, the climactic scene will likely focus on an external conflict (good guy versus bad guy) as well as the physical and structural progressions of the plot—i.e., a car/plane/train chase where the protagonist defeats the antagonist in a shoot-out.
Literary films center on character arc climaxes based primarily on internal character conflicts.
Commercial formulaic films center on plot arc climaxes based primarily on external character conflicts.
In a literary or character-based film, the climactic scene will focus on the protagonist’s emotional arc, such as in the above film clip when Ree finally comes to the climactic and emotional realization (and repercussions) of her goal: saving her family house. She must save her family home if she is to continue supporting her dependent mother and two younger siblings. Without proof that her father is dead, the authorities will foreclose on the house and kick the children out. Ree must find her dead father and provide proof of death. To do this, she must fish him out of his watery grave and cut off his hands so to prove his death to the authorities. In Ree’s climactic scene, she must confront not only her external conflict (save the family home) but also and primarily a multitude of internal conflicts (loss of father, abandonment, death, accepting help from those who have harmed her, blindly searching beneath the surface for remains of a parent, having the fortitude to do whatever it takes…. It’s easy to see how this scene creates both literal and metaphorical climaxes.)
This distinction between literary and commercial films is not prescriptive. There are certainly films that satisfy both a literary and commercial aesthetic. Such films would be Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Little Miss Sunshine, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?…
Writing Exercise: Character Arc Climax
Choose one of your developing screenplays. This week, you will explore this screenplay in terms of how the climax reflects the character arc and internal conflicts. Follow these guidelines for revising your climax:
- Consider the main internal conflicts of your protagonist. How are these internal conflicts rooted within the main external conflict? For example: Ree’s external conflict (save her family home) is directly related to her internal conflicts surrounding abandonment and more.
- What must your protagonist do in the pinnacle climactic scene in order to satisfy her/his goal?
- How does the setting of this pinnacle climactic scene reflect the internal conflicts of the protagonist? For example: Ree must fish beneath the surface of cold water in order to find her dead father’s corpse. (Obviously, Winter’s Bone is a dark literary aesthetic; however, the aesthetic does not have to be so dark for the character arc climax to work. Imagine that instead of searching for her dead father to save her home, Ree is on a camping trip with her best friend, their favorite song is playing on the car radio, I’ll stop the world and melt with you… but Ree is not present and is always on the phone with her new boyfriend. Her best friend becomes hurt and throws the cell phone into the water and Ree threatens to throw her friend’s childhood bear into the water and makes fun of a grown woman carrying around a stuffed bear. The friend is hurt. Ree bought that bear for her friend, 8th birthday. Now, the friends are pissed at each other and not talking. The friend goes to find firewood and breaks her ankle. They rush to the car, but the battery has died because they have left the radio on too long. Maybe if they can find the cellphone, they can dry it out and use it. So they get in the canoe and paddle out to the location where the cell phone dropped into the water. And look, there’s a brown bear on shore walking toward camp. It smells the food left out. Ree AND her friend are frantically searching beneath the surface of the water for the phone now, tipping the canoe so far that it dumps them into the cold water. The bear is eating all their food. The car battery is dead. Ankle broken. And Ree asks if there are alligators in Virginia. Both friends begin feverishly working together and feeling the bottom with their feet, trying to find the cellphone. Their hands are numb and their feet and legs are numb and the friend can barely stand and keeps falling. Every once in a while, one of them points and calls out, alligator! False alarm. Finally, Ree finds the cellphone and raises it above her head in a triumphant pose. The friend says, “Okay, now we just have to dry it out.”
“Did you bring any rice?”
“Why would I bring rice on a camping trip?”
“If we put the cellphone in a jar with rice and seal it, the rice will absorb the water.”
“But who would bring rice on a camping trip?”
“Who would throw our only cellphone into the water?”
“I wouldn’t have thrown it if you hadn’t of brought it!”
I’ll stop the world and melt with you…
And so on…
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