Author: Melanie Williams Oram, Chair, Screenwriting Department, New York Film Academy
It’s against our nature to fail. We’re programmed to succeed at all costs. Our fear of failure can cause us to be risk averse, to stay in our lane, and to accept tasks where we know we can shine because we will only have to use skills that are clearly in our wheel house. Creating memorable characters means counteracting your natural instincts to avoid failure at all costs. A screenplay character needs to be willing to learn new skills, to venture into new lands, and most importantly to take risks. Intriguing and complex characters in good screenplays succeed where ordinary people do not because they leave their comfort zones willingly in spite of the fact that failure is not just a remote worry but a real possibility. In fact screenplay characters MUST live through an Epic Fail incident in order to reach their goal.
Creating an Epic Fail moment is an essential building block to developing an iconic screenplay character. An Epic Fail Incident usually happens around the midpoint of a screenplay and is the place in the story where the character reaches an obstacle so great, so high, and so deep there’s nothing for her to do but face the challenge head on. She cannot avoid this obstacle and despite all of her best efforts her plans do not succeed. She suffers a major setback and she experiences an Epic Fail incident.
Like all key story points, The Epic Fail moment needs a set up so that the pay off can be rewarding for the character and the audience. An Epic Fail incident can only happen if there’s something at stake. The protagonist must face the reality that if she fails to overcome this obstacle she will lose something that’s truly important to her. The higher the stakes, the more compelling the Epic Fail moment becomes. An Epic Fail incident can cost the protagonist her job, the trust of a loved one, or even her freedom.
Why do we love characters like Neo in The Matrix or Annie in Bridesmaids? It’s because they don’t just screw up situations and fix them quickly. They suffer from a tremendous loss during an Epic Fail moment but they are able to reboot and find a way to succeed. Neo fights hard but Morpheus still gets captured by the machines. Ultimately he chooses to believe in his own abilities, accept his destiny and beat the machines at their own game. Annie totally bombs in all her duties as maid of honor and destroys her friendship with her best friend Lillian. After Annie’s friendship with Lillian disintegrates, Annie is left broken and alone and she decides to abandon the silly and hurtful competition to prove that she’s Lillian’s BFF. Annie refocuses her efforts and insures that Lillian’s wedding gets back on track and salvages the seemingly irreparable damage done to her friendship with her best friend.
Two very important things happen when you include an Epic Fail incident in your screenplay. It gives your audience a chance to connect with your protagonist. Everyone wants to see a character succeed against all odds. Think about the first time you saw Rocky and you watched the scene where Rocky initially runs the stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He’s alone, he’s winded, and he barely makes it to the top. Clearly there’s no way that this character is ready to get into the ring with the heavyweight champion of the world. Rocky is trying to train but he’s failing completely. The audience connects with Rocky’s struggle and his determination to overcome his feelings of inadequacy and failure. Later in the film when we see the iconic scene where Rocky runs the stairs again, he’s triumphant and he’s followed by scores of people who are encouraging him to succeed. Rocky’s has transformed from a down and out, isolated low level hoodlum with no future to a guy who becomes a hero in his community and is ready to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. The audience connects with Rocky in that moment. We’ve witnessed Rocky fail utterly and now we’re excited by his success. We want him to win. Rocky’s victory on the stairs would not have been so satisfying if we didn’t see him grapple with what appears to be inevitable defeat.
Also, an Epic Fail moment allows the character to experience a reboot or a flip-the-script moment where she can learn from her mistakes, develop a new strategy, and continue with her journey to reach her goal. The Epic Fail pitches the character into the depths of despair and the agony of defeat but it also allows her to reinvent herself. Armed with the pain and the heartache that the character experiences during the Epic Fail and combined the with the knowledge she gets from the reboot, the character is positioned to reach her goal and more than likely make an indelible impression on the minds of the audience.