When Does A Screenwriter Reveal A Character’s Core Wound In A Screenplay? by Michael Hauge



Film Courage:  Let’s talk about wounds and fears of our main character.  How severe should they be?  If they’re too extreme, will they scare the viewer away?

Michael Hauge:  Well first of all keep in the mind that the wound is something that always occurs before the story actually begins.  It’s in the character’s backstory.  Rarely in a movie will we actually see that wound.  The only reason we would see it is if there’s a prologue that shows the wound.  So if you take a movie like TWISTER where we see her father swept away by a tornado and we flash forward to where she’s a grown up but we know that’s a wounding experience that is affecting her now.  Or it might be in a flashback.  HITCH is a good example of that.  I’m not really fond of flashbacks as a rule, especially to reveal wounds but in that movie it works I think because it’s such a funny flashback as well as touching and establishes such an important quality for the character of Hitch because we see when he was in college he had his heart broken and that’s where he acquired the belief.  If I’m going to fall in love with anybody it’s going to lead to a broken heart, which leads to his identity which is I’ll help everybody else fall in love but it’s not for me.

So I think it’s more palatable if you will, but I don’t think you’re going to scare anybody away with it because oftentimes we won’t see it.  So keep in mind you’re not going to announce the wound in most movies.  Sometimes we’re aware, like in SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE the opening shot is a man holding his son’s hand over a grave saying “Mommy died.”  That’s pretty direct.  Oftentimes we don’t learn what that wound is until  well into the story.  It’s well half way through GOODWILL HUNTING before we find out about the abuse that he suffered when he was a child or find out the details about his father taking a belt to him.  In GRAVITY, it doesn’t open by saying “I’m sorry about your daughter dying.”  It comes out gradually after the opportunity when the space debris comes through and destroys the ship and so on.  Then Ryan (Dr. Ryan Stone) is talking to the George Clooney character and revealing what it was that happened back on earth that led to her daughter dying and why she is carrying that around with her.  So it’s not going to be abrupt.  It’s not going to be right at the top of the story most of the time.  And last of all, the most effective ways to reveal the wound is through dialogue.  It’s oftentimes more powerful to hear about a wound that the character suffered than it would be to actually watch it on the screen.  A great example of this is the movie LA CONFIDENTIAL.  By the way I just read the Curtis Hanson, who co-wrote and directed the movie, just passed away yesterday.  So this is the day we’re filming this thing and I’m so sad because I think it is just one of the great American movies and great American screenplays.  But the wound for Bud White, the Russell Crowe character is when he was a child he watched his father beat mother to death with a tire iron while he was chained to the bed and he was left there with the body for two days.  That would be such an unbelievably gruesome experience to watch on the screen.  It’s such a beautiful moment when he finally reveals it because it’s right after the mid-point.  He’s just made love to Lynn (Bracken) the Kim Basinger character.  And it shows how they have gotten closer.  They are connected more at this level of essence.  Finally he’s opening up about exactly what the pain is that he’s been carrying around so long and what led to him kind of becoming this brute cop who still does everything he can to rescue women.  So I don’t think it’s something to worry about in the way you’ve said.  I think it’s something to skillfully weave into the story so that we’ll feel more affinity to the character and it will lead to the character’s identity.

Film Courage:  You’re saying that we don’t have to show the wound or explain what happened but at some point we do reveal it?  Or are there some stories where we know they’re wounded but it’s never totally revealed what that wound is or how it happened?

Michael Hauge:  Yes.  There are movies where it’s never clearly stated.  TITANIC is that way.  It’s never clear what he identity is and what he essence is.  She longs to be passionate.  She longs to live a fulfilled, passionate, adventuresome life, but she’s stuck with this mother who interfere in her life and a rich guy who is really a jerk.  And so it never says “Well when I was a child this happened.  Or when I was an adolescent this happened.  We can infer some things.  The inferences I make is probably she either had no father or the father abandoned them early on.  And her mother is so intent that she find a rich guy to take care of her.  But it’s never really stated fully, so you can go without revealing it as long as we get a clear idea of the identity that has resulted for the hero is.  The main thing that I think is you as the novelist or you as the screenwriter need to know what the wound is.  You need to know the backstory for your hero well enough that you can say this is what wounded them in the past and this is why they are the way they are in the present.

Question for the Viewers:  What other movies came to mind while watching this clip?

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