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Never Lose Your Characters Again: Tips for Tracking Character Arcs While Writing

March 26, 2024
9 min read time

Whether you have one main character or several, tracking their character arcs is not always easy.

Many screenwriters focus on the external plot, especially if it’s an action/adventure or thriller/horror. Even though careful plotting is important for the above genres, you should never lose sight of your main characters. The most successful and enduring films have augmented high-concept plots with great characters. Ideally, the arc of your main characters should be intertwined with the main plot and work together in a symbiotic fashion

When you have a compelling character arc working alongside a crackerjack plot, it all comes together to become a story. That’s what ultimately elevates and distinguishes a screenwriter from the pack: are you a storyteller?

Being able to track a character arc is one of the key elements of storytelling. The better you get at it, the more emotionally invested readers will be in your script. This is why it’s an important skill for screenwriters to develop.

Read More: 5 Steps for Developing Great Characters

Story vs. Plot

Many people confuse a story with a plot, and it’s understandable: the difference between the two is subtle. In the past, I would sometimes say or write “story” when I really meant “plot” (e.g., my article “Right Story, Right Character”).

Essentially, the plot is the narrative foundation of your story: it’s what happens. Let’s use the example of arguably the most well-known superhero origin story: how Peter Parker became Spider-Man. A radioactive or genetically altered spider bites Peter Parker, and he gets superpowers. This is a plotline: it’s what happens

If we were watching a film focused solely on the spider-biting incident and Peter’s new powers, it wouldn’t have much of an emotional impact. But as most people know, there’s more to how Peter Parker became Spider-Man. It involves his selfish reaction to gaining his powers, the fate of his Uncle Ben, and learning that “with great power comes great responsibility.” This is what makes it a story: it’s more than what happens but also how things develop and how they resolve

Think of a story as a vehicle on a journey, and the character and plot are both passengers: they might take turns driving, but they’re always traveling on the same road.

Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) fighting the Green Goblin in 'Spider-Man' (2002)

A Character in Constant Motion 

As in the above analogy, a character should be in constant motion: as your plot develops, your characters should likewise be developing (especially your main characters).

In another one of my articles, “How To Create an Emotional Through Line in Your Screenplay,” I wrote the following: 

“There should never be a scene in which your primary characters aren’t winning or losing more than they were in the prior scene. Even if it’s a minute difference, there should always be a difference. Every scene should be a step backward or a step forward. Whether it’s a quiet moment or an action-packed set piece, it should act as a building block to a larger arc. If you can’t see how a character’s emotional state in a scene differs from their prior scene, you’re likely not tracking it correctly and need to revise.

To expand on this point, tracking a character arc is tracking the external and internal conflict of your character: what’s happening to them and how they’re reacting to it. Even if it’s a “slice of life drama” and we’re following a character with a status quo existence, they should be internally going through some sort of metamorphosis. Perhaps they’re restless and dream of a different life. This dream might never be realized, but maybe there’s a moment in which they almost broke free. That’s a tragedy and, more importantly, a story. In this scenario, it’s character-driven, but there’s still motion.

Donnie Creed (Michael B. Jordan) looking into a practice mirror while Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) coaches him in 'Creed' (2015)

Even if your character ends where they began, there should be divergent paths along the way. Generally speaking, the most well-received stories tend to have pronounced character arcs where the protagonist is in a different place from where they began (for better or worse). A well-tracked character arc keeps your reader emotionally engaged, and the tracking acts as a signpost for an impending and potentially dramatic development: your character is changing, and where will this change take them?

But how do you effectively track a character arc when screenwriting?

Are there any tools available that can help a beginner or even an experienced screenwriter in Final Draft 13?

Read More: Final Draft 13 Is Here!

Screenwriting Tools For Tracking Character Arcs

In addition to formatting your script to industry standards, Final Draft has several screenwriting tools to help you track a character arc while outlining and writing.

Final Draft’s Beat Board is a great first step to tracking a character arc. You can create and move around different beats within the Beat Board—similar to sticky notes or index cards—and you can likewise select colors for beats, helping you to connect subplots or, in this case, a specific character arc. 

You can also connect beats with Flow Lines to connect different beats in the Beat Board. Let’s say you have a story beat in which your protagonist struggles with a major obstacle in their journey: create a separate beat noting their emotional and mental state as they struggle with this obstacle and connect it to the story beat with a Flow Line. If you repeatedly create and connect beats detailing your protagonist’s journey (both externally and internally), you’ll have a fully fleshed-out character arc before even “going to script.”

Once your story takes shape, drag the beats to the Outline Editor, where you can further organize the outline you’re constructing and eventually send it to your script (via the “Send Outline to Script” button on the Outline Editor’s left panel). The outline—including all of the beats you’ve dragged to the Outline Editor—will now appear in your script as Outline Elements (which you can make the foundation for your rough draft). This means all the beats you’ve created tracking character arcs will also be in your script to guide you.

In addition to a more customizable Outline Editor, Final Draft 13 includes another tool that can help you track character arcs: Structure Lines. Structure Lines allow you to assign colors to outline acts and scenes for quick reference where you are in your story structure while writing. Assign the same color you’ve used in your character arc beats to any scene in which there’s a major turning point for your character (e.g., a success, a failure, an epiphany, etc.).

You can also assign colors to Structure Lines in the Navigator Script Tab. 

The Navigator tool provides a bird’s eye view of your screenplay and the ability to navigate and revise it on a macro level. Any color you assign to Structure Lines in Navigator 2.0 will update on the script page because Navigator 2.0 (also included in Final Draft 13) has greater connectivity with your script than previous versions. Whether you’re working from the Outline Editor or the Navigator, all of your edits will reflect in your script.

If you want to track a character arc from every stage of the screenwriting process—from creating beats to outlining to writing—make use of these above tools.

The art of storytelling is balancing plot and character and bringing it all together. 

Never lose sight of your main characters and their story within the larger story.

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