A Man Called Otto: Character Building

This episode, we’re going to be talking about A Man Called Otto and looking at a very important screenwriting topic that we haven’t covered for a while on this podcast: emotional need. 

We’re going to be talking about how to get in touch with your own emotional needs and the emotional needs of your characters. We’ll also be talking about a process called meditative writing, through which we can get past our inner censors in order to access those emotional needs in boht our characters and ourselves. 

Meditative writing can be a very powerful way of writing, particularly if we are struggling to figure out what our characters want. If we’re struggling to connect to our characters, or if we feel like our characters are two-dimensional puppets that we’re puppeteering around the plots of our screenplay, the solution is to get in touch with universal emotional needs and how they drive a character’s actions.

In our script analysis of A Man Called Otto, we’re not only going to understand the structure and the stakes of the film, but also develop some tools as screenwriters to connect to our characters at the primal level. 

We’re going to explore some cool hypnotic stuff to get deep underneath our own inner censor, and hopefully, we’re going to be learning a lot about writing and emotional need. 

Now, the screenplay for A Man Called Otto is not without its problems: there’s a level on which this movie functions like a Hallmark movie. It’s predictable. It’s sappy. There are some places where the writers are simply not connected to their characters, and that lack of connection creates a level of falseness that we can feel. 

Oddly, that’s also part of what makes the movie work tonally. A Man Called Otto is a feel-good movie, you know you’re going to feel good the whole time and you’re never going to have to wonder is this going to turn out OK? 

This is not Succession. This is a really, really expensive Hallmark movie.  

At the same time, there are moments in the screenplay for A Man Called Otto in which the writers are deeply connected to the emotional needs of the characters.

As the audience, you can feel those moments of connection as strongly as you can feel the moments of disconnection. Which makes the script a great model for understanding what happens when we connect to– and also disconnect from– our characters as we write.

What we’re going to talk about today is a technique that can hopefully help you stay more connected, more often. 

If you were working on a script like A Man Called Otto, a stronger connection to the emotional needs of all your characters could help get underneath some of the problems in the script and maybe take it to a deeper level. 

There’s one character that you can see the writers of A Man Called Otto are nearly always deeply connected to on the primal level of emotional need: Otto. 

You can see that connection in the very first scene.

For those of you who are worried about spoilers: you don’t really have to worry about spoilers in A Man Called Otto. If you’re experienced with screenwriting, you will watch the first scene and you will know everything that’s going to happen. You will know where it’s going to end… and all the places that you expect it to go are correct. 

That said, I’m going to focus mostly on the first scene of the screenplay of A Man Called Otto, and then we’ll talk a little bit about the larger arcs of the characters as we get deeper into the concepts of meditative writing and emotional needs.

The first scene in A Man Called Otto takes place in a big-box hardware store called the Busy Beaver– basically a Home Depot. Otto,Tom Hanks’s character, is trying to buy five feet of rope.

The rope a tangible object, a tangible goal, that both we and Otto are consciously aware of, on the simplest level, as the basic objective in the scene.

Otto wants to buy some rope. And he has a larger desire that the rope fits into: Otto wants to kill himself. 

So, in the simplest structural terms, Otto has a want for rope that drives the scene, and he has a want to kill himself that’s going to drive the whole movie. An objective, and a superobjective.

And, again, I’m not spoiling anything. The moment you see a guy buy five feet of rope, you know what’s going to happen in this film. 

You would think that the emotional stakes for A Man Called Otto should grow naturally from Otto’s desire to die. But the tangible goal alone is actually not where the feeling of the stakes comes from for the audience, in this script or in any other. 

Whenever we’re writing a character, just like in ourselves, there are multiple levels of want and need interacting with each other.

We need to understand the tangible goal in order to understand the stakes intellectually. The scene won’t make sense if we don’t understand what Otto actually wants from this hardware store, or what he plans to use it for. 

But on an emotional level, that’s not where we actually connect to the stakes. 

Most of us neither want to buy rope, nor to kill ourselves right now. So most of us, on a pure, tactical, tangible level, can’t actually connect with what Otto wants.

In the same way, most of us are never going to ride an Avatar creature, or rob a bank, or struggle for the fortunes of our father’s giant multinational company or decide the future of the country. 

Most of us are never going to actually share the concrete, tangible goals of our characters. 

And what that tells us is that the tangible goal is not enough. 

We understand the characters through their tangible goals. But we are moved, we are connected, we feel the stakes of our characters through their emotional needs. And that happens on an intuitive level, not on a conscious level. 

The primary emotional need driving Otto in the first scene of A Man Called Otto is the need for justice. 

Otto might not even be aware that he needs justice. If you asked Otto what he needs, he’s actually more likely to tell you what he wants. He would probably say, “I don’t need justice. I need rope. I need everybody around me not to be an idiot. I need to pay for five feet of rope and not six feet of rope. I need people to follow the rules that hold our society together. And I need someone to work at this hardware store who is older than 12 years old.” 

Otto wouldn’t be trying to lie to you: most of us are not aware of our emotional needs, or at least not most of the time. And yet, our underlying emotional needs are driving every single choice we make.

In both screenwriting and in life, there is nothing we do, no tangible goal that we want badly, that is not in some way connected to an emotional need. 

What’s really cool about characters is that, just like us, they can bounce around to different emotional needs even as the tangible want stays the same. 

Usually, people have a couple of emotional needs that are “hot” for them. 

Maybe you have a need for love that you’re constantly trying to satisfy, and that’s always showing up under why you do what you do. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need validation, or respect, or comfort, or safety, or meaning, or transcendence. These are universal emotional needs, even though we might feel some more strongly than others at different points in our lives.

Otto came to get the rope, he’s gonna leave with the rope, and he’s going to pay what he wanted to pay for the rope: the tangible objective of the scene doesn’t change. But it’s not really just rope he’s seeking.

That tangible want for rope in the first scene of A Man Called Otto is standing in for a myriad of different underlying emotional needs in different parts of the scene, and those emotional needs are what your audience can actually connect to as they read your screenplay or watch your movie.

I don’t want rope right now. At all. And if I did want rope, I wouldn’t really want to cut it with my own pocket knife like Otto does. I’d want somebody else to cut it for me. And if I was going to buy rope, I’m happy to pay for six feet even if I only buy five, because it’s 33 cents a foot, right? 

I don’t care about rope, and the audience doesn’t care about rope. 

Similarly, I have zero desire to kill myself: I enjoy my life. I’m happy. I get to do what I love every day. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family, a wonderful community of students, and my health. I don’t share Otto’s want to end my life either.

So, on a tangible object level, these wants that are so sticky for Otto mean nothing to me. 

But unlike the wants, the needs Otto is feeling underneath them are universal. This is why emotional need is so powerful. 

When you connect to the emotional need of your character, your screenwriting becomes universal. Your character, your structure and your stakes become universal, because you’re connecting to your audience on the primal level that we all share, rather than just the tangible level where we are all so different. 

That’s because we all have the same emotional needs.

I don’t need rope, but I do need respect. I don’t need rope, but I do need justice. I don’t need to cut my own rope, but I do need validation.  And love, and comfort and safety. I do need meaning, I do need transcendence. I need all of these things, and so do you. So does everybody. 

And this is the wonderful metaphorical connection by which both writing and the human mind work. 

We have these universal needs that actually connect us together. Jake Krueger is not so different from Otto. Even though we have vastly different lives, and vastly different tangible wants, we actually share the same emotional needs. 

And I’m not so different from you either. We also share the same needs. 

If you want to read more about needs, you can google Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, that famous pyramid with the three levels of needs stacked up on it. Maslow’s Hierarchy is one example of the names that different needs are given.

But what really matters is not anybody else’s name for a need, because when you’re writing from a need, you’re actually trying to feel it. So what’s important is not anybody else’s name for need, but your name for it. 

To understand how tangible want and emotional need are related, both in screenwriting and in life, instead of a pyramid, I want you to visualize a circle.

Imagine a giant circle, and this giant circle represents every want and need in the world. Everything that any human being has ever wanted or needed: World peace, food, sex, an Academy Award, money, power, children, a PlayStation, an iPad. Big needs and small needs are all jumbled together in a giant circle. 

At the center of that circle is a little dot. That dot is what I call The Need That Cannot Be Named. It is need itself. It transcends our language. And yet, you can feel it.

If you take a moment right now and just close your eyes, you will feel The Need That Cannot Be Named in yourself. Like a black hole, it has tremendous power. It can pull things into it, and it can pull you toward things. And because the need is so profound that it cannot be named, we use little bits of it, or metaphors for it, to try to give it names. 

On the far edge of the circle are the most tangible, material names that we give to The Need That Cannot Be Named. They’re metaphors. Things we can touch and hold and possess. They are symbols of The Need That Cannot Be Named– symbols that we are often not aware of as symbols.

“If I had this thing,” we think to ourselves, “then The Need That Cannot Be Named would be fulfilled.”  

Some of these tangible things might seem really important, but they are all on the outer edge of the circle. 

“If I had $100 million dollars,” we tell ourselves, then The Need That Cannot Be Named would be fulfilled. 

Or, if you’re watching Succession, the kids are all thinking, “if I had the company, then The Need That Cannot Be Named would be fulfilled.”

If you struggle with addiction, the drug you’re addicted to may be the name that you give that Need That Cannot Be Named. 

We have all kinds of names for The Need That Cannot Be Named. In nearly every Romantic Comedy, it’s something like this: “if I just had a perfect partner, if I just found love, if I just had the right person then The Need That Cannot Be Named would be fulfilled.”

These needs can be big and profound, but they can also be very simple:

“If I had a Coke right now…” “If I had a PlayStation…” “If I had a better computer…” These are all tangible objects. I’m giving you some very materialistic ones right now, but there are really beautiful needs toward the outside of the circle too.

“If I could just help my brother…” “If I could just have a job that I really loved…” “If I could just have a community…” “If I could just devote my life to helping other people… then The Need That Cannot Be Named would be fulfilled”

This is why plot, in both screenwriting and life, is actually not that important. Structurally, “devoting my life to helping other people” and “a new iPad” actually serve the exact same function. They are metaphors for The Need That Cannot Be Named.

The more specific the need is, the closer you are to the outside of the circle. 

On the outside of the circle are the things some people want. 

Maybe you really want an iPad, but not everybody wants an iPad. Similarly, not everyone wants to devote their life to helping other people. Some people would just prefer to make a ton of money. 

Not everybody wants the things on the outside of the circle. Not everybody wants an Academy Award. You want an Academy Award, probably. You’re a screenwriter. Of course you do. 

But my dentist has no desire for an Academy Award whatsoever. He loves being a dentist. It’s actually kind of amazing, and really beautiful to watch him work, because he wants to be a dentist. Most of us don’t share that want– most dentists probably don’t even want to be dentists. So that’s on the outside of the circle.

The edge of the circle is where the “highly specific” desires lie. As we move inwards, closer to the center of the circle, we find the more general desires most people share. 

“I want dad to be proud of me…” “I want my mom to be happy…” “I want to be healthy…” “I want that sexy person to think I’m attractive…”

Not everybody shares these wants, but they’re closer to universal because a lot more people feel them. 

At the same time, though, they’re still specific, and that’s why they’re problematic– wonderful for drama, but problematic for life. 

For example, if your primary want is for dad to be proud of you and dad dies, how do you get that want met? 

So many people feel trapped by wants they can’t ever achieve. 

This is the structure of Succession: your whole want is just for your dad to love you, but your dad is not capable of love. He cannot change. He will only ever love the company; that’s just who he is. You cannot change Logan Roy.

Or, if you’re Otto in A Man Called Otto, all you want in the world is to be with your wife, but your wife is dead. So you feel like it’s impossible to go on living. Your only way to get to her is to die. That’s what’s driving him: Otto wants to kill himself, because then he feels he will get to be with his wife. 

Otto has no idea that he’s not at the center of the circle– in his mind the only thing that matters is his wife. He’s not connected to the emotional need underneath. And that both limits his options and yields structure and drama:

The structure of A Man Called Otto is very simple: 

“I want to be with my wife” is the only want that Otto is in touch with in A Man Called Otto. But he’s got a problem– his wife is gone. And that means there is no easy way to activate what Otto wants. 

From a structural perspective, this is a challenge. The writers can only dramatize the relationship with Otto’s wife by flashing back. It’s the only way to make her alive. But flashbacks aren’t going to drive the story forward– they’re just information for the audience. Everything that happened, Otto is already completely aware of, and has no ability to change. 

Having locked into an impossible objective, Otto can only continue to pursue his desire to be with his wife by coming up with a plan in relation to her being dead: then I’m going to kill myself to be with her

Okay, now we’ve got a tangible object. But if he actually achieves that plan, the movie ends. Which means the writers must continue to stick obstacles in his way to stop him. 

From a structural perspective, there’s nothing wrong with this! Dramatically, it’s fun to watch our characters get stuck in a self-destructive pursuit in relation to a want that they can never have. 

But this is also where we get stuck. Forget about as writers– it’s where we get stuck as human beings: wanting things that we don’t actually have the power to control– the stuff at the center of the circle. 

And that gets in the way of our creativity in finding better ways to fulfil our real emotional needs.

We get so locked in on this impossible objective, this tangible goal we just can’t get, that we forget that the tangible goal is actually just a metaphor for the emotional need.

An understanding of the emotional need– if we can actually connect to it– allows us to be much more creative in how we try to achieve our tangible goals, and help us build a much more intuitive and sustainable structure in our lives. 

As screenwriters, we can sometimes get just as stuck as our characters. We realize our character genuinely has a want that we don’t know how to dramatize. They’re stuck on something they can’t possibly achieve, and we run out of plot ideas for what to do with them. We don’t know how to bring their want to life in a believable way that moves the story forward– because we’re stuck on the tangible object rather than the emotional need.

For Otto, the woman he wants to be with is not in the movie anymore, because she’s dead. It all happened in the past. And even in the flashbacks, there’s no real structure. 

This is not Blue Valentine (listen to my Blue Valentine podcast), where we’re watching a complicated love story evolve over two different time periods. In A Man Called Otto, Otto’s wife exists almost exclusively as a symbol of perfect love. There’s some plot to Otto’s journey with her, but there’s no real structure. 

So as screenwriters, we don’t actually know what to do: we’re as stuck as they are because our focus is on the tangible goals toward the outside of the circle, and not on the emotional needs further towards the center of the circle. 

But as we get closer and closer to The Need That Can Not Be Named at the center of the circle, we start to find words that are more valuable to us. Emotional needs that are more universal. 

Now, I want you to remember you don’t have to name the emotional need your character is feeling. You can just feel The Need That Can Not Be Named and write from that place. 

But, by giving The Need That Can Not Be Named a name we can focus on, by fracturing it into different, universal, emotional needs, by looking at a slice of the pie rather than the whole pie, we can get much more creative in how we find structure– in both our screenwriting and our lives. 

So let’s go back to the circle. Right in the center of our circle, that’s The Need That Can Not Be Named. And tucked right next to it is an emotional need called love

Love is not a tangible object. It’s a universal emotional need. 

It’s different from dad’s love. Not everybody needs (or wants) dad’s love. Some people have had it up to here with dad, and other people have always had love from dad. 

But every human being shares the need for love itself. We all have it, we all share it, we all know it, so we can all connect to it. 

When I say the need for love, you can probably feel that need for love in yourself right now. 

You can probably notice what it looks like, what it sounds like. There might be a shape to it, or a color to it, or a sound to it, or a feeling to it. Where is it in your body? You can probably turn up the volume on it, make it stronger, or turn down the volume, make it weaker. And then you can pass it on to your character and write from there. 

If you did it with me, looked inside and had that feeling of love, you’re actually doing a little bit of self-hypnosis. 

(If you didn’t, try it now– go back a few seconds and have that feeling). 

When you tap into your own emotional needs, you’re actually using the same exact process that we use to step into a character, to stop puppeteering them, to stop moving them through a plot and instead to start to be in them and understand what pulls them through the world. 

We know we all have this Need That Can Not Be Named, which, like a black hole, pulls things to us and pulls us through the world. 

In the same way, your character has a Need That Can Not Be Named that pulls them through the world. 

But the problem with The Need That Can Not Be Named is you can’t name it, so you can’t understand it as easily. It’s like looking at the rainbow and trying to capture the whole rainbow rather than just the color violet. It’s much easier to capture the color violet. 

So maybe for this character, that color violet is love. Maybe for you, that color violet is love. And when you turn that volume up to a ten, you really allow yourself to feel the power of your need for love, it is a piece of that black hole. It is one of the shades of that Need That Can Not Be Named that is sometimes extremely active in you. 

It is driving you, just like it is driving your characters. And this allows you to get creative in how you address that need.

If I’m Otto, in A Man Called Otto, I cannot get love from my wife. I can’t get love from her because she is gone. I can show love to her– I can place flowers at her grave and talk to her. But I can’t actually get love back from her because she is gone.

But if instead of being focused on the tangible object, I am focused on the emotional need, I can start to get curious. 

As a writer, I can start to think, where can Otto get love? If the main need is love, and if I want to write a comedy, (I’m not talking about “funny” comedy, I’m talking about “a story that ends happily), Otto can only be happy if his need for love is met. Or if his need for justice is met, or if his need for respect is met. 

So I’m going to let that emotional need pull the character through the structure of the script. 

I can get creative. Otto might not get love from his wife anymore, but maybe he can get love from his neighbor. Maybe he can get love from a cat. Maybe he can get respect from his neighbor. Maybe he can get respect from an internet journalist that he has no respect for. Maybe he can get justice from an internet journalist that he has no respect for. 

So even though his tangible goal to be with his wife is unachievable, there are actually a million opportunities for him to get his needs met. 

This is what’s beautiful about understanding emotional need: tapping into your need opens your creative mind, both as a writer and as a human being. 

So next time you decide, I’m saving every penny, I need the new iPad, you might want to ask yourself what emotional need that iPad represents. Does it represent power? Does it represent love? “If I had the iPad I’d be loved…” 

Does it represent transcendence? Does it represent meaning? “If I had the iPad, then I would be a creative artist and people would know…” 

Does it represent making it? Does it represent success? Does it represent justice? “I’ve worked my whole life, I deserve a good piece of electronics. I’m a writer, dammit, I deserve to have an iPad so I can capture my thoughts…”

Does it represent comfort? “I know I won’t forget anything. I have this thing so I can write down any important thought, I can get to the internet any time I need.” Does it represent that comfort or safety

You can see that the iPad can represent a thousand different things. You might call the emotional need underneath the desire for the iPad something different. But no matter what you call it, when you can connect to a specific shade of The Need That Can Not Be Named, that specific piece of the rainbow that is pulling you, it serves to inflect everything. 

Every time we write a character, there’s emotional need, and there’s tangible object. A character’s emotional need is one of those needs that surround the dot at the very of the circle, those universal needs around that black hole of The Need That Can Not Be Named. 

And as we move towards the edges, we start to get to the tangible objects. The more specific the tangible object, the closer to the edge of the circle it is. The more specific the tangible want is, the easier it is to write. 

The more specific the tangible desire is, the more we’ll start to understand the character. And the more powerfully we feel the emotional need as we write, the more it will inflect the scene and show us how to write it. This is how you make your characters feel realistic.

Some writers are really good at going into the character through the tangible object and letting that carry them to the emotional need. 

In other words, the tangible understanding of “I want five feet of rope,” can carry them easily to the feeling of “I need justice”. To feeling the character. 

On the other hand, some writers really struggle to find the tangible object in a scene. They second guess themselves. “Does he want five feet of rope? Does he want a canteen? Or does he want a new hammer? I don’t know what he wants.” 

And here’s the amazing thing: it doesn’t matter what the want is— it actually just matters what emotional need it metaphorically represents.

If you’re somebody who struggles to find the “right” tangible object… see what happens if you stop worrying about it. 

Instead, start by going into yourself and just noticing what emotional need is hot in you. You can just run through that list of universal emotional needs, (love, comfort, justice, respect, validation, safety, transcendence, power, meaning…). Feel those needs in yourself, and ask yourself “which of these needs is hottest for me?”

Once you know what need you’re connecting to, you can play with it to solidify your connection to it. Observe what it looks like, feel what it feels like, hear what it sounds like. You can turn up the volume on the feeling, and then you can step out of yourself and into your character, and ask yourself, “Is their need the same as mine?”

Another option is to place your own need in your character. “Here, Otto, take my need for love, take my need for justice, take my need for respect…” Whatever is hot for you, you can give to your character.

Or, if you’re a little more adept at this, you can step into your character, feel the need in their body and you can ask yourself the same questions. Is it love? Is it justice? Is it respect? Is it validation? Is it comfort? Is it safety? Is it meaning? Is it transcendence? Is it some other word that is universal? Do they have their own name for it? Where do they feel it?”

Once you understand the underlying emotional need that is driving your character, you can send them anywhere and let them try to fill that need. 

You’ll see this in A Man Called Otto.

You send Otto to the Busy Beaver hardware store, and he’s gonna try to get his need for justice met. You send Otto to his neighborhood street, and he’s going to try to get his need for justice met. He’s going to complain, “that parking thing is in the wrong place and the gate is open!” This is unjust, because he has dedicated his life to keeping his community the way it’s supposed to be. And then on a much bigger level, it’s unjust because his wife was taken from him, and he needs her. 

In A Man Called Otto, this need for justice in Otto is so hot. You can just see it in every scene.

Even though Otto does bounce around to other emotional needs— all the same universal needs that we all bounce around to— he always ends up coming back to to justice

You can see how this also starts to connect to theme.

At the end of A Man Called Otto, Otto finally gets justice. And that’s part of the theme the script is building. 

We can build the theme of a screenplay around emotional need. We can also build a character’s tangible wants and motivations around emotional need. 

Take your character anywhere. Take your character to a Starbucks, let them try to get love from the barista. Then let them try to get respect from the barista. And notice how it will completely change, the scene, the character, and what the script is actually about.

You will also notice, when you’re connected to the character’s attempts to get what they need, that suddenly the tangible objects they use as substitutions for those emotional needs become clearer. 

If we write toward a tangible object without feeling the underlying emotional need, our writing is going to feel thin. And if you write toward an emotional need without connecting that need to a tangible object, your writing is going to feel confusing. 

We need both emotional need and tangible object to create a fully realized character. We cannot write without both. If we try, our characters are going to feel like paper cutouts, and the audience is going to react to that: “I didn’t like him, I found him unlikable, I didn’t care.” 

You can try to solve those notes by trying to figure out a bigger want, something to hook the audience, but it’s never going to work. 

When the audience doesn’t care, it usually means either the tangible object or the emotional need is missing from your writing of the character.  

So, ask yourself, “does the audience understand the tangible object?” If they do, and they still don’t care, then you’re either not making it hard enough for the character for the emotional need to get triggered and revealed, or the emotional need is simply not there, because you haven’t connected to it as a writer. 

This, finally, brings me back to the opening scene of A Man Called Otto, and the way Otto’s emotional needs surface in that opening scene of the screenplay.

In the opening scene of A Man Called Otto, the writers send Otto into the Busy Beaver to buy five yards of rope. Otto pulls out a pocket knife in the middle of the hardware store, and a concerned young clerk comes over and says, “Hey, can I help you with that?” 

And Otto basically responds, “Do you think I’m going to cut myself and bleed all over your store? Do you think I’m going to sue you?” 

You can feel that Otto’s want is to cut his own rope, and the need is for respect

“Why does this little kid think that I can’t cut my own rope?” There’s a little justice under there too, but really, at this point, it’s about respect. 

The objective to get this rope and cut it himself also reflects Otto’s superobjective: He wants to kill himself. 

He’s going to spend most of the movie trying to kill himself, right up until the end. 

And I wouldn’t call this a spoiler… but here’s a little warning just in case…

…You know that Otto isn’t going to kill himself. You know that this is a happy story. You can feel it from the way it’s built. This is going to end happily, in exactly the way you expect.

So the want for this first scene is connected to Otto’s overarching want, his superobjective (to kill himself) as well as to his underlying emotional needs for respect and justice

Because Otto feels like he’s not getting respect, he makes this really odd choice that most of us would not make. 

Most of us would respond to the “helpful” Busy Beaver employee like this: “Oh, sure, sorry, cut it. Thank you so much!” Most of us have no need or desire to cut our own rope at the hardware store.

But Otto is driven by a profound need for respect and justice which inflects all of his actions. When Otto demands to cut his own rope, he is not really saying “let me cut my own rope.” He’s really saying “Give me respect! Give me justice!”

For all the flaws in A Man Called Otto, this is such a wonderful introduction to the character of Otto: a vignette that instantly conveys both parts of the character. We get the want: I want to cut my own rope. And we feel the emotional need: I need respect! 

We feel both the center and the edges of the circle activated at the same time. And this gives us the feeling of a fully realized character.

And why do we understand these elements in the beautiful introduction of Otto? Because of the obstacle. 

If you don’t send that kid over to help, if he doesn’t say “no, you’re not allowed to cut your own rope,” then we would never get to watch Otto make all these decisions. We would never understand how badly he wants the rope. We would never understand how badly he wants to cut it himself. And we would certainly never understand how badly he needs respect.

Together, these pieces reveal the how of Otto; we get him at that moment. 

In fact, every time we see Otto from this point forward, he’s either mirroring or foiling this scene. 

He’s either doing a similar thing, a mirror, that outdoes his action in this scene. Or, as we get much deeper into the movie, when he actually starts to be kind and vulnerable, he starts doing contrasting things, foils of this first scene. 

When the need for love actually ends up transcending the need for respect and justice, we see Otto start to move away from who he was, and evolve into a different, more fully realized version of himself.

In other words, we get structure.

So this is how A Man Called Otto Works. This is how the character works. This is how structure works. This is what Tom Hanks is doing as an actor: he’s connecting to the emotional need. This is why his character is so believable, even inside the contrived structure of this film. 

Once you really lock in the tangible want and the emotional need of your character, you can just mirror and foil your way through the whole screenplay. 

Everything becomes so much easier when you are connected to the character. But you have to honor that connection and that character to make a film or TV show that feels real.

Continuing on through the opening scene, we can see Otto’s emotional needs emerging again. The same kid tries to charge him for six feet of rope at the checkout, instead of the five feet he’s carrying, because they charge by the yard. It’s an extra 33 cents. Any of us would think, “it’s fine,” or at the very least “it’s not worth the fight.” A guy behind Otto in line even offers to give Otto the 33 cents, to pay it for him. 

But Otto needs justice, not 33 cents. The need for respect has been replaced by the need for justice, even as the tangible object stays the same– all because of another obstacle. And the result is a feeling that the character is already developing, that structure is already happening in the film.

If the kid just charged him for five feet, there would be no need for respect and no need for justice. The need for respect was met when he cut the rope himself. There would be no need for justice because there would be no injustice happening. 

But the moment that kid charges him for six feet when he cut five, the need for justice arises. 

The need for justice that Otto is reacting to as he fights for 33 cents is not about the 33 cents. 

We, as the audience, can feel that right away– it’s part of what makes Otto interesting. We don’t know exactly what it is yet that’s driving him, but we know something terrible happened to this character that left him needing justice

And eventually, we’re going to find out that his wife died. 

At that moment, the rope has become a symbol for his wife’s death. The injustice of being charged 33 cents extra for the rope has become metaphorically connected for Otto, on the subconscious level, to the injustice of his wife’s death, and the character is feeling the same level of intensity of emotions around the 33 cents that he feels around his wife’s death. 

This is how our psychology works, too.

And this is where the stakes in A Man Called Otto come from. 

The stakes in this opening scene of A Man Called Otto, if we really look at them from a tangible perspective, are 33 cents. Nobody gives a crap about the tangible stakes. But that’s not what we feel in Tom Hanks’ performance, and that’s not what we feel in the writing. 

What we feel is the weight, the anger, the full power of The Need That Cannot Be Named as expressed through this emotional need of justice. And that need drives the whole movie. 

There are many ways we can approach writing from a place that is true to the underlying emotional need of our character.

There are wonderful meditative sequences that we can use. But it’s also important to remember that these needs live inside of you. If you listened to the earlier part of this podcast, you already accessed the need inside you.

When you’re connecting to a character’s emotional needs, you’re really connected to something that already exists inside of you. And you can access it if you just close your eyes and ask yourself, “Is it love? Is it justice? Is it comfort? Is it respect? Where do I feel it?” 

So when you’re writing, connect to the emotional need. Let the emotional need pull you, and you’ll notice the tangible objects that the character attaches to as they try to get that emotional need met. What the tangible object is doesn’t matter. What matters is that their emotional need is leading them to attach to it.

You get a bad note from the development executive. If it’s just at the tangible level, something that the character wants or something that happens, no problem. What’s the emotional need underneath? Because that’s where the stakes really come from. The tangible objective of a character is just plot; if the executive or manager or agent or star wants the character to want a wood chipper instead of a piece of rope, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the need for justice

It’s easy to change the object and keep the emotional need. “Why did that girl get the sale price on this wood chipper when I did not? No, I don’t care that I’d barely save five bucks, I want the sale.” The scene isn’t driven by tangible want, it’s driven by emotional need. The need is for justice, and that’s the need you want to attack. 

Remember, writing your characters truthfully means that once you feel the emotional need, you also have to be honest about what you see, feel, and hear in the scene. 

It’s interesting that the same beautiful opening scene scene in the hardware store is also where the flaws of A Man Called Otto– the elements of untruth in the script– first emerge.

You might notice that the clerk who offers to help Otto with the rope is the same clerk that checks him out 30 seconds later. 

This is the first little falsehood. They’re probably just trying to not Taft-Hartley another actor: they don’t want to pay another actor for a single line. tBut that’s just not the way hardware stores of that size work. This is not a mom-and-pop shop. he place is huge. When you’re at Walmart, it’s not the same person in the aisle that’s checking you out: they have a cashier, right? 

This is not a big deal; It’s just a little tiny lie. 

But when you start to write those little tiny lies, it disconnects you from the character. It disconnects you from the reality of the scene. 

Now, being unrealistic is not always “bad.” Like everything else it depends on what you’re building. So, on one hand, this tiny feeling of “fakeness” in the scene also helps you experience that Hallmark-y feeling. Everything’s gonna be okay. It reminds you on a tonal level that you’re not in a real world, so nothing bad’s gonna happen. You could watch this as “second screen content” (that horrible phrase that’s become so popular that makes me want to die). You could watch it on your phone while you’re doing something else. Nothing’s gonna happen. You know it’s fake. 

But new screenwriters have a really hard time selling these kinds of movies. 

Unless you’re working for Hallmark…

And there’s nothing wrong with working for Hallmark. Hallmark employs a lot of my writers. They have a formula, and people get paid for following that formula. And that’s great. 

But if you want to break into the indie world, if you want to break into the Hollywood world, you’ve got to write movies that people believe

You can follow the formula when you’re famous, but when you’re not, you have to be disruptive.

As you continue to watch A Man Called Otto, you’ll see that the film is filled with these little “falsehoods.” They’re not huge lies, but they’re just enough to shatter the reality of the sceenplay. 

Another word for these tiny little falsehoods, these not fully observed, not fully specific moments, is cliché. 

We can see the same kinds of falsehoods echoed in other places in this script. 

The cat shows up, and we’re like, “oh my god, now there’s a cat.” We know he’s gonna save the darn cat, right? 

And he does. 

And we know when he saves the cat, the cat is going to heal him. 

And then the cat does heal him, and it’s so predictable

(It’s interesting to note that at first, Otto is mean to the cat– and I want to remind you, since there’s so much bad advice about cat-saving out there) we still love him even though he’s mean to the cat. 

That’s actually more believable because of Otto’s emotional state. Otto doesn’t like anybody, especially not this random cat. 

So, at first, he’s mean to the cat, but eventually, he’s nice to the cat, and he saves the cat and the cat saves him, and you know what’s happening. You know what’s going to come. If it didn’t have Tom Hanks in it, you’d think, “oh, it’s a Hallmark movie.” 

Similarly, there are two guys in the neighborhood who both do these ridiculous exercises. And one of them, despite exercising all day, every day, seems not to have lost any weight or gotten in any kind of physical shape. 

There’s a little lie there: We can just feel it’s false, and we can feel that character begging us to laugh. But we’re not actually laughing, right? 

The character is trying to be funny, but he’s not grounded. There’s no tangible want or emotional need. There’s no reality there. He’s doing something that’s designed to be ridiculous and bother Otto. We feel that little falsehood, and it undermines the structure. 

There are dozens of other places where I could point out these little reality-destroying falsehoods throughout A Man Called Otto

Here’s a great example: it’s one of Otto’s dominant traits right that he is a planner. He does everything right. He really prides himself on his abilities. He has been taking care of this place. He is like a walking encyclopedia of tools and handyman-ness. 

Then he tries to hang himself… for the second or third time. 

This time, he actually steps off– and the hook falls out of his ceiling!

And it’s false. 

That’s the writers not working hard enough. They’re not honoring the truth of who the character is. They’re propelling a structure forward. If the husband who’s always falling off a ladder tried to hang himself, this is exactly what would happen. But there is no way that Otto didn’t check the strength of that hook before he tried to hang himself on it. 

There’s no way, because it’s not who he is as a character. It’s not true to him. 

When you get disconnected from your characters, your audience gets disconnected too. 

We feel the falseness even if we can’t put our finger on it. And yes, in a Hallmark movie, it does reassure us that nothing bad actually is gonna happen. 

But when you’re trying to write a disruptive film that’s going to actually grab somebody’s attention, you can’t get away with that. If you don’t have Tom Hanks attached, you cannot get away with that. 

Similarly, let’s talk for a moment about the neighbor, Marisol, played by Mariana Traviño.

Out of all her neighbors, why is Mariana obsessed with Otto, the biggest jerk in the community?

Why ask him for tools when there are so many other people she could ask?

What is the emotional need driving her? I think you would struggle to name it. 

Similarly, Otto’s best friend: do we really believe that their friendship ended because one bought a Ford and one bought a Chevy? Do we really believe that? Is it true to who these characters are? 

And do we really believe that this catatonic man is going to come back to life because Otto is feeling better? 

One more example: do we actually believe that the evil company that’s trying to buy the apartment building has somehow find a way to infiltrate the US medical system and violate HIPAA rules? I guess they’ve talked to Otto’s doctor or Medicare, because somehow they know Otto’s medical information.


Yes, it’s a movie about justice, and we want to feel like it’s unjust, but how do they know? That’s just not how things work, and one other way in which the story for all its lovely performances and lovely moments feels false.

These little lies–we might not even perceive them, but we feel them. 

On one level, it makes the movie feel really safe. But on another level, it makes A Man Called Otto feel false. 

As a writer, when you write from those disconnected places, it disconnects you from the characters. 

You probably noticed that outside of Otto, it’s very hard to fully feel or believe any of the characters in A Man Called Otto,  and that makes it harder to believe the structure.

We can predict the structure because we know what’s going to happen, and it all happens the way we expect. The truth of the characters is not being honored. 

The writers are doing a part of the work of meditative writing, letting Otto’s emotional needs shine through in some of the scenes. 

But mostly, they’re doing a lot of puppeting– making characters do things that are not true to themselves in order to force the structure to happen. 

When that happens, we get disconnected. If you’re writing for Tom Hanks and that’s what he wants, you can get away with it. But if you’re writing as a new writer trying to break in? You absolutely cannot. 

The last piece of the problem with A Man Called Otto is that– like many flashbacks in films– these flashbacks don’t really work. 

A Man Called Otto has a lot of good reviews and a lot of bad reviews. 

People have mixed feelings about A Man Called Otto. Some people love this film, some people hate it. So I’m not trying to talk about whether it works from an “I liked it/I didn’t like it” perspective. 

I’m trying to talk about whether it works from a structural perspective. 

And the structural reason the flashbacks don’t work in A Man Called Otto is that they are there to explain why Otto is like this. The flashbacks themselves have no structure to them. They are just there to elucidate. 

Let me tell you why. Let me tell you more about him. Let me help you understand why he’s like this, and what he has to move through to be not like this anymore. 

And why is not interesting. 

But more importantly, why disconnects you from the character. Because why puts you in the conscious mind, the tangible object mind, the “Psychology 101” mind. 

The why that you’re going to come up with is boring, because it’s exactly the why that we would expect. 

And the solution is exactly the “Psychology 101” solution we would expect as well. And the effect is, we’re predicting the whole movie– but also, that the movie feels false even though it makes sense. 

If you want to connect to the underlying emotional need, if you want to connect to character, do not ask yourself why. Don’t build a bunch of flashbacks to ask yourself why

Instead, ask yourself what: What does he feel? What does he want?  Ask yourself where: Where does he feel it? Where does he try to get it? Where does he do it? Ask yourself when: When did it happen? When did he first feel this way? When did he first make the choice or the decision? Ask yourself How. How did it happen in a slightly different way than we have ever seen before– a way that’s so true to this character? How did it occur to him. How do I get more connected to him?

You want to ask what, where, when, and how questions. These bring you to the subconscious mind, where you can connect to the need. 

You don’t write scenes to dramatize why

If you think about the flashback scenes in A Man Called Otto, we never find out anything about the connection that made Otto and his wife fall in love in the first place. In the flashbacks, Otto and his wife are not being written as characters, they’re being written as exposition. 

We don’t actually get to understand what she connects to about him, because neither she nor he are acting on their wants or their emotional needs. Neither of them are real characters. 

She is perfect. He is perfect, but going through a rough time. They don’t have any real wants or needs going on for us to connect to. So when you watch A Man Called Otto– and do watch it,  learn from it. There’s a lot of beauty in this script, a lot of well written moments. 

But there’s also a lot of untruth, and the untruth– especially about a character’s underlying emotional need– disconnects us from the movie. 

Imagine you’re writing A Man Called Otto. If you want to make the flashbacks work, find a fun tangible goal for the young Otto and his wife. Let them do some cool stuff, have them push against each other in interesting ways. 

Connect to the real emotional need, find the friction and the tension. Don’t let her exist as just a symbol; let her be a human being. She wasn’t perfect. She was complicated, just like everybody else. 

You can’t just honor the emotional needs of your main character. You have to honor the emotional needs of the characters around them.

And just to end today in a kind of spiritual place, this is true in your life as well. Both the part about honoring your emotional need, and the part about honoring the emotional need of others.

You are being driven by emotional needs, even though you think you’re being driven by tangible objects. 

If you want to live a happier life, when you start to feel that emotional need driving you– “I need this tangible object so bad.” When you find yourself thinking, “I can’t have happiness without it” then you want to ask yourself what emotional need that object represents. 

You want to go deep inside yourself and feel the emotional need, then you want to get curious. 

It doesn’t mean you don’t try to get the thing you want– there’s no reason you shouldn’t, a lot of the time. 

But it’s actually the journey that fulfills your needs, not the object that you’re pursuing. Even if you get it, no tangible object will fulfill an emotional need forever. 

Getting your tangible goal fulfills the emotional need for a moment, and then a new need comes up. 

And that’s not bad. That’s part of life. I’m not suggesting that we should go sit under Bodhi trees. That makes bad drama and kind of a boring life. 

But it can be helpful for us to be able to identify what really makes us want something. 

It helps to be able to realize, “Oh, that’s so interesting. This is my need for justice. That’s why I think I need $100 million bucks, because I’ve worked so hard, and it’s not fair that I should still be struggling.” 

Whatever that thing is, you can connect to the emotional need, and you can get curious. Ask yourself “what are other ways for me to get that emotional need met?” 

In this way, you can avoid getting stuck on something you can’t have, by honoring the underlying emotional need that makes you want it in the first place..

In screenwriting, as in life, you need to honor the emotional needs of those around you to have authentic relationships. 

When someone’s doing something irrational and illogical, don’t dismiss them and say, “Oh, they’re irrational and illogical.” They’re human: all humans are irrational and illogical. That’s why writing them is so darn interesting.

Instead, try to connect to their emotional need. What need are they trying to have met by doing what they’re doing? Why are they standing in a hardware store demanding to cut their own five feet of rope with their own pocket knife when the shop attendant has a cutter for it?

Asking these questions will help build up your empathy and your connections with other people: you’ll start to realize that you’re actually just as irrational as they are when you’re pursuing your emotional needs. 

And maybe if they get stuck, you can help them get more creative in the same way you can get more creative with your needs.

You’ll also start to learn how to build structure. 

Instead of judging characters, instead of saying, “you should do this,” or “this makes sense,” you’ll start to push towards the things that don’t make sense. You’ll start to understand and get curious about the characters’ emotional needs and how they’re trying to fulfill them. 

So if, for example, Marisol the neighbor keeps on harassing Otto, and you feel like that’s true, but it doesn’t make any sense, because there are a million other people she could get ladders from– you might connect to her. 

What’s her emotional need? Is it love– does he remind her father? Is she trying to heal something? Or is it justice– is she going to give him as hard of a time as he’s giving her? Is it respect? Is it comfort? Is it power or control? What is actually driving her? 

And when you look at why she’s doing what she’s doing, rather than feeling like a puppet doing your action, she will start to feel like a real character. 

I hope that you enjoyed this podcast. If you are getting a lot out of it, please write us a five star review on iTunes or whatever podcasting service you use, and come study with me! 

You can join our classes online from anywhere in the world. We have a free class every Thursday night. We have the Protrack mentorship program that will pair you one on one with a professional writer who will meet with you every week or every other week and read every page you write. We have a ton of wonderful foundation classes in screenwriting and TV writing and of course the master class for more experienced writers. So come check them out!

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