I, Tonya strikes me as a great example of a point I often find myself making to writers who bring me film or TV ideas about someone trying to accomplish something in a particular workplace or field of endeavor.
And that point is this: “It’s not about the work.”
What I mean is that no matter how entertaining and high-spectacle a particular field of endeavor is (and those are certainly good qualities to have), writers don’t usually engage an audience by focusing on characters primarily trying to achieve something in their work. Instead, we focus on the primal emotions and problems they experience in their personal lives.
The one exception to this is the “procedural” movie or series about cops, lawyers, doctors, or other such “heroes” whose jobs have huge stakes and involve essentially saving or protecting lives. In these, we might have some big “case” that needs solved, and we’re fascinated by the process by which these people carry out their work in order to achieve their important goals.
For everyone else, in every other kind of profession… not so much.
So in I, Tonya, we’re not focused on the specifics of what she’s trying to accomplish as a champion figure skater — the practicing, the planning, the various competitions, the jumps and everything else that’s involved. The goal for the main character in the story is not “winning a Gold Medal” or “being the best skater,” and the main problem is not that it’s hard to do this well, and other skaters are really good, too, or anything else like that.
Yes, she’s pursuing skating throughout the movie, as the backdrop for the story, and the generator of personal conflicts. But what’s in the foreground?
- Her conflict-laden relationship with her mother
- Her conflict-laden relationship with her husband
- Her conflict-laden relationship with the skating establishment, the media and the world at large
And what’s primarily at stake? It’s not about skating medals. It’s about:
- Finding your place in the world
- Rising above your messed up circumstances
- Finding/maintaining love
- Being accepted for who you are
We’re always looking for these universal type of conflicts and goals in a script, in order to get the audience emotionally invested. So this is a story not about trying to be the best skater, or even dealing with the fallout of the Nancy Kerrigan attack (which is limited to the third act). It’s about a young woman with an abusive mother, then an abusive husband, who has no resources, gets no respect, and has to try to make a life for herself. And she is sympathetic, because she has so much working against her. (This is a key method for making seemingly unlikable characters more relatable — big problems, underdog status, and unfair circumstances.)
This all might seem like obvious stuff, but it’s super common for me to see scripts about workplaces or ambitions where the main stakes and content of scenes has to do with working toward success and winning in some field of activity, and the challenges of trying to achieve that — rather than these more fundamental human problems.
I often see, for instance, true story ideas about someone who is first to achieve something, or who achieved something really special and important. Such stories tend to be not so engaging for an audience, unless they are personalized in some way, where it becomes about the horrific personal challenges of trying to get to the goal. In addition, we usually want the stakes of the achievement to be massive — for the main character, and ideally others, as well. Lives generally have to be made fundamentally better or worse, in basic and powerful ways, depending on the results of the achievement. If they aren’t, it’s possible that it’s an undertaking that isn’t quite movie-worthy after all.
There’s a reason they made a movie about Tonya Harding, and no other figure skater. Perhaps others achieved more, and had more unique and challenging paths toward the specific skating goals. But a mass audience doesn’t really care about that. They care about people whose stories are relatable and about primal things, ideally with some larger-than-life element that can be entertaining to watch. And they enjoy watching people with the biggest struggles and difficulty, on a human level.
It’s the same reason the only Apollo mission that became a hit feature film was the one where everything went wrong: Apollo 13. My first professional writing gig was helping to adapt the other Apollo missions — where things generally went right — into the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. And there were times when I really wished there were human problems on the level of Apollo 13‘s, in some of them, so they wouldn’t just be of interest to people already fascinated by the subject. And we definitely had to look for those, and try to focus on them.
The good news is that human stories are everywhere. People are fighting for the kinds of things Tonya Harding wanted and couldn’t get, in every arena or endeavor, in every place and time. Whether you’re writing a true story adaptation or something fictional, these fundamental human questions are almost always there, beneath the surface. It just might take a little digging — and making it a priority to focus on them.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.