Tag Archives: writing style for screenplays

STRUCTURE: A SUBSET OF CHARACTER

Recently, I read a script wherein the writer created one of the greatest disaster stories of all time. It was up there with Titanic, Deep Impact, Volcano, etc. All the elements of a disaster story were present – mass destruction of millions of lives and tens of thousands of square miles of property, the necessity for governmental opponents to band together to turn the tide, and last-minute heroics. What else would you want?

It’s got a cast of thousands, scores speaking roles, and numerous primary and secondary characters. Surely this is a potential blockbuster movie. This is a script that the studios create bidding wars over each seeking their next tent-pole summer extravaganza. There are numerous catastrophic scenes that will generate an eye-popping trailer… and if a movie is made from the current draft, it will bomb. What? Why?

During the process of constructing the plot and unfolding it through numerous character perspectives, the writer forgot the purpose behind telling the story. He forgot that the disaster plot is merely a vehicle for an implied theme and that theme comes from character arc. He also forgot that an audience could care diddly squat about events unless it impacts the main character in a life-changing manner.

Perhaps the Main Character is instrumental in stopping said disaster, but if there’s no challenge to his emotional armor, which was constructed early in life to protect from some primary wound, then all the so-called heroic actions in the world will not create an emotional investment in the audience.

Take the movie Titanic, for instance. If Rose had not felt hemmed in by her lifestyle and upcoming marriage, depicted by the hit-me-over-the head-with-it corset scene, and if Jack had not challenged her fear of breaking loose, all we would have had was a story about a sinking boat of which we already knew the ending. Rose’s character arc from a sense of powerlessness to emotional freedom is the story. The event of the boat sinking is merely the vehicle for telling that story.

Above, I mentioned that the writer tells the story through numerous character perspectives with a great deal of exposition through dialogue. Even if each of these characters had an emotional arc that complemented the others, which in this example wasn’t the case, every time the story shifts perspectives the audience goes back to neutral emotionally. They have to adjust to a new perspective, which is not a good thing, especially if there is no emotional arc to the character. A single perspective is best when telling a movie story.

Let me repeat myself here: the audience must connect emotionally with the main character. This character’s emotional need creates intention. Intention provokes a character’s desire to step beyond his emotional armor (reactive fearful behavior) toward some goal. As a result of some Call To Adventure (impending disaster?), he takes an action which provokes a reaction from a character (antagonist) that wants him to reconsider his quest.

The main character’s actions and antagonist’s reactions creates plot. Plot is the vehicle for theme, which comes from the shift in consciousness that the main character must make in order to achieve his goal. In other words, nothing happens except through character.

If the audience doesn’t identify with the main character and bond with him emotionally early on, it doesn’t matter what the event is, the story is hollow, empty, and vacuous. The boat sinks and so what? The audience can only identify with the disaster event through a character with whom they identify emotionally. Even National Geographic finds a way to anthropomorphize an animal in order for the audience to identify with and root for it.

The Main Character in a movie story generates every other story element – plot, theme, structure, action (dialogue is a refined action), reversals, and everything but genre. Genre determines the tone of the story and dictates the writing style of the description and dialogue.

Structure is the result of escalating emotionally challenging dilemmas and decisions made by the main character up to and including a seeming death of the quest, which brings atonement with the past and a new perspective and a new direction. Structure culminates in a final battle with the antagonist and a resolution of the main character’s quest.

My point here is that if you do not know your characters intimately, your story will not connect with the audience. No matter how great your plot points or story events are, if there is no emotional connection with character, your movie will bomb at the box office.

WHAT IS THE SOURCE OF STRUCTURE?

Screenplays are structure. -William Goldman

A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end… but not necessarily in that order.
-Jean-Luc Godard

American movies are about what happens next.  -Richard Toscan

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.  -Louis Sullivan

What is structure? Structure is form. Form follows function. What is the function of a movie? To entertain and inspire. Why do people go to movies? To be entertained and to be inspired.

The only way that an audience can relate to a movie story in order for one or both of those things to happen is to identify with its contents in some manner. The only way they can identify is through character. Give the character a universal redeeming quality (the Beatitudes and the Boy Scout Law pretty much covers them all) and a flaw (some value out of balance that we can all relate to – try the Seven Deadly Sins).

Then send that character on a quest for something that s/he’s been afraid to pursue but current circumstances compel him/her to make the Emotionally-Challenging Decision, and you’re off and running. As long as you can keep the character coming face to face with emotionally-challenging dilemmas where his/her “good angel” (Conscience Character) and his “bad angel” (Tempter Character) do battle for his soul while the antagonist pushes him/her to reconsider the quest, you keep the audience’s interest.

And that’s all you need to know about structure. (But, he goes on…)

We hear writers complain about the “Hollywood Movie Template,” then set about to reinvent the structure wheel. Why, we may ask? So that stories are less predictable, they reply.

The problem of predictability is not with the “template.”

The game of modern Chess dates back over a thousand years. It uses the same archetypal characters every time and has three basic “acts” – Opening, Middle Game, and End Game. Yet, there are seemingly an infinite number of variations. Western music has twelve basic tones, yet listen to all the music that has been composed.

The problem of story predictability is solved with creative imagination while remaining within the principles of structure, which have their roots in antiquity and have been proven over the millennia. But, let’s back up and ask some fundamental questions to see if structure does need to evolve.

What is the purpose of Story? Why do we tell stories? The original purpose of Story was to pass tribal history and mythology to future generations. This was done in an oral fashion since recording it on a physical medium had yet to be developed. Creating a structure with emotionally escalating “signposts” allowed the listener to remember the story easier.

Aristotle (350 BCE) came along and codified all things, and with story-telling wisely stated that Story has a beginning, middle, and end. That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Then, Horace, Roman poet and statesman, stated that dramatic structure consisted of five acts. That fell out of favor, then was revived during the Renaissance, then jettisoned for the four-act structure, only to be revitalized again by Gustave Freytag.

The five-part structure unfolds as follows: 1. Exposition, 2. Rising Action, 3. Climax, 4. Falling Action, 5. Denouement/Resolution/Catastrophe. I have no idea how or why Gustave makes a distinction between Falling Action and Resolution, but there it is.

But then you take a look at Alfred Uhry’s play Driving Miss Daisy, which takes place in 25 scenes, or Pulp Fiction, which steals its circular structure from Before The Rain (Milcho Manchevski), or Momento, which steals its structure from Betrayal (Harold Pinter), etc., and you wonder, so okay, what’s all this rigidity about structure?

Architect Louis Sullivan stated that form follows function, an idea he stole from American Sculptor Horatio Greenough. This goes along with Richard Toscan’s quote “American movies are about what happens next.” None of these dudes get to the main point, which is to keep the audience entertained until you can deliver your message, which is the function.

Let’s not forget the purpose of structure. The purpose of structure is to keep the audience involved in the story. The purpose of Story is to make a point. If you don’t have a point to make, your story is rather useless, in my humble opinion.

The function of Story is to make a point. Over the millennia, a form has evolved that fulfills that function. Form follows function. But, what are the building blocks of structure? Could it be turning points? What are turning points? Are they action-based? Where does action come from? Could it come from character decisions? Why does a character make decisions? Could it be because s/he wants something? What makes that decision interesting? Perhaps the character wants something s/he’s afraid to pursue but is compelled to pursue it in spite of fears. Why should the audience be interested in whether this character succeeds or not? Could it be that the character has been introduced in such a manner, i.e. shows a redeeming quality, that the audience identifies with him/her? Then through vicarious identification the audience cares for and desires this character to succeed?

EMOTIONAL SUBSTANCE is the link and the key to engaging reader/audience!

So, I conclude that structure has no basis without character – a character that emotionally involves the audience. And structure comes from an escalating string of emotionally-challenging dilemmas and decisions that this character makes until s/he succeeds or fails. Act one provides an opportunity for the audience to get to know the character; act two presents the emotional and questing journeys through the transformational world; act three allows the unfolding of the main character’s final battle with the antagonist, or shadow self and success or failure.

However, the success or failure has two levels. The character can succeed in his/her quest but fail to overcome personal emotional obstacles as in The Sweet Smell Of Success. Or the character can fail in the outer quest but succeed in overcoming his/her fears as in Wall Street. Or the character can succeed on both levels, external quest and internal challenge, as in a kazillion Hollywood films.

Whether you imagine your movie in 3 acts, or 4 acts, or 12 beats, or 22 beats, or 25 scenes, or travel in reverse, or go in a circle, or proceed through 9 seasons and 198 TV episodes, there are fundamental structural elements that must be present in order for your story to have any impact. Those elements begin and end with character. Without character leading the charge and creating the structure, plot, theme, obstacles, reversals, etc., your story quickly grows banal, empty, and boring. I find the Mission Impossible franchise boring for that very reason. No character growth and evolution that I can see or feel.

My suggestion is that you construct a complex character with redeeming qualities and flaws and values out of balance, a character that strongly desires something but is afraid to go after it until s/he receives vital information (or boon) that compels him/her to make the decision to take the journey.

How you present that story is called story weaving. As Godard says, you don’t necessarily have to present it in a linear fashion. However, you DO have to justify your story weaving with your thematic intent. If you are weaving your story non-linearly to be cute, give it up. If you have a point to make and your weaving is intricate to that point, as in BeforeThe Rain or Momento, then by all means proceed.

Otherwise, get creative with the dreaded “Hollywood Movie Template.”

HOW DOES AN INJURED KNEE RELATE TO SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE?

It’s a fractal universe. It’s all connected, reflective, and interactive with itself.

About 5 weeks ago I wiped out on a bicycle and ripped up the MCL (medial collateral ligament) in my left knee. It was a number-2 tear. Not life-threatening, but not an easy fix either. Since I’m quite active and athletic, this injury threw me for a loop. I limped around for 3 weeks and still can’t make quick lateral movements, but I’m turning the predicted 6-month healing process into 6 weeks because I know how to heal! I don’t leave it up to fate. I am the author of my own healing. I write my own story.

In the meantime, I’ve had to deal with the side effects of the injury. Limping throws my lower lumbar out of alignment, which throws out my upper cervical vertebrae via the sacral-occipital connection. With the two ends of my spine out of integrity, my thoracic area subluxates. Tertiary effects, like sciatica, headaches, poor sleep, restricted deep breathing, etc., come with these secondary issues. So, I go to my chiropractor and acupuncturist to realign my structural integrity and unlock my blocked energy flow.

I’m making a point here. Stay with me.

The knee, ankle, and feet are the foundation of our spine’s integrity. They must be strong, flexible, and structurally integral in order to support the integrity of the spine. The outer structure of the spine is the vertebrae, or a set of interlocking bones that encase the spinal cord. So, the spine consists of this outer protective casing to this mysterious inner bio-fiber-optic that conducts vibrational impulses throughout our bodies.

The same is true of Story. A story has a spine, which I will define in a minute. But what are the foundational “legs” of a story spine? I continue to insist that the foundation of the story spine is Character. If you don’t have well-defined characters, you’re story spine will be compromised.

Following through with the analogy, the plot of a story is like the vertebral column and the spinal cord is like the theme. The plot is the obvious part of a story and the theme is the more subtle, more profound part that rides within a Main Character’s emotional journey.

If your characters, like my knee, are weakened, or not well-developed, the spine will be weakened. The reason is because the spine of a well-developed story consists of emotionally-challenging decisions that the main character makes in the face of emotionally-challenging dilemmas. The dilemma must always be an emotional challenge. A physical challenge is not enough.

Let me explain by referring to an iconic scene in an iconic movie, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Butch and Sundance are trapped high up on a cliff a hundred feet above a raging river. The Super-Posse is closing in. To confront them head on means certain death. Butch suggests they jump for it. Sundance tells him to go ahead; he’ll hold them off. Butch reminds him that if they jump there’s a chance; trading bullets offers no chance. Sundance insists. Butch demands to know why. Sundance reveals with great embarrassment that he can’t swim. Sundance would rather die than suffer the humiliation of admitting he can’t swim to his best bud. Revealing that he can’t swim is more of an emotionally-challenging decision for Sundance than dying!

My point is that physical confrontation isn’t always emotional. Gunfights, fisticuffs, chases, and staged stunts full of special effects are cotton candy to the eye and the adrenals, but they are not profoundly thematic. They have nothing to do with a story’s structural integrity if the action does not come from the main character’s emotionally-challenging decision to confront some fear that keeps him/her from pursuing the goal.

Back to my knee: my fear was that I had done some permanent damage to my knee and therefore my vital ability to act. My emotional challenge was to make adjustments in the picture of my healing. I’ve had ligament tears before. I knew that it would be a matter of discerning the good pain from the bad. As an endurance athlete, the pain is not the issue. Backing off of activity when I want to continue is the emotional challenge for me.

Likewise in screenwriting, it’s important to know that however great a scene may be, or however much you may love a scene, if it doesn’t move the story forward while developing character through inner and outer conflict, you need to whack it out. That’s the writer’s emotionally-challenging decision. Spiritual growth comes from abandoning your comfort zone, confronting your fears, and making the difficult decisions. Those kinds of decisions also build the story spine that carries the integrity of character, story, and meaning, or theme.

Who am I to state these things? I am the chiropractor of story spine; I am the acupuncturist of story energy. I can show you how to create structural integrity and vigorous vital purpose through character development. All elements connect, interact, and affect the whole.

  

 

Story Elements

Forgive me if you’ve been looking for the next post. I’ve been busy writing for others, which is a good thing in this economy. Somehow, I manage to sneak through the cracks of our current financial constriction and keep afloat by doing what I love. I recently had a Skype discussion with a friend in Germany about why I think Story is so important to cultural awareness.

Mythology defines a culture’s formative ethical structure. It gives a universal consistency to communal interaction by virtue of establishing a common perception. Mythological stories are usually found in religious texts to give a cultural context in which to function. In the western culture (Europe and its imperialist extensions), the Bible seems to put forth most of the allegories by which we define our ethical structure.

There are many such mythologies, all having similar stories of humanity and its interaction with the divine: Mahabharata, Ramayana, Torah, Talmud, Shan Hai Jing, Kojiki, and the multitudes of Native American, African, Aboriginal mythologies that were/are a part of a grand oral tradition.

Most of theses mythologies have a creation story, a flood story (Atlantis?), a migration story, a messiah story, an immaculate-conception-virgin-birth story, a martyr story, a resurrection story, stories of human frailty with consequences and rewards, etc. These stories, allegories, and parables define a cultural context.

In the Western culture, we have been slowly evolving in consciousness. Some milestones that come to mind off the top of my head are the discoveries of Copernicus and Columbus (1490s) adjusting our egocentric perception, Age of Enlightenment (17th-18th centuries), Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species (19th Century), Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (early 20th century), and the current advancements in quantum physics.

These advancements, among others, contribute to the ability of the growing masses to embrace the concept of unity of opposites, a continuum of change, and diversity within unity, which shifts the entire nature of the concept of monotheism from an External Almighty to manifestation being the expanding nature of infinite indivisible source, or God within and without, as above-so below.

Okay, does it appear that I’ve gone way over the top here? Not really. I’m talking about the primary purpose of story, which is to continue to define universal ethics and morality of an evolving cultural consciousness. If a story doesn’t imply an essential moral, whether by uplifting or tragic ending, what is the point of telling the story? I’m not interested in a story that has no underlying purpose implied by resolution of values out of balance.

That said, no one wants to be preached to… unless they seek it out. Most audiences go to a movie because they want to enjoy themselves. There are various emotional conditions that couch that enjoyment. Some like to be sensually aroused, some like to feel terror; some like to feel excitement; some like to feel expansion of the heart; some like to feel mentally challenged; and some like to feel spiritually uplifted.

Notice that I have gone right up the endocrine system, which corresponds with the subtle-body chakras. These various states of emotional arousal are defined by the environment in which the story is told. Story environment happens to be called Genre. Genre is established by point of view, writing style, and content. Genre is a general story environment within which all other elements function.

For me the most important story element is character. I find that if I know my main character, all other elements spring from that knowledge. I define knowing the main character to mean understanding all those foundational qualities that form character itself – redeeming quality, emotional wound, shadows/ghosts, emotional armor, reactive behavior, values out of balance, unconscious needs, conscious desires, and a back-story that leads to the opening of the current story.

If I know my main character well, the story will write itself because plot will evolve from the above-listed character elements. Plot becomes the vehicle that delivers an implied theme. Plot comes from challenging decisions of emotional risk toward the fulfillment of some conscious desire. The ensuing obstacles and dilemmas lead to symbolic crucifixion (sense of death of the quest), an atonement of old beliefs, adjustment in consciousness, a new direction, final conflict, and balancing of values. This implies a specific theme.

In order for this character arc to manifest, the writer must create the story world and people it with the characters that bring this change about in the main character. Therefore, an antagonist is created to represent the main character’s shadow fears, and a conscience character/mentor will be created to urge the main character to make conscious choices that contradict reactive behavior in the face of dilemmas. Other archetypes are created to fulfill the needs of the story, such as ally, tempter, skeptic, threshold guardian, love interest, etc. Situations build one upon the other based on the main character’s escalating choices of emotional risk.

This does not necessarily mean the first impetus to tell a story comes from knowing a character. The initial stimulus for a story could come from anything, such as an incident, a thought, a feeling, memory, or anything that inspires one to creative expression. However, soon after that initial stimulus, I must create a story perspective in the nature of a specific character.

Most books, seminars, screenwriting gurus teach that one needs to write a treatment and outline of one’s story before the script can be written. This is the easy way to teach screenwriting 101, but it is not the only approach to that first draft. Often, I have to write a first draft to discover my main character, my story, and my theme. From thence follows my outline!

This approach allows me to write from a more intuitive place of discovery. Once I have discovered the depths of character – his behavior dictated by his inner emotional construct – and the plot and theme, I go back with my critical brain and reconstruct the character, story, plot, and theme based on my journey through the labyrinth of story impulse.

Does this mean that I sometimes start out not knowing what I want to say? I must confess that it does. However, I have the confidence that I’ll discover my voice as I hack my way through the first draft… always knowing that a critical second draft is waiting in the wings.

This is not everyone’s approach. In fact, some writers find this to be a scary tactic. There are others who write an intuitive first draft without doing the imperative second draft. Unless you are channeling Charles Dickens or Shakespeare, I would advise against skipping this final step.

Well, this post probably needs to be edited and rewritten, but alas, I’m not going to follow my own advice. I’m looking forward to getting back to my story!

Where Do I Start?

“I am the sort of writer who thrives on assignments. A blank slate makes me crazy, but if you tell me what you want and give me a deadline, I’m happy.” Garrison Keillor wrote that in his introduction to his printed script A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (Penguin Books). I can relate. Here I am deciding to create a script for a movie that I have no money for and no one cares. What’s the point? And how do I get started?

First, to the point of why I bother. It’s a little like working out. Sometimes it feels good, but to get and stay in shape you have to be consistent, and consistency can get tedious. But being in shape feels great, so you do it. Like Dorothy Parker said: “I hate to write; I love having written.” I love it whenever someone reads one of my scripts and tells me how much they love it. You could accuse me of being other-directed, but I like reading my stuff too. Also, I know the thrill of being in the creative process. It’s all-consuming. It’s just a matter of overcoming the inertia and getting started.

So, how do I get started in order to begin the journey toward this love fest? I pretend that it is an assignment with strict guidelines. I don’t know what the story is yet, but I create parameters, some of which I already know:

1. The entire movie will be shot in my apartment;
2. I will play the lead and limit my cast to 3;
3. I will spend no more than 50 grand for everything – pre-, shoot, post.

This leads to many influences already built into the above parameters. I look around my apartment and see what I have to work with.
1. 4 walls full of books of every subject, and sheet music, and CDs, and DVDs;
2. a grand piano;
3. a guitar;
4. memorabilia from a marriage and divorce;
5. computers;
6. kitchen utensils;
7. furniture;
8. closet full of clothes;
9. junk closet with toolbox and miscellaneous stuff;
10. doors and windows to the outside world;
11. all the other usual stuff one finds in a bachelor pad.

Then, I become influenced by things I’ve been reading lately. Harold Pinter died recently, so I’ve been rereading his biography and plays. He was influenced by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, so I start reading Beckett’s stuff. Beckett worked with James Joyce, so I delve a little into Joyce. This is the string that my mind follows. If you know any of these writers, you know that their characters live in a paranoid world (which reminds me of Kafka!) – Pinter’s, Beckett’s, and Ionesco’s anyway. They are masters of minimalism, subtext, economy, understatement, and abstraction.

Somehow, among this reading, I detoured off into reading about and watching Alfred Hitchcock’s works. Hitchcock inspired Francois Truffant and the French New Wave, which led me back to Ingmar Bergman and a whole consideration of telling the story visually and as non-verbally as possible. Being of the theatre, this is somewhat foreign to me because I love creating character scene agendas in conflict through dialogue.

Coupled with the above, I have accepted an assignment to write a horror script recently, a genre that I don’t particularly relate to. So, in the past week I’ve watched a ton of horror movies, classic and contemporary, some guffawishly bad and some pretty good. I actually like the psychological horror, which to me is not horror, but terror. Horror can create terror, but I think you can have the terror without the nonsense of splatter, slash and gore, the supernatural Satanic crap, or stupid characters making really stupid choices. I think the best horror films are those where the protagonists are not victims of uncontrollable circumstances, but have created their own circumstance by dilemma-driven decisions between irreconcilable choices. I think the writer and director can create a feeling of more culpability within the audience that way.

All of these current occupations will influence my story and characters. I have given myself parameters. The next step is to create my character and what he wants. Since I cannot separate myself from who I am, I know some things that I will bring to this character. Underlying all the psychological stuff – the fear manifesting as loss, paranoia, disconnection, frustration, ennui, absurd laughter, etc. – the character will have a spiritual hunger, a need to understand his existence and a fundamental desire to express his purpose. I know this will be an inherent part of the character because it is who I am. I will be writing the character and playing him, so this fundamental trait will come out organically.

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