What about the story?
While I have always loved movies, my fixation with writing had more to do with the manipulation of words, and the development of a story than anything else. Of course, for a story to arc, there are a number of things that need to take place.
You need to ask yourself a very important question: “What is my story about?” That question will open up Pandora’s box, for everything that can be explored will be explored; everything that can be revealed will be revealed. It is not just about a “story” per say. This is where the combination of creative energy and critical thinking merge. You can’t just focus on a story idea without critically examining every possible scenario. I’ve quoted Michael Tierno, author of Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters time and time again. He says, “Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agenda.”
We need to approach our story with a commitment to stay true to the story. What do I mean by that? I mean that storytelling (no matter what genre) requires us to lay aside preconceived ideas. It involves always thinking outside of the box, and being open to new ideas. It also involves having an understanding of the human condition, which is what will ultimately give it depth and universal appeal. For a story to move to catharsis (a purification or purgation of the emotions like pity and fear released primarily through art or the purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension), this display of human circumstance must be present. Catharsis is a type of communication that builds upon pieces of our life. When this happens in a story, the reader or audience finds relationship with the situation, and experiences an emotional release. This generally happens in the 3rd act, and it should cause the greatest emotional response to the situation the hero finds him or herself in. It’s that suddenly moment in a romantic comedy where the two leading characters “realize” they’re in love! As the story unfolds, our emotions rise and when we experience that emotional release, resolution and harmony comes. Suddenly, we feel good. In fact, most of us develop an attachment to a film based on our emotional response to the film. Screenwriters, please, please, please do not write unresolved endings (cliffhangers) that are only going to leave an audience frustrated or mad! Author Andrew Roberts says, “It’s sheer directorial moral cowardice to cut the screen to black and deny the audience the catharsis they’ve paid their $13 to experience.” While I do agree, it may not just be a directorial issue; it might simply be the way the writer wrote it.
Here’s another tidbit: The story cannot arc properly if the protagonist doesn’t arc. You really cannot separate one from the other, because a good story reveals a main character that is on the journey of a lifetime. A journey must confront his or her personality quirks, human flaws, moral choices, and personal life struggles.
Remember the movie Sideways (2004)? From the get go, we (the audience) is made aware that the protagonist Miles has hit rock bottom. Miles is an English teacher, and failed novelist who cannot get his book published. He longs for his ex-wife, who has clearly moved on (she’s remarried). Miles is a real piece of work. He has no problem stealing money from his own mother! He has enough quirks and fetishes to fill a book, or at lease a wine bottle. He epitomizes being stuck in a rut. However, for Miles to successfully arc, he’s going to have to become unstuck. Just like the wine that he so loves, Miles is going to have to ripen and mature. The wine trip is a journey that confronts many of Miles’ personality quirks, flaws and personal life struggles.
The journey then becomes a vehicle for conflict, opposing forces, surprises and various twists and turns in the storyline that appear to impede the hero from successfully completing his or her journey.