Screenwriters should learn from Shakespeare: Language governs the action

There is no doubt that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet continues to be one of the most intriguing and highly analyzed plays ever written, and the protagonist Hamlet is arguably one of the greatest dramatic characters ever created. From the moment this disconsolate prince enters the scene the audience/reader is made acutely aware of his conflicted soul. This tragic hero is a walking dichotomy that provokes every sort of human emotion, and th-2

sets the stage for the revengeful plot to be carried out. Shakespeare uses the power of language to not only control the plot, but also to establish the storyline, reveal Hamlet’s varied complex character flaws, control fate, establish irony, and to govern the action of the play. Shakespeare brilliantly uses this character to hold the weight of the play with his dialogue, and reveal a vivid display of universal conflict within humanity.

Hamlet’s distress over his fathers death, his mother’s new-found marriage, and obvious distrust of the King are revealed with his entrance in Act 1, Scene 2 as he discourses with the Queen, his mother. However, his comment to the King is most insightful, when he reveals his suspicion and distrust. This comment reveals a lot, because Hamlet is not only displeased with his mother’s choice to marry so quickly after his father’s death, but it discloses Hamlet’s fermenting resentment.

King. Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine,

And thy best graces spend it at thy will!

Hamlet. [Aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind. (1.1.62-65)

Perhaps one of the most dramatically revealing moments in Hamlet is with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be.” Shakespeare introduces this during the middle of the play in Act 111, Scene 1. This moving and powerful monologue alerts the audience/reader that something grim is about to happen, as Hamlet uncovers his “sea of troubles.”

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Hamlet. To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?—To die,—to sleep,—
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die,—to sleep;—
To sleep: perchance to dream:—ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,—
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,—puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. (111.1.56-88)

Hamlet moves into a very dark, contemplative state, and exposes the flaws in his thinking, his conflicting views on death and nobility, his possible fate, and the recognition that he will have to do something about his own personal conflicts and the plague that looms over Denmark. This is a perfect example of Shakespeare’s use of language to drive the plot forward, establish conflict, reveal Hamlet’s disposition, and set the tone for the remainder of the play.

The Ghost is also an interesting character whose dialogue has a pivotal affect on Hamlet’s mental and emotional state and the fate of the play. By the Ghost revealing the truth about the circumstances surrounding Hamlet’s father’s death, he motivates Hamlet to commit murder, the ultimate revenge, and lose his soul!

Ghost. My hour is almost come,

When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames

Must render up myself.

Hamlet.   Alas, poor ghost!

          Ghost. Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing

To what I shall unfold.

Hamlet. Speak; I am bound to hear.

Ghost. So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt

hear.

Hamlet. What?

Ghost. I am thy father’s spirit;

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confined to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison-house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up they soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes like stars, start from their spheres,

Thy knotted and combined locks to part

And each particular hair to stand an end,

Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:

But this eternal blazon must not be

To ears of flesh and blood. List, list O, list!

If thou didst every thy dear father love—

Hamlet. O God!

     Ghost. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

     Hamlet. Murder! (1.5.7-26)

Not only does this speech reveal background, and feed Hamlet’s rage, it unlocks a thick unsettling within the plot of this play. Is the Ghost used by Shakespeare to create a diabolical manifestation that lures Hamlet into a fated doom? The dialogue certainly plays an intricate part in plot development and discloses the power of choice existent in every man. Is Hamlet’s madness self-induced? The language in this play is a powerful tool that helps impart Shakespeare’s theme within the play.

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What happened?

I have been sitting at my desk working on writing for 2 straight days.  Of course, I slept and ate, but you get the idea.

Anyway… I actually started writing this post when the movie Noah came out, which was back in March.  I haven’t had a minute to work on this blog, or any other blog.  Life can get very busy.

So, back in March (the week Noah came out), I decided to see the latest and greatest version — you know, Noah, take two!

There’s no denying that Darren Aronofsky’s Bible epic was well-acted.  How do you write a bad review about Russell Crowe.  It doesn’t happen too often. He’s a great actor, and he played the part of Noah well.  That doesn’t mean that I agree with the way Noah’s character was written, because I found it oddly interpreted, but Crowe performed well. He, which is not surprising, really takes on the roll. Most all of the other characters were underdeveloped, and that is another issue in my estimation. Noah himself definitely gets top billing, and somewhat holds the film together.  He is in a constant state of revision, flitting between hero to anti-hero almost overnight, when he becomes quite obsessed with the idea that “all humanity,” including his family have entirely missed the mark, will be punished and completely destroyed.  Guess he figures he’ll just continue where God leaves off.  He will stop at nothing to see that end accomplished too, even if it means destroying one of his kids, and much like Moses, sacrificing one of his own (his sons newborn twins).  His poor wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), is beside herself, and rightly so. Even more interesting is the antagonist that was added to the story.  Tubal-Cain, Noah’s macho-macho man rival defines the word narcissist. It actually becomes almost comical when he manages to break through the middle of the arch and camp out with the animals as a stowaway, and then winning Noah’s son over for a time.  I suppose Aronofsky felt the storyline needed some spicing up with the addition of this character and crazy sub-plot, but in no way does this deliver or even make sense.

It’s certainly easy to understand why the Christian community didn’t respond favorably to Noah.  It was not even close to accurate — at least, according to the bible.  It should be noted, that Noah is a “lose” adaptation, and often times adaptations are changed.  However, because Aronofsky makes so many changes, and ads so much fantasy, it’s past the point of believable, and moves into being just plain weird. From the mystical, expanding earth that moves through the audience through time in an instant, to the “Watchers,” the dark, sci-fi creatures that sound like Darth Vader remnants, it leaves one with the feeling that they are on an exhausting adventure ride at Disneyland. Even popcorn didn’t appease.

No doubt, the ark is impressive, and watching every creature surge toward the arch two by two, is fairly entertaining. Aronofsky doesn’t just use biblical text as his source; there is quite a potpourri from various religions, which includes: pre-Christian paganism, the Quran, Greek mythology, the Big Bang theory, and other literary works.  Also, I don’t think Noah and his famiglia were sporting English accents either, and most all of the main characters seemed to miss out on the fact that this takes place pre Great Britain (haha, actually pre-much of anything!).

In addition to the screenplay having poorly developed characters, Aronofsky taking near-laughable creative liberties, and a conglomeration of elements (as if pulled out of a hat), this action, sci-fi, epic adventure was grossly over-written.  By the end of this big screen fiasco, I found myself sitting in the darkened theater shaking my head and asking myself, “What happened?”

Russell Crowe as Noah

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Lord of the Rings?  Star Wars?  There was certainly the hint of Yoda.

 

August Osage County: Film vs. the play

Sometimes theatrical plays don’t translate well onto the screen.  I suspect, based on my reading of the play (I have not seen the production), that this might be the case with Tracy Letts Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County, vs. his movie adaptation.

In the play, the first line of the prologue is revelatory. “Life is very long…” (10) This intensely dark comedy epitomizes the term “baggage” with the unfolding of every single character within the play, and Letts uses their dysfunctional personal and interpersonal dynamics to set the tone in the storyline, which drives the plot forward.  This is certainly the case in the film as well.  The audience is told that life is long against a backdrop of miles flat Oklahoma fields–fields that seem to go on forever.

There is no doubt that Meryl Streep lives up to her reputation, and executes a brilliant performance playing Violet, the cancer-laden, vicious, pill-popping, abusive, bitter Weston family matriarch. This untamed shrew is at the helm of her entire family’s extreme dysfunction.  Despite the amazing performances by Streep, and even with the all-star cast in this adaptation, the film has some issues.  Let’s start with the fact that the trailer sets this film up as a comedy, but in no way is this storyline comedic, in fact, it is epitomizes that worst kind of individual and family dysfunction.  It’s brutal.

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Violet, who is suffering from mouth cancer, spews venomous words in rapid fire against every member of her family–to include her daughters, following her husbands suicide.  Violet is toxic and overbearing; she is nothing short of a monster. Her “truth-telling” takes sharing and disclosure to a new level. Julia Roberts plays her eldest daughter Barbara, who is the acorn that didn’t fall too far from the tree.  Roberts also delivers a stunning performance, but having two characters that are this “large,” seems to take away from the  intensity of the other.  Even though I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing August Osage County on stage, I can’t help but believe these two characters, in particular, would be better slated for the stage than the screen.

Some of the themes so present in the play are muddied when adapted over into a film.  Such as the disconnect present in a family who are aimlessly going through the motions of life, and none of them are on the same page. At times, it felt contrived.  Also, the dinner-table scene goes on and on, and is somewhat stifling.

At the core, this story is about abuse, and generational abuse shared between all the women in this family, and all of the many skeletons that are in their closets.

When a story comes together in a film… well, it’s

MAGICAL!!!

For those of you who haven’t yet seen Saving Mr. Banks, I highly recommend it.  Based on the true story of P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins children’s books, Saving Mr. Banks promises to entertain, prod emotion, and warm the heart.

The story is about the making of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, and how Disney wooed author P.L. Travers to allow him to make a film about her “magical” nanny.  As expected, Emma Thompson (P.L.Travers) and Tom Hanks (Walt Disney) give absolutely wonderful performances.  The author juxtaposes the unbending, surly personality of P.L.Travers’ character, against warm-hearted, passionate and determined Walt Disney, and it works well in the storyline.  Of course, while the film’s final scene between Disney and Traver’s is endearing and heart-warming, it is completely embellished.  The real story portrays a very unhappy Travers over the final outcome of the film, and it appears Disney and Travers end things on a very sour note.

However, the film keeps the moment magical, and it works. Our hearts are lifted, and we (the audience) are contented.

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Saving Mr. Banks manages to weave together two separate stories: the story of Ginty, an eight-year-old Australian girl and her relationship with her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell).  Ginty and her father have a unique, close-knit, loving relationship that is dramatically affected by his love for the bottle.  When his life is cut short, and he dies, Ginty’s life is forever affected. The bulk of the narrative is Disney’s pursuit of the story, and the things that transpire once Travers is flown to Los Angeles to meet the writers (screenwriting and songwriting) who hope to take the Mary Poppins’ stories and adapt them for the screen.

Travers is not easy won, which really adds to the complex scope of her character.  She is cold, indifferent, calloused, and clearly flawed.  Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith did a great job of jarring the audiences emotions with this character, and Thompson gives a rave performance.

From the time Travers arrives in Los Angeles, she is uncomfortable and unyielding, in fact, the only one who is really able to crack through her hard-hearted shell, is the friendly limo driver (Paul Giamatti) provided by Disney.  He touches the heart of Travers; something that Disney is really never able to do.  She is taken off-guard, as he gives her the grand tour of L.A. and takes her to Disneyland.  Her relationship with the driver is sincere and gives us a sense of “who” Travers “really” is, when she is normally complex, irritable, and very difficult to deal with.  Giamatti’s relationship with Travers is endearing and uplifting.

One of the biggest issues with the script, is the continual flashbacks from the present (life in the 60’s) to Ginty’s troubled childhood in Australia. These flashbacks are used to slowly unveil the complexities that surround Travers and her icy personality.   Flashbacks are tricky and can often be risky, but somehow, they work in Saving Mr. Banks.  Eventually, the audience is made aware of “why” Travers is so protective over her work; it is related to her need to protect her father.  Knowing this history gives the audience a greater understanding and appreciation for Travers.  We become engaged, and we care about this character. It’s powerful when the audience cares about the protagonist.

colin-farrell-saving-mr-banks-ginty

The film is actually more about struggle than anything else.  While we “think” it’s about how Mary Poppins was made, it’s really much more than that.  Both Travers and Disney had troubled childhoods.  Disney choose fantasy as a way to ease his own past and conquer his demons, where Travers plummeted herself into her books about a magical nanny–a nanny that would simple whisk heartache and care away.  Travers looks at the world through hardness and disappointment, and Disney creates a new world–a happy place to shield himself from pain.  It’s a compelling comparison.

No doubt, Saving Mr. Banks is well-worth seeing.  It encapsulates the word, “entertainment,” and makes the heart glad.  ❤

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The Power of Want: A Look At Creating Believable Characters

Creating believable and interesting characters is an important part of writing.  While it is not as important as the plot, it is undeniably crucial.

The power of “want” is necessary for every character, and even more essential for the protagonist.  Want is the pre-cursor for action.  Without desire, a character will not convincingly respond or act.   The protagonist is essentially driven by their need or desire. This can be physical, emotional, financial, conscious or even unconscious, and always evident to an audience.  In addition, the protagonist’s desire must be believable.  In the book Story, author Robert Mckee says, “The protagonist’s characterization must be appropriate.  He needs a believable combination of qualities in the right balance to pursue his desires.”  Such qualities are an amalgamation of character and characterization — it’s what makes the character appear human.  The spectrum is wide and encompasses attributes like:  personality quirks, values, attitudes, speech, sexuality, age, intelligence, etc.  While these attributes are helpful in building the uniqueness of a character, these traits are not character.  Character is revelatory.  “At the heart of his humanity, what will we find?  Is he loving or cruel? Generous or selfish?  Strong or weak?  Truthful or a liar?  The only way to know the truth is to witness him make choices under pressure to take one action or another in the pursuit of his desire. The interesting thing about this creative reality is that a protagonist does not necessarily have to be a nice guy (we’re talking flawed), but he will be a transformed guy in the end.

In the real world people respond according to desire or need.  For example, the guy across the street recently got stuck at the supermarket.  After trying to reach his wife, he called a neighbor to see if he could get a lift back to his house.  He had a need, and that need prompted him to call his neighbor.  It is imperative that a writer create a character that not only has a need, but who has the ability to pursue his or her need convincingly.  Simply put…if it is not true to life, an audience will never buy it.  McKee says, “An audience has no patience for a protagonist who lacks all possibility of realizing his desire.”  Part of the reason this holds true is because the audience must connect with the protagonist.  There is something within this character that the audience relates to.  McKee believes a protagonist should be both sympathetic and empathetic.  “Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity (…) there’s something about the character that strikes a chord.”  Because of this, the audience wants the character to get what he needs or desires.  This connection with the protagonist is paramount, if it isn’t present, the audience will not connect with the character, and possibly get bored.  When we identify with the protagonist and his need, we inadvertently root for the fulfillment of our own desires.  Even if an audience does not care for the protagonist, if they recognize a certain shared humanity, they will connect.

Part of the reason that want/desire is vital for the protagonist is because a story cannot be told about a protagonist who isn’t driven by desire or need.  That is what will cause him/her to make decisions [good or bad]. The power to choose actually helps the character to arc.  It really does not matter what the need or want is, but this character must possess the power to go after his or her want [take action], which will ultimately cause some sort of transformation.  Plain and simple…the audience needs him to win!

Think of some of your favorite characters.  Guaranteed, they all desire or need something.  Remember the movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?  An orphan, brought up by his aunt and uncle, Harry has issues with inferiority and a lack of confidence, which makes him timid.  However, as the story progresses, and he becomes a powerful wizard, it never goes to his head, nor does he use his powers in a selfish and controlling way. Once he acquires the magic stone, he does not want to use it to acquire more power, but he desires to protect it from getting into the wrong persons hand.  Harry is humble and noble, and his desire is what makes him such a endearing and believable hero.

TOL (thinking out loud)

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.

For starters…

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.

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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.

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Plotting along

According to Aristotle, the ability to plot is the most important aspect of writing–even more important than the characters themselves. Michael Tierno, author of Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters (one of my favorite books) says, “Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agendas.” When writing, I think this quote should be planted in front of our eyes at all times. Within the structure of plot, we should seek to convey truth through the human condition. So, your plot must have a single issue, or as Tierno puts it, “one unified action.”  He uses The Godfather as a perfect example of this.  It’s easy to think that there are numerous plots weaving this story together, but that is not the case.  The single issue in The Godfather is the war against the Corleones.  Everything else evolves because of that single action event.

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Greek scholars translated Aristotle’s “Mythos” as plot.  We get the word “mythology” from mythos, and it’s defined as a story, legend, tale, folklore, fable, etc.  Without the plot, we only have characters, scenarios and language, but no story.  Aristotle understood plot, and so did other great writers throughout history.  Writers like: Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Geoffrey Chaucer, and Ovid, to name a few.  There is a reason their works have stood the test of time. Writers who understand the importance of creating stories that cause the reader or viewer to respond in an emotional way will create a winning story. Carl Jung said, “They touch the common experiences of life and death that humans undergo.” Sigmund Freud said, “They mirror our neuroses and help to resolve them.”  A screenwriter, who understands the power of myth and can recreate these stories in a fresh and present way, will scribe a successful story.

Plot is the framework where the story unfolds, but it is not the story itself. Story is what happens; plot is how those events unfold.

It is much like a seamstress who begins making a piece of clothing with a pattern.  The pattern is raw. Without it, the dressmaker cannot sew a single stitch; it is the framework for the dress. So the plot evolves one point at a time. Good plots move chronologically.  This is part of the reason that using flashbacks can be tricky.  Normally, a film that is written in chronological order works better, but (of course) there’s always the exception to that rule. Citizen Kane and Pulp Fiction are great examples of the exception. The only reason for writing a non-chronological plot is to reveal something about the character that will be better disclosed if not told in a chronological order. That being said, Aristotle, Horace and many other ancient writers advised to begin in medias res, “in the middle of things.” This is an ancient literary technique for manipulating the plot. It’s like hitting the reader or viewer between the eyes with a big club! In other words, begin the story near the heart of the problem. This device was used in films like: Sunset Boulevard, Fight Club and Hangover, and while this technique certainly served these plots well, BE CAREFUL. If you decide to use medias res, you need to understand its function and limitations, and for a novice screenwriter, I would avoid opening that door.

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Never forget that plot is connected to action. Michael Tierno calls it the “Action-Idea,” or “mission statement.” So, when we are developing our plot, we must ask ourselves “if” it is an “Action-Idea.”  For example, say I want to write a screenplay about a love. That is not an “Action-Idea.” We have to look a little deeper.  Since plot and action are connected, how can we change this idea, to reveal a sequence of actions that have a beginning, middle and end? If I create a plot that involves the protagonist overcoming the obstacles to love that keeps him or her from engaging in “true” love, that is a great “Action-Idea.” I can then build central conflict; develop the character and other underlying themes in the story.

What about a quest-driven plot?  Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect example of this. A plot that is built around a quest always involves the protagonist’s search for a person, place or thing, and that can be tangible or intangible. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Professor Indiana Jones ventures into the jungles of South America searching for a golden statue. From the moment his search begins, conflict arises with every deadly trap that comes his way. The plot thickens when museum curator, Marcus Brody, who tells Jones about a biblical artifact called, “The Ark of the Covenant,” contacts Jones. This artifact holds the key to human existence, and finding it comes with a price.  Jones is on the journey of a lifetime as he finds himself in remote places like: Nepal and Egypt, while fighting against Nazi enemies and antagonist, Renee Bellog.

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Different plots will result in different paths, but if a plot is properly created, there will always be a chain of events that follows (cause and effect). In the end, a well-crafted plot will drive the story forward with action, and define and enhance the protagonist’s journey.  After all, at the end of the day, all good stories reveal a journey.