Storytelling for the screen

Storytelling is instinctive to the human condition, and screenwriting is storytelling.  At the core of storytelling, is a cerebral, emotional, social and psychological connection.  Every screenwriter has the responsibility of creating a story (even if comedic) that will connect with the audience.  What do the works of famed literary artists like: Shakespeare, Homer, Aesop, Chaucer, Euripides, Virgil, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Leo Tolstoy, and Dante all have in common?  They have been able to characterize simple life truths into stories – stories that are connected to the human condition.  This connection is experienced by the reader/audience as they identify with the characters.

Psychologist William Indick says, “Through the unconscious process of “identification,” the people in the audience [readers] actually become the characters that they identify with in the film, and they experience, vicariously, the same psychological development and catharsis that the characters on the screen [or in a book] experience.”

Catharsis is a term that was set into motion by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 -322 BCE).  Aristotle established the guidelines for literary tragedy that are very much in place today.  In his famous Poetics (350 BCE), Aristotle defines “catharsis” as follows:  “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude…in the form of action, not of narrative, through pity, and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions (section 1, part VI).”  Purgation is actually more literally translated “catharsis,” and comes from the word, “Greekkatharsis,” and means cleansing.

*More on Catharsis: http://www.bookkaholic.com/what-to-read-part-6-catharsis/

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

It is no mystery as to why the classics (movies, literature and theatrical plays) have stood the test of time.  How is it that an audience today can still relate to the heartbreak of two young lovers in Romeo and Juliet?  Why do we feel empathy for Topol in Fiddler on the Roof when her father Tevye disowns her for choosing to marry outside the Jewish faith?  It is because these stories represent real people with authentic issues, while illuminating simple truths about life.  In essence, we “feel” the characters pain.  When Willy Loman is cast aside at 60 years old in the play, The Death of a Salesman, we again are moved by his troubles and so many disappointments of his past.

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As screenwriters, we have a responsibility to create stories that are relatable.  No matter what the genre, every good story must have a protagonist who will be forced to make a choice.  The classic hero struggles with human flaws, psychological reactions to conflict from the beginning of the story all the way to the end, where we (the audience/reader) see the protagonist’s transformation.

Story is not to be confused with plot.  Screenwriter and author Kate Wright says, “Story and plot are intricately woven inside story events, and while the audience cannot tell them apart, each us distinct: Plot is self-evident, and we experience it objectively, scene by scene.  Story is the deeper meaning behind the plot, and we subjectively infer its moral truth—or absolute truth—sequentially, by identifying with the inner moral struggle of the main character.”

So, with the realization that “story” must connect to humanity, we (as writers) begin the journey of unfolding the premise, from FADE IN to FADE OUT.  It cannot just be about an idea, or bang-up and shoot-out events.  A screenplay (like fiction) has a beginning, middle and end, and it is a combination plate of unfolding events that will bring the hero to transformation.  Of course, it’s not just “any” event.  All events must play a part in defining the world of the story, addressing the theme or central idea (which needs to be addressed in the first 5 minutes, pushing the plot forward, revealing the journey/plight of the protagonist, and so on.

“A STORY EVENT creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a VALUE.” – Robert McKee, Story

The values that McKee speaks about are those universal qualities found within every human experience.  No matter what the characteristic, whether it be fear or confidence, joy, anger, hope, despair, wisdom, truth or lies, morality, and even death and life, these (and many more) are the catalyst for conflict.

According to McKee, “Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask:  What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment?”  Identify the value/emotion in the scene from the beginning to the ending. Looking objectively at every scene, and asking this question is a great way to identify the significance of the scene, and according to McKee, it will lead you to a second important question:  “Why is this scene in my script?”

A Great Rule: Enter late; exit early.

Go back to every scene (and every conversation) and find the latest possible point you can enter that conversation or scene.

a)     Begin your scene there. Cut everything that comes before it.

b)    Next, find the earliest place you can exit the scene, and end your scene there (cutting everything after it).

c)     Try to cut your scene before it resolves.  Leave something dangling, and end with a question—something unanswered, or as David Ball says, “End with a forwarding action.”

It really is all about the STORY.  Without a story, you don’t have characters.  Without a story, you don’t have a screenplay, and without a story you don’t have a movie.

There is a correlation between story and life, and it’s a connection that must not be missed.  McKee says, “Story is metaphor for life.”  So, it doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing in; what does matter is that your story must have a relationship with human experience.  Ask yourself the question, “Is your story life-like?”

It’s not about figuring out the marketplace, but mastering the craft of screenwriting, and that is no small quest.  David Ball, author of Backwards & Forwards recently said, “Screenwriting is a group art form.  It is largely technique, plus art and inspiration. If you want to play, you have to learn how the game is played.  Successful writers master a technique before they reject it.”

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