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 about subplots?

Creating a good plot is essential to screenplay writing, or any other type of fiction.  The plot is what drives the story forward. While subplots are a common element used in screenwriting, they can be risky if they are not used properly.  Aristotle maintained that a perfect plot has a single issue, and that subplots are the sign of bad writing technique (Tierno).  So, if this is true then how have subplots become so predominant in screenwriting today?  It is imperative that a writer choose one external conflict and a subplot must be a part of that conflict.  For a subplot to work, it must carry the theme of the main action.

In order to establish whether a subplot will work or not, the writer needs to have an understanding of what a subplot really is.  Some writers actually call subplots the “A” and “B” story, but either way; a subplot is an extension of the main theme.  In other words—subplots are always somehow connected to the main plot.  These secondary storylines must enrich, or bring life to the main plot, and they will always help the protagonist in his or her journey toward resolve.  For example, in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the central theme is developed around Hamlet’s crazed revenge of his father’s death, and his actions are a result of his need for revenge.  There are two subplots in Hamlet: The war with Norway and Ophelia’s relationship to Hamlet.  Shakespeare reveals Hamlet’s want in the first act, but complications occur in act two when Hamlet shows up in Ophelia’s chamber in complete disarray after Ophelia has just learned that he is loosing his love interest in her.  Ophelia is not overly surprised, because she is aware of his confused mental state.  The plot thickens when Ophelia shares about Hamlet’s sudden visit with Polonius:

OPHELIA

O, my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted!

LORD POLONIUS

With what, in the name of God?

OPHELIA

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,

Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;

Ungarter’d, and down-gyved to his ancle;

Pale in his shirt; his knees knocking each other;

And with a look so piteous in purport

As if he had been loosed out of hell

To speak of horrors, — he comes before me.

LORD POLONIUS

Mad for thy love?

OPHELIA

My lord, I do not know;

But truly, I do fear it.

(Shakespeare, 2:1)

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In the above scene, Shakespeare uses Ophelia’s character to create conflict and further establish the question of Hamlet’s sanity.  It is important to note the Ophelia and Hamlet have been life-long friends, so for her to “fear” his love, and have this kind of intense concern, it is somewhat disquieting.

In an article written by Amanda Mabillard, which is posted on Shakespeare Online, she says, “There are three plots in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the main revenge plot and two subplots involving the romance between Hamlet and Ophelia, and the looming war with Norway.”  Shakespeare uses the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia to highlight a different aspect of the one external conflict—Hamlet’s settling of scores.

Everyone loves a good romance story, but the supposed romance between Hamlet and Ophelia turns sour.  By the third Act, Hamlet verbally assaults her, wounding the poor young maiden’s heart and rendering her hopelessly insane; she drowns in Act four. Laetres blames Hamlet and vows revenge.  Shakespeare uses the actions of these characters to continue create tension in the story and to enhance Hamlet’s disposition and emphasize his off-kilter state-of-mind.

For a subplot to work effectively, additional characters must remain central to the primary plot. In Sylvester Stallone’s famous screenplay Rocky, the main plot is the fight.  Where Hamlet’s motive for action was the revenge of his father’s death, Rocky Balboa’s motive for action is the big fight.  Rocky’s relationship with his manager and his wife are a way for the author to introduce different points of view, while supporting the plot and driving it forward.  The relationships that Rocky has with these two characters help to create secondary plots.  They do not take away from Rocky and his goal, but add a sense of depth to his character and bring humanness to Rocky.  For example, Rocky’s trainer Mickey sees potential in the young 25-year-old fighter, but throughout most of the screenplay, there is a lot of friction between Rocky and Mickey. Stallone wittingly uses this resistance between the two characters to produce the wanted results in the end…Rocky will fight.  Note the following excerpt from a scene between Rocky and Mickey:

MICKEY

Ya want the truth – Ya got heart, but ya fight like an ape –

The only thing special about you is ya never got ya

nose broke – – keep ya nose pretty – -what’s left of ya

brain an’ retire.

ROCKY [ignoring his comment]

Listen, I’m gonna take a steam – –

Did good last night – – Shoulda seen it.

MICKEY [ignoring Rocky’s comment]

Hey, ever think about retirin’

ROCK

…No.

MICKEY

…Think about it.

Mickey

The above scene is good psychology.  Mickey knows that if he can get Rocky mad enough he will step up to the plate and give his all, and then he will have a good chance fighting in the fight that will land him the title.  Stallone uses Mickey like the sound of a nail against a chalkboard.  This trainer wants to get under Rocky’s skin and push him on the journey toward his goal—the fight.  In the final scene, Rocky makes it to the fight, and Stallone pulls the stops out as he keeps the audience/reader suspended in thin air and he is going for the heavyweight title against the undefeated Apollo Creed.  When everyone expects Rocky to ultimately win, Stallone pulls a fast one –it’s a “split decision!”

ANNOUNCER

Ladies and gentlemen – We have a split decision!

ANOTHER ANGLE Apollo did not expect this and tenses.  His corner nervously tries to reassure him.  It does no good.  ANOTHER ANGLE Rocky did not expect this either and looks in confusion at Mickey, but Mickey is frozen with anticipation.

ANNOUNCER

Judge Walker scores it eight- seven Creed…

Judge Roseman scores it eight-seven Balboa(…)

winner and still Heavyweight Champion of the

world, Apollo Creed!

Keep in mind that the goal is the fight, and even though Rocky technically loses, his loss

makes the audience/reader love him all the more.  Mickey’s response to Rocky after the

winner is announced is not only touching, it also adds a sense of humanness to their

relationship.  In almost father-like fashion Mickey affirms to Rocky his admiration as he

says, “I don’t care what they say, you’re a winner.”

Remember…
Subplots are not additional obstacles randomly thrown into a screenplay;

they reflect the central conflict of the main plot.

For screenplay coaching and/or editing:  carlaiacovetti.com

Other references: WriterDuet.com – Screenwriting online…it’s easy, SSL secure and free!

 

 

Conflict and obstacles: Driving forces in a screenplay

Aside

A story without conflict is a story that’s going nowhere.

Did I just say that?  I did.

The bottom line…if there’s no dramatic conflict, there’s no drama.  Even in comedy (which is drama with a twist), there is conflict. Remember the comedy The Hangover?  It’s conflict haven! While the film itself doesn’t do much for me, it is certainly filled with conflict and obstacles.

Now, I should probably share that conflict is not really the same thing as an obstacle.  By definition, conflict is: an argument, a disagreement (often long-lasting), a conflict of interests, a clash of opposition (like wishes or needs), a dispute, a quarrel, a struggle, warfare, etc.  Obstacle is:  a thing that blocks one’s way or hinders one’s progress. Such as an obstacle to achieving a goal.

In a screenplay, an obstacle is any resistance to the main characters want or desire.  Now, want or need creates action, so it’s imperative that you define your character’s need early-on.  When obstacles occur and work against each other, they create dramatic conflict, and this is GOOD!  Here is a life example:

The roofer’s ladder fell over and he has to go to the restroom in the worst possible way. All of the other roofers have gone to lunch, and he is alone.  He has a need, but the obstacle is the ladder that fell over.  What’s he going to do?  Yell, scream, try and find another way down… This roofer’s need motivates him to ACT and over-ride the obstacle.  Obstacles can be prodded by other people or by circumstances.  In the case of the roofer, his circumstance was the obstacle.

As a screenwriter, you have to inject conflict into your script to keep the action moving along so the audience will remain interested.

Conflict is most important when it stands in the way of the protagonists success and/or transformation. In other words, what is trying to keep your hero from succeeding?  The use of conflict and obstacles in a screenplay are immensely important, in fact, dramatic conflict (motivation vs. obstacle) is the very thing that drives the story.  Conflict creates dramatic tension.
Elizabeth English, founder of the Moondance Film Festival in Colorado says, “There are five distinct types of conflict that can be used in screenwriting. Inner or personal conflict, relational conflict, social or local conflict, situational conflict, and universal or cosmic conflict. All five types of conflict can be in a single screenplay, and can involve most, if not all of the characters, interacting with each other and with the protagonist and antagonist(s). Conflict as the central event drives the story and the characters. Conflict in the plot structure breathes life into your story! The audience relates to your protagonist and to the conflicts he or she faces. The patterns of tension resulting from the visible and invisible forces the characters overcome create a believable reality for the film-goer, and increase the film’s impact on that audience.”
There is no doubt that inner conflict is the most difficult to relay on the screen, in-particular of it’s the main conflict in a story.  A great example of this is in the film American Beauty. is the hardest type of conflict to convey successfully in a film, if that’s the central focus of conflict in the story.
Conflict is an essential element in every screenplay, no matter what the genre.  The audience needs to see the protagonist succeed on his or her journey, but part of that success is in his or her ability to overcome every obstacle and to beat continual conflict in the story.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is all about internal conflict.  Hamlet is in a war with his conscience and his inner conflict is actually resolved as he is dying, when he realizes that his mother wasn’t a part of planning his father’s death.
So, as you’re writing your story, REMEMBER  as important as it is to create conflict to move your story along,  so too must you create a main obstacle that your protagonist (hero) will struggle to overcome.