My stepmother is dying. She's got a form of emphysema that is slowly strangling her. My father and she have been
married for about 30 years and live in a beautiful house on top of a mountain in the Southwest. It's somewhat isolated
and I worry what my father will do since he is no longer allowed to drive. He called me to tell me of this grave
situation. I have never heard him cry before. I struggled for something to say, some notion that has helped me.
I offered the idea that even in the face of the worst loss, there is an essential part of us that is always
happy, regardless of the external situation.
It's A Wonderful Life
and Life is Beautiful
are examples of films where the hero finds a basic joy
within himself, far deeper than the despair the outward situation engenders.
Although my father was understandably overwhelmed by the prospect of losing the person he loves most, he
repeated the idea and agreed that there was this aspect of himself. There was a pause and then he said,
"Everyday she stays is a gift, she is not in pain, she is very stoic and is helping me to make the final arrangements."
He was suddenly finding all of the positives in this terrible situation. He is a remarkable man.
Later I asked myself, why does such a simple idea have such a helpful effect?
The connection to a deeper self brings us to the present moment and helps us find relief. This is the state of mind
called the "flow" state.
"People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action
This is the description of the term coined by psychology Professor Csíkszentmihályi in 1975.
Somehow, accepting that there is a deeper place within us that is impervious to the events that are
presently occurring are both helpful when we are confronted with the rocky parts of life, and also
can help when writing a screenplay.
How can you use this idea when writing your script?
Deciding up upon the level of awareness that your characters have is a great way to develop subtext. Make the
following choice: Does your hero or heroine see the glass half-full or half empty? Do they feel a connection to
this larger self, or do they feel alone?
In It's A Wonderful Life
, George Bailey begins at half-empty and ends at half-full. The painful events of the
plot teach him to see things differently. Even if you find this kind of message annoying, it doesn't mean that
you can avoid noticing that many great films embody this message. And further, that it isn't one we aren't all secretly
relieved to hear.
Look at your current script and ask yourself if your character has an awareness of something larger than him or her.
Here are some easy ways to figure this out: Does your main character pray or go to church when stressed?
Meditate or do yoga? Curse God? Mention a fear of going to hell in their dialogue?
If the answer is yes, how are you dramatizing this? And if not, how could add an arc that
begins at one end of the spectrum and ends with the other?
Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) in The Bucket List
begins the film in a state of lonely despair and ends up
uniting with his daughter and finding inner peace. The plot involves him learning that he has six months to
live and befriends his hospital roommate, Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman). The lesson he earns is that by
healing others you help yourself.
Ask yourself: Does your character learn from the lesson that they have received by going through the events in the plot?
In Next Stop Wonderland
, directed by Brad Anderson, a nurse played by Hope Davis combats her feelings of
despair by randomly opening a book of poetry written by her late father, and placing her
finger on any word on the page she opens to. She uses this word to help her find a deeper thought, and to
solve the problem she's having. The plot of the film is about whether or not two people who are meant to be
together will allow circumstances to let them come together. In It's A Wonderful Life
, that deeper awareness is
represented by Clarence, the struggling angel who shows George (James Stewart) how much value he has to others.
This allows him to accept his life as it is and find the joy in it.
Ask yourself: is there a plot event that forces the character to reexamine or confront his or her belief system?
The "miracle" in Pulp Fiction
is an example of how a plot event creates subplot and breadth of story. In the
film, both Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel Jackson) witness the "miracle", by the end of the film, one changes
as a result and the other doesn't. One reforms his life and the other doesn't. Vincent refuses to see that the event is
a sign, a call to adventure to change their lives. Jules realizes it and stops killing people, because he realizes he's
a part of something larger than himself.
Finding a deeper level of awareness, understanding that everyone and every character has a "god speck,"
within themselves, a phrase that, Adrienne Weiss, director of Love Ludlow
, used in a wonderful short film
called Mother's Day, can improve both our writing and make life itself more bearable.