Working with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jason Miller and the legendary Tennessee Williams offered me a tremendous entrée into the magical world of storytelling. As American icons, their extraordinary talent inspired the world; and as screenwriters, their remarkable ability to work through the visceral process of storytelling taught me that great stories communicate simple truths that reflect the poetic dimensions of the human soul. Not only do powerful characters help us understand our lives, their stories reflect our core values as human beings. But how do we create these ideas and feelings as a story for the big screen? How can we be certain that a screenplay delivers the maximum impact, both emotionally, and as entertainment?
Here are five steps from the trenches – the Five S’s of Screenwriting – that invite you into the process:
Story creates the deeper understanding about human nature that we experience when we hear or see what has happened to another human being. Whether it’s an incident in the life of someone we know, the true-life experience of someone in the news, the adventures of a fictional character, or the heroic life of a compelling historical figure, we are fascinated by the progression of events that a human being encounters, and this progression of events is called plot.. However, what engages our imagination on a human level is how the main character reacts to this progression of events, and this cumulative insight is called story.
A good story features a main character, or protagonist, who confronts a strong moral choice. This is true in comedy as well as drama, and the best stories feature a protagonist who struggles with identifiable human flaws. The moral choice can be very simple or complex, but it must test the inner moral strength of the main character against his human flaws, not just toward achieving his outward goal, but through his internal transformation, which occurs in his conscience and emotional life. As the story progresses, the hero confronts other characters and situations that support, negate, and challenge his ability to overcome the odds and achieve his goal, but what is satisfying to the audience is the internal triumph that occurs throughout the external struggle, such that, at the end of the story, the audience understands in a profound way what the story is about.
Storytelling is how we tell the story. It’s a process, rather than a formula. Storytelling begins with defining what the story is about as an idea. This is usually called theme, although theme is more subtle than an abstract idea. It’s what we feel about the story, as revealed through the moral dilemma of the main character, in opposition to other characters. For example, if you were writing a story about freedom, an interesting approach would be to create a world where the main character longs for freedom, but is subjected to servitude by his life situation, or imprisoned as a consequence of his actions. Alternately, if you were creating a story with trust at its dramatic center, there would be strong elements of betrayal within the opposing elements and characters of the story.
The second major storytelling decision is defining where the story begins. Most writers take the easy way out. They begin with back story. The result is a story that never takes off until about page 40. Ugh! The preferable approach is to pinpoint the theme of the story, based on the main character’s inner conflict. Die Hard, starring Bruce Willis, is a great example. The story begins with a man who is afraid to fly whose goal is to win back the love and respect of his family. He confronts a hostage situation involving his estranged wife, and all of a sudden, his courage is tested to the max. The combination of his internal conflict and simple goal, together with the challenge of the hostage situation sets the story into fast motion, from beginning to end.
The third storytelling decision is choosing the genre that tells the story. Genre tells the audience how they should feel about the story, whether they should laugh, smile, cry, think, scream, or just enjoy the ride. Genre is so crucial to the movie-going experience that some screenwriters begin with a genre, and then create the idea and story concept.
The fourth storytelling task is creating a point-of-view character within the story. This is what distinguishes a great writer from the journeyman writers. The point-of-view character (within the story, not a camera angle!) interacts with the main character throughout the story to help the audience understand what is going on inside the true development of the main character. Interestingly, the point-of-view character also serves as the “storyteller” inside the story through whom, you, as writer, establish yourself. Although this is a difficult task at the onset, frequently we, as writers, make this decision unconsciously during the first draft. Despite our conscious efforts to create a “point-of-view” within the story, the point-of-view character jumps off the page when we least expect it, easily recognizable by readers.
Structure is form. Screenplay structure is invisible form. Syd Field, who is internationally recognized for his landmark book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, defines screenplay form in three-act structure better than anyone else, which is why his work is widely recommended and highly respected among professionals:
- The Set-up establishes the main character and dramatic situation.
- The Act I Plot Point features the main character’s primary story decision, in opposition to the antagonist.
- The Mid-Point is the moment when the main character is forced into the antagonist’s world, thereby redefining the story premise, this time by the antagonist.
- The Act II Plot Point is the lowest point in the story where the main character has been defeated by the antagonist and lost his motivation.
- The Ending is the last ten pages, wherein the main character realizes a deeper understanding of his struggle, and summons up the courage to defeat the antagonist.
As a producer, I enjoyed learning the art of creating sequences by working with directors and editors in the editing room. This is one of the hallmarks of my approach to screenwriting, which is prominently featured in my popular book, Screenwriting is Storytelling. Although “screen-storytelling” can be a complex task, for purposes of discussion, here are some basics to get you started thinking in film sequences: Each scene is made up of a series of shots. Each sequence is made up of a series of scenes. Each sequence builds upon the next sequence to create story progression. Story progression occurs when story sequences build upon one another in a logical way, moving the story forward through character conflict that we understand as “story logic” about the poetic dimensions of the human condition. In a major motion picture, or studio picture, there are usually 12 story sequences that build towards the final climax. The story moves forward in 12 major story beats, or film sequences, that, when edited together, reflect the 12-Sequence Story.
Here is a short-hand summary:
- The main character faces a strong moral dilemma in achieving a goal.
- The antagonist poses opposition, both morally and to the goal.
- The main character confronts the major complication, but proceeds into the story.
- The story moves into a new world, and the main character makes an achievement.
- The antagonist takes control of the story, sets the counter-plot in motion.
- The main character moves forward, believing himself to be victorious, but finds the antagonist to be equal and opposing.
- The main character restates the goal, with renewed conviction, but experiences his first setback.
- The antagonist spins the counter-plot forward, and achieves momentum against the main character.
- The protagonist experiences defeat at the hand of the antagonist, and loses his moral strength.
- The protagonist loses the will to achieve his goal, but resuscitates his motivation and moral strength.
- The protagonist restates his goal and summons up his moral courage. The antagonist restates his mission to destroy the protagonist, as well as his motivation and courage.
- The protagonist and antagonist prepare for confrontation, but the protagonist experiences an epiphany of moral courage that gives him what it takes to defeat the antagonist. The story resolves with the protagonist understanding his life with renewed meaning and understanding.
Just in case the first four of the S’s seem simple, please allow me to introduce you to the fifth S, the world of advanced screenwriting: the world of spine. This is an abstract world where (even veteran) screenwriters labor in pain, sometimes without professional breakthrough, sometimes without financial reward. When the breakthrough finally happens, however, there is magic on the screen!
Spine begins with discovering what your story is about through character behavior. It is about creating a unifying depth within your story, character by character, action by action, sequence by sequence, layer upon layer. The surprise is that once you discover what your story is about on a profound poetic level, there are an infinite number of insights and details you can infuse into the material through character behavior, actions, tone, and images. The challenge is to discover this unifying idea or principle that synthesizes what the story is about in simple terms. The genius is to be able to create characters as ideas that morph into character behavior that the audience embraces and readily understands, revealing what the story is about in every frame of the picture.
One of the best examples of spine is the classic comedy Tootsie, the Academy Award winning screenplay written by the late Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, starring Dustin Hoffman, directed by the late and great Academy Award winner Sydney Pollack. The original screenplay went through numerous writers, and it wasn’t until Sydney Pollack came aboard to work with the immensely talented Larry Gelbart that they were able to discover what the story was really about. It wasn’t enough to do a comedy about a man becoming a woman. Putting on a skirt is good for a few laughs, but not enough to sustain a movie. The challenge was to create a story about a man struggling with his (chauvinist) flaws, who is forced to become a woman, but by becoming a woman, he becomes a better man….with chauvinist flaws that he understands so well that he can begin to truly love a woman he already loves. With this paradox as the spine of the story, each and every frame of this marvelous movie feeds the heart of this remarkable love story that has become one of America’s all-time favorite movies.
There is a constant demand for writers who can create good stories, especially for the big screen. The fact is, however, over one hundred thousand scripts are written every year, and only a few hundred actually make it. Even then, most do not succeed. Usually the script is the culprit, and the most common script problem is story. Either there is not enough conflict, or if there is an exceptional story, the story splinters into more than one storyline because the main character is not developed through a powerful moral dilemma at the center of the story. In other words, it’s not enough to have a big concept and terrific narrative, great storytelling is about establishing the inner flaws of the main character and creating a compelling inner story, the ultimate search for the truth within the main character’s heart, mind, and soul. The market for great screenplays is wide open. The challenge is to develop your own treasure trove of great stories that have never been told. Be bold. Be original. Remember the Five S’s. Strive to master them. Above all, shoot for the stars. You might make it to the moon!
A Writing Exercise
Here is a challenging writing exercise that will help you understand what your story is about. It begins with creating a powerful moral dilemma at the center of your story. Think about the narrative of the story you are working on. Identify your main character, establish the inner flaw(s) and think through the most important dramatic choice he/she makes within the story. Work through why he/she makes the decision, or why not. Take your time. Set the stage for the consequences of either story direction by developing the antagonist(s) who is the sum of all powerful forces that the main character must overcome to achieve the story goal. Creating and understanding the depth of moral conflict within this key character-driven story moment, the “story decision” that opens the window to discovering what your story is really about.
Take your time. Life is a journey, and so is great storytelling!