Stories, Parables & Movie Scripts: Part 1 of 4
Basic screenplay writing excerpt from How To Succeed in Hollywood (Without Losing Your Soul) by Dr. Ted Baehr
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables, and He would not speak anything to them without a parable, so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled:
I will open My mouth in parables; I will declare things kept secret from the foundation of the world.
One day more than 70 years ago, two literary giants in England stood talking about language, stories, and religion. In the middle of the conversation, the taller gentleman blurted to his slightly balding companion, “ Here’s my point: Just as a word is an invention about an object or an idea, so a story can be an invention about Truth.”
“I’ve loved stories since I was a boy,” the other man admitted. “Especially stories about heroism and sacrifice, death and resurrection. …But, when it comes to Christianity . . . well, that’s another matter. I simply don’t understand how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2000 years ago can help me here and now.”
The first man earnestly replied, “ But don’t you see, Jack? The Christian story is the greatest story of them all. Because it’s the real story. The historical event that fulfills the tales and shows us what they mean.”
About a week later, Jack—also known as C. S. Lewis, the author of the classic books Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia (among many other works)—announced his conversion to Christianity to a friend. Lewis attributed much of his decision to his conversation with J. R. R. Tolkien. Of course, Tolkien is the author of one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, The Lord of the Rings, which has been transformed into a magnificent movie trilogy by director Peter Jackson. Although Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, didn’t always see eye to eye with Lewis, who was more inclined toward Protestantism, they both understood the truth of the ultimate story.
Storytelling and Mythmaking
As Tolkien and Lewis said so long ago, stories matter deeply. They connect us to our personal history and to the history of all time and culture. Human beings are meaning seekers and meaning makers. We strive to connect ourselves to our experiences and the experiences of others. We are addicted to those “aha!” moments in our lives when we see meaning, purpose, and significance.
Stories help us do this. They bring us laughter, tears, and joy. They stimulate our minds and stir our imaginations. Stories help us escape our daily lives to visit different times, places, and people. They can arouse our compassion and empathy, spur us toward truth and love, or sometimes even incite us toward hatred or violence.
Different kinds of stories satisfy different needs. For example, a comedy evokes a different response from us than a tragedy. A hard news story on the front page affects us differently than a human interest story in the magazine section, or a celebrity profile next to the movie and television listings. While different kinds of stories satisfy different needs, many stories share common themes, settings, character types, situations, and other recurrent archetypal patterns.
Many stories focus on one individual; often a heroic figure who overcomes many trials and tribulations to defeat evil or attain a valuable goal. We identify with such heroes because we recognize that we are each on our own journey or quest. How a hero’s journey informs and illuminates our own journey is significant. We look for answers in stories.
Every story has a worldview: a way of viewing reality, truth, the universe, the human condition, and the supernatural world. Looking carefully at a story, we can examine the motifs, meanings, values, and principles it suggests. By examining a story’s worldview, we identify the cultural ideals the story presents and the emotion it evokes. We also determine the moral, philosophical, social, psychological, spiritual, and aesthetic messages the story conveys.
Stories, Parables & Movie Scripts
Communication is an important part of the uniqueness of humankind. The human drive to communicate through a variety of forms, formats and media is remarkable. In the garden of Eden, God tasked Adam with naming all the animals. That desire to name, to create, and to communicate is still one of the most essential human traits, lasting from infancy through adulthood.
Christians and Jews have long been known as people of “The Book.” Since the Bible is full of stories and Christians are called by Jesus to communicate the Good news, which He did through Parables, Christians are a storytelling people. In faithful obedience to this call, they tell the Good news through every conceivable medium and genre. Thus, the church invented modern drama with the Mediaeval Mystery Plays. And, since the beginning of the motion picture industry, Christians have used movies to communicate the gospel because movies and television programs are the most powerful, audio–visual storytelling media.
Story, image, & effect
There are three elements of a movie or television program that help capture the attention of the audience: story, image and effect.
When I was the Director of the TV Center at City University of New York (CUNY), Brooklyn College, one of the professors, Jim Day, had been a founder of Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) that produced Sesame Street. CTW would test every program. In one segment, they wanted to show the difference between an internal skeleton and an external skeleton. The animation showed an ant while a voice over said that the ant had an external skeleton so it could not grow as big as an elephant, which had an internal skeleton. As the narrator spoke, the animated illustration showed the ant growing as big as an elephant and then exploding. When CTW tested the segment and asked the audience whether an ant could grow as big as an elephant, 90 percent of the audience said “yes, an ant can grow as big as an elephant,” because they had just seen it in the animated sequence, and the visual was much more powerful than the audio.
CTW also tested the extent to which each Sesame Street program would capture and hold the attention of the audience. CTW would show a program segment and have a distracter machine next to the TV set. (The distracter machine was merely some blinking lights.) Observers would watch the eyes of the audience to see when they looked away from the TV program and at the distracter machine. At that point, CTW would put in another effect, such as a cut, dissolves, pan, wipe, or animated sequence, that would hold the audience’s attention.
For Better or for Worse
Communicating effectively requires learning and applying the basic principles of language, grammar, rhetoric, technique, and general rules that govern each genre and medium. There are three levels of such principles: general principles (which apply to most communications), genre specific principles, and media specific principles.
There are also several steps involved in producing powerful communications, including movies and television programs. Here is a brief outline of the most important foundational steps in preparing your communication. Each genre and medium will modify this outline by adding or subtracting steps or substeps. However, this outline is your basic guide to the steps required to communicate effectively.
12 Basic Foundational Steps to Communicating Effectively:
- In light of who you are, why you want to communicate and well thought out research and ascertainment, make a brief note of what you want to say, your idea, conviction, or your key thought. This idea, thought, or statement must be something that you believe and want to communicate through a movie or television program.
- Ask and answer the appropriate ascertainment questions to target your audience, determine your genre and medium, and plan the execution of your communication.
- Rephrase your idea or key thought into an active premise that you can prove in your communication, taking into consideration your answers to the pertinent ascertainment questions.
- Identify the elements needed to prove your premise, most of which are inherent within your premise. In drama, these elements are your characters, conflict, climax, and resolution.
- Structure these elements taking into consideration your audience, genre, medium of choice and your answers to the ascertainment questions which are appropriate for your communication.
- Write out, plan, or script your communication, punctuating it with technical, dramatic, or literary effects to capture and retain audience interest.
- Prepare, storyboard, and/or rehearse your communication.
- Produce, polish, or otherwise finish your communication.
- Edit, review and revise your communication.
- Deliver, distribute or broadcast your communication.
- Survey your audience to find out how effective your communication was and how it can be improved.
- Review and revise your communication to improve it if possible.
Half of this process is preparation. Many people fail to prepare or dash off a script and believe that they will perfect it when the right person buys it. However, you never have a second chance to make a first impression, so you need to perfect your script right from the beginning, even if you need to change it later.
Remember that the average movie takes nine years from start to finish. The Passion of the Christ took ten years. Evita took twenty–three years. Batman took seventeen years.
There are several reasons why it takes so long. First, there are 300,000 scripts submitted every year to the Writers Guild of America and many more are written that are never submitted, aside from the flood of novels every year, but less than three hundred movies open in theaters every year. Thus, most scripts never make it into production. Second, Hollywood movies cost over $104 million to produce and distribute in 2010, and it takes a long, long time to get all the elements together so that some distributor or investor will want to put up this kind of money. Third, most people take years to get the script right. The Los Angeles Times interviewed a woman who was trying for twenty years to sell her script. She said that in all those years she had not had the time to take a scriptwriting course or read a book on scriptwriting. The Los Angeles Times and all of us should be perplexed: What was she doing all that time that she could not take a moment to learn her chosen craft?
To be continued….
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