Stories, Parables & Movie Scripts: Part 4 of 4
Basic screenplay writing excerpted from How To Succeed In Hollywood (Without Losing Your Soul) By Dr. Ted Baehr
The Notion of Genre
The notion of genre is a simple way of talking about the different kinds, types, or formats of communications. George Gerbner has reduced human communication to three genres: stories that tell about how things work; stories that tell about what things are; and, stories of action. Aristotle was most likely aware of the three ultimate categories of drama, epic and lyric, which have evolved into drama, fiction and poetry according to some contemporary literary critics.
Other philosophers and pundits have proposed other generic classifications, such as comedy, epigram, satire, epic and tragedy. Often, movie reviewers classify movies in genres such as these (this list is suggestive, not exhaustive): Romance, Action Adventure, Drama, Tragedy, Comedy, Children’s, Religious, Fantasy, Detective/Police, Thriller, Horror, or Sports.
Write the way an architect builds, who first drafts his plan and designs every detail.
– Schopenhauer 
- In a galaxy far, far away: Define your environment, subgenre, style, and point of view.
Your environment must be real, even if it is far, far away in time and space. Before you start constructing your story, you must define in detail the environment in which your story takes place. The environment and the laws that govern that environment create the illusion of reality in your story. The more detail you know about when and where your story takes place, the more real your story will be to your audience.
The novel Time and Again by Jack Finney works in spite of an implausible plot where the hero wills himself back in history, because Mr. Finney has defined the setting of the novel with such meticulous care. Many movies, especially science fiction, fail because the setting of the movie is only partially realized. Battleship Earth has many scenes where the sets look like sets —unreal with no sign of having been inhabited. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, has outlandish sets that look real because time was taken to make them real through detailed definition.
You must learn, define and obey the rules of the subgenre you choose.
Whether you choose to construct your story as a romance, a science fiction, a comedy, a contemporary stream of consciousness, a history, or a detective story, you must obey the rules that the subgenre imposes on your story.
Note that the principles of the genre to which the subgenre belongs apply to the subgenre as well as the particular principles or variations on major principles that define the subgenre.
Select your style to fit your premise, your environment, your characters, and your subgenre. The style, rhythm and tone you establish are as important as your plot. A satiric or low ironic style may be appropriate for a detective story, but not for a historic portrayal of Jesus’ ministry, unless you are attacking the gospel, or you have chosen Judas Iscariot’s point of view.
Within a style:
To shock, you must make the incredible credible.
To create irony, the audience’s assumptions must be contrary to the outcome.
To create a paradox, logic must be contradicted by fact.
To create satire, the normal is exaggerated.
To create suspense, withheld information must confront the desire to know.
Your point of view affects your characters.
The first person point of view involves the audience in the thoughts of one of the characters. The first person “I” is not necessarily the protagonist, or the antagonist. The “I” can be any character in the story.
The first person point of view may be pure stream of consciousness, but the rules of storytelling still apply. The first person may be established in a neutral style, which overcomes the limitations imposed by the “I” speaking in dialect. If you choose a first person point of view, you must define that person in the same detail as you would define any other character.
The third person is the most common and flexible point of view. The third person allows for different perspectives, involving the audience with different characters, or establishing an omniscient perspective.
Who is the hero? And, why isn’t he always the protagonist? – Define your protagonist
In a dramatic communication, the subject of your premise is the protagonist. He or she initiates the action of the verb and carries that action through to the conclusion. The protagonist takes the lead in the movement of the story, creates the conflict, and makes the story move forward. The protagonist knows what he or she wants and is determined to get it. The protagonist can be the hero, the villain, or any other character in the story. The protagonist may not be the central character in the story, but without the protagonist the story flounders.
Your protagonist is the driven, driving subject inherent in your premise who forces the conflict that moves your story to its conclusion. Your protagonist takes the lead in your story. He or she knows what he or she wants and will act to get it. Not only does your protagonist want something badly enough to act, but will go after it until he or she has obtained it or been completely defeated in the process.
Your protagonist must have something very important at stake. He or she acts out of necessity and is forced (by character and by circumstances) to do what he or she does and become what he or she becomes. Your protagonist has one highly developed motivation, such as love, hate, revenge, greed, envy, caring, faith, or hope, which becomes the driving force toward either success or defeat. Even if the motivating characteristic of your protagonist seems passive, it must be active in terms of your premise and his or her situation. For instance, if your protagonist is motivated to patiently endure, then he or she must be willing to act on that motivation even if it brings him or her to martyrdom, as is the case with many Christian martyrs.
If your premise is “love conquers death,” your protagonist must love his or her beloved enough to do everything possible including die to save the beloved from death. Your protagonist could be: a loving father who risks his own life to save his son, who has fallen through the ice; a loving mother who will give up everything to save her family from destruction; or, Jesus who gave his life so that death would be defeated.
As a guide to the impact a hero––who may or may not be the protagonist––has on a story, the following restating of the archetypal story styles are helpful:
In the mythic story, such as The Lord of the Rings, God triumphs, or Frodo the hero triumphs because of an act of God and the help of supernatural forces.
In the heroic story, such as Harry Potter, the hero triumphs because he or she is superior.
In the high ironic story, such as Forrest Gump, the hero triumphs because of a quirk of fate or circumstances.
In the low ironic story, such as Death of a Salesman, the hero fails because of a quirk of fate or circumstances.
In the demonic story, which includes not only many horror films but also psychological movies and political films such as The Diary of Anne Frank, the hero is hopelessly overwhelmed by evil or wields evil to fight evil.
Beautiful music together: Define and orchestrate your characters.
All these elements are embodied in your premise and are important to understand and define clearly so that your audience will know exactly what you are trying to communicate. If you have decided to communicate dramatically through a story, then you must define your characters carefully and get to know them inside–out. Get inside your characters, live with them, find out and define what makes each character a unique individual.
Well orchestrated characters are one of the primary reasons for rising conflict in any story. It is the differences which distinguish each of your characters and moves your story from start to finish through conflict. You may have two apostles, two tax collectors, or two thieves in your story but they must be different, they must contrast with each other so that they will move the story along. The contrast between them must be inherent in their character as you define them.
Orchestration is simply creating well–defined, strong characters who are in conflict and therefore move your story along. Through this conflict your characters will grow and your story will develop, proving your premise.
If you want to really define your characters, use the process for motivational talent set forth in Chapter 3. At a minimum, define each of the character elements listed in the form below. Continue to take notes on further character development, as you think through other concepts throughout the book.
The difference between a simple and a sophisticated story is primarily determined by the complexity of the characters. Visualize your characters as if they were people you have known all your life.
Good vs. evil: Define your antagonist in opposition to your protagonist.
The antagonist is the conflicting force inherent in the premise who opposes the protagonist. The antagonist can be the hero, the villain, or any other character in the story. The antagonist has to be as strong as the protagonist so that the conflict between the two will carry the story forward to its natural conclusion. If the antagonist gives up at any time, then the story will die. There must be a unity of opposites between the protagonist and the antagonist.
Your antagonist opposes your protagonist. He or she wants to prevent your protagonist from acting—from doing what your protagonist is driven to do. The will of your protagonist must clash with the will of your antagonist, and your antagonist must be as strong and as driven as your protagonist.
Your antagonist and your protagonist must be locked in opposition. There must be a unity of opposites, only be broken by the death of the motivating characteristic in either one or the other of these two characters. Either your antagonist or your protagonist must be completely defeated for your story to reach its natural conclusion. Because of the strength of will of these two characters, the initial conflict between them must lead to a crisis, which must in turn lead to a climax, and ultimately, to a resolution.
If one or the other of these two characters gives up early, your story will stop. If one or the other of these two characters is a pushover, if they are unequally matched, then you have no story because there will be no conflict to drive the plot. Compromise is out of the question unless it is the result of a completely realized conflict that has proved your premise. If one character is determined to win and the other doesn’t care, there is no challenge, no battle and no story. A strong person pitted against a weak one is a farce, unless the weaker has the courage, will and hidden ability to put up a real fight and perhaps win.
Every character will fight back under the right circumstances. It is up to you to catch your character at that point where he or she will carry the premise through conflict.
Your antagonist is inherent in your premise. He or she is what your subject/protagonist must oppose to fulfill his or her goals. He or she reacts against the action of the subject. Depending on the outcome determined by your premise, he or she must change for your protagonist to reach his or her goal, or your protagonist must change in the face of his or her opposition.
En garde: Define the crisis of your starting point.
Your starting point in story development must be a crisis, which must lead your story to a climax, and ultimately, a conclusion or resolution. Your movie or television program should not start at the beginning of someone’s life (he was born in a log cabin), but at a critical point of attack—where something worth living or dying for is at stake (as he was being born, the villain attacked), thus creating jeopardy (or something at stake) which propels the plot to its destination and fulfills the premise. Every Hollywood movie should start with a “bang” (as opposed to European movies that often take some time to develop the situations involved in the story).
If you want your story to move and to capture your audience, you must choose the right point of attack. The right point of attack is that moment in time and space when your protagonist is at a critical turning point where he or she must act to achieve his or her goal, thereby initiating the action of the premise. This turning point is a crisis point where a decisive change—one way or another—must occur. No story starts at the beginning; there is always something that occurred prior to the beginning of the story. Genesis starts with God acting to create our universe, but it does not tell us what was going on in eternity before God decided to create. In the beginning of Genesis, God (as the protagonist) is at a turning point where He acts to create the heavens and the earth.
In your moment of crisis, the protagonist acts out of necessity because something extremely important is at stake: love, survival, health, honor, or any combination. This point could be where your protagonist has made a decision, has reached a turning point, or where something important suddenly arises. Remember, whatever precipitated this moment of crisis has already occurred when your story begins. Your story grows out of to the events that are causing your protagonist to act—and that action forces the climax that proves your premise in its resolution.
Avalanche: Develop rising conflict.
Your story builds through a rising series of conflicts, each one building in intensity on the previous conflict until the climax is reached and the premise is proved. Each conflict moves your story forward through action and reaction; attack and counterattack, which cause change, growth, and new conflict until you have reached the proof of your premise. The first conflict in your story comes from your protagonist consciously trying to achieve the goal that you determined in your premise.
Conflict exposes your story and your characters.
Conflict will grow out of the characters in opposition. The more evenly matched your characters are, the more real rising conflict will move your story toward its resolution. Through conflict, your characters and your story are revealed and exposed. Each dialogue and every interaction between characters reveals who they are, what their background is, what the environment is, what the plot is, and where the plot is headed.
Conflict causes change and growth.
Every conflict causes change. Constant change ensures that your characters, and the situations they are in, will not be the same at any two points in your story. As a result of conflict, each character will change emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Growth occurs continually until the story proves your premise.
In your story, if your premise is “love conquers hate,” the conquered character must grow from hate to love. To do so, he or she must go through every step of change which leads from hate to love: hate – dislike – annoyance – understanding – interest – attraction – caring – love. Each small conflict and change will move your character along the road from hate to love, where his or her growth will be complete.
Avoid static conflict.
Static conflict occurs because:
- One or more of your characters can’t make a decision. Each of your characters has to grow from one emotional, psychological, or spiritual point to another in your story. If he or she stops at one of the intermediate steps along the way because he or she can’t make a decision, then you will have static conflict and your story will stop.
- Your story lacks the motivating force of a premise.
- Your characters share exactly the same point of view because you have not orchestrated them by carefully defining them as unique individuals.
Static conflict will bring your story to a halt. No dialogue, effects, descriptions, or rhetoric will move your story if the conflict is static. The exercise suggested above where you ask two friends to try to “express their love” for two minutes is an example of static conflict. Since they are both starting at the same point of view, there is no inherent conflict to generate a story.
Here is an example of an indecisive character:
Jane: “Do you want to go out, my darling?”
Jane: “When will you decide?”
Jane: “Do you care?”
Jack: “I don’t know.”
Jane: “When will you know?”
Jane: “Will you tell me?”
These characters and this story are going nowhere because Jack is indecisive.
Avoid jumping conflict
Jumping conflict occurs because:
- One or more of your characters has skipped one or more of the important stages of growth through which he or she must go to reach the conclusion inherent in your premise.
- You are forcing one or more of your characters to do something that is not within his, her, or their uniquely defined characters.
- You have not given one or more of your characters a chance to grow steadily and realistically through rising conflict.
- You have not thought through the process of proving your premise.
- You have not defined your premise clearly.
Here is an example of jumping conflict:
Jane: “Do you want to go out, my darling?”
Jane: “Well, if you don’t know for sure, I’m walking out
on our marriage.”
Jack: “But, I’ll make up my mind.”
Jane: “It’s too late you inconsiderate slob.” [She
leaves, slamming the door.]
To avoid jumping conflict determine the stages of growth through which each character will progress from where they are emotionally, psychologically and spiritually when your audience first meets them, to where they must end up as dictated by your premise. As your characters grow through conflict, they are only allowed to choose those solutions to each conflict that will help prove the point of your premise.
For instance, if your character has to go from rebellion to submission in your story, make sure that you have predetermined each one of the stages that he or she must pass through in the process: rebellion, alienation, loneliness, insecurity, fear, need, longing, desire for help and protection, submission.
Conflict foreshadows itself.
Each minor conflict in your story leads to the next conflict, because none of the intermediate solutions will resolve your story until your premise is proved. Each conflict foreshadows the next conflict because it contains the seeds of the next conflict by the very nature of how you have defined and orchestrated your characters in light of your premise.
Conflict is the product of the tension that is inherent in your characters. Every conflict contains all the elements of a story in brief.