Here’s Your Number One Job As A Screenwriter – Embrace The “M” Word
Creative Screenwriting Magazine contributor Mark Sevi is back with another article on how to boost your screenwriting career. Do you want to get ahead? Hook your audience? Take them on a journey and keep them invested in your screenplay? Then read on.
What is job number one for any writer, I ask my students at the beginning of each of my ‘Intro to Scriptwriting’ semesters?
I know the answer and also know that they will never get it. They could guess for ten years and never get close.
Because it’s not plot, character, theme, good stories, high concepts – or anything else you’d imagine.
It’s the “M” word – Manipulation. Yes, that’s it!
Manipulate is not a dirty word. In point of fact, it’s vital to our existence as human beings (and screenwriters who sometimes are not considered as such.) We manipulate our audience into tracking a story from the main character’s point of view.
In the groundbreaking film “The Big Chill” (1983) written by Lawrence Kasdan, this exchange occurs between Michael (Jeff Goldblum) and Sam (Tom Berenger):
Michael: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.
Sam Weber: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.
Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?
Have you ever tried to go even one hour without manipulating someone or something in your life?
We use a (mostly) benign form of manipulation to woo people to a favorable outcome for ourselves. “I know this great place for lunch! It’s amazing. Never had anything taste so good.” “Great, let’s go.” “Uh…can you drive.” Which is what you wanted anyway.
Like building blocks that fit a certain way to create a story structure, we do a similar dance for film and TV scripts.
Let me break down the 1stact of the Marvel comic book movie “Doctor Strange” to illustrate. DS may have its flaws, but a more solid act one I can’t imagine.
You start with the premise that there’s this supremely talented, egocentric surgeon who then must become a master wizard and take on another evil wizard. How do you manipulate your audience to accomplish that premise?
(1) You first show the evil wizard (Mads Mikkelsen) magically entering a library of arcana and beheading the guardian of the library. Then he takes only one page out of a very interesting book. This sets the tone and establishes a world that we have really never seen before but we’re already well on the way to accepting because the brutality of the moment shocks us into not noticing that these executioner dudes are stepping through magic portals. Mental slight-of-hand at the highest degree.
(2) Then we’re shown the titular doctor himself (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his love interest (Rachel McAdams) who is asking the famous Dr. Steven Strange, super-surgeon, for a consult on a patient who is being coded as dead. This is his normal world and his ego-poisoned self.
(3) Strange saves the man by doing a freehand removal of a bullet from the man’s brain, humiliates his colleague, spars with McAdams and gets ready for a black tie event in quick order.
(4) Car accident. Hands shattered. Therapy, experimental therapies to restore nerve function are unworkable; alcohol-fueled recriminations – check, check, check in short order. Stakes – set and match.
(5) Hope in the form of a paraplegic (Benjamin Bratt) who is now playing basketball, then on to a secret place in Tibet which becomes a mysterious encounter with a hooded man who knows what Strange seeks in Katmandu.
(6) Meeting with someone called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton,) a mind-blowing encounter with a mirror dimension and –
BAM! In less than thirty pages we have been taken from a fairly normal world to one that we have never seen but now not only accept but in fact embrace.
Manipulated. Expertly so. And the audience may not be fully aware of it.
In the movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” we are transported to a world familiar, but one which most of us do not really know: rural America.
The writer (Martin McDonagh) is actually about as far from this world as you can get. He’s a Brit, born in big-city London. Yet he adeptly takes us into a place that is as foreign to some of us as Kuala Lumpur might be.
We have to meet, understand, accept, embrace and feel comfortable with a small town that holds dark secrets held by darker people.
Francis McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell and others in this town are not exactly lovable characters. Yet, we are manipulated by the writer to feel their incredible anguish and pain so we can function as fully engaged spectators in this story. The screenplay needs to feel real, authentic and believable to keep the audience hooked.
McDormand’s character is the least likable protagonist I’ve run into since perhaps Tony Soprano. Yet, we are purposefully and skillfully shown why we would want to follow her story of anger and loss.
Every moment of that first act is crafted to make her and her somewhat ugly world understandable so it can dovetail with our world in ways that might make us a bit uncomfortable but still somehow fit.
Manipulating our readers and audiences is our first and foremost goal. It’s necessary to set up the premise, the conceit that we’re engaging in as screenwriters. No world is a given, even one that is set in today’s often complicated world.
For example, we all get high school. For most of us, it’s a combination of dread and great fun. The “glory years” when responsibility takes a back seat to well, uh, fumblings in back seats of cars.
And yet, in the indie film “Brick” (2005, written by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) we are brought into a high school world that is both familiar and strange enough that we have to be manipulated into it.
Is it really believable that a high school student would take on a murder investigation that involves characters out of a David Lynch film? Not really. If you’re using a character who isn’t obviously a character who should be doing a thing (like a real detective whose job it is to be a detective) you have to work twice as hard (insert ‘M’ word here) to convince an audience that this is plausible. Johnson takes our hand and guides us along a carefully planned narrative path that will, in fact, convince us. And the dead body of a young girl in a drainage cistern cues us to the fact that this ain’t The Hardy Boys or Veronica Mars we’re going to be following so it’s even more difficult.
We may be constantly trying to pull away from that clammy and nervous grip, understanding that we are heading to a place of danger and fear, but like the old frog-in-a-hot-water–pot analogy, we are being slowly boiled alive (mentally and emotionally) and we don’t notice that we’re sunk when we get to the end of the first act because we’ve been – yeah, do I really need to say it? Manipulated into believing it all.
So how best to accomplish this gleeful evil that we as writers must engage in?
(1) Write truthfully under imaginary circumstances.
The world might be fantastical, the characters alien or foreign but it is incumbent on you to engage your audience at a level of truth that transcends those worlds or characters.
We all understand pain, joy, loss, fear…make sure your characters are processing those common emotions to bond us to those characters.
(2) Show and tell appropriately.
Despite Alfred Hitchcock’s contention that you should be able to turn off the sound on a movie and understand what’s happening, there are just some things that you need to say out loud.
Try understanding “Inception” or “Arrival” without dialogue. I dare ‘ya. Although you may get a ‘big picture’ gist of these films, in order to fully embrace the worlds that are being created by the writer, we need to be both shown and told the story in appropriate amounts.
(3) Imagine you’re constructing a building but start at the top.
I know, I know – foundation first. No. Because if you know the end point of your Act I, you can then proceed logically from that point down – or up.
Computer programmers and engineers don’t say “I’m just going to write some code” or “I want to build a widget, but I don’t know what kind so I’ll just slap these parts together.” They have a goal and build to that point. In other words from the top down.
If your goal is to make us believe that a boy can go to wizard school in a secret world that no one can see, how would you best set that up to make us believers? Manipulation involves the suspension of disbelief.
(4) Be a benign monarch.
Remember that your characters don’t just exist for the purpose of a scene or a sequence of scenes. I mean, some do, of course, but I’m saying remember that they should be as accessible to your audience as possible to help your readers engage and accept.
I recently saw the amazing “Hamilton.” Lin-Manuel Miranda took a somewhat recognizable character (Alexander Hamilton) and spun a wonderful tale around him. In stage plays the story is part of The Book. Musicals rise and fall on their songs but the structure around them is equally important. And as important to story and songs are characters.
Every critical character in “Hamilton” was infused with a life beyond the play. You could easily tell because you embraced these characters instantly. Aaron Burr? Really? The only thing I knew about him was that he shot Hamilton in a duel – and I barely remembered that from my high school history.
However, I now feel Burr’s deep and abiding pain for not only what he did at that moment of crises when he shot Hamilton, but for his entire life having lived (and suffered) in the shadow of the charismatic founding father. Does this sound like “Amadeus” to you? Yes, it pretty much is and that film won as many film awards as “Hamilton” did Tonys because we were manipulated into caring about the characters.
Burr was as real and deeply felt as Alexander Hamilton in the world of the Revolutionary War, and once they and that world were established skillfully by Miranda, I fell into it…happily and totally.
(5) Step it out.
As Mickey Rooney sings in the children’s classic “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” put one foot in front of the other. Scripts are a pathway of scenes to traverse to your destination. Go logically from point A to point B and you’re gold. Eventually, you’ll get to that Act I tentpole (destination.) Not sure what comes next? Jump. Come back to it later. Fixing is in the second draft, brilliance in the third.
Don’t be afraid to do a little hopscotch to get the results you need in your screenplay.
Manipulating your audience is your most important job as a writer. Hopefully, I’ve convinced you of that. Because every argument you make, every social media meme you post, every CNN or Fox News report you witness, or every article (like this one) or screenplay that you write involves taking our audience and manipulating them into our point-of-view world to make them believe.
It’s like those As-Seen-On-TV commercials for that incredible stain remover or that super-adhesive. They wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing if it didn’t work. They’re (I just can’t say it again) you-know-what you into believing their spiel to sell a product; it’s not truth; it’s truthiness (look it up.) You need to do the same.
The “M” word is a really good word. Embrace it.
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