How Objective And Subjective Storylines Can Improve Your Screenplay
Screenwriting is both an art and a craft. By that, I mean that it is something you have to do from the heart (and soul) and from the mind (and reason). It requires passion, but also discipline and knowledge. So what? Well… so if you want to be most effective as a screenwriter (both commercially and artistically), it might be worth your while to study your craft before you practice your art.
One of the major screenwriting elements that affects both the craft and art of your screenwriting, is the complementary duality of objective and subjective storylines.
The objective storyline can be described as the physical storyline. The hero does this, and then this, and then that. The opponent reacts this way, and then that way, and then that way. This scene occurs, this action occurs, this event occurs. A description of how you get up in the morning, have a shower, shave, get dressed and ready for work can be thought of as an objective storyline. We don’t really care that much about you, don’t know much about you, we’re just… observing the actions you take on the outer of objective level; the level of objects rather than subjects.
Now that doesn’t mean that the objective storyline has no story, or that you can’t write a script that has only the objective storyline. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great example of a script that is told almost exclusively on the objective level. It has a great story, great humor, dialogue and (most importantly) great action. Bond movies are another great example; stories that take place on the outer level, not necessarily on the personal level. These movies work because the action is so brilliantly done that it makes it unnecessary to have a subjective storyline.
A good way to identify the objective storyline is to look at a film that has both an objective and subjective storyline. Let’s take an Oscar-winning film, an oldie but goldie: Rocky. The objective storyline is simply this: will Rocky win the championship? Everything that goes into answering that question is on the objective level. Will Rocky train hard enough, learn enough from his coach, punch hard enough and often enough to win the fight?
The objective storyline consists of the ACTIONS Rocky takes; his growth as a FIGHTER.
Could you have told Rocky with ONLY an objective storyline? Absolutely. And I’m sure it would still have been a fascinating film, with great fight sequences, good dialogue, great objective tension, good physical jeopardy, and interesting characters. I posit that it was a far better film for also having a strong subjective storyline, but then, again, Raiders was also a great film and it occurred almost exclusively on the objective level.
Okay, so let’s look at the subjective storyline. What was the subjective storyline in Rocky? It was the story of PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION. The story of Rocky’s growth as a PERSON as opposed to his growth as a fighter. So, the questions on this level might be “Will Rocky overcome his insecurity and become a better person, find love and forge a successful romantic relationship and find happiness?”
Here are a few interesting things about the objective vs. subjective storyline issue. First, it is very difficult to write a screenplay with only a subjective storyline. I’m sure it can be done by a screenwriter who is brilliant enough. It HAS in fact been done, but is usually seen in art house films, stream of consciousness stories, and sketches, as opposed to actual stories. Again, I’m sure a truly brilliant writer can write an artistically and commercially successful film using only a subjective storyline.
Here is how I see it: Imagine a hero, sitting on a rock, staring out to sea on an overcast day. She is experiencing an existential personal conflict, which she internalizes, fighting that conflict within herself rather than in the outside world, by herself rather than with or against others.
What do we see, on the screen? A hero, sitting on a rock, staring out to sea on an overcast day.
Now, of course, you can cheat by doing flashbacks and flash-forwards, and bringing characters into the fray in other ways, without actually moving the hero from the rock or giving her a single word or action to perform. But that is just another way of adding an objective storyline, proving my point that it is extremely difficult to write a script that has only a subjective storyline.
Another thing about subjective and objective storylines: they work better together, supporting each other, magnifying each other, enriching each other.
So, a man has an addiction of some sort. He meets a lover who rejects him because of his addiction. He uses that as a motivation to overcome his addiction. He goes into rehab, takes anti-addiction drugs, and finally overcomes his addiction, allowing him to win his lover back. These are the physical actions he takes in order to accomplish his goal.
Okay. This is an objective story that might work if your actions are interesting enough. But let’s say that I’m right and it would help the story to add a subjective storyline. So, let’s start with the hero’s external flaw: his addiction. Now the objective storyline deals with what the hero has to do to overcome his physical addiction. The subjective storyline will deal with what he has to do in order to overcome the underlying CAUSES of his addiction, the INTERNAL flaw. It will deal with what he has to do to overcome that internal flaw, not just the addiction that is really only an external manifestation of the hero’s REAL flaw.
So let’s say the hero had a traumatic experience in his past. It could be something he experienced as a child – abuse, perhaps, or maybe the loss of a parent or sibling. It could be more recent: he was driving a car, lost control, and killed someone. In despair and guilt, he turned to drugs to dull the pain.
The subjective storyline will follow the hero as he confronts his guilt and despair and finds a way, with the passive or active help of the ally and with the opposition of the opponent, to overcome that guilt and despair and to use that newfound inner strength to overcome his addiction on the objective storyline. Just as Rocky used his subjective storyline to overcome his insecurities in order to find the courage and conviction to go the distance against Apollo Creed. In fact, it is often true that the hero cannot succeed on the objective level UNTIL she or he succeeds on the subjective level.
The subjective vs. objective storyline issue is just one example of how it can help your writing to understand the principles, elements, and techniques of storytelling. That does NOT mean you have to make use or all or even ANY of these techniques or principles.
Consider storytelling to be somewhat like housebuilding. You can build a geodesic dome that essentially has no roof or walls, and no internal supports or walls. It takes the principles of conventional housebuilding and throws them out the window.
Or consider Picasso’s work. He flouts a lot of artistic conventions. But consider this as well: knowing how to build a conventional house can only help you in your desire to transcend the conventional, even if only to help you know WHAT you’re transcending, so that you can better guess what the consequences and results will be, and to be able to duplicate it.
One last point in this regard: Picasso’s father, Jose Ruiz y Blasco, was a painter and an art teacher. He specialized in still-lifes, landscapes, and images of doves and pigeons. As an artist, Picasso was as different from his father as you can get, but here’s the really interesting thing: Blasco taught his son Pablo everything there was to know about conventional artistic techniques. I believe that it was BECAUSE Picasso knew the conventions that he knew how to break them in the most efficient way; he could guess what the results would be of breaking those rules, and how to anticipate, and deal with the consequences of his artistic iconoclasm so that it looked intentional and brilliant rather than accidental and incompetent.
Learn your craft. If you’re like me, you’ll use that knowledge to inform and Perform your art. If you’re far more talented than I am, you’ll use that knowledge to transcend the conventional. Either way, you can use knowledge of your craft to create a commercially and artistically successful career and to channel your passion in an effective way.
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