How To Climb Into Your Screenplay (Part 1)
“Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.” – John Irving
Once a film script is written, once it is shot and becomes a movie, that is when critics and bloggers get to dig into the material and come up with the story’s overarching themes, what the characters represent, and what the screenwriter is “saying.” A screenwriter working at the top of their game will have answers to these questions and their own theories on how their screenplay processed an aspect of life through story.
For what, indeed, is the purpose of a story if not to look at life from some perspective? Most of the time, the writer’s process means they don’t always know how far-reaching their themes are, how their characters represent those themes at the moment they begin writing, or, even more interestingly, at the moment they get the first kernel of an idea for a screenplay.
But something about that first glimmer, that notion that gets jotted in a Moleskin or dictated into a smartphone’s memo function, contains everything about the preoccupations of the writer and what they need to explore with their story.
Want to irritate a writer? Ask them, “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s a vexing question, because the larger answer is, “I live, I observe, things interest me.” Yet, the inquiry is actually quite valid, because all ideas come from somewhere, and all of them grow from the biggest question of all, “Who am I?” Screenwriters ask that question with each script and, when they are firing on all cylinders, are also letting an audience ask the same question about themselves. That’s the universal power of film storytelling.
Should you wonder what interested Lulu Wang about the events that became her film The Farewell, you might figure that the true story of a family keeping the diagnosis of an illness from an elderly woman brings up a lot of intriguing themes. But only the screenwriter of this particular story can filter it through a lens of what comes up around this notion for them. Indeed, Wang stated in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air that this very personal story allowed her to explore the ethics involved in lying to her relative. This provides a backbone of universality to the story—we can all put ourselves in that position.
Ari Aster, writer/director of Midsommar, claimed in a Variety interview that he wanted to explore a relationship breaking up through the lens of a horror folk tale. While the elliptical, dreamlike style in which Midsommar was told might not immediately lend itself to spotting obvious metaphors, anyone who has seen the film can certainly see that there is a doomed relationship at its core.
So, the first stage of any story worth telling is to keep one’s eyes and ears open. Some tiny little news story about someone’s unique experience could resonate with your inner life. A revelation in a therapy session about your relationship to one of your parents might open up a whole character arc. A passing comment that contains a whole premise might be overheard in a coffee shop. Staying attuned to the universe’s myriad offerings of ways-in to stories is perhaps the first and most important job of a writer.
Knowing which of these little raindrops of inspiration can sustain a feature film, and why, is the next stage of screenwriting development. Maybe that one idea you had about a romantic relationship was more fodder for a love ballad than a whole movie. Maybe that poetic notion you had about the meaning of life is actually better off as a poem than a script. When that nugget of an idea hits you, make sure it has legs not only as something that you want to keep exploring, but also has the legs to run us through three acts. Maybe your idea starts growing beyond three acts, and suddenly reveals itself as something that can sustain a TV series. No matter what form your script will eventually take, there are a couple of great ways-in to make sure it is worthy of your time as well as an audience’s time.
The best loglines contain the beginning, middle and (almost) end of a story within them. They tell us the type of person the protagonist is, what they hope to achieve and what is stopping them. A couple of examples:
Up in the Air: A cynical, self-centered lothario who travels the country downsizing companies must confront his own closed-off way of living when he begins to fall for a conquest he meets on the road.
Coco: A willful young boy, certain his destiny is to escape family and become a famous singer, must find his way back from the spirit world in order to unlock the true family secret he uncovers when he meets his relatives in the Land of the Dead.
The full journey of each character is encapsulated here—all but the reveal of what actually happens in the end. The character’s personality flaw and their path to change are both explored in the logline. The implication of how that change will manifest is also there, however, leaving the ending to our imagination helps fuel the promise of what we already suspect will be the outcome.
Speaking of endings, a writer should have some idea of how their story will wrap-up before they start writing. Several options could be in play, but without an end destination, it’s difficult to plan a trip. Yes, sometimes having no destination in life can make for an interesting exploratory journey, but a screenplay has very little time to ramble with no goal in mind.
Once you start researching your new idea, you will soon be able to tell if it has what it takes to make a rich story. Certainly, a historical drama or based-on-real-events project will necessitate research purely for authenticity’s sake, however, fictional stories should be put to the research test immediately, too. In what city or locale is your story set? What is the quality of life there? The median income? Where is the nearest supermarket? All of this is easily findable on Google, and it immediately fleshes out your sense of place. What about your characters? What are their jobs? What’s involved in doing those jobs?
You don’t have to be a meteorologist to write a weatherman character, but you do need to find out what a weatherman goes through to become a weatherman and the particular rhythms of their on-air speech. Ideally, even the tiniest shred of research can and should inspire a scene in your script. Whether it becomes a crucial scene or one that can later be cut is immaterial as you begin to put together the building blocks of your story. Explore, explore, explore. Especially if you have a suspicion that this new idea of yours could have a seven-season run on Showtime, researching every street, profession and regional history element in the world you hope to build will only give your work more authority and staying power. If research doesn’t get you more excited about your germ of an idea, then it may be that you need to jump over to one of your other ideas and start putting it to the test as well.
And don’t worry, as has been pointed out in a previous article. One idea every screenwriter must embrace if they are to endure in the business is that there is more where that came from. As long as you remain open to all those inspirations for stories being thrown at you on a daily basis, there is simply no chance that you will ever be done asking the question: Who am I? The answer, or, more appropriately, the ever-expanding questions, are out there, everywhere and all the time.
Next: The building blocks, discovery, characters guiding the plot.
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