Story Threads: Same Thing, New Angle

September 4, 2009

If you ask three people to describe an event they all witnessed or were a part of, what do you think the odds are that you’ll hear the same description from all three? For instance…

I remember one family vacation…

It was several years ago. From our Kansas City home, we trekked westward in our minivan for famed Yellowstone and Grand Teton national Parks, with a brief stop en route at Mount Rushmore. I was shocked when, a couple years later, the four of us were describing that vacation to our relatives. You would have thought we were describing four completely different trips!

  • I remember it as breathtaking, majestic, full of adventure, and loaded with quality one-on-one time.
  • My son described the two-week trip as being two weeks too long.
  • My daughter described it as torturous entrapment.
  • And my wife remembered enjoying the natural wonders, but being too exhausted (dealing with CFS at the time) to enjoy much of it, and finding the cabin accommodations too “rustic.”

One experience, but four radically different remembrances. Which is a roundabout way of explaining the value of knowing well your story threads, because…

Story threads are just like that

Sometimes, separate story threads are describing the same event, but from a different point of view. For example, here are two of the story threads i developed:

Joe’s Son — since Joe is a single dad, a pivotal character is his young-adult son, Sean, who is also a rookie officer under Joe’s authority. He often influences what Joe does or says, or what happens to Joe. So, I’ve got about 15 cards in the “Joe’s son” thread representing 15 story beats that involve Sean.

Spring Breakers — it would be a plot spoiler to explain why a group of American college students on spring break are important enough to the story that I’ve developed a story thread just for them. What I can share: Sandy, one of the students, becomes romantically involved with Joe’s son Sean. Though not as interwoven into the story as Sean is, I’ve got about 10 cards in the “Spring Breakers” thread, representing key moments in the story that involve the students or their parents.

Watch how these threads intersect

Here is the same scene as described on one card from each of these two story threads; it’s the same moment, but from unique perspectives. Notice the differences here:

image image

When I finally write the one scene described on these two cards, we will see this moment revealed primarily from Sean’s perspective. But we will also see what Sandy sees — perhaps how she reacts when Sean isn’t looking.

But remember: Sean and Sandy only exist in this story to push the protagonist or the plot forward. So, we need to understand this event from the perspective of a third character in the scene – Joe. The way I envision the scene unfolding, I want us to notice when Joe first notices the rapidly developing romantic chemistry between Sean and Sandy. I suspect we will be aware of Joe’s feelings about this before the other characters are.

There you have it: one moment within one scene, affecting three different people in three different ways.

Okay, different perspectives… so what?

So, while almost all screenplays are written from a particular character’s point of view (usually the hero’s), the medium of film is so multidimensional that it’s dramaturgical suicide when a writer forces the viewer to see the story unfold through only one character’s eyes.

As a writer — and as a director — I feel it’s important to create scenes that consider what is happening to other characters and to represent, if I feel it’s appropriate to the story, how other characters are viewing the unfolding drama.

An example from this story:

There’s a Family Gathering scene in the first act that introduces us to some of Joe’s relatives. In that moment, it’s important for us to see, among other things, that Joe loves and respects his mother and that she strongly affects Joe’s sense of right and wrong.

At the same time that this is being revealed, Joe’s older brother — the primary antagonist — is there, revealing to us his insecurities. We see that, while he is politically one of the strongest people in the country and is viewed by the family as an authority figure (since he is, by many years, the eldest brother), he nonetheless feels like the lesser brother around the family, and therefore harbors jealousy. We see this when he subtly belittles Joe as his mother praises little brother for some recent accomplishment. But his lame effort to look superior by making Joe look inferior backfires when their elderly mother scolds him briefly and returns her attention to Joe again. This leaves the older brother smoldering with a growing hatred for Joe.

What we see the older brother going through in that moment is hardly noticed by anyone else in the crowded home, even though it affects the man so much that it becomes a pivotal event in his life, planting the seed for revenge. Meanwhile, we see that Joe leaves that family gathering feeling both encouraged by his mom to not give up his vision, and challenged by her vision for what Joe is capable of doing for the good of the country.

See? One event, but two radically different viewpoints

And, because they are both leading characters, my responsibility as a writer is to make sure that we understand both characters’ psyche in that moment.

Creating not only the primary story line but also planning out a story thread for Joe’s mom and brother has helped me to retain their importance in the story and the pace of their character revelation as I craft the screenplay.

For a future post, I’ll come up with an example or two from an existing movie of how well-constructed story threads create better drama.

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Can “The People” Be a Character?

August 11, 2009

The story thread I mentioned in my last post represents the journey of the nation’s citizens as whole, tracking as a singular entity the attitudes and principles of the majority. In that sense, “The People” becomes a kind of super-character in the plotline: a collective that functions as one. 

But how can that be when the general rule–a good one–when creating a screenplay is to build the story around two individuals: a primary antagonist and protagonist?

There are many exceptions to that general rule, but they are exceptions nonetheless. Even if a movie has a cast of thousands, you find in most commercially successful movies a single individual with whom we identify (the hero). And that hero, while battling perhaps a legion of obstacles or people, fights primarily against the will of one person (the villain).  I could do a post about this subject, but this isn’t it. For now, I’m just acknowledging that there is a rule.

And I’m following that rule in the primary plotline; I have a single protagonist–Joe Cameron–who battles against the will of a singularly determined antagonist. But among the other evolving characters in this story–characters representing the society’s individuals and their unique choices–there is this influential force that I need to consider and contend with: the will of the people. As I work on the story, representing the collective mind of the masses as a character is helpful to me and, I contend, is a legitimate dramaturgical construct.

In fact, representing the masses as an entity may even be a necessary dramaturgical construct if a story (such as this one) presents or proposes a major societal course change enacted by its citizens.

Four legs good, two legs bad

Even more so, if the story’s backdrop or “universe” is a country that is either socialist or leaning strongly in that direction, the writer may need to consider the masses as a singular influence, just as any character. Why? The nature of socialism. It’s a style of government in which the rights of the individual are subjugated to the rights of the state–to the rights of the masses (as opposed to free market capitalism, which emphasizes the individual). In a country where “state owned” is an increasingly common thing, the individuals are increasingly required to conform to the state’s definition of what to think or do.

Collective inaction as status quo

From the first act, I establish that we are in a country that, while not yet socialist, is moving further down that path, experiencing fewer individual rights, and an increasingly centralized government. The citizens of this country are generally unhappy about their changing state, but they are doing little to prevent it, even as they are witnessing the negative effects of the rapidly growing bureaucracy: increasing taxation, currency devaluation, rising unemployment, more government control, and the erosion of personal rights. They accept the persuasive political rhetoric of its leaders as truth, in spite of contradictory evidence.

Isn’t there someone . . . ?

Into this oppressive and alarming backdrop,  enter our protagonist, Joe Cameron. He’s watched for years the gradual decline of his beloved  island nation. Within the limits of his power as a police officer, he’s tried to not only uphold the law but to influence the thinking of those around him.

Now, as the country continues to deteriorate, he is faced with a dilemma … and possibly an opportunity.

  • The dilemma: Joe is torn between his desire to serve his country with integrity and the realization that justice cannot be attained by operating within the rules of a corrupt and broken system.
  • The opportunity: Later in the story, due to some highly publicized police actions, Joe becomes a nationally recognized figure, which opens a door for him to become influential on a mass scale.

But can some “one” be enough?

Here’s the rub; The collective inaction of “The People” in any society can make the most noble of heroes impotent. Joe’s opportunity to influence the national government requires an unprecedented degree of mass motivation. Unless he can generate a majority action–one that requires personal risk and possibly self-sacrifice–in a people who are historically stuck in an inertia tendency quagmire, Joe can achieve nothing.

The most powerful character . . .

So, while we have the possibility of unique actions and reactions to story events by any individual character within the society, we also represent the majority will of the society as this incredibly powerful character. Whether they collectively give up or collectively revolt or collectively cower or collectively vote or collectively refuse to vote, the heroism or eloquence of an individual will have little effect on the country’s direction, unless–and this is big–unless they can influence the will of the masses.

Can one person really make a difference?

I will play on that possibility in the primary storyline; that one person can make a difference, but only if they act as a catalyst.

In the story, as in real life, I contend that the most eloquent or determined individual is incapable of being a hero in the social development of a nation unless they are also influential. Unless their torch is picked up and carried by the masses, the social hero is ultimately and utterly powerless.