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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Putting Meat on Their Bones

September 3, 2009

I had to break today from developing the Act 2 step outline when I hit scenes that demand development of the five US College-Spring-Break Students and their parents. Without unique personalities, I quickly became bogged down in generalities.

About those “other guys”

In the first act, I was able to get by with only one of the five students named and fleshed out, while simply referring to her traveling mates as “the other well-bred American students.” No problem with that … until now.

I put away the step outline and jumped right into the character sheet, which is where I’m listing all the characters by name and giving each a short description. This morning, I filled in the gaps for these American students and their parents, most of whom need to be socially powerful — monetarily, politically, and such (you’ll see why later).

Apart from this, at least for the primary story characters, I’m also creating detailed character descriptions — a few paragraphs usually, or even a few pages for major or more complicated, dramaturgically pivotal characters. But not this morning.

More on that later. Today, I just honed in on the character sheet, with an eye on…

Connecting the students to the plot line

I already had a general idea of what personalities would need to be represented among the students, and how their parents would later alter the course of the storyline. Now, having reached a point where I could no longer go on until I took the time to make these kids real, I reviewed all the major plot points, looking for opportunities to heighten the drama or strengthened the story’s emotional spine by interjecting the students or their parents. From that, I gave them distinct personalities that would support those plot points, and also endowed them with real names that felt “right” to me.

That’s now done. And, let me tell you, it was both…

A worthwhile diversion, and well-timed!

Had I tried to mold them into dimensional characters earlier, before the storyline was sufficiently formed, it likely would have been a meandering guessing game, based less on how they would each effect the lead characters or the plot, and more on generic assumptions about what I think might be fun for people to watch.

Boring.

Flat.

But breaking to do this now, the story was hungry, greedy for their existence. It anxiously reached in to my subconscious and ripped the characters out, effectively forcing them into being.

Don’t worry, it’s not as painful as it sounds. Invigorating, actually. I just kinda’ sat back and watched.

So, who are they?

Going forward, instead of just “Sandy, and the other students,” here’s what I’ve got to work with:

SANDY BROUGHAM — A confident, comely, well-bred American lass on spring break from college. She is graceful and intelligent, and smitten by Sean, who is smitten by her.

JIM BROUGHAM — Sandy’s brother. An athletic and affable young man, lacking in the looks department. Not witty, but laughs easily, enjoying the humors of others.

MRS. VICTORIA BROUGHAM — Sandy and Jim’s loving mother, and also a state supreme court judge. Quick to judge, but, once beyond her initial reaction, she’s able to assess accurately, wisely.

MR. JOHN BROUGHAM — Sandy and Jim’s father. A US senator.

JANICE HOROWITZ — Also well bred and intelligent, but this Spring breaker is sorely lacking in self-confidence and social graces … when sober.

COLLEEN SMITH — Rather attractive American Spring breaker. Not from money or power, and not very studious. An athletic daredevil and wicked prankster. Funny as hell.

MR. JERRY SMITH — Colleen’s father. A widower of limited financial means. Dearly (smotheringly) loves his daughter — his only child.

JOSH KINGSLEY — Another US Spring breaker: a lanky and quick witted poli-sci major. He loves a good political battle, but too likeable to get rankled about it, as he artfully employs humor to defuse and persuade.

MR . CAMERON KINGSLEY — Josh’s “Type A” father. A nationally known American TV political commentator. Loves his son, and dearly loves his work.

MRS. RAMONA KINGSLEY — Josh’s devoted mother. A quiet woman, honest as the day is long; naturally inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

Much more satisfying! Now, I’m charging back into the step outline with this bevy of clearly formed characters at my side, spurring me on.

It just gets more fun every day. Tally ho….


The Five Steps of Story Deconstruction

August 19, 2009

In short, the screenply story deconstruction process I employ looks like this:

  1. Analyze the story summary to define at a granular level key story elements or “beats.”
  2. Group these elements topically into individual story threads.
  3. Represent the elements and threads visually and physically on printed index cards.
  4. Arrange the story threads on a large bulletin board from left to right according to where they fit on the story timeline.
  5. Use this visual mapping to aid in planning how and when and where to reveal each thread and its elements on the movie’s timeline.

Following these steps is the creation of the step outline, although I often overlap Step 5 with the step sheet development, as they tend to feed off each other.

In a later post, I’ll describe these five steps in more than single sentences. For now though, I’m keeping my hand to the plow, burying myself in the step outline process.