Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Rules of Screenwriting #3

3. Movies are about characters who change!

Let's pause here for a moment. Screenwriting literally means writing for the screen. Let's be realistic. The 'screen' you are writing for might be a computer screen, a television screen, a cell-phone screen, or it might be the megascreens at your multiplex. To write something compelling and interesting for any of those screens requires mostly the same skill set. The audience has to be fed a steady supply of obvious conflict to get them to watch and keep them watching. However, the structure of your writing will vary depending on the screen your writing is intended for. When I say there is a rule that movies are about characters who change, I must make two caveats about episodic writing:

1. Bart Simpson never changes.
2. James Bond never changes.*

Essentially, not all movies, and certainly not all episodic shows, are about characters who change. However, within the structure of individual episodes, these characters change all the time. Bart Simpson has learned lessons of justice, love, humility, and family countless times, only to conveniently forget them all just in time for the next episode.

And many episodic shows are about characters who do change. Think back to the first episode of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES or LOST, and compare in your mind with the characters as you know them now... They're the same characters, maybe, but they are completely different now. They've changed because they have had to react to so many plot twists and turns over the years. Once an episodic franchise is up and running, who really knows where it will go? The writers are constantly having to adapt to all kinds of forces - networks, ratings, labor, actor issues - and unless a showrunner with great vision is in charge, most episodic shows will eventually 'jump the shark'. But that's another matter. James Bond never changes because the Bond franchise literally depends on jumping bigger and bigger sharks every single time. And that's fine.

Now, forget episodic screenwriting for a moment. The Dude in THE BIG LEBOWSKI never changes. DUMB AND DUMBER never change. Chauncey Gardener in BEING THERE never changes. Sometimes, when a character is funny enough, or iconic enough, or both, the audience will watch just to see how the character will stay the same character while stumbling through a larger plot. So why do I say movies are about characters who change is my number three rule? Because it is! Eat your broccoli!

And think about Oedipus. Long before there was a silver screen, there was this guy who killed his father and married his mother not too long after vowing to avoid that very fate. Poor Oedipus was a character who changed dramatically. He eventually blinded himself. It might make a good movie. Face it. Most stories are about characters who change, and that's why most movies are about characters who change. Let's go back to our old standby for verification:

BRIAN (cont.)
You see us
as a brain, an athlete, a basket
case, a princess and a criminal.
Correct? That's the way we saw each
other at seven o'clock this morning.
We were brainwashed.

Aha! So, what he's telling the audience is that these five different characters are not only going to face down some obvious conflict, but they are going to change as a result during the course of their day in detention! That's what the whole movie is about, all completely summed up in the first line.

Look. This stuff should be pretty obvious. When Michael Corleone tells Kay at the beginning of THE GODFATHER that he's not a gangster like his father, it should be a huge clue to the audience that by the end of the movie, Michael Corleone will be a gangster even more ruthless than his father was. Letting the audience in on this at the beginning doesn't lessen the impact of the ending. If anything, it strengthens it. It's so obvious, it's perfect.

Characters change. Luke Skywalker was just a farm boy before he learned The Force and blew up the Death Star. Jerry Maguire was a shark in a suit before he learned the value of personal relationships. Harry was only interested in Sally sexually before he learned the value of her friendship.

So what causes characters to change? More on that next post...

* James Bond never changes. The actors playing him do. Have you ever seen the James Bond movie with Woody Allen playing James Bond?

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