Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Screenwriting 101: A Character Exercise

Coming up with scenes for a movie isn’t hard. What’s much more difficult is understanding the Big Picture: What is the major conflict of the movie and how does it get resolved? I think that’s my own major weakness. I’ve been thinking about this problem for 30 years, and only now am I beginning to see the solution, which has to do with this “existential story conflict” I’ve been talking about. How do we study this further?

I am not a believer in formal education, but the theory of education has some merit, even if we are educating ourselves. Education isn’t just absorbing facts but engaging in practical low-cost exercises. When you go to school, the teachers give you project assignments, which are theoretically modeled after problems you will encounter in real life. With such academic exercises, you have an opportunity to experiment with solving problems without suffering all the costs and consequences. The end product of these assignments is usually forgotten; what’s important is the skills it gives you along the way.

If we were to design our own screenwriting course, what would it consist of? Well, we would probably focus on the areas where we are weakest (character and story development) then design some exercises to help us explore and strengthen those skills.

So this is the simple exercise I propose: If you are given any human role—fireman, doctor, teacher, street bum, etc.—you should be able to come up with a little conflict for this person to be engaged in that results in an entertaining 10-minute screenplay written in a day. If you did a lot of these exercises, you would have much better knowledge of character development and story conflict and could start thinking about bigger projects.

The exercise doesn’t necessarily mean you actually have to write the 10-minute screenplay, although I think that should happen at least a few times. You just have to think things through to the point where you could write the 10 minute screenplay if you wanted to.

I contend that there’s no point in attempting a 90-minute screenplay if you can’t distill the conflicts of the main character into a 10-minute one. If you can’t pull off the 10-minute show, you won’t be able to do the 90-minute one. 10-minute shows also allow you to experiment with a LOT of story ideas in a relatively short period of time.

If I throw out a role—say, “fireman”—you should be able to come up with a character-based conflict for that person, and resolve it within 10 minutes. Sounds challenging, but I think it can be done—for ANY character you can name.

You see, every character has his flaws that arise naturally from his social role, and with a little brainstorming you can see what they might be. For example, for a fireman, I can think of two potential flaws: (1) He’s more obsessed with keeping his fire engine clean than fighting fires, and (2) He may deliberately set fires himself to give his life more meaning. Each avenue leads to an interesting story.

The resolution comes when either (a) the character finally recognizes his own weakness and uses this knowledge to overcome his problem, or (b) at least we, the audience, finally understand what is going on.

The simplest case is (b): We see a fireman racing around putting out fires, but at the end of the film we realize that he’s the one setting the fires. In this case, we are the ones having the character transformation; the fireman isn’t. This avenue often works, but it’s kind of bland and one-dimentional.

The more satisfying scenario, however, is (a): Fireman obsessively sets fires but eventually has a revelation that prompts him to change his behavior, at least temporarily.

I said that every great film consists of the same conflict: Plainly motivated character encounters a mysterious force; eventually understands this force and, if possible, uses this knowledge to conquer his enemy. In (b) above, we the audience are the plainly motivated character and the fireman is the mysterious force who we eventually come to understand. In (a) above, the fireman is the plainly motivated character, who we understand from the beginning is a pyromaniac. The mysterious force is his own obsession, which he eventually comes to understand.

Think of the original Star Wars movie. What is the essential conflict there? It’s a naïve boy encountering the bigger world for the first time. He lacks confidence and takes himself a bit too seriously. In the end, however, he learns to “Trust the Force.” At a critical point in the conflict, he pushes his instruments aside and puts his faith in something different. All of the spaceship battles of the movie basically serve (or should serve) this one central conflict. The whole “Death Star,” in fact, was designed to serve this central conflict.

In Star Wars, it was a hokey conflict, not terribly deep, but it is one of the things we most remember about the movie: “Trust the Force.” The later movies eventually fell flat because they didn’t have this central unifying concept. Without this core exercise in character change, a movie becomes just a series of scene strung together without any overall meaning.

So are you ready to try this character exercise? Whenever you encounter someone playing a role, you should be able to say: (1) What the defects of this character may be, (2) what natural conflicts and quests arise because of these defects (propelling the movie along), (3) how to express these conflicts in concrete, filmable actions, and (4) what character change takes place to resolve these conflicts. You should then be able to write a satisfying 10 minute screenplay, or at least describe it.

Only when we can complete this exercise for ANYONE in ANY role are we ready to attempt a larger project.