I have a nasty tendency when I’m plotting out a script to get too focused on the events. I work out what the beginning and end scenes are and then split the story into quarters, give each quarter a rough title and then start fleshing each quarter out with scenes.
The problem with this approach is it can sometimes leave me with cool sequences I’m very attached to which look great … but don’t really service the character’s journey. Because that’s what a film is: the protagonist’s journey, following along as they learn their most important, life changing lesson.
No matter how big or blockbuster-y the film is, I want that emotional core. I want it to the story of one person learning and changing and growing (or dying and failing, that works too) … and I want that journey to be integral to the story. I don’t want the story to happen and then the character to suddenly change at the last moment or to change independently of the events. I want the events to alter her worldview, to shape and change how she feels until she’s forced to make a difficult transition which is the only way to meet the challenges of the film.
I don’t care if it’s a superhero film or a small-scale drama. Whatever the story-flesh is, I want it wrapped around a solid emotional-skeleton.
The problem is, when I start with the flesh I end up with too many arms or not enough legs or a weird lumpy bit in the middle of the stomach which is soooooo cool … but has nothing to do with the main character’s turmoil at all.
So maybe, just maybe, the answer is to start with the emotions first?
Maybe the way forward is to write down who she is at the beginning, who she has to be at the end and then divide the film up into segments which represent the emotional steps on that journey?
Maybe if I give each step a relevant name, let’s say I’m using the five stages of grief or something, then I know the sequences need to represent denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance*.
Only when I know what the steps have to mean should I then work out what they actually are. I can construct the physical events of the story around those steps. So it’s not “She has to get the key to unlock the thing!” but “She needs to realise not all people are untrustworthy” and then figure out which bit of action best represents it. That way the emotional change is smooth, it happens gradually and every scene adds to the whole. Every scene can still be funny or cool or thrilling or whatever … but they have meaning, they contribute to the film instead of being diversions.
Films tend to get written the other way round. Certainly whenever I get a rewrite job it’s usually because the original writer didn’t have (or couldn’t convey) a clear emotional journey, resulting in a script which has good bits in it … but none of those bits add up to anything satisfying. It’s really, really hard grafting an emotional skeleton on afterwards because, obviously, skeletons are meant to be on the inside, baked into the core of the story.
It also means there’ll inevitably be that conversation with the client where they have a specific scene they’re in love with which has nothing to do with the story they’re trying to tell but looks sooooooo cool. Trying to persuade people they don’t need the thing they love most is never easy, but often the best options are cut it or tell a different story, one where that scene makes sense.
This is often most clear in action films, in the difference between a good action film where every fight scene and set piece changes the protagonist in some way and a bad one where shit just blows up for no reason.
On the other hand, we all have favourite films where nothing makes any sense and the fact it’s just shit blowing up for no reason is what makes the film so great. So perhaps this emotion-first approach isn’t always needed?
Or maybe those films we love would be even better if there was some point to them?
Maybe they’re good not because of the script (blasphemy – everything comes from the script!) but despite the script? Maybe it’s a mediocre script which has been acted, directed, edited, lit, dressed and scored well?
I don’t know. I just know that for me starting with the emotional journey makes the script a lot less painful to write than starting with the physical one.
* You may be of the opinion that these five stages are bullshit. I may be of the opinion you’re right, I may not. Doesn’t matter.