Forgive me if this is a lengthy post, but I believe it’s a lesson every inexperienced screenwriter misses. If you’re thinking of picking up a book on screenwriting, one lesson that should be highlighted entirely in bold is that in writing CHOICE. It’s our choices that define us as human beings. Do we choose to face that all-important pile of laundry, or forego that task in favour of watching the latest episode of Jersey Whores?
In nearly every screenplay that I read, screenwriters more often fail to present their characters with CHOICES. Call these plot devices, plot points, action, or whatever. You can have a well written character outline, but it will crumble if you never give your character anything to do. You need to place your characters in situations where your character MUST make a choice.
Does your character choose to succumb to adultery, because he can’t keep it in his pants? Does your character choose to run into a burning building, despite the immense dangers placed in front of them? Does your character choose to enter the dark cave, when all the other characters are too afraid to? Coke or Pepsi? Turn back, or keep going? Keep going, or turn back?
How will your character problem solve? Is your character absolutely perfect and never makes mistakes? Hopefully not. I’ve read too many idealistic plots, where everything goes as planned, and nothing really interesting ever happens. Moreover, if your character never makes a choice, the movie is HORRENDOUSLY boring. Who wants to watch a movie where the characters never do anything? zzzzz.
I know I’ve written on this similarly before, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but judging by a few of the writing pieces I’ve read recently, I somehow doubt this has sunk in yet.
The following is an extensive list of examples of characters presented with choices. These choices define the characters, and move the plot foreward.
Star Trek (2009)
Young Kirk is a rebel ‘without a cause’. Can you imagine how boring the movie would have been if Captain Pike never came to Kirk, and presented him with a choice?
“Now, your father was captain of a Starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives, including your mother’s and yours. I dare you to do better.” – Captain Pike
Now we’re getting somewhere. Kirk has a choice to make. The audience WANTS him to choose starfleet, because that means cool spaceships, lazers, and aliens.
YES! Now I’ll keep watching.
The Hunger Games (2012)
“Primrose Everdeen” says Effie Trinket.
“I VOLUNTEER!” screams Katness.
Can you imagine what this movie would be like if Katness chose not to volunteer? Well, that would be an entirely different story, and also make her a huge bitch. It’s the choice that defines her as being the hero. In that single choice, she showed the audience she is noble, and stout of heart. Write a sitation in which all your characters worst nightmares come true. What does your character choose to do?
“When will my life begin?” sings Repunzel. Well, if she stayed in her tower, that would be pretty boring wouldn’t it?
I know what I’m preaching may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many writers miss this all important step. Characters can be TORN when faced with a choice. It may seem so simple, for Repunzel to leave her tower, but it isn’t. Will she risk betraying Mother? Will she risk the dangers her mother has warned about? She is safe in her tower, but will she pursue her dreams? If she chooses to do nothing, what does that say about her character?
When Neytiri meets Jake Sully for the first time, she has no quarrels with sending an arrow through his heart. But something stops her: a choice.
The seed of the sacred tree seemingly pops out of nowhere. Should Neytiri kill Jake? Or stand up for what she believes in?
The Matrix (1999)
Alright Neo, you want the blue pill or the red pill?
We ALL want Neo to take the red pill. If he didn’t then there wouldn’t be a story!!! … but maybe you’re the kind of writer who thinks he can be clever or ironic forcing your character to take the blue pill instead. If you make it work then, sure, whatever. However, if you do the opposite of what the audience expects all the time, then you’re either a film school art snob, or kind of an idiot. But that’s ok. If you think it’s working for you, then by all means ignore this post.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Now here is a movie about choice.Writer and director Chris Nolan really know’s what he’s doing. Using the fantastic characters in batman canon, Nolan gives us with a story all about choice. This, I believe, is what makes it so good.
You’re presented with 3 characters that offer a trio of conflict. Batman, who chooses to do the right thing at all costs, will never favour his own feelings if it means dismissing his vows of morality. This is why Batman goes after Harvey Dent instead of his love Rachel. For Gotham City cannot lose it’s ‘white knight’.
In doing so, Harvey Dent is presented with his own choices. After losing his love, and the very thing he was fighting for, he chooses to let ‘chance’ define his choices with his quarter.
This is an interesting dynamic, because Harvey’s choices can vary from anything. He isn’t nessesarily a villain, but a character torn by emotion.
Then there is the Joker. Heath Ledger’s oscar winning performance aside, this is a character who is truly wicked. With a torn past never fully explained, the Joker isn’t driven by money, or power. He simply delights in forcing good people into making choices. He tests the limits of morality.
He sets up various schemes like forcing Batman to choose between Rachel and Harvey. Forcing the citizens of Gotham to kill someone or he’ll blow up a hospital, then blows up the hospital anyway. Forcing the citizens of Gotham to choose whether or not to kill a boat full of prisoners, or let the prisoners blow them up.
The audience delights in watching the Joker at work, because we chew our nails trying to figure out what the characters will choose.
Overall, choice is behind any plot. It’s choice that can keep the audience guessing. It’s choice that restores the audience’s faith in humanity. Show your characters actively choose the right thing at all costs. They’re called heros. In contrast to this, if we watch a tragedy, we delight in knowing we can be better than the characters we watch, or feel not so alone in sharing a characters pain. We like to believe there is good left in the world, and is the reason why we keep buying movie tickets.
Don’t be afraid of asking the bigger questions in life, and having your character’s answer them.
All in all, give your characters a reason to live. Give your characters reasons to do what they do. If you don’t, your script will be one fry short of a happy meal.
“Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” – Albus Dumbledore
Exercise: Watch ANY movie on your shelf, and write down all the things that force your character to make a choice. What does the character choose? What is the other option they could have taken? How will that have defined the story? Is there a choice in this movie that your character could make? how would your character react?
I told you, I LOVE Science Fiction!
Maybe I’ll make a Stephen King cake next…
Dear girlfriends, jocks, and people who think “science fiction” is for nerds…
I really LOVE science fiction. There is a fundamental philosophy and way of thinking, which has made countless science fiction franchises and stories so successful. The best science fiction is one that questions our way of thinking, or a way of living.
Here are a few ideas that I feel are important when considering writing science fiction.
What determines Intelligent Life?
This question may be a tad clichéd, but it’s one that has driven the plots of countless episodes and films in the Star Trek universe. Is an artificially intelligent machine, void of flesh and blood, capable of human emotion? Star Trek has been a vast canvas for an array of creatures, computer programs and monsters, all fighting for the right to live.
Artificial Intelligence is a theme that plays a big part in science fiction for many authors. People like Issac Asimov, and his novel I, Robot. Films such as The Matrix, Eagle Eye, and Spielberg’s appropriately named, A.I.
The difference between fantasy and science fiction, lies in the question What determines Intelligent Life? In fantasy, a mountain can walk and talk, like the infamous Rock-Biter in The Neverending Story. In science fiction however, a mountain stands in the way for the development of a new highway. When the mountain suddenly opens his eyes and says “I am”, workers are left scratching their heads as they unravel a bundle of dynamite at it’s base. See the difference? Not only does sci-fi express what it is to ‘be alive’, it fundamentally argues the very thought. Just because you’re an intelligent machine, doesn’t mean your alive right? … Tell that to the citizens of Zion.
There are Greater Forces at work… and I’m not talking about God.
If you look at the popularity of the 1970s video game Space Invaders, you’ll know that this theme is fundamental to science fiction. The idea that we are not alone in the universe is terrifying. One of the greatest science fiction novels I’ve ever read is Michael Crichton’s Sphere. If you’ve seen the movie, or read this book, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
This idea always manages to catch people off guard, for the implications shake the very foundations of how we act. U.F.O. sightings, alien abductions, alien invasion, and the idea that we are NOT alone, question every one of our political, race, gender, religious, and scientific worldviews. Suddenly, our battleships and nuclear warheads seem like mere tinker toys. When H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds aired on broadcast radio in 1938, people who missed the ‘this is a fictionalized radio drama’ disclaimer went hysterical.
There have been many films on the subject: Independence Day, Sphere, War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, Mars Attacks, Signs, The Forgotten, The Fourth Kind, Aliens, Predator, Skyline, Battle: LA (aka Skyline), The Abyss, and The Day the Earth Stood Still … just to name a few.
But not all movies in this genre are necessarily frightening. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Mission to Mars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Cocoon all offer us a glimpse into benevolence, exploration, and the power of love.
However the one true philosophy all these films touch on, aside from ‘we are not alone’ is that we are not the most powerful beings in the universe. The Abyss, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, are similar, for both films have opinionated aliens that have been ‘watching us’ for some time. The clincher is that in the wondrous display of their power, they warn us that if we cannot find a way to better ourselves… we are doomed. There is however a glimmer of hope in this type of film; the redeeming power of love and the human heart.
Finally, one of my favourite films that embodies the essence of what I’m talking about is Contact. In all our power, science and knowledge, there is a being out there who has watched us for some time, and is far superior in everyway. We may very well be alone in the universe, but as the characters in Contact tell us, “it would be an awful waste of space”.