Writing for Inevitability

Writing a screenplay is hard. Whether its making time to work on it, selling it, or (what I’m interested in exploring) deciding what to write about…

1) The Procrastinator… never makes time to create. Why don’t they write more…?because they’re not really writers.

2) The Dilettante… is closely related to the Procrastinator; a lazy artist who may or may not be talented yet miraculously sold a screenplay by targeting a genre and throwing obvious characters and dialogue on a page. Their success lowers the bar for everyone and that’s how we end up with the majority of movies you see today. (We have another word for this guy: “Dick.”)

3) The Struggling Artist… is forced to make ends meet which keeps this potentially talented artist from creating more.

4) The Professional… could probably crank out a screenplay every other month. Yet he’s spending his time researching, evaluating the market, exploring his ideas, and ultimately looking for that one thing that’s going to take his piece of entertainment and make it art… Inevitability.

When developing an idea, I work in a circular manner, taking copious notes on character, story (plot), story (emotional), and theme. These all should be related in my opinion. And should culminate to an ending that is “surprising… yet inevitable.” If the title represents this entire idea then that’s a bonus as well.

I typically start with what I’m interested in writing about. The Idea. And I brainstorm everything I can think of about that idea, creating a folder with a tab for brain-storming, characters, theme, and structure to name the most important few.

The first thing that usually comes to me in this idea is the story. “Its about a guy who…” This is the reason I wrote this idea down in the first place. Sometimes the structure just comes to me and I plot it out in very broad strokes.

In the process of brainstorming plot and scene ideas, there are certain characters that inevitably come to mind that will serve the story. I jot down every one I can think of, even if there’s a possibility I won’t use them later.

Early on in the process I ask myself what I want this story to be about- what is the theme? Typically the most obvious “its about power” goes on the page and then I try to expand that by brainstorming appropriate alternatives: “a rite of passage”, “a story of redemption.” And hopefully the right answer will be obvious and then I’ll try to deepen that theme by introducing an idea that hasn’t been expressed about that theme before- or is a new angle on an idea people are used to seeing.

Then I go back and rework those three aspects in a circular manner… character-theme-story, theme-story character, story-character-theme… until the character’s “emotional journey” matches not only the actual story but the theme as well. A good plot is fine but if the character hasn’t changed in some meaningful way by the end (or if his “lack of change” doesn’t address theme) then what’s the reason to tell the story?

Hopefully the end culminates in a surprising yet inevitable ending. The only way to do that is to have these three aspects in a perfect marriage.

Here are three of my favorite films that I think do this really well.

Se7en

If you haven’t seen Se7en then stop whatever you’re doing and watch it right now…

“What’s in the box?!”

Awesome, right…? I know some people hate this movie for the “dark ending” it leaves you with- but I think it is so representative of what the movie is about that its poetic.

First you have a great story about two detectives hunting a serial killer with lots of twists and turns (also executed masterfully by Fincher). In accordance with the theme, you realize John Doe (Kevin Spacey) is killing people based on their sins. This movie is about how everyone is sinful and how easily we accept our own sins. Now throw in Brad Pitt’s character who becomes the epitome of ‘Wrath’ and you have a meaningful ending that ties in all the elements making it an entertaining, yet meaningful, film.

You’re left with Morgan Freeman’s character (arguably representing our conscience) quoting Hemingway:

‘ “The World is a fine place and worth fighting for” I agree with the second part. ‘

Memento

The story of a guy with short-term memory loss hunting for his wife’s killer, John G. This is a movie used to distinguish the difference between plot and story, with one narrative being told backward, the other forward, both culminating at the end.

Based on the title, the theme is based on memories and perception; but more accurately about “what you choose to perceive”. Our lead character, suffering from memory loss, a character trait in direct alignment with our theme, is searching for a ‘John G’ who supposedly broke in their house and murdered his wife. Simultaneously we learn of how he’s been studying a patient with a similar form of memory loss who’s wife killed herself because she couldn’t handle that her husband couldn’t remember her. Around the same time we realize that this is a story about his own wife, he realizes he may have killed the wrong John G (since the real John G is himself).

Haunted by this idea, he uses his short-term memory to his advantage by targeting Teddy- a guy who’s been messing with him the whole time. Our hero hopes that he’ll later think he found the guy who killed his wife so he can live with himself. In this sense we have a culmination of story, character and theme that is extremely satisfying.

“Now where was I?”

Inception

Yes, another Christopher Nolan movie!

I think Inception is a brilliant, and misunderstood, film about a guy who is forced to implant an idea into someone’s mind by going layer upon layer into their subconscious to make them feel like they came up with the idea.

Everyone always talks about the faux ending, of whether he is living in a dream or a reality based on the spinning totem. But that is only scratching the surface of how deep this film goes.

As well as most people think this is just a cerebral exercise in plot-twists and multiple layers, blah-blah-blah. But if you analyze the theme and the character in alignment with the story you end up with a very emotionally satisfying film.

In fact, when I watched it a second time through the filter of what I thought was actually happening, I just about balled my eyes out.

To sum it up…

We know that Cobb’s (Leo’s) emotional story is about convincing his wife, Mal, that she was living in a dream so she would come back to reality; but when she ends up killing herself it haunts him throughout the story.

But what if the whole movie was an inception on Cobb designed by Mal?

That idea is inevitable… based on the theme, what they explain as the rules of the story, as well as the emotional journey of our lead character.

But in order for her to pull this off she would have to create something so elaborate in order for Cobb to feel like he was the one who came up with the idea to save her. Imagine this one scene between her and her father, (Caine), that happens before the movie ever starts.

Mal (to her father): “I think Cobb is getting too involved with this Inception stuff. He’s starting to feel distant and I’m afraid if he keeps this up he’s going to lose me and the kids. What if we perform an Inception on him to make him see what could happen to our lives if he goes down this path?”

And so what the movie calls reality is really the first level of the Inception on Cobb. But Nolan can’t tell us that because it would break the thematic construct of the film. And on he goes, thinking he’s come up with this idea of performing an inception on his wife, when Mal knows that’s the only way to get him to come around.

When you watch the movie from this point of view it is a wonderful piece of work, transcending a “clever script” into an exercise in inevitability.

I don’t mean to suggest that every film should have mind-bending, complex endings. I think The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Sophie’s Choice, each satisfy this criteria. Accomplishing this can be extremely difficult but they make watching movies not only an entertaining waste of time, but a meaningful artistic experience.

~ JW

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2 Comments

  1. Tough venue to write about jw. I’m with you 90% of the way. In re: to “what’s in the box?”, that was a homage. See “Huntz Hall in “Up in Smoke” (1957). That’s where that line came from. Writing is a tough bag to empty, man.

    I totally dig your soliloquies. Keep it coming.

  2. You seems to be an expert in this field, good article and keep up the great work, my friend recommended me this.

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