Saturday, July 31, 2010

How Being Up-Front About Theme Influences The Audience

Stating the theme of a film loud and clear at the beginning of a screenplay is sometimes the best way to focus the audience’s attention.

I recently watched Woody Allen’s wonderful Match Point, which I thoroughly enjoyed on all sorts of levels. Beautiful acting, great tension and suspense, gorgeous cinematography. But what struck me above all about this film, is the boldness with which its theme is presented right at the beginning of the opening scene, both in voiceover and as a visual metaphor. Here’s what it looks like in the screenplay:


In slow motion, a tennis ball passes back and forth over the net.

....................CHRIS (V.O.)
.........The man who said “I’d rather be
.........lucky than good” saw deeply into People are afraid to face how
.........great a part of life is dependent
.........on luck. It’s scary to think so
.........much is out of one’s control –
.........there are moments in a match when
.........the ball hits the top of the net,
.........and for a split second it can
.........either go forward…or fall back.
.........With a little luck, it goes
.........forward…and you win. Or maybe it
.........doesn’t…and you lose.

The ball hitting the top of net and hanging for a beat in the air, is actually visible on screen too during this voiceover, although it’s not mentioned in the script. Either way, what this opening does is set the tone and focus your attention on the meaning and point of everything that follows. There’s no need to speculate about what the theme of the film is, it’s laid out for you in the clearest terms.

What’s in a Theme?
Nuances aside, pretty much everyone agrees that the definition of theme is something like: What the film is really about. The issues which, ideally, all the film’s action and dialogue refer to, and the moral aspect of the main character’s core problem. Sometimes you can express the theme in a single word, such as, honesty, greed, etc. Other times it’s the type of specific moral premise advocated by Stanley D. Williams. And there are all sorts of variation in between. But however it’s formulated, the theme of a film is the moral or philosophical case the film is trying to make.

Ladies and Gentlemen… The Theme!
Not all screenplays state their theme as brazenly as Match Point, but they almost always contain a moment, usually during the initial phase of the story, when the theme is alluded to, or even explicitly stated. It’s often a line of dialogue, such as on page 4 of Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, when father Flynn addresses his congregation in church:

.........What do you do when you’re not
.........sure? That is the topic of my sermon

Or page 4 of The Reader, by David Hare, when Michael’s father Peter responds to his wife nagging the boy to see a doctor:

.........We’re not going to argue about
.........this. People have to take
.........responsibility for their own lives.

Sometimes it’s the lyrics of a song, such as Rock, Rock Till You Drop, the Def Leppard song which opens The Wrestler, written by Rob Siegel.

Stating the Theme Primes the Audience
So what’s the advantage of stating theme as early and explicitly as possible? A lot has been written about the phenomenon of priming , which is basically the fact that we are unconsciously influenced by the choice of words and metaphors we’re presented with. For example, in his recently updated book Predictably Irrational, psychologist Dan Ariely gives some striking examples from psychological experiments, where exposure to a set of selected words prior to the experiments, significantly influences their outcome. Even to the extent that, for example, subjects exposed to words relating to elderly people, walked slower than subjects who hadn’t been exposed to these words, after the experiment was over. Advertisers make use of this phenomenon all the time, as do professional debaters, politicians, salespeople and all sorts of other people whose business it is to influence their audience.

It’s a Screenwriter’s Job to Influence The Audience
In more than one sense, screenwriters should weigh every word in their scripts. Not just because you have to limit yourself to writing what you can see and hear, but also because the way you prime the audience is going to influence how they perceive the rest of the film. I’ve written before about how European films tend to be less emotionally manipulative than Hollywood films, but however much you leave up to the audience to work out for themselves, you still want the film to have a sense of thematic unity. The more your screenplay is about one thing, and the earlier you focus the audience’s attention on that thing, the more engaging an experience it’s likely to be.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What’s Your Character’s Intention?

Knowing a character’s backstory helps you write them consistently, but knowing what’s moving them in the here and now of a scene makes them really come to life.

I have to admit, I never write character biographies. I’ve often tried, using lists, charts and diagrams offered up by various screenwriting books and mentors, but I always find that there are only a few key items that really matter, and those are really only characterization. Things like level of education, social class, a character’s main frustration in life, that kind of thing. Because when it comes to writing the scene, I often find characters wants to do things I hadn’t anticipated. Which forces me to examine their immediate intention rather than analyze their history.

Intention: preparedness for action
The term intention, as it’s used by mindful awareness practitioners such as psychotherapist Daniel Siegel denotes a purposeful orientation of which you’re not necessarily aware but which you can easily bring into consciousness by reflection. An intention is an unconsciously generated state of preparedness, an anticipation of how to respond to other people’s actions or to circumstances as they pan out in real time. All based on lessons learned from experience. In terms of screenwriting, a character’s intention is what drives them to behave in a particular way in a specific situation, based on how they unconsciously expect the immediate situation and their own actions, to unfold. This is not the same as a character’s “want” or “need,” as these are more longer-term, goal-oriented traits.

What a character wants
What the main character in a screenplay wants, is to solve a specific problem. Or put differently, to achieve a specific goal. The character is aware of what the problem is. Depending on the genre, the goal is normally a concrete objective, such as to escape from captivity, to obtain an object or money, to win someone’s love, to save someone or something, etc.. The story is then the account of the various ways the character goes about trying to solve the problem, and the obstacles they encounter along the way.

What a character needs
What the character needs is more abstract, and takes us into more murky, psychological waters. Usually, what the character needs is something they only become aware of during the course of the story. Although they may think they know what they need to begin with. This is the stuff of the character arc, the (moral) lesson the character learns by the end of the story.

What the character’s intention is
The character’s intention is a kind of intermediate phenomenon, a purposeful focus that sits somewhere in between an unconscious psychological need and a conscious, concrete goal. As long as the character is unaware of their own intention, their behaviour is dictated by habit and they react automatically. If the character is aware of their intention, they are free to act on it or not, but this then becomes a choice. Or in terms of drama: the character experiences a conflict, a dilemma. It’s usually another character who, deliberately or otherwise, points out to the main character what their intention is. This may be an attempt by an enemy to undermine the main character, but it could also be a friend trying to help them by showing them what they’re really up to.

Why intention is more important in a scene than biography
The old-school Freudian model, which posits that individuals are slaves to their past, can lead to a reductive, over-simplified view of individuals, where behaviour in the here and now is always a reflection of some unresolved personal problem in the past. In that context, as long as the screenwriter knows the character’s backstory, they can always point to it and reassure everyone from script readers to studio heads by explaining: That’s why the character behaves the way he does. Very neat, clinical, and unequivocal. But human beings and the decisions they take are far more complex than that. So what matters more than where a character went to school or whether they like broccoli (assuming these details aren’t crucial to the plot), is what the character’s intention is in the scene. That’s what determines their emotions and so their actions and speech. This can’t be surgically separated from the larger, overall picture of who the character is and what aspect of their life is driving the narrative, but it is a distinct phenomenon.

Paying attention to intention
Intention is a funny thing. If you pay specific attention to your own intention in various situations, you might be surprised as to how much less you are consciously “in control” of yourself than you imagined. Your mind is constantly taking stock of events as they happen and formulating intentions concerning what to do next. The same goes for characters in a screenplay. Sometimes it’s more productive to ask what a character’s intention is in a given scene, than to ask why they’re behaving in a particular way. The “why” question automatically generates an analytical, logical answer, but the “intention” question opens up possibilities.