Thursday, November 6, 2008

What Is The Conscience Of Your Screenplay?

Not in a superficial, politically correct or zeitgeisty green way. But rather in a more fundamental sense: If you were character X or Y, would you know what to do? Would you dare to follow your conscience?

Your conscience is your personal, individual measure of good and bad. It’s in your own mind. No one can see it, and it’s one of the things that makes you as a human being a lot more complex than, say, a snail.

Humans mostly operate on a very simple level. In any situation we instantly evaluate possible risks and benefits. However, our decisions to take this or that action are also determined by conscience. In other words, an awareness of the moral consequences of our actions, especially for other people.

I’ve mentioned psychologist Philip Zimbardo here before, and one of his 20 hints for resisting unwanted influence, is this:

Be ready to say the three most difficult phrases in the world: “I was wrong,” “I made a mistake,” and “I’ve changed my mind.” Cut bait, accept immediate loss of money, face, etc. that could lead to bigger long term losses …

Sound advice, indeed, but extremely difficult to put into practice sometimes!

Imagine your character saying one or more of those simple lines in a critical situation. In a situation where any other answer would be the safe option, but would run contrary to their conscience.

What temptation must they resist? Is it money? Power? Security? Approval? Safe passage?

What’s the principle at stake? Is it honesty in business? Fidelity? Fairness? Equal rights?

And what about you? When have you ignored your conscience? What temptations have you been offered in your life which entailed an unacceptable pay-off? Did you resist?

A character listening to their conscience and standing up against temptation and influence, is a powerful dramatic concept. It requires the character to wilfully take a risk in order to remain true to a principle. Something quintessentially human about that, right?

As a story element, illustrating your story’s conscience creates dramatic tension because you know the character is going to be in for some unpleasant consequences. But it also demonstrates who the character is by showing their inner process as action. In addition, it’s a way of illustrating your theme without being preachy or heavy-handed.

What is the conscience of your screenplay? Altogether a question worth asking yourself.


Halo: Best Video Game said...

An article that's having an impact on my writing and aspirations.

Benjamin Ray

Lucy V said...

Dammit, ANOTHER question to ask of my script along with:

1) do I have enough conflict?
2) Does my protagonist drive the story?
3) Is there enough sex and/or violence in it?
4) and is this script a pile of pants?

In all seriousness though, a great post. And not just 'cos you agreed with me on shooting people. Loving your work, MWAH.