Screenwriting 101: Mastering the Art of Story

Angus Fletcher writes:

* In comedy and tragedy, the main characters are eventually forced by the action of the plot to conform to the big rules of their story world. But in heroic scripts, the opposite happens: The main characters change the world.

* A god’s-eye narrator has the properties of a divine eye, all seeing and all knowing. It’s above the things it describes. It sees into their essence and has dominion over them.

* The ironic narrator goes back thousands of years to ancient Greek and Roman satire. The ironic narrator gently deflates and undercuts the things he or she describes. The ironic narrator wryly suggests that things are less important than we tend to think.

* The comic narrator is sometimes confused with the ironic because it can contain lightly satiric elements. But unlike the ironic, the primary purpose of the comic is not to tear down. Instead, it’s to lift up and celebrate the little curiosities of life… Almost every sitcom or romantic comedy uses a comic narrator. You can find one fantastic model in the script for Little Miss Sunshine, which begins with a happy catalogue of grungy characters.

* Historically, the sentimental narrator is the most common kind of narrator in screenwriting. The aim of the sentimental narrator is to speak the language of the heart, and since different hearts feel different things in different intensities and degrees, there’s a huge variety in sentimental narrators.

* The most obvious difference between film and TV is quantity. An average movie is two hours. An average TV series is designed to run for 100 hours or more. Generating all those hours of content presents a challenge, which writers answer by developing an engine to power the show for season after season.

*  There are different ways to build a TV engine, but the most straightforward is by establishing a deep conflict in the story world. Conflict pushes the plot. The deeper and more substantial the conflict, the more story you can get out of it.
By rooting conflict in the story world, TV writers allow for two key things needed to please audiences for hundreds of hours. First, they keep the plot going, and second, they keep the viewing experience consistent. For example, no matter what episode of Law & Order you watch, the show’s engine always generates the same cognitive mixture of intrigue and suspense.

* Films have a one-off conflict between story world and character. TV requires an engine of ongoing conflict within the story world that keeps the plot going and the viewing experience constant.

* Unlike in the film [Mash], the conflict here in the TV series isn’t a straightforward conflict against the war, because there are things about the war that the doctors will miss… the TV conflict is a conflict within the world of the war. In this TV world, war isn’t a single bad thing. It’s two opposites, good and bad. There are the pointless deaths, the heartbreak, the human cruelty, and the futility. But there are also the friendships and the daily triumphs. Whereas the doctors of MASH the film are in conflict with the world of war, the characters of M*A*S*H the TV show are windows into the deeper conflict of the world. Though they all bring unique viewpoints, the fact that all of the characters of a TV series offer windows into the same deep conflict means they can always be swapped out and exchanged. The role of TV characters as windows into the more enduring conflict in the story world also means that antagonists work very differently in TV than in film. In film, the antagonist is the human face of the world that the hero fights against. In TV, the antagonist is instead an expression of the same world conflict that beats inside the heroes’ hearts. And so rather than simply encouraging negative feelings in the audience, most antagonists will, as the series progresses, inspire increasing amounts of sympathy… In film, the antagonist is opposed by the main characters. In TV, the antagonist is one of the main characters, a window into the same conflict as everyone else. In TV, instead of hating the antagonists, the audience eventually comes to identify with them, too.

* The sitcom engine is the conflict between the individual and the society. Individual is a literal term when it comes to sitcoms: Every character is a one-of-a-kind individual, filled with rogue desires and dreams. Sitcoms generate enormous variety by tweaking the specific characteristics of the individual and the social aspects of the show. In Frasier, the tweak is that the individuals are highly neurotic psychiatrists. In Cheers, the tweak is that the society is a bar where everyone is trying to escape the other society outside. In other words, there are two basic ways to invent your own original sitcom. The first is to focus on a unique subculture of individuals, like Broad City does with female college grads in New York City. The second is to focus on a unique kind of social togetherness, like Modern Family does with post-divorce American families, or Seinfeld does with the special bond between misanthropes.

* Since the engine of sitcoms is the running conflict between the individual and the society, sitcoms never imply that one is absolutely better than the other. If they did, that would kill the engine. Instead, sitcom episodes go back and forth between mocking the individual from the perspective of the society and mocking the society from the perspective of the individual.

* In the world of sitcoms, a clown is any character locked within their own private worldview—that is, any character who mistakes their dreams for reality. There are many different ways to create a sitcom clown. One is to give the clown an uncontrollably strong emotion or passion… : Make your clowns harmlessly eccentric, their oddness a danger only to themselves. The comedy in a sitcom comes from harmlessly eccentric clown characters. It doesn’t come from writing jokes. Instead of writing jokes, create a character with a slightly offbeat mind. Then imagine what that atypical character would typically do. Whatever it is will automatically be funny, unless it mortally threatens your audience. In that case, dial it back.

* Sitcom plots are set in motion by a problem that characters create for themselves. And clowns are always creating problems for themselves… The key here is that in both plots, the clowns’ normal psychological drives lead them to create a problem that then puts them in conflict with another character. That conflict with another character then leads to an escalation.

* At the end, the important thing is that the characters finally stop making their self-inflicted problem worse. Maybe they give up. Maybe the world crushes them. Maybe the other characters rescue them. It’s up to you and what you want your audience to feel.

* Every sitcom begins with a problem that the main character creates. That problem gets worse and worse, leading to more disasters and complications, until at the end, the character capitulates and things go back to normal. In the procedural genre, it’s the inverse. Every episode begins with a problem that the main character sets out to solve. That problem is unraveled piece by piece through a series of breakthroughs and discoveries, until at the end, the character triumphs and things go back to normal… The engine of every procedural is broadly the same: The conflict is between the forces that generate the problem and the procedures that solve it.

* Every plot line [in Grey’s Anatomy] is about a character striving to fit in with some group but, in the end, failing to make it completely. One of the most spectacular instances of these plotlines is George’s interaction with a worried family
whose father is going to have heart surgery. George bonds with the family by promising that their father will make it through surgery alive. With this beat, the script establishes that George finally feels like he belongs. Then, the plot rips this feeling of belonging away by showing the father flatlining in surgery. This forces George to inform the family that he’s dead. Their response: “Thank you. Please … go away.” George is back on the outside; he was part of the family, and now he isn’t anymore. The point here is that the purpose of a soap is to keep returning to the same emotional conflict over and over. To reverse engineer those returns, take each of your characters and create little challenges for them that hold out the promise of resolving the conflict. Then, interrupt your characters’ moments of triumph with a sharp plot twist that plunges them back into their original dilemma so that the show’s engine goes on…

* the purpose of a soap is to keep returning to the same emotional conflict over and over. To reverse engineer those returns, take each of your characters and create little challenges for them that hold out the promise of resolving the conflict. Then, interrupt your characters’ moments of triumph with a sharp plot twist that plunges them back
into their original dilemma so that the show’s engine goes on.

* The tone of soap operas is always sentimental. Everything in the world is portrayed from the perspective of how the characters feel about it.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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