Aspiring screenwriters commonly write feature-length scripts filled with prosaic details concerning the lives of their characters. Physical descriptions, the way in which they move, the circumstances of their daily lives, and the relationships in which they are involved are presented, sometimes in rich detail. Some writers even go to great pains to describe or illustrate the values and attitudes that lie behind the actions of the characters and the key relationships that have informed and influenced their lives. But somehow the mass of information remains aggravatingly little more than information and seldom if ever rises to the level of dramatic action.
Fundamentally, most stories fail to connect emotionally with their audience because the script itself lacks the essential underpinning of a dramatic grammar. Stories that eschew the grammar entirely run the risk of coming across as arbitrary, rambling, or cryptically personal at best, and usually thoroughly opaque or confusing at worst. Certainly, the ungrammatical construction of any narrative undermines the emotional logic that might otherwise tease significance and meaning from the actions of the characters.
Symptomatic of this is the way in which most screenplays manage to avoid ACTION and change. In their failure to present active characters in pursuit of clear goals, whose needs and desires are opposed or undermined by formidable opposition, the most would-be dramatic stories forfeit any claim they may have had on our attention or concern. Instead of goal-driven characters whose actions are continuously frustrated or complicated as a result of nature or the incompatible agendas of other characters, what we have instead is little more than a collection of historical (or expository) events that produce a screenplay much less than the sum of its parts.
In terms of dramatic storytelling, there is a massive difference between the delineation of events and the presentation of active characters in pursuit of compelling objectives, the very pursuit of which conveys a sense of risk and ever-increasing danger. Events tend to be linear; whereas dramatic action is always concentric, rippling out through the story-world, affecting the emotional energy, well-being and meaning of every other action. Stories that are dramatic, that effect change in all of the characters – including the audience, the tribe/s and screenwriter – are stories possessed by characters that we care about because they are embroiled in adversarial relationships in which something of value is at stake, something with which we, the audience, identify as important or worthwhile. In the struggle to protect, save or retrieve what has been threatened, we are tossed about and tormented continuously by the nagging of all questions, “what if?”
In short, dramatic action is the primary means by which an audience is guided to the threshold of a story’s meaning. It is through a character’s actions – what the character does and says – that the writer is able to reveal and illuminate what are essentially internal states of being (i.e.: the emotions and the emotional logic that gives those feelings meaning).
But mere action is not enough. Cinema fails when all it does is explain or simply show in a strictly linear way. It must also allow its audience the opportunity to participate in the creation and realisation of the story. This is also the case even at screenplay stage of the process. An effective screenplay communicates best when it cultivates and exploits the reader’s empathy in ways that permit the reader to see or realise meaning that is only suggested by what is shown in the “big print” or stated by the characters in dialogue. One might say that it is not mere actions that contain meaning, but what a character’s actions and their relationship to each other and to the actions of the other characters imply or suggest. In the process, of entering and operating within this nexus of relationships, the visionary screenwriter/filmmaker cultivates a keen awareness of and sensitivity to something greater than what is simply presented to the eyes and ears.
A dramatic screen story’s most profound and memorable actions simply and potently suggest what is not seen and not heard by presenting a complex, rhythmic interplay of image, sound and character that provoke energy and - through a synergistic interplay and interaction amongst all the characters and their conflicting agendas - produce ever increasing emotional intensity or energy.
Constructively, the first thing this writer should do is go through the script with a pen or pencil and excise everything that is absolutely not essential for conveying the story. In this way, the writer might be able to sweep away enough of the unnecessary language to see what is missing and what NEEDS to be there, DRAMATICALLY.
As well, the writer is obliged to look at every character and ascertain what it is that each one wants, and why they want it, and who or what is stopping them from having it and why? These are the fundamental character questions that must be answered by the actions and words of the characters if one is to find or create a dramatic story. At the very least the writer needs to emotionally intersect with and understand each character’s quest. What is it each one wants? What is the wound that each is trying to heal? Who or what caused the wound? What part did each play in their wounding, or in stopping the wound from being healed? Who or what does each character fear and why? These are but some of the necessary character questions any dedicated screenwriter writer must seek answers to if he/she is to discover the emotional heart of the story.
I daresay the first place a writer should look is at his/her own life, and the relationships he/she had with parents and siblings, as well as his/her partner and children if there are children. In order to penetrate to the essence or source of a character’s identity, one must be prepared to penetrate and explore the origins of one’s own nature. A dramatic screen story cannot hope to be either surprising or fresh if authentic discoveries are not made by the writer in the quest to find the characters and their emotional journey. The journeys compliment and reflect one another.
Guided by a mostly intuitive grasp of the emotional logic that sustains and guides the characters’ objectives and plans, as well as the threats and fears that threaten, subvert and frustrate their well-being or the well-being of those they care about, the screenwriter selects, orders and calibrates in written text, those images and sounds that maximise dramatic interaction among all the characters whilst providing and maintaining the shareability of experience necessary for stimulating in the audience a degree of emotional identifications with those characters.
Just as a screenplay presents a blueprint or plan for a dramatic narrative rooted in action and sound, so, too, are its constituent actions and sounds provocations that compel us to look beyond what is actually shown and stated. Character-based screenwriting acknowledges this implicit “language” by enlarging the concept of what it means to be “a character”, and by permitting each of the characters their voice, contradictions and ambiguities. Successful character-based drama pits characters. one against the other, without losing sight of the love, which some times looks more like hate. If one is to work effectively one will have to cultivate a degree of intimacy and openness with all of one’s characters, enough to coherently embody each character’s inconsistencies, anxieties, hopes, rhythms, gestures, habits, idiosyncrasies and speech patterns. Prescriptive methods, formulas, and every kind of analytical technique divorced from the lives and emotions of the characters will not in themselves be of much use. Cinema - the art of the invisible - demands something more than a recipe a and the transformation and surprise that lend a dramatic story its power, freshness and originality can be neither quantified nor categorised. They arise from those words and actions that speak in us, that sneak up on us in the dark and shake us to our core.
When a dramatic story surprises us it does so not so much because of what it actually shows and tells, but rather because of the way in which it engages our imagination and concern. A story conveyed mediumistically makes all of the characters - including the screenwriter and the audience - participants in the story and story-world that is the collective identity of these characters in the act of finding the story, a story that all of the characters are discovering by means of dramatic action and interaction.
Fresh and meaningful screenplays and films demand more than cold-blooded strategies and calculated formulae if they are to work magic. In the process of finding a story worth telling one will do well to avoid keeping company with the various, popular screenwriting tomes replete with their tried-and-true principles, procedures and recipes for screenwriting success. The so-called “gurus” that promulgate the tidal wave of how-to-write-a-screenplay books have usually had about as much experience conceiving and writing dramatic screenplays as your average football supporter has had with the actual experience of playing World Cup soccer – an experiential shortcoming that nevertheless doesn’t deter them from offering sage advice to any would-be player with a passing interest in the game. Trot them onto the field, however, and ask them to perform – like you would of any dramatic character – and you’ll soon find them every bit as passive as those characters you’ve wished you’d never written.
Rather than relying on prescriptive principles and methods, the mediumistic screenwriter proceeds like one who is both blind and deaf, grappling in the sightlessness of learning, sophistication and habit for one, authentic and powerful action, for a sound that can be trusted, a sound from that intimate “other” that is heard intuitively at first and then only fleetingly. One must learn to trust oneself without falling prey to what one was educated to believe. This sort of trusting is hard-won and occurs only, if at all, after so many false starts, wrong turns and misguided choices that it seems one might more easily and more comfortably crawl into a hole than finish the first draft of a powerful screenplay.
Screen storytellers who would operate as mediums must sharpen their perceptions in the life and death struggle that eternally rages between knowledge and ignorance, in the battle between habit and discovery, between love and indifference, in that theatre of illusion where the souls of all characters meet and fight and reveal themselves through what they do and say, and through what is suggested by what they do and say, in deeds and words that operate on multiple levels, circles within circles, streaming out from a source that is all and becomes all.
To wrestle dramatically and creatively with oneself (and the other characters) requires sensitivity and some facility for managing one’s anxieties, as well as one’s relationship to and understanding of the sights and sounds one encounters in the evolving struggle. It requires that one is open to the rhythms inherent in character actions while maintaining a keen awareness of the range of possibilities concerning the interactions and orderings of these as they occur visually and aurally.
As one discovers what the images are and begins to commit to some while omitting others, one tests the efficacy of every action, of every word, nuance, tone and colour - of everything shown and not shown, said and not said, so as to see and hear what is neither shown nor heard. One must dream the alchemist’s dream – this obsessive sifting, combining, combing through, and separating the base materials in search of the self-alteration that is complete identification with one’s characters and their emotional life. The real power of film resides in what it allows us to imagine as a result of the flow of images and sounds.
When one observes a film, one sees and hears characters going about their business within a setting, but when one experiences a film one actually undergoes a transformation of emotions produced not simply by what is seen and heard but by what is implied or suggested. In its suggestibility, a film offers its audience a chance to interact with and participate in the creation of meaning and thus to identify more intimately with what the characters are doing and why they are doing it. Hence, at any one time in cinematic storytelling, story is operating on three different, albeit inter-connected levels – text, subtext and context.
Since the most interesting and compelling dramatic characters are almost always rendered impotent by obvious expository detail, dialogue and stereotypical behaviour (except some times in the case of comedy), what is it that permits us entry into the inner lives of the characters - that most private and inward world of the heart? By what means are we conducted from passive spectators to active participants – indeed, to empathetic co-creators of the story-coming-into-being? What is the essential nature of the “happenings” that occur in a dramatic screenplay and film that allow us – or any audience - to enter into a deeply personal and highly emotional relationship with one or more of the characters?
These are questions predicated upon the assumption that a film’s essential drama is grounded in character. They also assume that the emotions of characters in a screenplay – like human emotions – are substantially internal. If one assumes the essential inwardness of the emotions and affirms that feeling is both personal and private to the character or person undergoing the feeling, then the dramatisation of emotion requires that the screenwriter/character, aided and abetted by both audience and tribe, makes the inner journey in order to intuitively uncover the authentic outward actions, including their rhythms, counterpoint and juxtapositions with other actions, gestures, and images. One bodies forth the characters in order to understand at a level deeper than intellect the play of emotional energy that commands our attention and the attention of those who come within its ambit.
A dramatic screen story is like an iceberg; only part of it is showing. The dangerous stuff – the stuff that threatens and endangers and makes us sit up and pay attention is always below the surface, operating in the interplay between story, audience, screenwriter and the context in which they create one another and themselves.
The power of cinema resides in what it enables us to imagine. Hence, the defining power of cinematic narrative is its facility for embodying a multifarious suggestibility unequalled by other forms of artistic expression.
It is not possible to speak about “suggestibility” without acknowledging the importance of irony. The word “irony” derives from the Greek “eironeia,” = simulated ignorance, denoting a form of dialectic employed by teachers, like Socrates, who pretend NOT to know something in order to get a student/opponent to explain it; so that their explanation can be used as a starting point for picking their argument apart, thus opening their minds to other possibilities. Irony involves a contrast – an awareness of at least two divergent understandings or realities operating side-by-side. When speaking of cinematic drama, three types of irony can be identified: dramatic irony, situational irony and verbal irony.
Dramatic irony occurs whenever a character makes a fateful choice based upon information that the audience knows is incorrect or incomplete. Situational irony, on the other hand, occurs when one of the characters in the story knows something that the audience doesn’t know, but which the audience will find out about at some stage during the course of the action. The Sixth Sense provides an example of this type of irony. Whereas verbal irony is any form of speech in which what is said is not what is meant; sarcasm, being a case in point.
Subtext, or cinematic implication (which applies equally to word and image), calls our attention to what lies behind, beyond or within the literal meanings or significations of film text; but, while subtext is a crucial component in nearly every successful character-based screenplay, it is but one kind of suggested meaningfulness.
Dramatic film stories order and present actions imbued with emotional energy, in time. The emotional energy conveyed is invariably expressed in rhythmic “strings” of character-driven images and sounds (including dialogue and other utterances) that lure us – almost hypnotically – into a fixated receptiveness not dissimilar to a trance state. Each unit of action occurs in time and is possessed of its own timing and pace. A character’s gestures, movements, expressions and words are time events. And the rhythms inherent in what they do and say tell us much about them.
Rhythm also, like subtext, suggests - but in an entirely different manner. The rhythm of the scene, the sequence, and of every act, is embodied and played out in the rhythms of the characters – their speech, actions, and interactions. Rhythm is, perhaps, the dramatic screenplay’s most primitive and seductive means of conducting an audience toward the emotional core of both character and story.
As humans, we are particularly susceptible to rhythm. Our lives are framed and continuously enlivened by it. Our breathing, our heartbeats, the movement of the sun and moon, the tides, and seasons, all bear witness to our intimate connection with pattern and the recurring alterations of contrasting intervals of sight and sound. The rhythms of nature evoke a livingness that calls us by a million names. Rhythm changes the way we do business; it alters the way we feel about people, about places, about ourselves. It is the secret persuasiveness lurking within every language – that ever-present movement and flow of energy that one rides with a growing sense of adventure in the reading or viewing of a dramatically realised story. Rhythm is the magic by which a writer attracts and captures an audience, the seemingly spontaneous and effortless dance by which one’s tribe initiates the uninitiated, the primordial source of inspiration by which one forgets oneself in order to find oneself in one’s characters. To write a dramatic screenplay in ignorance of your characters’ inherent rhythms is as meaningful as jumping rope under water.
The Ancients understood the ritualistic power and seductiveness of rhythm: the tribal drumbeat, the ritual dance, the mesmerising chant. Today, the computer monitor and two fingers on a keyboard replace the campfire, the toms-toms and the dance, but the beat goes on, behind and within everything that is alive. No matter what you do, without it, without that rhythm, the characters can have no life; the screenplay is still-born.
Rhythm is the pulse of the story, the pace and timing by which living characters go on living and make their emotions present and recognisable, moving expeditiously from one action to the next, from beginning to middle to end. And as they move from one dramatic situation to the next, as their actions alter their relationships and their proximity to the problems and possible solutions that confound and comfort them, the beats and off-beats, the syncopated surprises and unexpected shifts of meter keep us – the audience - alert, surrounded and emotionally involved. We know we are in the presence of characters that matter because their rhythms are continuously present. As the Duke Ellington song has been reminding us since 1931, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
Another type of suggestibility can be found in the cinematic application of a poetic figure of speech called synecdoche, in which a part of something is employed to suggest the larger thing that it belongs to. Synecdoche is employed in a scene from Goodfellas, when Henry Hill’s narration and a panning POV shot introduce us to the wiseguys in Henry’s world – guys with names like Freddy No Nose, Fat Andy, and Jimmy Two Times (who said everything twice, everything twice). But synecdoche also works visually, through sign and symbol. When the poet, Ezra Pound, said “the natural object is the best symbol”, he was referring to poetry; but it is an observation that also applies to cinematic storytelling. When the singularity of the natural object references the pervasive and underlying beliefs or history of an entire society, as it does so effectively in the flyblown image of the pig’s head in Lord of the Flies, one is in the presence of synecdoche. Likewise, the mystery Rosebud – which we discover at the end of Citizen Kane is the brand-name of a sled that the young Kane played with as a child, but in the course of the reporter’s quest to discover the significance of Kane’s last words, it has also come to suggest innocence and the love for a home and a mother that he lost to fortune.
In The Verdict, when lawyer, Frank Galvan - played by Paul Newman - goes to visit his client, traumatised by medical malpractice by doctors at one of Boston’s foremost Catholic training hospitals, he steps into a sterile ward in which the only sound is a mechanical breathing machine, an inhuman device that keeps his client precariously suspended between life and death. The noise it makes provides the perfect synecdoche for what Newman and his client are fighting for and against – the machine implies survival, but it also represents the inhuman, mechanised world of the hospital and the legal system that defends it. The breathing apparatus in the ward very subtly suggests this by referencing the world of machines and systems and their clinical connection to human life and death. The courts and the legal machinations which establish the court’s power and authority can also be just as cold and unfeeling, a central thematic idea in the story, and one that is reinforced in the very next scene when Galvan confronts the archbishop and refuses to settle out of court because, “if I take the money, I’m lost.” In a sense, Galvan too is on life-support – this is the case that will either make him or break him depending on what he does. And he is up against the toughest legal machine in Boston. The machine mentality and Galvin’s fear of what the machine can do to him if he refuses its succour keep him suspended in a kind of living death, a death that he can only break away from if he takes himself – metaphorically – off the machine.
In Hitchcock’s thriller, Dial M For Murder, there is a long scene between ex-tennis pro, Tony (played by Ray Milland) who is the husband of Margot (played by Grace Kelly) and Tony’s unsavoury and money-hungry former classmate, Lesgate, whom Tony has elected to murder his wife. In the cat’n’mouse that ensues, Tony outlines “the perfect crime” while Lesgate plays devil’s advocate, offering up various reservations and objections concerning Tony’s plan. At the conclusion of their discussion, Tony asks for an answer. In reply, Lesgate picks up the envelope containing the down–payment on “the hit”, and slips it into his jacket pocket. The envelope is another example of the dramatic use of synecdoche. He never says he will murder Margot, but his action of picking up the envelope suggests no other possibility.
The art of cinema at its most powerful presents images and sounds that make us imagine the presence of something that is not actually shown. The opening sequence of Jaws provides an excellent example of this. We do not see the shark – not for the first forty-minutes of the film - but its presence and the threat it poses are vividly suggested by the clever use of character-specific cinematography and the now-famous music. At one point, the camera is underwater, looking up at the unsuspecting legs of an attractive, bikini-clad teenage girl, and, for that moment, we ARE the shark, stalking its prey. Then suddenly the shot switches to the top of the water as the girl is hit, dragged sideways, then pulled under into a boiling fountain of red that gushes everywhere. .
The use of the POV shot is a common type of suggestibility, almost exclusive to cinematic storytelling, and, when used wisely, is an effective way of building suspense within a scene. But POV is not limited to the unobserved observer perspective. At another point of the story, the local chief of police, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), is on the beach when he sees teenager, Alex Kintner, eaten by the shark. The camera does a close-up on Brody while pulling the background away from him, suggesting an inner state of traumatic horror and shock at what is being seen. Without actually showing the shark, the viewer feels what Brody must be feeling while seeing the attack.
While these sorts of cinematic decisions may be right for films like Jaws and other genre pieces, they may be too broad or exaggerated to work effectively in stories that feature characters of greater complexity. But the central concept - the use of suggestibility in telling effective stories – is just as relevant to more sophisticated storytelling as it is to melodrama. Most filmmakers are only too aware of what can be accomplished by a creative use of suggestible sounds and images, especially when these are arranged in such a way that their relationship to other images and sounds promotes the multiplication of meaning within a scene and between one scene and another.
The multiplication of meaning, created and conducted by way of suggestibility, is central to Eisenstein’s montage theory, and is one of cinema’s key principles – the idea that by placing this image next to that image, one can create – or suggest – a meaning that is not contained in either image when looked at in isolation from the other. The best films have always thrived on the opportunities afforded by this kind of suggestibility. Their power derives from what the audience contributes by way of reading the implications of one image to the next.
The Kuleshov effect - named after and demonstrated by the Russian filmmaker, Lev Kuleshov - provides yet another example of the way in which the audience mixes one image with another to imaginatively produce a meaning that is not contained in either image looked at in isolation. The Kuleshov experiment involved a series of still photographs. The first, being a close-up of a man looking into the lends of a camera for a number of seconds. Then the image cuts to a photograph of a plate of porridge. We hold on this image for a number of seconds, then cut back to the close-u[ of the man, who now we understand, from the porridge and the look on the man’s face, suggests that he is hungry or at least wanting to eat. Then the image of the man cuts to a photograph of a dead baby and we hold on the corpse for a umber of seconds before cutting back to the man who now looks distinctly sad, upset, beside himself over the death of his child. What is interesting is that the photo of the man is always the same photo, but what we see in it is altered or suggested by the context on the images juxtaposed to it.
In the film, Silence of the Lambs, the Polaroid that Clarisse (Jody Foster) is shown – a snapshot of Hannibal Lector’s last victim – is made much more gruesome by the fact that we never actually see the picture. What we see is her boss handing her a Polaroid, then we see her reaction as the FBI chief explains how they needed dental records in order to identify the victim. The look of Clarisse’s face as she stares at the photograph says it all, without us ever seeing the actual photograph. Because cinema can arrange images in a pre-determined order, directing our attention to what it wants us to see when it wants us to see it, and because it has the power to manipulate the rate at which the images come at us from the screen, its facility for implying and provoking visions beyond what is actually seen is remarkable.
In cinema, to show is not always to reveal. Sometimes, to show is to resolve, to reduce the emotional energy that is at play in a scene. Sometimes, to show is often to limit – to render finite an emotion or an experience (this, not that), and in so doing to acquit our interest and involvement in it. Some times, as in the case of Silence of the Lambs, to suggest what a photograph reveals by showing us Clarisse’s reaction to it speaks much more loudly and more horrifically than any art director’s artificially constructed madness.
Likewise, the shower scene in Psycho – suggests more than it shows. The pace of the cutting and the juxtaposition of images stimulate the viewer to “mix” perceptually what is shown with what is implied, and to “see” what is actually not shown, i.e.: a knife viciously stabbing a naked body.
The writer, Flannery O’Connor, in writing about the power of symbol in story, notes that “certain… details will tend to accumulate meaning… and when this happens they become symbolic…” She goes on to say: “I once wrote a story called “Good Country People” in which a lady Ph.D. has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman whom she has tried to seduce. Now I'll admit that, paraphrased in this way, the situation is simply a low joke. The average reader is pleased to observe anybody's wooden leg being stolen. But without ceasing to appeal to him and without making any statements of high intention, this story does manage to operate at another level of experience, by letting the wooden leg accumulate meaning. Early in the story, we're presented with the fact that the Ph.D. is spiritually as well as physically crippled. She believes in nothing but her own belief in nothing, and we perceive that there is a wooden part of her soul that corresponds to her wooden leg. Now of course this is never stated. The fiction writer states as little as possible. The reader makes this connection from things he is shown. He may not even know that he makes the connection, but the connection is there nevertheless and it has its effect on him. As the story goes on, the wooden leg continues to accumulate meaning. The reader learns how the girl feels about her leg, how her mother feels about it, and how the country women feel about it, and finally, by the time the Bible salesman comes along, the leg has accumulated so much meaning that it is, as the saying goes, loaded. (So) when the Bible salesman steals it, the reader realizes that he has taken away part of the girl's personality…”
O’Connor’s story is perhaps one of the most chilling stories of rape ever written, and yet nothing overtly sexual happens. The rape is the taking away of the young woman’s identity, stealing her power, a power that her intellect allowed her to believe was unassailable by any one so lowly and uneducated as a huckster Bible salesman.
This accumulation of meaning by objects or places is yet another example of the way in which screen stories – through an effective use of symbol – work to suggest meanings within a context that is larger than the screen and the actual scripted story.
Characters, too, can be symbols as easily as objects. When characters operate in this manner they take on the quality of archetypes. In the film Citizen Kane, Kane and his history come to be synonymous with the American Dream. Kane is not simply a newspaperman, he is THE newspaperman – the consummate American entrepreneur who builds a fortune on the ideals of freedom of speech.
Cinema, too, in its efficacy to suggest, or multiply meaning, accumulates significance through images, actions and words. Its ultimate significance is mostly due to its facility to engage its audience imaginatively, by suggesting meanings that have emotional context and force. Every time a cinema story suggests more than it shows it gives its audience a chance to make the story its own.