Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994, 1996, 1997, Dorian Scott Cole
One thing is very common to most people. Change. The man who is here for himself is seldom altruistic. If he starts doing something for others, there is a reason. The person who absorbs knowledge like a sponge typically is not a people person who helps heal relationships. If he starts talking about joining a relationship group, there's a reason. The reason has to do with change. Most people, no matter what they believe they are here for, change and experience growth. They live, they acquire experience and knowledge, they integrate that knowledge into their minds and their personalities and behavior, and they become a new person. This is called growth. In a story, the character must change, and should do so gradually from scene one to the ending scene. Sometimes characters refuse to change, or refuse to see the need to change. Their change is more climactic, and comes all at once at the climax.
Does a zebra change its stripes? Yes. It may take many years, but as surely as people's cells replace themselves from every few weeks to a few years, people do change and become new people. But growth always brings with it some pain - parting, changing, facing our weaknesses, stretching ourselves. Stories about change capture that magical moment when change occurs.
Stories tend to fall into three general categories. First is the adventure story with a main character who tends not to change. He is the archetype, the bigger than life, perfect specimen of humanity whom we can always count on to do the right thing and to triumph over problems. He reminds us that the struggle to accomplish our goals is do-able, is right, and is fun. He may be James Bond triumphing over world oppressors and countless villains. Luke Skywalker triumphing over universal evil. Indiana Jones triumphing over Nazi thieves. The TV cop or detective who always solves the case and puts the bad guy behind bars (Knightrider, The Commish). Or the countless average people like you and me who triumph over countless terrors from within or from outside, whether its evil spirits, (Ghostbusters, Friday The Thirteenth, The Exorcist, IT) or just evil people (Fatal Attraction) or natural disasters (Towering Inferno).
Adventure movies sell better than any other kind of movie. They are society’s myths, the motivaters, the gods (representative), the positive message, the things that tell us we will succeed and have fun doing it. When you write an adventure movie, you must know what motivates your audience, even as a vicarious experience or release, because that is what must motivate your characters.
The second category of movies is about people who do change. It isn't about a super-hero or archetype; it's about real people and the process they go through in personal growth. It's about discovery. In contrast, in adventure movies you know the end. The good person is going to triumph in the end - you know that before you walk in the theater. But in other movies, you don't know the ending. You expect that it is going to be happy, but you don't know what will happen. That's because it is a process of discovery that leads to a unique solution to the problem. It reflects life. You hope for happy endings to your problems, you probably believe that in most cases things turn out for the best, but you don't know what the solution is going to be until you arrive there.
The third category of movie is about knowing. Exploring knowledge. Exploring the form of the universe and what it holds for us. Science fiction often falls into this category. For example, what happens if you suddenly tell an entire world that there is a better form of government or a science that will cure all their ills? What happens if you run into a person who was once two other people who literally merged? What does that tell us about our own world, and about ourselves? These movies aren't limited to science fiction. What dangers might we face from a buildup of nuclear weapons? What can happen if unscrupulous companies dispose of their hazardous waste in illegal ways? What is it like to dog sled to the North Pole? What are the limits of human endurance? What can blind faith lead to?
But even keener than these "what if" questions are those simply about the thrill of discovery and personal triumph. Movies are usually about adversaries, about evil and problems and things that stand in the way of what we want. There are also movies about the joy of life - the thrill of discovery - satisfying the desire to know just for the sake of witnessing it, standing in awe of the universe around us. This is movie magic. Look at the settings used in movies. They are unique. Cameras take us to places we have never been before: within a Mosque, to the depths of the oceans, to the tops of skyscrapers, inside a human cell, to the depths of space. Places people want to see just because they are there.
Or things to do like skiing down a steep mountain slope, going over a cliff, falling endlessly, to land perfectly on another slope and continue down. Hang gliding. A luxury cruise. Mining gold by hand in the mud in South America. Sailing a Viking ship, a thousand years ago.
Or personal experiences like the Jamaican bobsled team going for the Olympic gold. Carving a path through the Amazon. Teaching college students to love poetry so they can have the joy of it. Proving an atomic theory just to advance the world's knowledge. Bringing cultures together to know and understand each other to diversify both. Bringing people together to broaden their perspective.
All of these things are subjects. Topics. But movies aren't about topics - that's a documentary. Instead of exploring these subjects in documentaries, they are explored through entertaining movies that raise a very important question. What does it mean to me? The implications are explored by drawing us in through human drama. They are interpreted through what we think we know about human nature. But they open doors of knowledge and opportunity to us. The best movies are those which focus on one of these three things while incorporating all of them.
What is life about? Learning, exploring, knowing, helping others, accomplishing, relationships, experiencing, growing, making choices. These are the same things that movies are about. Movies are colored by the characters you create, the adventures you put them through, and the goal you wish them to achieve.
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