Today’s Filmmaking Stuff guest article comes from veteran screenwriter Jurgen Wolff. I find Jurgen’s approach to movie script writing to be very useful. In the following article, he expresses his thoughts on The Hero’s Journey and other screenwriting templates.
Writing a screenplay-hold that template!
I had an email from someone asking whether I’m really against the use of templates and formulas for writing a screenplay and, if so, how can I explain the fact that most screenplay stories do fall into a three-act structure?
Just to be clear, my belief is that templates and structures are better tools of analysis than of creation. During the rewriting phase, we often realize that what we’ve written is kind of chaotic, that we have things happening later in the story that we need to set up earlier, that a secondary character takes up too much space in the story or would add more to the story if we have her more space, and so on.
That’s a good time to use some of the traditional structures for clues as to where we could change things to make them work better. For instance, the hero’s journey includes the appearance of a mentor. If I realize that my protagonist would be clearer to the reader or viewer if he had somebody to talk to, a mentor kind of figure is one option. (This is more important in films than in novels, since generally in a movie you don’t get to hear the character’s thoughts.)
Or it may be that in the middle of my script things drag along too slowly–a common problem of first drafts. In that case, reminding myself that the traditional story model calls for escalating conflict can lead to better consideration of how I can add incidents that ramp up the tension and drama.
You can already do this assessment and repair work during the outline stage. That will save a lot of revision later. Some people like to write brief outlines, some write outlines so extensive that turning them into a novel or script is not a huge step. You have to experiment to see what works best for you.
What I’m against is relying on these formulas too soon–before you’ve decided what story you really want to tell.
For instance, let’s say I’m fascinated by a character who could have saved his father from dying in a fire, but was too scared to run into the burning house. My interest is in how a person lives with that kind of guilt or “if only” thought.
If I immediately go to a standard story formula, I would ask myself what he wants. Hmm, redemption!
Maybe I opt for the hero’s journey template. What sets him off on his journey? Maybe a memorial service for the father a year after his death–my guy has buried his guilt, but now it comes out.
What’s his quest? To prove to himself that he’s not a coward. A friend accepts a job with a private security company that works in Iraq and invites my protagonist to sign up as well. He does.
During the training for this job, he begins to doubt his commitment (resist the call to action).
But a mentor appears–an old-time security guard who has been on half a dozen tours of duty over there and takes him under his wing.
And so on.
It could lead to a viable story, but I’m letting the template lead me rather than letting the character lead me.
I think it works better to live with your character for a while. No writing yet, just thinking about him and taking notes on whatever occurs to you about his life. What are his fears? His hopes? What impact does that have on his life? Maybe his marriage broke up because he was afraid that the incident with his father showed that he couldn’t protect someone he loves. Does he have kids? What does he fear they think? What do they really think? What caused the fire? Does he find out it was arson and set out to investigate?
My point is that the story could go in a hundred different directions. When you try to nail it down too quickly, the odds are that you’ll take it in a more conventional direction than you need to. It’s like any kind of brainstorming–the first ideas generally are derivative. I believe that trying to force the story into a formula or template has the same effect. Let your story be king. Let templates and formulas be the story’s servant–if needed.
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Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of TV, several TV movies, the feature film, “The Real Howard Spitz” starring Kelsey Grammer, and has been a script doctor on films starring Eddie Murphy, Kim Catrall, Michael Caine, Walter Matthau and others. His plays have been produced in New York, London, Berlin, and Los Angeles. He is the author of 9 books including “Your Writing Coach” and “Creativity Now.” If you would like to find out more about “The Seven Things That Are Stopping You From Writing And How To Overcome Them,” check out Jurgen’s screenwriting website: www.ScreenWritingSuccess.com
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