A good screenplay sometimes seem very sui generis: unique unto itself.
There's a lot of work to make that seem so. But only a little examination shows that movies use very similar devices to keep the audience interested. The uniqueness of a good movie, you might say, is a nicely-achieved surface effect: what's unique is the facade, seldom the architecture beneath it.
The Closet is a clever comedy. A boring accountant is about to lose his job--and thus stop being able to pay his alimony to his ex- wife and child support for their rather distant son. So the accountant's neighbor cooks up a scheme to make everyone think the boring accountant is gay--hence un-fire-able.
That simple initial situation and offbeat stratagem then instigates a bizarre series of events: trying to get people to disrobe at work, repeatedly making spaghetti with tomato and basil sauce, wearing a condom hat, buying chocolates for a coworker.
Re-watching The Closet again recently, I found it to very nicely use elements quite common to very different kinds of movies. The facade is charmingly unique, but the architecture must obey the laws of gravity.
The basic problems of screenplay-writing--the laws of gravity, so to speak--are not hard to discern.
- The audience has to be interested.
- The audience must have some sense of what's unfolding--without it being entirely easy to foresee.
In a bit more detail, the simplest thing a screenwriter has to do--her list of Instructions, so to speak--would be something like this.
- Show people doing things.
- Make their actions cohere together.
- Help us understand the characters more and more.
- Provide for some suspense and surprise.
A typical structure used to do this is called "three-act structure." In a sense, this is like a pool table where all the balls are in specific positions. Now imagine some bump which moves everything around. The whole configuration is different--which means that every possible shot is now different too.
But it takes some time to unfold or unwind all these new possibilities.
Which is what the movie then does.
- Act I is the 'normal' state of affairs.
- Act II introduces some 'shock' or change or opportunity. This cascades down through all the characters. It also reveals things we didn't know before--because Act I was very short, no more than needed than to set things in motion, and because you can't know things about a situation until push comes to shove--which is what Act II does.
(Act III is another story.)
Likewise, the basic elements of screenwriting are fairly simple--and have been known since the late teens and early '20's. But the number of unique ways they can be applied are so great as to be somewhat puzzling.
So if you write down what's happening in a movie, and then you phrase it in a somewhat generic way, you see pretty clearly (in a well-made movie), the devices writers use to:
- reveal the fictional world bit by bit in a way that keeps the audience involved;
- make a series of events hang together so the audience keeps watching and can make sense of things;
- motivate the characters, organize their actions in meaningful patterns, so what we're watching makes sense;
- but also bring about suspense, both about what's about to happen, and because different characters know or think different things.
Here are the devices I found in The Closet.
- Actions reveal a situation. E.g., what someone buys reveals his mood or how he lives.
- Someone acquires a new piece of information. E.g., overhearing conversations, etc.
- The threat of a new, negative state of affairs. E.g., people are being fired.
- An imperative: a positive goal that must be achived, or a negative goal that must be avoided at all costs.
- The costs of a choice steadily become more clear--and higher.
- A strategem or ploy--to deceive others, for instance, to gain what one needs or not to lose what one has.
- Pretending, putting on an act, dissembling.
- Familiar motives: gaining or retaining others' respect, revenge, pleasure in others' misery.
- Repeated actions: everyone in the fictional universe habitually acts a certain way.
- New information causes a change in perception, so the same action provokes new responses.
- Some people plan to do something later.
- One action causes something else to happen--either as a physical or a psychological consequence.
- The same action unfolds in several steps: e.g., investigating someone, playing a prank on someone, getting ready for a date.
- Someone misperceives what they see or hear.
- Someone takes action to change a situation, and he succeeds or fails.
- A new opportunity arises or presents itself.
- Exposure of a stratagem, fiction or lie.
All of these familiar. But when they're layered on top of each other and strung end to end, they make a whole set of actions and events hang together in a way that's interesting to watch unfold.
And that is perhaps the least complicated thing that can be said about dramatic writing.
--Edward R. O'Neill