1. One hero on a single linear chronological journey towards redemption
Am I mad? How can I possibly say there are six main families of structures, with 18 different sub categories and hybrids forming all the time? People are sometimes skeptical about this, indeed sometimes get a bit cross about it. Personally I’d say that what is really odd is the idea there is only one type of storytelling structure in screenwriting. Why should screenwriting be the only form of human endeavor that can be done in only one rigid way (although actually it demonstrably isn’t)? Just as a bit of fun, let’s look at a few other art forms, other forms of creative structure. Here, off the top of my head and in absolutely no order at all, is my layperson’s examples of main categories in these spheres (not even counting sub categories and hybrids), about which I think a person in the relevant profession would need to possess some awareness. Read these and then consider whether suggesting that there is only one form of structure for telling a story seems likely or sensible. Would you go to a music school that forced you to write only jazz? Or an architecture school that insisted there was only one design for a domestic dwelling? In short, in screenwriting as in all spheres of human activity there is more than one way to skin a cat. My thanks to Wikipedia (which will give you many more than I have listed here) and best wishes for your next trivia night. Apologies to all cats for any offense caused. I agree that it is a barbaric expression. No animals were hurt during the creation of this post...
I've been having some correspondence with a writer who has written a film that has multiple storylines and multiple protagonists but been told by a number of people who have read the script to pick a hero or heroine and make the film about just that character. I thought readers might be interested in the issue since it’s one that often comes up.
As you’ll all be aware I am a great supporter of films that involve multiple protagonists and multiple storylines. I think scripts are often wrecked because a script that has its interest specifically in being about a group is turned into a story about one of the group - with the other members of the group simply appearing from time to time being, well, colorful. This is a bit like turning the The Full Monty into a story about one man putting on a striptease show not a group, or perhaps making The Magnificent Seven into The Magnificent One.
Some stories are about groups, full stop, and they won’t work with a ‘one hero’ structure.
But films that use multiple storylines each with their own protagonist are not always the answer. Many fine films consist only of one hero on a single linear chronological journey. It depends on the story you want to tell. Content dictates structure. If you do decide to use multiple storylines (and there are many different types of structure that will permit you do that ) you will hit all kinds of challenges. These include the need to have connections between your storylines (or your audience will rightly be asking ‘what is all this about? Why these characters and no others?’) and you will always have a battle to create and maintain pace, meaning, closure and how and when to jump between stories - simply because all parallel narrative scripts do. It’s the nature of the beast.
But there are many types of multiple storyline structure
Note that I said there that there are many types of structures that use multiple storylines and multiple protagonists, not just one. For example, Pulp Fiction has multiple storylines and multiple characters but it's structured very differently from The Full Monty or Traffic, both of which also have multiple storylines and protagonists. This is an important point to remember because conventional screenwriting theory lumps together all types of film that don't fit the one-hero-on-a-single-chronological journey. They are clearly not all the same. I stress, the plotting and character problems in a film like Nashville are completely different from such problems in a film like Pulp Fiction. In The 21st Century Screenplay I have isolated six categories with many subcategories (for example, there are many different types of flashback). But meanwhile, hybrids are appearing all the time and we must expect more. Screenwriting structures are diversifying all the time.
Here is what the writer said:
Writer to Linda
Sticking to your guns...
First of all I’d say don’t stick to your guns about anything before you’re very sure that the people picking the problems are wrong. Maybe they’re right and you do need a one hero storyline because the story material is really mostly about one character. Alternatively, assuming that what you are intending to transmit does require a group of characters, maybe your readers have picked inadequacies in the way you are creating your group story but are offering the wrong solution. Very often when people tell a writer to focus on one hero and not the group it’s a case of there being something wrong with the multiple protagonist script but the wrong solution is being offered. Perhaps your multiple protagonist films is indeed coming over as characters in search of a plot and you need to invent a plot that unites and explains them. Maybe there is, generally, insufficient connection between the storylines so that they feel random. Maybe you are just not getting what’s in your head on to the page. You are certainly not convincing your readers that your film is at present holding together as you feel it is.
I was given this very good piece of advice many years ago by a very good and very experienced producer: ‘If one reader thinks there’s a problem, it might be just their idiosyncratic view. If two people have the same problem, sit up and listen. If three readers have the same problem you have some fixing to do’
'Logically impossible to please all readers?'
The writer says:
Each person that's read script identifies with a different character according to (reader's) gender, sexuality, colour, educational/cultural values & personal/sexual prudery = for me this is a positive, it's what I aimed for. Ergo it's logically impossible for me to 'please' all readers.
I'd say - not necessarily. If the characters are sufficiently connected and all contribute towards an interesting message you may be able to please them all. They are clearly not pleased at the moment, so you have a choice either to dismiss their opinion and seek another audience or to do something to make them enjoy the script.
Not one main protagonist
The writer adds
There isn't ONE main protagonist - each character/character's storyline is strong enough for a film in its own right = for me a positive.
Fine! Lots of great films have multiple storylines and multiple protagonists, but there needs to be a connection between them that answers the question: ‘why these six characters and not another six characters?’or your audience will get restless and irritated. They will be asking (and who can blame them?) 'Why these characters? What’s the connection? What’s the intention of the film?'
Is the writer confusing multiple protagonist form with tandem narrative structure?
I haven't read the script, but the more I look at the writer's comment that 'each character/character's storyline is strong enough for a film in its own right' the more I think the writer might be confusing what I term 'multiple protagonist form' (which is about a group of characters on a joint 'adventure' which is either a quest, a reunion or a siege, social or physical) and another sort of group story which I've termed tandem narrative, which also has multiple storylines, each with its own protagonist, but which is very different and needs handling in a very different way. What is tandem narrative? I've explained this as 'equally important storylines running together in tandem in the same time frame on the same theme'. It's the form of films like Traffic or Nashville, where characters have separate storylines – rather than being involved together in a joint quest, siege or reunion. Tandem films follow individual characters off on their own journeys. Sometimes these characters don't even know each other.
From the sound of things I think the script is a tandem narrative. But I think the writer might be trying to think of this according to the guidelines I've set out for multiple protagonist form, which don't apply. I'll discuss this further later. First let's look at the issue of connection in these films.
Connection in Multiple Storyline films,
Whether you're using tandem narrative or multiple protagonist narrative (or any other kind of parallel narrative for that matter) it's not enough simply to have fascinating characters. From the audience’s point of view the issue is not that the characters are each individually fascinating. It’s why the filmmakers have put these particular characters together in a film. The audience questions are, as I've said : ‘why these characters and no others?’ ‘What is the connection?’ ‘What is the intention behind the film?’ And crucially: 'Why am I sitting here watching this?’
If there is no proper connection, people will feel resentful. For example, many people reject the film Babel out of hand because they felt the Japanese girl’s story was insufficiently connected to the others. No matter that they loved the rest of the film. Babel by the way is in the form I've termed a 'fractured tandem' film, that is, it has equally important stories on the same theme but is fractured.
How to make connections in tandem narrative films
Tandem films are normally connected by a theme. For example, a simple type of connection in film about six people having very separate adventures would be something like: all six are versions of ‘a bizarre person living in London’ with the theme being: ‘bizarreness in all its forms is difficult to cope with but is something we need in this world’.
Typically in these films connections are made in some or even all of the following ways.
1. connections through date (e.g. six differently bizarre people are having their separate adventures in London on the same day )
2. through place (e.g. six differently bizarre people are having their separate adventures in the same part of London on the same day)
3. through an object (e.g six differently bizarre people are having their separate adventures in the same part of London on the same day and they all, one after the other, sit in the same seat on the same bus as it travels its designated route up a major road in their area).
4. connections through plotlines – that is, characters might appear in more than one storyline.
5. conections through a 'Macro Plot'. There is often what I call a macro plot, that is, an umbrella plot line on the same theme as all of the other stories, but one that links all of the differently bizarre characters together physically AND by theme. For example London is blanketed by a terrible fog (symbolic of the confusion and anonymizing aspects of city life which makes us need more bizarreness in our lives), that is causing pneumonia and traffic accidents to the populace, including the bizarre characters.
The writer concludes
I will however fight with myself to form a character hierarchy & see what that brings forth...
My issue is character democracy
Let's pause here. You're not being asked to create a character hierarchy. This comment is another reason that I feel you might be getting confused with multiple protagonist form, in which you have a range of different version of the same type of protagonist, including what I've called 'the instigator', that is, the protagonists who causes the story. The instigator in the multiple protagonist film The Full Monty is the Robert Carlyle character, the man who has the idea of the striptease. I'd say your issue is to explain what is similar about your characters, why they have not been chosen at random.
Regarding 'character democracy' I think you have to ask yourself here: ‘to what end?’ What is your intention in putting these particular characters into a film together? Sometimes it helps with this sort of thing to ask yourself what the audience is supposed to be thinking and feeling and discussing when they leave the cinema. Sometimes this can clarify your intentions.
Or is it consecutive stories form?
There are, as often happens in these parallel narrative forms, different ways to tell our story. We could, for example, tell the stories of our six differently bizarre characters in yet another way. Let's imagine we use the idea of each of the six using the same bus seat on the same day. You could construct the film by following each of the characters in turn off the bus and into their own story. Once that story is complete or semi-complete, you could return to the bus with the next bizarre character getting on. You'd then somehow unite the characters at the end.
That structure would be a form I've given the name of 'consecutive stories'. You can have that in simple or fractured forms. My hunch is that our writer is thinking of a tandem narrative structure.
But do you need to invent a hybrid?
More and more I'm being asked to help with complex film scripts that are blending different types of parallel narrative. You may need to create your own particular hybrid. How to do this? I'd suggest you start by looking at what I've isolated, checking my guidelines in The 21st Century Screenplay and seeing how you can merge them, always keeping an eye on pace, connection, meaning and closure. That is usually a lot of help. After that, unfortunately, you are on your own. Writing alas isn't easy. Ever wondered why top writers can command such large sums? You get the picture.
To sum up...
In conclusion, for anyone wrestling with this sort of problem, I suggest checking out first the many articles on this site under the tab Practical Writing Advice then look at my chapters in The 21st Century Screenplay on parallel narrative, particularly the chapters on Tandem Narrative and Multiple Protagonist narrative. These explain what plot and character components work in successful films of each kind. Also read the section in that book entitled 'Lost in the Telling'. This includes discussion of Multiple Protagonist and Tandem films that don't work - and crucially, why.Make doubly sure that you have chosen the particular structure that suits the story you want to tell.
I recently wrote the post below entitled Ten Ways the Conventional Hollywood three act one hero Chronological Structure will let you down. A filmmaker responded: ‘It worked for William Shakespeare’. Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but I feel this is inaccurate, and since those of who write drama need to take old Bill very seriously indeed, I responded in detail, explaining that Shakespeare used multiple storylines, not just one and even flashback (in Henry V), his structure being similar to what we see in films like Nashville and Traffic and in many TV series and serials (which I suspect inherited their structure from the stage). I thought you might be interested. And by the way, always feel free to correct or challenge my ideas. Convince me and I'll change 'em. Here's the post
With respect I believe this to be inaccurate, but I'm happy to be corrected. Shakespeare's plays are all, famously, in five acts, but even if we leave that formality of structure aside, Shakespeare's plays to the best of my knowledge, all have multiple plotlines, not just one hero on a single journey, although each of those multiple storylines is usually, I think, a three act structure.
Shakespeare's plays utilise a very similar multiple storyline structure to the one used in films like 'Traffic' or 'Nashville' (a structure that I have I have termed 'tandem narrative' meaning 'stories running together') which is a structure involving a number of equally important stories on the same theme. In this, you have multiple storylines linked by: theme; often (but not always) geography; and characters that appear in several different storylines.
A lot of TV drama is structured like this, too, with multiple separate plotlines, hence the irritation of experienced TV writers when they're told linear one hero structure is the only way..
Shakespeare's comedies, like all Elizabethan/Jacobean comedies, famously have three plot lines, not just one, featuring three separate couples with stories on the same theme. Having three couples in a comedy was actually a convention of English comedy writing at the time, there being also a dance featuring all six together at the end of the play.
'Henry V' famously features what I've termed a bookend flashback structure (where a character in the present appears and talks about the past - or is reminded by it - and we flash back ('this wooden 0") . When we're in the past in Henry V, there are several storylines there. The tragedies have several plotlines on the same theme (eg King Lear has the Gloucester/Edgar/Edmund storyline on the same theme as that of Lear, namely 'ungrateful/grateful child' but note that Lear himself appears in it only at the start ).
Also, while it is currently fashionable to assert that all great drama is based on the Aristotelian notion of unities of time and place and single plotline, Shakespeare was famous for not fitting this model. There was a huge debate about this in the eighteenth century, in which Racine I believe and the French neoclassicists rejected Shakespeare as a bad playwright) However, Dr Johnson wrote a famous piece arguing that Shakespeare transcended Aristotle's formulae. So the 'Aristotelian structure is the only one' argument was put to bed two centuries ago. And, of course, French neoclassic drama famously atrophied and died out because it was so rule bound). But that's a whole other issue.
Happy to be corrected if Shakespeare did write any plays that featured solely one hero in one chronological three storyline.
For more information on my theories go first to Practical Writing Advice on my website then read my book The 21st Century Screenplay. And there are also videos of me, some free, one, a two hour lecture, for purThis nonlinear multiple storyline stuff isn't easy, but it's doable. (and that witty pic of Shakespeare is from the very clever Slatebreakers site)
I'm delighted to say that for the first time, in response to many requests and in conjunction with Chris Jones of the London Screenwriters' Festival, the full two-hour film of my lecture at the London Screenwriters' Festival in 2011 is now available to purchase. And if you subscribe to my new Craft Skills Newsletter (which can do in the right hand column on this page) for a limited time you will be able to get a 20% discount. Below is the cover blurb.
In 2010, leading screenwriting guru Linda Aronson gave a talk at the London Screenwriters’ Festival that caused a sensation because it exploded the conventional Hollywood approach to screenwriting. The audience of scriptwriters was so anxious to hear more that they kept Linda talking for almost five hours after the lecture was finished.
What galvanized the writers were Linda Aronson’s step by step guidelines for planning and writing screenplays like 'Pulp Fiction' or 'The Usual Suspects' that use components like flashbacks, time jumps, multiple protagonists and nonlinear storylines – all elements frowned upon or actively banned by other screenwriting gurus.
In 2011 Linda Aronson came back to the London Screenwriters’ Festival and gave an expanded form of the lecture to hundreds of writers, explaining how to construct eighteen storytelling structures apart from the conventional linear, chronological one-hero model.
That historical, game-changing lecture was filmed by the London Screenwriters' Festival. For the first time it is now made publicly available by Linda Aronson in conjunction with the London Screenwriters' Festival in a special licence permitting you to view and keep on to download and own on three different digital devices. Watch a trailer.
I’m fascinated by that comment you often hear when people discuss non-linearity, to wit: ‘every film has a beginning middle and end – but not necessarily in that order’. And it’s always said dismissively, as if it ends the debate.
I find it interesting for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s totally inaccurate. Nonlinearity in all of the nonlinear structures is (as far as I can see) always arranged so that the end always occurs at the very end of the film, or else, if there are multiple stories, that the film ends on the end of one very powerful story, thereby getting its strong ending from that story’s ending, piggybacking, if you like, on that story’s pull to closure ( as happens in Pulp Fiction for example).
There is always a striking or thought-provoking resolution, indeed, nonlinear forms very often clearly show what I call a ‘Rosebud’ twist ( a term referencing Citizen Kane), where only in the final moments is the crucial answer given and this answer turns what seemed to be the message and point of the film on its head. In fact, it’s this pleasing tying-up of threads in an unexpected way that gives nonlinear films much of their pleasure.
But let’s move on. What practical help is this little dictum offering? Well, none. To the contrary, not only has it pointed you towards disaster by suggesting that you don’t have to have the end of the story at the end but it begs a dozen questions. Let’s look at it. ‘Every film has a beginning, middle and end but not in that order’. Surely one has to say: ‘ That sounds really useful, but can you please elaborate? Your comment implies that you have come to this conclusion after studying these forms in some detail (otherwise how could you make such a sweeping and apparently authoritative statement?), hence, can you please list these different orders, with examples? Please also explain by what rules, if any, one should choose to use any individual order? Is there any particular form of story content to which each is best suited? And please may I have some technical details here. How precisely am I to jump between the three components? Your argument is premised on there being three distinct parts to the story that one reorders. How do you define those parts? I need to know so that I know precisely where to start the reordering. How do we define the end of the beginning and the start of the middle and the end of the middle and the start of the end?
I’m not being smart here. These questions are the ones you really have to ask about the practical mechanics of non-linear. Where you jump stories is vital. Films crash and burn if you jump at the wrong places. Personally, I’ve spent years studying how and when and why nonlinear stories jump at the points that they do, and what effect each sort of jump creates for the audience and what sort of material suits what sort of structure. I had no choice about this because the jumps to and fro between stories make or break the nonlinear film and you need to choose the right structure to tell your story or it won't work. I’d say, for example, that many nonlinear forms open on the second act turning point of one of their stories then jump to its disturbance.
My only request is for precision and seriousness. Bottom line. Let’s have a proper debate about nonlinear.
I was writing a response to a question on the Linked in Screenwriting discussion group and I thought it might be useful to others, so I’ve put it here. A lot of people were suggesting planning, but I thought there were a few other possible issues.
The question is:
Is it a right way of approach to work on character development before working on outline/structure of the story/screenplay?
One of my friend says due to character development i couldnt able to proceed further and thats why i got stuck in the middle of my screenplay process.
But I beleive in giving importance to Character dev in scripts, so i started Developing Characters after deciding a theme for my Short...
What is ur Opinion regarding the process which i follow?
What ever the UR opinion, Comments are always welcome
And here’s my response.
Take heart from the fact that you are stuck: it's the writer in you telling you that something is wrong, and that's a good instinct. Many people would just keep writing on and on, to no purpose. Meanwhile you,by being stuck you're on the road to getting it right. Did you know Mozart wrote to his father complaining that he'd never finish Act 2 of Don Giovanni? If Mozart had problems, there's hope for all of us!
As so many people are saying, your problem is lack of planning. It's a very common problem, so you're not alone. We've all been there. Script structure is a craft, but it’s always maddening because every script presents new structure problems.
As for whether to work on character before story and whether one can spend too much time on character, it’s very easy indeed to get stuck working on character or theme, then to believe that everything you know about the character and theme is in the script when in fact it's still in your head and not actually on the page. For example, I once read a script that had a character who was supposed to be a loner. But there were no scenes showing that character on its own, actually being a loner. Character can only be demonstrated via action. Your story must reveal everything that you want to say about character and theme via very specific action. In other words, if your message 'slow and steady wins the race' you need to create a storyline like the hare and the tortoise fable, not a story about a tortoise who has some unconnected adventure. That sounds easy. It isn't. We all love writing and we can easily get dragged off the point.
So, don’t think about a character in isolation. Think about what it might do, how it might react. Think about how the character's specific characteristics can be demonstrated in action, how the action can put the characters in jeopardy. For example, if your intention is to write about a miser, create a plot in which the miser has to spend money. That way, your central character concern is at the heart of the central plot. Don’t plan to write a film about a miser in which miserliness appears only in a couple of scenes and the rest of the film is about something completely different.
I notice that you mention that you started writing your film from theme and character. You don’t mention story. This is something that nobody has raised and it might be affecting you. Often, the initial idea for a film is a theme or a character, not a story. In other words, you might think: 'I want to write a film about bullying’ but you don’t have a story or characters yet. Or, your idea might be ‘I want to write about a dysfunctional family in which the son is a bully'.There, you have the characters and theme but not a plotline. In that situation it is very easy just to write characters behaving characteristically. The bully acts as a bully in one way, then he acts as a bully in another way, then he acts as bully in a third way, and so on. If you’re a good writer, it’s easy to keep writing for quite a long while, but then you will stop because what you have written is repetitive. You are right to stop – or your audience will say: ‘Okay, okay, I get it that this guy is a bully– and? What now?’
To create a film rather than a character study, you need a story. You need to put the family and a bully in a situation that will permit them not only to interact, but to be different at the end (not necessarily happy - they could end up killing each other, the point is there must be a story).
Can you check whether you yet have a story that properly illustrates your theme? And whether you have characters in action rather than characters repeating their own characteristics in different ways. This sounds insulting but it happens very easily. Watch Mr Saturday Night – in that you have a self-destructive bullying comedian being a self-destructive bullying comedian in a million different ways. No story. Billy Crystal gives a wonderful performance but the film is boring because so much of it is just the character doing the same routine.
The easiest way to understand this problem is to realise that films always have firstly what I call an action line (and others call 'the main plot, for example, inThelma and Louise, the action line is the drive across country, with all its events). Secondly, they will always have what I call ‘a relationship line’ (what others call a subplot, which is to do with characters and character interaction, and is often the love story). In Thelma and Louise, the relationship line is about how events force two respectable women to become bandits and to kill themselves. There is a plot for each of these storylines, and if you split them up you’ll be able to pinpoint problems and handle them much more easily. The point here, so well illustrated in Thelma and Louise, is that in a film the action line forces the relationship line to happen. Use that as a motto.
As I said, you need to plan. So, you now need to go back and work out, step by step what your story is, and whether it transmits the theme by forcing the relationship line to happen, then, when you have that structure, you can write in the scenes. Internal scene construction is hard enough to do without having to plan the movie as you go. You ask for help. In my book The 21st Century Screenplay I have created a step by step question and answer system planning system called Script Development Strategies that help you create a linear one hero three act structure (later in the book I also explain how to structure nonlinear and multiple storyline/protagonist scripts too , but that gets more complicated). A lot of film schools and pros use the Script Development strategies. Good luck! You will get there.
Hello everyone. I hope you've all recovered from this year's fantastic London Screenwriters Festival. And I hope you like my new streamlined website and blog!
I've just been running some videolectures from London to students at the Netherlands Film and TV Academy in Amsterdam on how to structure ensemble films, and thinking as I planned my lectures just how very complex the planning and plotting issues are in these films. So it was an interesting coincidence when a very pertinent question and lots of answers appeared on the Linked In Screenwriting forum about how many characters you can use in these sorts of films. If you follow this blog, you'll know that I responded. The most recent question asked about TV, so I replied to that too. I've put my response in here, below this post, and you can see the other responses on Linked in.
What is all boils down to really is that you can't approach ensemble films as if they are rather unruly 'one hero on a single journey' films. They are structured in a completely different fashion, as a series of separate stories, with all kinds of particular problems, particuarly with backstory and interweaving (you must interweave in such a way as not to be repetitive, and you have so many story strands, often about unfinished emotional business that your head sometimes spins) So the apparently odd question of 'how many characters...etc' is not odd at all. It's absolutely pertinent. What's scary about the flim industry at the moment is that so many people across all fields believe that you absolutely MUST have only one protagonist. Which wrecks lots of ensemblefilms (in which all of the characters' have stories).
Anyhow, I'm delighted that we're all talking about this stuff now, difficult as it is.
Here's what I wrote in Linked in when someone asked how many characters in TV series
Usually TV series use about six, because there is only sufficient time to handle that number of characters taking the limelinght in your max 50 minute time slot, and people devising TV series agonise about how many and who. For more info on TV writing see my ebook TV Writing The Ground Rules of Series, Serials and Sitcom http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Television_Writing.html?id=8j1AYBJKWvQC Regarding Ensemble films, they use different structural plans from one-hero films because they are running multiple stories. It's a different set of rules and a different mind set.
The question about 'how many characters are too many' goes to the heart of ensemble screenwriting in both film and TV because of the time restrictions on you as you try to tell but control all those stories/story strands. You don't have time for unlimited character numbers unless you use special forms and some of those forms permit more characters than others.
Why the time problem? Well, for example if the characters in your film know each other you can have huge amounts of backstory to sneak in about their past interactions and unfinished emotional business as you also try to tell the main group 'adventure'. You can have 17-20 story strands to run. Yes, there are ensemble forms in which you can use more characters (40 I think in Magnolia - although this is a film that has problems with its meaning and closure) but you have to quarantine them in stories or you'll get characters in search of a plot.This is a fascinating but huge topic! Anyhow, if you're interested there's a little video interview I did in Sweden on this sort of stuff on the home page of my site www.lindaaronson.com
If you're a new writer your big break will inevitably come at the worst possible time and you will have to create plots at speed, a difficult skill. These 'coffee break exercises' are to give you some practice in this vital trick of the trade.
The exercise below will probably take a few coffee breaks, but have a go. Don't panic if you're finding it hard. It is hard! It's all about practice and keeping calm as you brainstorm every decision.
Take your favourite TV series, current or defunct. Choose one character. You are going to create a ‘C’ story for this character.
Create 6 step linear story (with a beginning middle and end) for this character. Make it fit with the show (light-hearted, hard- hitting whatever) and, crucially, use a storyline that fits with the character and shows that person reacting to the situation in the way typical of them. Hence, in The Simpsons, Homer will react to a situation in a way that's typically Homer; Marge will react in a way that's typically Marge. This skill - creating a storyline to illustrate a character, exploiting all the possibilities of the show - is what producers look for, so don't forget it. It might help to list the personality traits of your chosen character so you can focus on what specific storyline would best suit them.
Remember too, each story step needs to progress the story (harder than it sounds). Make sure you brainstorm before making any decision using the motto 'it has to be "real but unusual"'. And don't forget to give yourself permission to come up with cliches and dud ideas at first. Just list them to get them out of your system and keep thinking of more. Good ideas will come.
( So what is a ‘C’ story? A ‘C ‘ story is a a short storyline that is interwoven between the A story (eg in a doctor’s show ‘disease of the week’, in a lawyers’ show ‘case of the week’ ) and the B story (usually serial content) C stories are usually short and they might thematically connected with the A and B stories or completely unconnected. In shows that have a lot of serial content, the C story is serial material.)
BLOG.LINDAARONSON.INFO: Linda Aronson on Voice Over Linda Aronson on Voice Over
In the Screenwriting Group at LinkedIn this question was posed “We all know that voice-over narration is a crime against cinema. Or do we...? Voice-over: sin or salvation?”
I haven’t read all the responses (there were over 80 ), but the replies I read were all along the lines that VO was a valid, proven, excellent tool, with many people listing good examples (btw, it’s a good site, so check it out). Here’s my response.
Great, we’re all agreed the technique is valid and proven over and over again to be vividly successful. Our next step should be a careful analysis of successful and unsuccesful examples in films to establish, when, where and why VO works, and when where and why it doesn’t. That way we'll get guidance to how to use VO successfully.
For example, it seems to me that VO is often successfully used in a mininmal form to bookend a film, articulating ideas and themes while simultaneously providing a hook at the start of the film and a payoff twist at the end (for example in 21 Grams).
I would also add that it’s fascinating how often in screenwriting theory moral condemnation is attached to the use of techniques. For example, flashbacks are ‘lazy’ or ‘voice over is trite’.
You can’t ascribe moral values to writing techniques any more than to a paintbrush or the the use of specific fingering by a violinist. The only issue is the degree to which the techniques achieve the intended effect. In short (as many people in the LinkedIn Screenwriting Group said about VO), the only issue is whether it works.
My own personal response to the question is that VO can indeed get out of hand because our job as scriptwriters involves condensing dialogue so as to utilise subtext. We are always tightening dialogue! Hence, given the chance with VO to launch into purple prose, it’s very easy to get drunk on words - rambling lyrically on, with the accompanying visuals stuck in the same plot point, stopping the film in its tracks. This is a big problem with adaptation of novels. It’s very tempting to insert brilliant bits of the novel’s narrative while the visuals become a kind of travelogue.
My motto is forewarned is forearmed, so, in the attempt to avoid a dose of redundant purple prose in VO , I would suggest that prior to using VO, we define precisely why we want to use it and what ideas we want to transmit.
I’d also suggest that we work out what needs to be on the screen (telling the story visually) before composing the VO. That way, we’ve imposed limits on ourselves and can excel within them.
The Descendants. A fine film. A rear tear jerker!
It's a linear one hero on a single journey film. At first sight, I thought it didn’t seem to have a fight back in the third act. But on second thoughts, the pursuit of Brian, and the involvement with Brian and his problems was a form of fighting back. The search for Brian became a quest.
Often the best way to see the function of a section of a film is to ask what would be lost if it were removed. Remove the quest to find Brian and the impact on his family when he’s found, its ramifications and the film would have been circling around the conflict between the father and his daughters.
It would have become all relationship line. It would have slowed right down. The revelation about Brian and the search for Brian not only inserted a powerful emotional charge, forcing the George Clooney character into emotional turmoil and lifting the emotional stakes, it also inserted physical action and a goal to pursue.
The result for the audience was an increase in empathy and suspense.Clever.
By the way, was anyone else puzzled that it was described in publicity as a comedy-drama? Comedy?
Linda is a screenwriter, novelist and playwright. As well as teaching and mentoring writers around the world, she regularly consults on screenplays at the highest level in the US, UK and Australia.