What’s It All About?
Entertaining Isn’t Enough
The worst excuse for a poorly crafted screenplay is this: it’s only a movie. Yes, it’s only a movie, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that it isn’t about anything. Every movie must be about something. This means it must be centered around a theme, have a controlling idea and answer a question posed at the beginning. Why? Because these are basic elements of storytelling.
Simplest story ever: Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down, broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.
What’s the theme? Togetherness? Solidarity? Partnership? Whatever Jack does, Jill does.
What’s the controlling idea? Misery comes when we tie ourselves too closely to one person.
What’s the question posed that’s answered? What happens after they climb the hill? They fall down the hill. What happens when two people do everything together? They get hurt.
Yes, it’s simple, but it’s a two sentence story and still has all the elements you need. Your movie should too.
So often at script readings, I hear the excuse that a movie is just entertainment and it makes me want to hurl the script at them. It’s this excuse that makes people pay good money to see stupid movies. Most people don’t want to think when they go see a movie, but that still doesn’t mean the person who wrote it shouldn’t be thinking.
Why did you write this movie?
There must be something that compelled you to write this story. “It’s just a cool idea” is not good enough. Somewhere in you, you had a question you needed to answer. Sometimes it’s the typical ‘what if’ scenario. What if Jack went up the hill not alone but with somebody? Then you ask, what if that somebody was his girlfriend and they did everything together? It could have had a happy ending and depending on how you look at it, it does have one. Jill saw that Jack was hurt and she got to him as quickly as possible to help him. So maybe your controlling idea is “True intimacy comes when you do everything together.” Same story, same outcome, but a totally different mood.
Every story, like it or not, is essentially an essay.
There should be at least two examples to emphasize your point and one to contrast it. This is likely shown through your good guy vs bad guy story. The second example supporting your thesis is your B story. Your thesis is the question you pose at the beginning: What happens when two people do everything together? You want to prove that they get hurt because that is your argument, your controlling idea. So what’s the contrast in Jack & Jill? The hill. The hill is symbolic of independence. It stands alone. It’s unharmed, it caused their pain. Try to conquer isolation and you fall.
Everything you write must support your controlling idea.
The characters you choose, what they say, how they say it, where they are, when the story takes place, everything has to do with supporting your controlling idea. Jack and Jill are a couple, they do everything together, their names are even similar. They go up a hill, symbolic of any battle a couple faces together and when one falls, the other does too whether by accident or on purpose because no matter what, they’re a couple and they do everything together, good or bad. Nothing is there by coincidence or just for entertainment or because it was a ‘cool idea’. Your script shouldn’t either.
Transformers 3 was criticized for being weak on story but it’s highly entertaining and it rakes in box office bucks. First of all, it is a massive spectacle and no matter what anyone says about the story, characters, acting, plot, what have you, Michael Bay knows how to make one hell of a kick-ass action film. Roger Ebert gave the film one out of four stars, calling it “a visually ugly film with an incoherent plot, wooden characters and inane dialogue.” – Wikipedia. BUT the movie is still about something.
Controlling Idea: Peace is restored when all secrets are revealed.
Question posed: What happens when Transformers feel deceived?
The theme of deception is carried throughout all aspects of the film: Sam suspects Carly is deceiving him by having an affair with her boss Dylan; Dylan pretends to be an honest employer but proves to be on the side of the Decepticons; Megatron and Optimus call a truce, but Opitimus decapitates Megatron knowing his true intentions; etc.. No one can be trusted.
Even though this is not a critically acclaimed film, even though it’s mostly made as a special effects summer blockbuster spectacle, it is still ABOUT something. The execution may not be as strong as an Oscar-worthy film, but the point is, it’s there. These are the elements that hold a story together. Your script should have them too.