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Character and Theme-focused Screenplay Analysis

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My Take on Art

Posted by Teacher Lanouette on Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Far be it from me to attempt an iron-clad definition of art in screenwriting. This is simply my take on it based on what I have observed.

As a species, we perceive things, to a large extent, all the same way. Otherwise, how could we possibly communicate with each other? This is our shared humanity. But there is also that level at which we perceive things differently. Just like snowflakes, no two of us are identical. This is our individuality.

I view the difference between craft and art in dramatic structure as a reflection of how our brains work. We need certain things to be in common (the craft) so we can know what’s going on. But we also crave unique meaning, which is the art. Good art is interesting meaning. Great art is meaning that is completely new and surprising and singular. The paradox is that, ultimately, it is the sharing of these highly individual meanings that brings us together, far more than the commonly held components of craft.

That said, the elements that create great art are elusive and ever changing. They have to be. If they were concrete and static, they would qualify as craft. Nonetheless, there are some avenues I have come to rely on for getting to a film’s artistic uniqueness. They are cohesion, layers, patterns, metaphor and theme.

Cohesion. Despite the post-modern despair that dismisses cohesion as a futile attempt to wrap things up in a tidy package, I still believe in creating an aesthetic whole. Furthermore, I believe it is those films that succeed in doing so that we respond to most strongly, regardless of what the theorists say. Therefore, if a film has had cultural impact and lasted over time, I assume there is cohesion in it, although it’s wholeness might not stem from what we expect.

When a painter talks about cohesion, they talk about the border. How do you work off the edge of your canvas? What do you put in? What do you leave out? Film exists in time. It has to start somewhere and it has to come to an ending that makes some kind of sense. Those are our borders. And how we get from that point A to point B is what we’re talking about when we talk about structure. (You’ll find a more detailed discussion of A to B progression in filmed stories in my article The Three Dimensions of Story.)

The triumph over an enemy is a clear form of cohesion. The enemy has been vanquished, so the story is done. A main character’s personal triumph that signals an internal transformation is a clearly identifiable cohesion, too. But I also like to study the films that are not so straightforward. What gives cohesion to Pulp Fiction? Or 2001? Such films can’t be dismissed just because they result in no apparent plot triumph or character transformation. So I go into them with an open mind, looking for some other unifying thread.

I operate from the premise that everything in the film is there to serve a function. There’s this conglomeration of parts (the craft) that somehow creates a whole that is greater than their sum (the art). What is that extra element that enables those parts to transcend into an artistic whole?

Layers. Another of my operative theories is that, in order to appeal to the most people, a film must have multiple layers of meaning.

We like to think we perceive a film from our conscious mind. But, in fact, our unconscious is where it’s really happening. Our conscious mind sees blue and green and flowers and trees while our unconscious mind sees romance or horror or joy or misery.

And it’s a demanding beast. How we feel about a movie-going experience on an unconscious level is what determines whether we leave the theater feeling satisfied or disappointed. If the unconscious hasn’t been fed, it goes into a pout. Then it falls upon the conscious mind to explain to your movie-going companions why you hated the movie so much. You have to consciously seek out the words that articulate your unconscious feelings. Most of us lack a way to do that, resorting instead to sulking generalizations, like, “It sucked.”

Conscious articulation is what I’m striving for when I analyze a film’s story. I am putting words to the unconscious effects of the film, which requires being willing to look for deeper layers of meaning.

Patterns. I get my first clues to a story’s meaning by looking for patterns. This is why I love making graphs and charts so much. By translating a somewhat amorphous time-based medium into concrete graphic elements on a page, you can start to see patterns emerge.

Sometimes the pattern that emerges is a little three-act structure sequence within the larger structure. Sometimes it’s a couple of story threads that move forward in parallel. Sometimes it’s clusters of similar scenes placed in either a remarkable symmetry or a telling imbalance. Sometimes the connections are between different levels of the story. This is when analyzing a film starts to feel like working out a game of three-dimensional tic-tac-toe.

What I’m looking for is some kind of structural system. One thing I have become convinced of is that, despite our current dependence on three-act structure, it actually doesn’t matter what structural system you use as long as you have a system at work that is consistently applied and serves the story you are trying to tell.

So that’s another question I explore: How are these identified patterns serving, supporting or enhancing the meaning of the story?  (You’ll find some discussions of structures that originated outside of the three-act model in the Studies from Drama History section of this page.)

Metaphor. In the end, what the unconscious mind loves best is to get meaning through metaphor.  Happily, the creative unconscious also loves to communicate that way. So in a truly great film, it is the unconscious of the artist that is communicating directly to the unconscious of the viewer through the language of metaphor. At least that’s what my conscious mind has come to believe.

So my search for cohesion, layers, patterns and the rest is actually all being done as a way to crack the code of metaphoric communication going on between unconscious minds. How dull life would be, how drearily literal, how monochromatic and robot-like, if we didn’t have metaphor to help us put abstract ideas and feelings into concrete communicable form.

You will find a more detailed discussion of metaphor’s function in our lives in Why Do We Need Metaphor In Film?, and an example of how it was used in one film in The Social Criticism of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. For more examples of how metaphor is used in specific films, go to the Great Films and Current Films pages. 

Theme. The ultimate goal, of course, is to create a Larger Meaning. That’s what, hopefully, the cohesion, layers, patterns and metaphor are adding up to, along with the plot and characters.

While pure plot will tell a story with little meaning beyond the sensational events on screen and character will add some insight into human nature to the thrills and chills, putting the two together to create a metaphor brings the potential for the concrete embodiment of larger ideas. Thus, a theme-based story emerges, in parallel with the plot and character stories.

However, whereas finding the structure of a plot or character story is comparatively easy (see My Take on Craft), I have not yet found any one system for finding a theme structure, outside of the exploratory process I have described above. The good news is that, therefore, the possibilities are endless for how it can be achieved. In my experience, each theme structure shows up as its own unique system peculiar to that particular story. The key to uncovering it is to keep your mind open and your expectations fluid.

So how do theme structures get created? My guess is sometimes consciously, but more often not. The artist is gripped with an inspired idea, endeavors laboriously to manifest it in a coherent form and then stands back to look at what they’ve just created. What happens next likely falls somewhere on a spectrum in which, at one end, the artist is surprised to find whole other layers of meaning that they didn’t consciously include; or, at the other, the artist is no longer able to find their original inspired idea in the confused mess they have brought into being. Where the work falls on this spectrum is completely dependent on the artist’s ability to equally manifest both art and craft through an even balance of conscious and unconscious processes.

It is my firm belief that the best way to cultivate such skill is through deep analytical study of the successful work of others. The goal is to consciously assimilate into one’s unconscious the guiding principles that govern those works such that your unconscious knowledge will then naturally inform your conscious choices. Helping writers, directors and creative professionals develop that solid layer of unconscious understanding is the intention behind this website.

For some short examples of how theme shows up in film, see my article High Ideals: Changing the World With Your Theme-driven Screenplay. For more in-depth discussion of a nicely symmetrical example of plot, character and theme-driven stories all playing out in tandem, see my analysis of The African Queen.