Character and Theme-focused Screenplay Analysis


My Take On Craft

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

The purpose of this website is to go beyond craft. But so as not to diminish its importance, as well as to make sure we’re all on the same page starting out, I describe here what I consider a minimum level of necessary understanding.

I went to art school when I was young, where I was taught that one must avoid the encumbrance of “rules” in order that creativity and imagination may flourish. When I discovered I was more of a storyteller than a visual artist, I went to film school, where I learned that, in drama, traveling without a map will quickly get you lost. Seeking a balance, I came to regard three-act structure as a series of guideposts, rather than a set of rules, and endeavored to find out why each one exists. I wanted to see how few of them we can get away with, to leave as much room as possible for creativity to be the driving force.

For me, the final authority on what constitutes good screenplay structure is found in the outstanding films that have lasted over time. I look at the elements these films share for guidance on which “rules” are truly necessary, and insight on how they function in the drama. When we arrive at a baseline of dramatic function that must be met in order for a story to communicate, then we can find new ways to serve those functions and, in so doing, move the medium forward.

Indeed, already in the course of drama history, story structure has been an evolving form, with many different types holding precedence at one time or another. These days, the dominant popular form is three-act structure, and with good reason. Developed over two millenia and perfected in the 20th Century’s short history of film, three-act structure offers a highly effective model for quickly engaging an audience and steadily building dramatic momentum that then leads to an exciting climax and satisfying resolution.

However, it is important to understand that the success or failure of a given work is not determined by its structure. It is determined by the resonance of the ideas being communicated. The structure exists to serve those ideas. An artful story will have a structure designed specifically for that story’s needs. Thus, three-act structure does not have to be an end in itself. It can also serve as a template, or launching point, from which to create a custom-made design.

In either case, it is important that a writer have a thorough understanding of it.

The Conventional Model of Structure

If you are already familiar with conventional three-act structure, you can skip ahead to the next section: The Character Transformation Model of Structure. 

At its most fundamental, three-act structure ensures that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. The First Act is where main characters are introduced, the basic situation is established and background information is revealed. In the first half of the first act is the Set Up, which shows us what “normal” is for the main character. In the middle of the first act, approximately 15 pages in (assuming the standard 120 page script), is the Point of Attack, an event that throws “normal” out of balance and sets the plot in motion. In the second half of the first act, the main character flails around in response to the Point of Attack. About 30 pages in comes the End of the First Act, at which point the situation has become clear and something must be done. The main character embarks on a course of action that launches the second act.

In the Second Act, the problem is played out as the main character grapples with it. He or she confronts complications, obstacles, setbacks, reversals and ticking clocks that increase the tension and raise the stakes. At about page 60 is the First Culmination of the Second Act or Midpoint, when a first attempt to solve the problem has either failed or had partial success. The main character must regroup and start again. The End of the Second Act (also called the Second Culmination of the Second Act) is around page 90. Things have seemingly become as bad as they could possibly be.

In The Third Act, the conflict is resolved, the subplots are tied up and the characters are settled into new circumstances. Whereas, at the End of the Second Act, things seem to have become as bad as they can be, at the Climax the situation gets worse. The Climax offers the final opportunity for the character’s success or failure. (Of course, in most cases, the result is success.) With the Resolution, the problem has been dealt with, and a new order is established. We are given a sense of how the main character’s life has been changed as a result of this experience.

Clearly, this is a bare bones description. It might even strike you as rather simplistic and formulaic. And, indeed, depending on how it’s used, it often is. Nonetheless, frequently even the most sophisticated, innovative and complex filmed stories rely on these structural markers, as if they were beacons helping the writer find his or her way.

The Character Transformation Model of Structure

Having established the dominant model, we can now take a look at a variation on that model. The following description is the structure I have found in common among character-based films. 

The conventional three-act model, described above, is a perfect structure for the plot-driven film, which leads to an external triumph such as solving a mystery, vanquishing an enemy or succeeding at a quest. But, when, in addition to the external plot events, there is an inner conflict in the main character that ultimately leads to a transformation, the structural markers of the three acts have more specific functions.

This is because, to give credibility to a character’s internal change, it must be motivated in small steps over time since, as we all know, human beings are, generally speaking, highly resistant to change. It is the structural transitions in the first and second acts that serve to incrementally progress, and, thus, give support to, the main character’s ultimate transformation in the third act.

Of course, it is also fundamental to human nature that, for an individual to undergo internal change, there must be intense external pressure bearing down on them. Therefore, the best character transformation stories are both plot- and character-driven, in which case the character transitions function in concert with plot transitions. Here’s how they work together:

The Set Up of the story is largely the same: introduce characters, give background exposition, and establish the world of the story. In short, show us what “normal” is for this main character.

Then comes the Point of Attack. As in the plot-driven story, it is an external event that begins the story the audience has been brought in to see. But for character purposes, this external event has the added effect of presenting a serious challenge to the main character’s bedrock assumptions about life. We all live with assumptions, like that when we wake up in the morning, our spouse will still be there, or that when we get to work, we’ll still have a job.

But let’s say, one day you learn that, despite all your good work and accolades from your boss, you have been downsized out of the company. This presents a challenge to your assumption that if you follow the rules and please others, you’ll be safe from the ax. As you go about the external work of looking for a new job, you also have to confront your internal obstacles that prevent you from taking risks and getting what you want. So, also, with the Point of Attack: it is an external event that demands external action, but that, ultimately, will also require an internal shift in the main character to facilitate the external solution to the problem.

This means that the End of the First Act is not only the moment that launches a journey or establishes a goal for the second act. In character terms, it is also highly significant for being the first really proactive thing the main character does. When looking at character-driven stories, I consistently find, about 20 to 30 minutes into the film, a moment when the main character very deliberately either makes a decision or chooses a course of action that is outside their normal mode of behavior. They are already starting to stretch a little bit towards their transformation.

The work of the Second Act is to show the incremental progression of that internal journey. But the second act has very few structural markers to guide the writer, especially in comparison with both the First Act (having the Setup, the Point of Attack, and the End-of-First-Act Decision) and the Third Act (which begins with the Second-Act Culmination and then goes on to the Climax and Resolution). The Second Act’s hour-long traverse of story in the middle of the film could easily become a confused meander if not for one important guidepost: the Midpoint.

Here, I also find remarkable consistency of structural function in film after film. Whereas, in the plot-driven story, the Midpoint is the first attempt to solve the problem, which either partially succeeds or completely fails, in a character structure, I find that, right in the middle of the story, there is a nearly cataclysmic external event, such as a major setback or reversal, that causes an internal shift in the main character and significantly propels him or her forward.

Up until this point, the main character could still go back to being the person they were at the beginning. But after the major event of the Midpoint, the character crosses over a 50% mark, shifting their internal balance so that they are being pulled toward who they ultimately become at the end. Before this shift, the main character behaves one way. After, he or she behaves another. Thus, the 50% mark also serves to differentiate the first half of the second act from the second half, which is an extremely helpful guideline for organizing that hour-long expanse of story in the middle, which otherwise can feel like crossing the deserts of Sinai.

However, it is important to note a couple of distinctions. First, the Midpoint is a nearly cataclysmic event, which means it needs to be big enough to give an internal jolt to the main character that will push them over 50%. Second, the main character is still only 50% there, which means the Midpoint does not make the ending inevitable. It simply makes it possible. If the ending became inevitable at that point, the story would be over. But there is still more work to do for the main character’s transformation to be convincing.

Through the second half of the second act, the main character experiences more and more external pressure until, finally, at the End of the Second Act, he or she makes a statement of transformation showing an internal change. The statement does not have to be said explicitly in dialogue. It can also be implied through action. The important thing is that it is some kind of expression of intention because willingness is the crucial first step. The next step, then, is commitment, which must be demonstrated through action.

Let me digress to illustrate a point: Imagine you have a friend with an irritating habit of making big promises and then not coming through. One day, this friend, having promised to pick you up at the dentist, doesn’t show. All zoned out on painkillers, you have to scramble for another ride. Later, your friend turns up with yet another lame excuse. So you say, “I’ve put up with this crap from you long enough. I don’t know if I can be your friend anymore.” And your friend says, “You’re right. I screwed up.” Then she says, “Please don’t give up on me. I promise from now on I will not let you down.”

What, in and of itself, is that promise worth? Nothing. When does the promise become worth something? When it is proven to be true through action. When she actually does what she says she’s going to do. This is why, to gain credibility, any statement of transformation on the part of a story’s main character must be put to a test with action. And not only because I say so. Viewers know this, too. They can’t articulate it, but, if the test is not there, they know, instinctively, something’s missing. They won’t buy that the main character has truly transformed.

Thus, the function of the Climax is to present the test that demonstrates commitment and gives credibility to the character’s heartfelt statement of intention.

So how does the main character’s statement and test work together with the plot? In the plot structure, at the End of the Second Act things are seemingly as bad as they can possibly be, and at the Climax, they get worse, which serves the character structure perfectly. To motivate a statement of transformation, things have probably become pretty bad and, in a high-stakes test, they will most likely only be worse.

Then, finally, comes the Resolution, which shows us the results of the character’s transformation, giving us a glimpse of how his or her life will proceed differently from this point forth.

Hopefully, my abstract description at least begins to demonstrate how the function of plot and character structures are quite distinct, while being intertwined. But there’s no substitute for concrete examples, which is the focus of the Great Films section of this website.

Following, are a few more guidelines that serve as foundational elements of craft. 

Whose Story Is It?

Especially in a character-based story, but also in most plot-based stories, the writer has to know whose story he or she is telling. All elements of the screenplay will then, either directly or indirectly, serve that protagonist’s story. The answer to the question “Whose story is it?” is determined by two other factors: Sympathetic Character and Character Transformation.

Sympathetic Character

In my view, sympathetic character is one of the most misunderstood ideas in screenwriting. You may have heard the definition that says the main character must be likable. Another common definition is that they must have characteristics the audience can identify with or relate to. These are in some way true. But to limit yourself to that understanding is missing the point.

One of the first things you have to do at the beginning of your film is give your viewer an entry point into the story. Providing a sympathetic character moment happens to be the easiest, fastest and most efficient way to do so. (If you can find another way to get your audience on board with your story, that’s fine, too. I can think of at least one writer/director who has done so quite effectively, which you will find discussed here. However, if you choose to go down that road, the only thing I would caution is: Don’t forgo sympathetic character for its own sake. Do it because the story demands it.)

The goal of the sympathetic character function is to create audience attachment to your main character that will, in turn, sustain engagement in your story. This may be a bitter pill to swallow, but neither attachment to your character nor engagement with your story are guaranteed. You have to engineer these connections, for the viewer’s sake, so they can feel invited into your story and be sufficiently invested to enjoy it. It’s a purely practical function.

Please indulge me another example: Let’s say, you open the paper one day and read a story about a drug addict in trouble with the law. The guy sounds like a loser so you turn the page and forget about him. Now, let’s say you have a younger brother who, one day, you learn has become involved with drugs and, as a result, is in trouble with the law. You don’t so easily turn your back on your brother. You may want to shake him by the shoulders, or plead with him to straighten up. But you can’t just walk away.

It’s this kind of attachment that you want to create between your viewer and your main character, so your viewer also doesn’t turn their back and walk away (i.e., walk out in the middle of your movie). But you don’t have a lifetime of shared experience to draw upon. In fact, you have almost no time at all. It must be done quickly and efficiently, and in a way that no one really notices.

Here’s how you do it: Very early in the story, not much later than two or three scenes in, you show your main character at some kind of power disadvantage. Maybe she’s pouring her heart and soul into playing the organ in church, but the parishioners are fidgety and beginning to leave. Maybe she asks her husband what he wants for dinner and he coldly reports that he’ll be working late. Or, maybe he comes home from work to excitedly tell his wife he’s been promoted only to learn that she’s leaving him. It is a moment, very near the beginning, when the main character is shown to be, in at least some small way, powerless. It may be a moment when they are humiliated, neglected, betrayed, abandoned, persecuted or even just having a bad day.

It is a truth of human psychology, don’t ask me why or how, that we are irresistibly attracted to underdogs. We can’t help but become attached to someone so undeniably vulnerable. We can all relate to vulnerability. It’s the great equalizer.

To me, the beauty of sympathetic character is that, once you have your audience on board with your main character, by showing him or her in an underdog moment, you can then go on to have that character do all kinds of maladapted things and your audience will stay engaged. Rather than thinking, “What a jerk! I’m getting out of here!” they will more likely respond, “No! Don’t do that! Don’t you see you’re going to ruin your life?!” Just like you would if you learned that your drug addict younger brother had taken the foolish step of holding up a liquor store.

For an example of a not-entirely-likable sympathetic character, go here.  

Character Transformation

To ensure that you are telling a story, rather than simply giving a chronicle of events, you need to have something happen by the end of it. Another way of saying this is: You have to go from A to B. In a plot-driven story, the resulting thing that happens, or the “B” of the story, is usually the resolution of a problem, the solving of a mystery or the triumph over an adversary. In a theme-driven story, it is usually a new understanding about some aspect of life or the world we live in. In a character-driven story, it is the internal transformation of a main character.

For a more thorough discussion of A to B story progression, read The Three Dimensions of Story.

However, it is important to keep in mind that character transformation doesn’t have to be a 180-degree flip. It doesn’t have to be “I’ve seen the light! Never will I sin again!” It can be a very small internal progression. Tiny, in fact. It just has to be something, so we can feel that we have ended up in a different place with this character than where we were when we started.

For one of my favorite examples of a very small transformation, go here.

So the way these work together is that when the sympathetic character at the beginning is also who transforms at the end, that’s whose story you’re telling. Conversely, if it is your intention to tell Character A’s story, you want to be sure he or she is both the sympathetic character at the beginning and the one who transforms at the end.

Obviously, exceptions abound. It is entirely possible to establish one character as sympathetic at the beginning and have another transform at the end, or to simply transfer viewer sympathy from one character to another in the course of the story. But there is an art to doing so that depends on the writer’s thorough understanding of the baseline craft they are departing from. And, again, you want to make sure you are doing it to serve the story, not just for the sake of breaking “rules.”

You can find several examples of films that successfully transfer viewer sympathy discussed on this site: here, here and here.

Stakes and Tension

It is a truism to say that dramatic storytelling is wholly dependent on having something at stake. But what does that mean? It means the main character stands to lose something big in the course of the story and there is an urgency about making sure that doesn’t happen. The tension, then, is in all the external elements that are conspiring to bring on that loss.

The strongest stakes in drama are life and death. Clearly, most action-based stories about vanquishing an enemy have no problem establishing such stakes. But an awful lot of average life situations can also be reduced to life and death. For example, losing a job means not having money, which means not paying the rent, which means being thrown out on the street, which means being exposed to the elements, which means freezing to death. Or not having a car means not getting to school, which means failing to graduate, which means not being employable, which means not buying food, which means starving to death.

For a baby, not being loved is a matter of life and death since, if they are not held close in the love of a devoted parent, they just might not be fed. And not being fed, they will die. Thus, as adults, there lingers in all of us a level on which we feel if we are not loved, by friends and family as well as an intimate partner, we will also die.

I have had clients come to me saying, “My story is about a woman trying to find herself.” I, for one, firmly believe that trying to find oneself is a laudable endeavor. But, without something at stake, which can also be a belief system or a sense of self worth, I know how much difficulty that writer will have creating a dramatic story around it.

Suffice it to say, creating effective drama is a whole lot easier when you are toiling in real life situations that are somehow reducible to a life and death struggle.

Cause and Effect

I think of Cause and Effect as the engine that drives dramatic momentum in a story. It ensures that the events being portrayed are interrelated and, taken together, will build towards a purposeful ending. Otherwise, you just have a this-happens-then-that-happens chronicle of . . . things happening.

Cause and effect is at work when the events of a scene must occur because of the events that occurred in the scene immediately preceding it. In other words, the present scene is the effect of the preceding scene. In turn, the present scene makes the events of the following scene imperative. So, simultaneous to being the effect of what just happened, it is also the cause of the next thing that happens.

It’s not a wall-to-wall kind of thing. There will be plenty of scene sequences without cause and effect linking them, and, when it is there, it doesn’t necessarily happen in a straightforward linear fashion. But if you start looking for it in the films you love, you will begin to see how cause and effect, both within and between scenes, provides a boost of energy and gives the story a leap forward.

There you have my basic primer on screenwriting craft. Also, in this section, you will find short videos offering some of my further thoughts on things like how to communicate through visuals and action, how to write dialogue, how to use action in a scene, and other such practical screenwriting subjects as they occur to me. Enjoy!

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