“Hit them with emotion after emotion
after emotion.”- Darren Aronofsky, Director,
THE BLACK SWAN
No other form of writing requires the level of discipline that cinematic storytelling does. Whether you employ three acts, or five sequences, anti-structure or epic structure, it is the structure of these images, which you have described in your screenplay, with dialog, which determine the success or failure of your art.
But it is in that netherworld below the structure, that place where you, the writer, decide how your story or characters move from one sequence to the next, one scene or act, to the next, which determine how the reader/viewer experiences your story. If the reader sees pictures in their mind’s eye, as opposed to words, then you have done your job well.
One of the most important aspects of cinematic storytelling, which is most often ignored, is the art of transition. That is, how the character moves from one state of existence to another. In short, the conditions and emotional state of the character, (and hence, the audience’s emotional state) will experience change in three different stages. As is true in most classic structure, this happens in units of three: Beginning, middle and end.
In movies, as in life, there are certain realities. Where there is change, there is conflict. A character exists within the limits of clearly visible conditions. Their environment and visual arena help clarify the character’s condition. When the reader/audience is first made aware of the possibility of change, the environment begins to look different. The character begins to experience emotions not yet seen at this point of the story. They will have a point of view in regard to the conflict, which, in this very early stage, has been foreshadowed. Foreshadowing is a great way to hook your reader. They are being made aware of a coming conflict, made aware of the possibility that change is coming, but they will not be made aware of exactly how this will unfold. In ROCKY, the first hint of this is where ROCKY BALBOA enters the bar. On the television, Apollo Creed is seen on the screen, discussing the cancellation of his latest fight. Though Rocky is unaware, at this point, that he will have the opportunity to make all of his unrequited dreams come true, it is the audience that receives the message. As the problem becomes bigger, the conflict draws nearer, the main character’s emotions, if they could be graphed, would resemble a roller coaster.
As this conflict draws nearer, the characters emotional responses are turned upside down. When the opportunity, or danger, is overwhelming, the character may shut down, or refuse the offer, or flee. This is often referred to as refusal of the call to adventure. In other examples, the character may desire a change, or challenge, or adventure, only to find out after acceptance of the call to adventure that they have bitten off more than they can chew. A current classic example of this is Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Nina Sayers in BLACK SWAN.
There are many emotional choices that you can make for the character. Denial, anger, bargaining, etc. But as the writer, you must be absolutely clear on one thing: These emotions must be clearly drawn. They cannot be vague. If they are vague or unclear, the reader of your work, this person who holds the life of your screenplay in their hands, will instantly lose interest.
After the choice to change is engaged, whether this change is chosen or forced upon the character, a new set of emotions are brought to the fore. This is where the character’s emotional responses to change are drawn. This is where you, the writer, will call upon character history, character monologues, and the volumes of preparatory writing that you have painstakingly done. Your character has demons to fight, internally. Your character will have a point of view, specifically, about this condition. Your character will have a goal to achieve, or an injustice to survive, in regard to the main conflict, and will have a point of view about where they stand with this conflict. How is the struggle going? Is it going well? If so, when the progress of the plot is negated, it is the character’s emotional response to this negation that will, hopefully for you, steer the action in a different direction. This is the definition of a plot point.
After the conflict has been resolved, the goal achieved, the demons slain, your character will have experienced change, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. But whatever the case may be, your character will have a point of view on everything that they have just experienced. This point of view does not always have to be rosy. In BLACK SWAN, the heroine’s final point of view? “It was perfect.” It was, indeed. And the ultimate price was paid.
When rendering these transitions, remember that the conflict must be presented, or foreshadowed, and we must know how the character feels at all times. One of my former employers, and one of the great mentors of my career, Producer David Foster, said it best. “Always look for stories that do not spend too much time dealing with either plot or character. Rather, look for beat sequences where plot and then character are alternated in such a way that you are always wondering what comes next.” So, to take this a step further, when we examine the character in a beat after we have seen a plot point; read-story point, unfold, it helps the reader tremendously, and will serve you well as the writer, to navigate the emotional beats, these transitions of the state of being in the life of your character, with craftsman-like care.
In real life, we experience change all the time. As life often imitates art, we go through these life changes without even recognizing the cinematic moments. People often say, “Wow, your life is a movie.” If you find yourself struggling with how to make these transitions work in the life of your screenplay, stop and take a breath. Think of a major transition in your life. Break it down into three parts. Use five parts if necessary. Think beginning, middle and end.
After you have done this, write some pages about how you felt, (emotionally) and what you were thinking, experiencing, (psychologically) at each stage of this major transition. Be gentle with yourself, but be ferociously honest, too. Write minimally.
Now, after you have written about this experience, pick three images for each of the three parts of your experience. Beginning, middle and end. Remember, the goal is to marry the most tension filled visual elements (plot) with the most emotionally charges elements (character) of your experience. It could be something as simple as looking out of the bedroom window of your childhood home for what you knew would be the very last time, as the movers carry boxes out of the house behind you; the green grass where you played seen through the window, the apple tree, with it’s Autumn apples now on the ground, remembering that time where you kissed your first girlfriend or boyfriend. The memories flashing by, as you say goodbye to your childhood and cross the threshold into early adulthood. Then, follow with the images of the first day in your new home. The object is to cover as much ground with as few camera shots as possible.
But most important, tell us how your character feels, as you guide us through the story.
Peter Fox is V.P of Production at Tripeg Studios in Hamden, CT. He conducts the Inside Track Workshops for Screenwriting and holds an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute. For more information about this article and other articles by Peter Fox go to www.peterfoxworkshps.com.