People often ask me what makes a great story. My recently published book Screenwriting is Storytelling (Amazon.com) explores this in depth, featuring the major elements of “story” that speak to our core values as human beings. Since the book’s publication, I have enjoyed hundreds of inquiries from writers and filmmakers all around the world, triggering my own curiosity regarding how to engage the writer’s inner world of storytelling in order to facilitate this mysterious process of creating universal themes and values that motivate and inspire us as human beings.
One of the most compelling questions that arises from this process pertains to why "American Storytelling" rocks at the box office. By studying the themes, conflicts, and content of the top 20 international films, it became clear that the top films are all American-made, but more importantly, that the themes that unite them as films are the themes that unite us as human beings, across the globe. In fact, their story content conveys three transcendent elements that characterize not only the greatest film stories ever told, but the foundational values of the extraordinary story of
“Creating the Universal Hero” is meant to help you integrate these primary elements of storytelling into a strong narrative via the Main Character. To achieve this in a profound way, we must be willing to venture into our own spiritual lives, define and question our deepest core values as a culture, explore the source of our conscious and unconscious conflicts as human beings, and as storytellers, attempt to personify these hopes, dreams, and ideals through the Main Character as a “Hero”.
America is unique in her staunch belief that “freedom” originates for all human beings from birth, from a Creator. The late Pope John Paul II knew this first hand as a child survivor of Nazism who endured and confronted the inhumanities, ravages, and consequences of Communism. From behind the Iron Curtain, he emerged as an emissary to the world, a living example to all humanity that would give renewed appreciation to the idea that “freedom” is a God-given gift to all mankind.
The beauty of “freedom” as a gift by birth is that it unites the human race with an elevated appreciation of the human experience, offering unconditional dignity to one another, the ability and desire to help those in need, and more importantly, the obligation to answer this calling. This is the basis for what we know as “free will” which renders humankind able to know “good” and freely choose it. This is the primary foundation of “story” in that every great story features a Main Character with a strong moral choice, the ability to “do good” against equal and opposing forces. The Main Character faces escalating dilemmas throughout the story, expresses “free will” against greater antithetical odds, continually testing his or her own human weaknesses against universal ideals of life, liberty, and justice. This continual conflict moves the Main Character forward as a “Hero,” evolving from immaturity into maturity – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – despite, and in conflict with his or her own flaws.
Our strongest, most memorable feature films test “free will” in the extreme. With great clarity, they characterize the ultimate human test in the ongoing conflict between good and evil. In Titanic, Jack (Leonardo Di Caprio) exercises his “free will” to save the lives of others, especially his beloved Rose. In Amadeus, anti-hero Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) refuses to surrender his envy for Mozart; in fact, he celebrates the opposite by exercising his “free will” to destroy Amadeus (“Loved by God”) Mozart, ultimately condemning himself to his own prison of mediocrity where he descends into madness. In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler, a corrupt war profiteer, is confronted with the reality that a little girl he recognizes as “Redcoat” has been sacrificed to the culture of death perpetrated by the Nazi regime; only then, does he make the choice to risk his own life to save one Jew at a time, such that by the end of his days, his lingering regret is that – if, given one more opportunity -- he would have rescued one more.
This element can be difficult to fully comprehend, particularly in context of our contemporary pop culture which confuses its meaning. Based on over 20 years experience with gifted writers such as Tennessee Williams and Jason Miller, as well as Academy Award winners, I have learned to listen and observe human nature on many levels. This is how we discover the layers of “Justice” within a story. This is how we reveal what a story is about. We listen and observe the prism of human nature, in the form of deeds and behavior, and then create a physical framework as a narrative, representing a Main Character who confronts internal, external, and social conflict within the framework of moral, social, poetic, and absolute justice.
Moral Justice is the first layer, the easiest to understand. It’s the moral compass of the story. In storytelling, it’s “good” vs. “evil”, the right and wrong according to universally recognized standards. In Titanic, it’s established through Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) who risks his life to save the despondent Rose (Kate Winslett) from throwing herself overboard to escape her upcoming marriage to a corrupt, wealthy man. The moral compass is developed on many levels throughout the epic story, and one of the defining moments occurs when Jack risks his life to save 3rd Class Steerage; in the end, Jack and Rose are destined to part, but by then, Jack is willing to sacrifice his life for his beloved Rose. In Amadeus, moral justice is established in a redemption story through the anti-hero Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) who refuses to relinquish his envy for Mozart, whose enormous talent is recognized to be innate, or God-given. It is developed throughout the story as Salieri continually sabotages Mozart, and ultimately sacrifices his (Salieri’s) own soul to self-destruction through envy. And in Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) lines his pockets with the misfortune of others - Jews about to face holocaust - until he can no longer tolerate his own self-loathing and corruption. Once he makes this realization, he freely chooses to acknowledge his infidelities and transgressions towards his wife, and commits to saving the lives of others, especially his own soul, by rescuing all the Jews he can, at his own personal peril.
Social Justice is less understood, particularly in contemporary cultural terms. The key to great storytelling is that ‘moral justice’ renders ‘social justice’ -- not the other way around. Without moral justice there is no social justice. There are those who may argue among themselves on the op/ed page, professing to believe that doing social works makes up for moral offenses against our ideals and fellow man, but in the world of storytelling, we require both levels of humanity in unity with one another, and more.
“The key to great storytelling is that ‘Moral Justice’ renders ‘Social Justice’, not the other way around.”
Ultimately, we test our Main Character against the moral compass of universal values as well as our understanding of social responsibility and the greater good. For example, in real life, as in storytelling, we might tolerate or admire someone who would omit performing generosity in the larger picture, but in storytelling, we simply cannot engage a Main Character who robs us of our own sense of well-being in little ways, let alone the attempt to undermine what we understand to be the greater good. Sometimes it’s as simple as establishing a Main Character who loves his family or his friend, or at the minimum, his dog. (The classic paradox would be Don Corleone as the The Godfather who preempts the moral order by dictating the execution of human beings to achieve his self-proclaimed brand of manmade justice, but loves his cat.) In the larger context, audiences crave characters that defend the defenseless, liberate the tyrannized, and risk their own lives to save others, even if it means their own personal demise. In any and all cases, great storytelling requires the unity of moral and social justice for the audience to fully engage the story.
In Titanic, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) saves Rose (Kate Winslett) as well as 3rd Class Steerage and he is moved forward through the story with the cleansing experience of water that leads him to save even more lives as the ship goes down. In Amadeus, the anti-hero Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) seeks to destroy the genius music of Mozart, but in fact, Salieri is destroying his own soul and robbing himself - and his fellow man - of his own potential and gift for music. And in Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) seeks to save one life at a time, but in the larger context, he stands up to one of the greatest evils of in the history of mankind, Adolf Hitler’s Nazism.
Poetic Justice is easy to comprehend in life, but in storytelling application, requires patience and maturity. If you practice storytelling on this level – yes, it is a ‘practice’ -- your writing will improve exponentially. The word “poetic” refers to an idealistic or transcendent understanding of history or human nature. In storytelling, ‘Poetic Justice’ refers to an outcome where ‘good’ is rewarded and where ‘vice’ is punished, in keeping with the depth and magnitude of goodness or transgression. If truth be told, this is the most powerful reason we are drawn to storytelling. Life is filled with injustice and hurt on a daily basis, but in storytelling, the poetic paradigm allows us to experience the unity of moral, social and poetic justice as “absolute” so we can move forward in our own lives with greater clarity and meaning.
In Titanic, Jack sacrifices his life for others, and in so doing, earns Rose’s eternal admiration and love, but it is our ‘poetic’ hope for the romantic reunification of Jack and Rose in the next life that haunts us in the end, inspires us in our own lives, and makes this the #1 movie at the box office year in, and year out. In Amadeus, the anti-hero Salieri who seeks to destroy Amadeus (“Loved by God”) ends up destroying his own capacity to be loved, driven mad by his envy and vengeance, condemned to mediocrity, a ‘poetic’ fate worse than death, wherein his soul is robbed of divine inspiration. In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler eventually makes the decision to give up his worldly vanities and vices, and chooses to risk his life so that Jews may live; in so doing, he regains the respect and admiration of his estranged wife, but more profoundly, recovers his own self-respect and self-worth as a human being, with the poetic dimension that all human beings can be saved, even a debased, self-centered human being such as Oskar Schindler.
It is said that the “Truth sets us free.” But whose “truth” – yours, mine, ours? Are there parallel truths, multiple truths, pluralistic truths? The beauty of “truth” is that it requires no explanation. While one may acquire learning and wisdom, “truth” is discovered by inference. It sets us free because it is held to be true for all, absolute and enduring. By featuring “free will” as the capacity to choose “good” – the challenge for storytellers is to depict a “story” that creates the unity of moral, social and poetic justice. This unity of justice creates clarity of thinking that is said to be “absolute” because it celebrates a comprehensive understanding of the nature of man, the dignity of man, and the universal ideals of man. It is this clarity and synthesis of the layers of human experience that sets us free as human beings to discover the “Truth”.
Test Your “Primary Storytelling” Elements
Understanding the primary storytelling elements of Freedom, Justice and Truth is the first step in improving your writing. In application, the next step is to identify and/or create the concrete dramatic situation for the Main Character, with special emphasis on isolating his/her main dramatic choice, or moral conflict, within the story. Then, trace this choice as it evolves from story point to story point, as the concrete narrative that features opposing characters. Usually there are about twelve major story points that move your Main Character’s story forward to the climax of the story. Once you have committed to these twelve story points, write them down, and ask these questions:
What is the original “moral choice” of the Main Character?
Is this moral choice confronted in the climax of the story?
What is the internal conflict (flaw vs. moral ideal) driving the Main Character?
Who challenges the Main Character’s conflict throughout the story?
Does the Main Character face a strong choice for the greater good?
How does the moral choice support and/or negate the greater good?
Are the roots of ‘poetic justice’ established within the story?
Are they depicted by human deeds and behaviors?
How is ‘poetic justice’ revealed?
Does my story convey a universal “Truth”?
“Story lights all Darkness.”
As human beings, we are perpetually in conflict with our person human flaws, one another, and our universal ideals. Great storytelling allows us to explore fundamental questions about life, by exploring the complexities of man’s “free will.” This fascinating journey allows us to enter the world of ideas where there is a unified (absolute) understanding that moral justice renders social justice in the heart of mankind. The unexpected reward is that we inadvertently discover the beauty of poetic justice. This deeply enriching universe is where “Truth” reigns supreme. It is our opportunity to tell it like it is, but more importantly, it is our opportunity to tell it how we hope it can be.
As Americans, our highest ideals are Freedom, Justice, and Truth, because as human beings we value the dignity of mankind, as both male and female, complementary to each other, one might dare to say, “in the image and likeness of God.” But as storytellers, we know these ideals as the windows through which we discover the poetic hopes and dreams of the human soul.
Human beings love great stories because we need stories to understand life, overcome our plight as human beings, and secure the path to the future. By surrendering to this universal quest for “Truth”, we experience our inner growth as human beings, enabling us to translate this poetic journey into stories that endure throughout the ages, and guide us through difficult times.
Not only does “story” light all darkness, the end of a great story leads us forward into a beacon of light.
Working with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jason Miller and the legendary Tennessee Williams offered me a tremendous entrée into the magical world of storytelling. As American icons, their extraordinary talent inspired the world; and as screenwriters, their remarkable ability to work through the visceral process of storytelling taught me that great stories communicate simple truths that reflect the poetic dimensions of the human soul. Not only do powerful characters help us understand our lives, their stories reflect our core values as human beings. But how do we create these ideas and feelings as a story for the big screen? How can we be certain that a screenplay delivers the maximum impact, both emotionally, and as entertainment? Here are five steps from the trenches – the Five S’s of Screenwriting – that invite you into the process: 1) Story 2) Storytelling 3) Structure 4) Sequences and 5) Spine.
Story creates the deeper understanding about human nature that we experience when we hear or see what has happened to another human being. Whether it’s an incident in the life of someone we know, the true-life experience of someone in the news, the adventures of a fictional character, or the heroic life of a compelling historical figure, we are fascinated by the progression of events that a human being encounters, and this progression of events is called plot. However, what engages our imagination on a human level is how the main character reacts to this progression of events, and this cumulative insight is called story.
A good story features a main character, or protagonist, who confronts a strong moral choice. This is true in comedy as well as drama, and the best stories feature a protagonist who struggles with identifiable human flaws. The moral choice can be very simple or complex, but it must test the inner moral strength of the main character against his human flaws, not just toward achieving his outward goal, but through his internal transformation, which occurs in his conscience and emotional life. As the story progresses, the hero confronts other characters and situations that support, negate, and challenge his ability to overcome the odds and achieve his goal, but what is satisfying to the audience is the internal triumph that occurs throughout the external struggle, such that, at the end of the story, the audience understands in a profound way what the story is about.
Storytelling is how we tell the story. It’s a process, rather than a formula. Storytelling begins with defining what the story is about as an idea. This is usually called theme, although theme is more subtle than an abstract idea. It’s what we feel about the story, as revealed through the moral dilemma of the main character, in opposition to other characters. For example, if you were writing a story about freedom, an interesting approach would be to create a world where the main character longs for freedom, but is subjected to servitude by his life situation, or imprisoned as a consequence of his actions. Alternately, if you were creating a story with trust at its dramatic center, there would be strong elements of betrayal within the opposing elements and characters of the story.
The second major storytelling decision is defining where the story begins. Most writers take the easy way out. They begin with back story. The result is a story that never takes off until about page 40. Ugh! The preferable approach is to pinpoint the theme of the story, based on the main character’s inner conflict. Die Hard, starring Bruce Willis, is a great example. The story begins with a man who is afraid to fly whose goal is to win back the love and respect of his family. He confronts a hostage situation involving his estranged wife, and all of a sudden, his courage is tested to the max. The combination of his internal conflict and simple goal, together with the challenge of the hostage situation sets the story into fast motion, from beginning to end.
The third storytelling decision is choosing the genre that tells the story. Genre tells the audience how they should feel about the story, whether they should laugh, smile, cry, think, scream, or just enjoy the ride. Genre is so crucial to the movie-going experience, some screenwriters begin with a genre, and then create the idea and story concept.
The fourth storytelling task is creating a point-of-view character within the story. This character interacts with the main character throughout the story to help the audience understand what is going on inside the main character. Interestingly, the point-of-view character also serves as the storyteller inside the story through which you, as writer, establish yourself. Although this is a difficult task at the onset, frequently we, as writers, make this decision unconsciously during the first draft. Despite our conscious efforts, the point-of-view character jumps off the page, easily recognizable by readers.
Structure is form. Screenplay structure is invisible form. Syd Field, who is internationally recognized for his landmark book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, defines screenplay form in three-act structure better than anyone else, which is why his work is widely respected among professionals:
The Set-up establishes the main character and dramatic situation.
The Act I Plot Point features the main character’s primary story decision, in opposition to the antagonist.
The Mid-Point is the moment when the main character is forced into the antagonist’s world, thereby redefining the story premise, this time by the antagonist.
The Act II Plot Point is the lowest point in the story where the main character has been defeated by the antagonist and lost his motivation.
The Ending is the last ten pages, wherein the main character realizes a deeper understanding of his struggle, and summons up the courage to defeat the antagonist.
As a producer, I enjoyed learning the art of creating sequences by working with directors and editors in the editing room. This is one of the hallmarks of my approach to screenwriting, which is why it is prominently featured in my upcoming book. Although this can be a complex task, for purposes of discussion, here are some basics to get you started thinking in film sequences:
Each scene is made up of a series of shots. Each sequence is made up of a series of scenes. Each sequence builds upon the next sequence to create story progression. Story progression occurs when story sequences build upon one another in a logical way, moving the story forward through character conflict. In a major motion picture, or studio picture, there are usually 12 sequences that build towards the final climax. The story moves forward in 12 major story beats, or film sequences, that reflect the 12-Sequence Story. Here is a shorthand summary:
1. The main character faces a strong moral dilemma in achieving a goal.
2. The antagonist poses opposition, both morally and to the goal.
3. The main character confronts the major complication, but proceeds into the story.
4. The story moves into a new world, and the main character makes an achievement.
5. The antagonist takes control of the story, sets the counter-plot in motion.
6. The main character moves forward, believing himself to be victorious, but finds the antagonist to be equal and opposing.
7. The main character restates the goal, with renewed conviction, but experiences his first setback.
8. The antagonist spins the counter-plot forward, and achieves momentum against the main character.
9. The protagonist experiences defeat at the hand of the antagonist, and loses his moral strength.
10. The protagonist loses the will to achieve his goal, but resuscitates his motivation and moral strength.
11. The protagonist restates his goal and summons up his moral courage. The antagonist restates his mission to destroy the protagonist, as well as his motivation and courage.
12. The protagonist and antagonist prepare for confrontation, but the protagonist experiences an epiphany of moral courage that gives him what it takes to defeat the antagonist. The story resolves with the protagonist understanding his life with renewed meaning and understanding.
Just in case screenwriting seems simple, please allow me to introduce you to the world of advanced screenwriting, the world of spine. This is an abstract world where (even veteran) screenwriters labor in pain, sometimes without professional breakthrough, sometimes without financial reward. When the breakthrough finally happens, however, there is magic on the screen!
Spine begins with discovering what your story is about through character behavior. It is about creating a unifying depth within your story, character by character, action by action, sequence by sequence, layer upon layer. The surprise is that once you discover what your story is about on a profound level, there are an infinite number of insights and details you can infuse into the material through character behavior, actions, and images. The challenge is to discover this unifying idea or principle that synthesizes what the story is about in simple terms. The genius is to be able to create characters as ideas that morph into character behavior, revealing what the story is about in every frame of the picture.
One of the best examples of spine is Tootsie, the Academy Award winning screenplay written by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, starring Dustin Hoffman, directed by Academy Award winner Sydney Pollack. The original screenplay went through numerous writers, and it wasn’t until Sydney Pollack came aboard to work with the immensely talented Larry Gelbart that they were able to discover what the story was really about. It wasn’t enough to do a comedy about a man becoming a woman. Putting on a skirt is good for a few laughs, but not enough to sustain a movie. The challenge was to create a story about a man struggling with his (chauvinist) flaws, who is forced to become a woman, but by becoming a woman, he becomes a better man. With this paradox as the spine of the story, each and every frame of this marvelous movie feeds the heart of the story.
There is a constant demand for writers who can create good stories, especially for the big screen. The fact is, however, over one hundred thousand scripts are written every year, and only a few hundred actually make it. Even then, most do not succeed. Usually the script is the culprit, and the most common script problem is story. Either there is not enough, or the story splinters into more than one storyline because the main character is not developed through a powerful moral dilemma at the center of the story.
The market for great screenplays is wide open. The challenge is to develop your own treasure trove of great stories that have never been told. Be bold and original. Remember the Five S’s. Strive to master them. Above all, shoot for the stars. You might make it to the moon!
A Writing Exercise
Here is a challenging writing exercise that will help you understand what your story is about. It begins with creating a powerful moral dilemma at the center of your story. Think about the narrative of the story you are working on. Identify your main character, and think through the most important dramatic choice he/she makes. Work through why he/she makes the decision, or why not. Take your time. Set the stage for the consequences of either story direction by developing the antagonist. Understanding the depth of conflict within this key character-driven story moment opens the window to discovering what your story is about.