In my last article, I wrote about how originality should be a vital component of any screenwriter’s writing. I also suggested that certain practices adopted by many screenwriters work against originality, rather than for it. In particular, I suggested that using script editor's tools as writer rules is anti-creativity, that trying to follow the market is always a dumb move and, that ultimately creativity is driven by the material we consume. I promised that in this article I would introduce an idea that could transform the way you look at writing screenplays; an idea that can drive the originality of a script. It also offers a way to understand what kind of stories will resonate with audiences.
However, I can’t just give you the answer, you’ve got to work for it, and the work involves taking a few minutes to really think about two separate questions. These are questions that most people can answer instantaneously. However, I’d like you to take a little more time and actually think about what you are being asked and why I’m asking it.
Here is question one:
The tram hurtles, out of control, towards the crowd of innocent bystanders waiting at the station. In front of you is a lever. If you pull this lever the train will be diverted onto another track, where it will kill a lone workman. The lone workman is diligently repairing that track. The decision is yours and yours alone. The question is, what do you do? Do you pull the lever and sacrifice the lone workman, or do you let the tram kill the crowd of innocent bystanders.
90% of the people asked that question decide to pull the lever and to sacrifice the lone workman, in order to save the many innocent bystanders. It seems like a simple moral decision. To quote a well-known film and TV franchise, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” However, if you genuinely believe this to be the case, then how do you deal with the following issue?
Five great men are on the verge of death. You are a doctor. Only a heart transplant, lung transplant, two kidney transplants and a liver transplant will save the five great men, but they must have the transplants today. Sitting in your waiting room is the lone workman, who is in for his annual physical exam. You know that he is a perfect donor match for all of these five men. All you have to do is to decide to drug and kill the lone workman, in order to harvest his organs and you can save the other five. What do you do? Even though this is the same moral dilemma, sacrificing the one to save the many, most people decide that they can’t kill a healthy man to harvest his organs. That feels immoral. What this tells us is that as human beings we have a gut feeling for what is right and what is wrong.
If you are a moral philosopher, these kinds of moral puzzles are deeply fascinating. It’s fascinating because it shows you how complicated morality can be, even when it looks like the answers are so obvious. If you’re a screenwriter, I’m going to suggest that these dilemmas should also have awakened a deep curiosity in you as well, because if you don’t find the contradictions in these examples fascinating, I am going to suggest that screenwriting might not be the profession for you.
Most of the training given to screenwriters is pragmatic. It is about the practical process of creating a story. It is about how characters interact. It’s about the hero’s journey. It about character arcs. All of which are useful script editors tools for fixing a story when it isn’t working. However, none of them address the key question that all screenwriter’s face every day, which is, What stories should we tell? The training industry’s response to that question is horrifically, and I believe mistakenly, market driven.
The answer most commonly given is, we should write stories that producers want to buy. In my experience, the “write for the market” answer is the worst possible response to the question, What stories should we write? The problem with the “write what they’ll buy” answer is that it completely fails to understand the nature of the product that screenwriters create. Actually, 99% of the advice given to screenwriters suffers from the same problem. That problem being, that what the market really wants are scripts with original voices, with ideas that haven’t been seen before. But, because originality is such a rare commodity from screenwriters, producers have learned to settle for well-executed pap, provided it has a track record of making money.
So, what is the connection between a fascination with moral dilemmas and originality in screenwriting?
To understand the connection between moral dilemmas and storytelling you have to find a better answer to the question, Why do we create films? When I say a better answer, I mean a better answer than “to make money.” The “to make money” answer to that question only ever leads to the creation of mediocre movies. And, in my experience, the more a producer focuses on “making films to make money,” the worst their films become. This is true regardless of whether they are independents, knocking out a cheap horror because they believe there is always a market for horror, or a studio putting money into another reboot, simply because remakes are perceived to be easy sells.
Why are human beings fascinated by storytelling? The “to make money,” answer doesn’t really work as an answer to that question. Neither does the “to be entertained” answer. Even if you accept that human beings watch films to be entertained, that doesn’t explain why humanity finds the telling of stories so entertaining?
What many people in the industry have forgotten is that films made money before there was CGI. In fact, films made money before there was sound. And, if you look deeper, storytelling made money before films existed (in theatre, on the radio and in book form). In fact, if you go back further than that, storytelling was important to people before there was any kind of industry or commercial reason to do it. Ultimately, the industry exists because people want to be exposed to stories, not because of the way the industry presents them. Storytelling is an integral part of being human. Human beings are hard-wired to consume and also to tell stories. Not only that, humans beings are hard-wired to understand the world and their place in it through storytelling. Labeling storytelling merely as a profitable form of entertainment is to completely misunderstand what it is and what it is for.
If we go back to the first two questions, the moral dilemmas, it has always struck me as odd that people can make snap, gut-level decisions about what is moral and what is immoral. What this tells me is that people don’t approach moral dilemmas in a purely rational way, they do it by testing their ideas about what is the right thing through storytelling. The reason that people have a constant need and demand for stories, in all their forms, from casual anecdotes to feature films, is because this is how human beings work. We need stories to help us figure out how we’re supposed to behave with each other. Once you understand this, that all forms of storytelling feed a very human need to explore moral dilemmas, it should also be easy to understand how to generate original stories. Original stories need to be built around characters who face very real and challenging moral dilemmas.
Placing moral dilemmas at the heart of movie making is what makes the difference between a story that will fascinate audiences and one that won’t. When writers and producers concentrate on the complex moral choices human beings are forced to make when put in dreadful situations, good stories unfold. This is where this process gets interesting because the only way to write good moral dilemmas is to have some kind of personal moral compass. You need to have to genuinely care about what is right and what is wrong. You have to have a degree of personal integrity. Basically, originality flows from the ability to empathise with characters and to place them in horrific moral dilemmas so the audience can test their own reactions to those moral dilemmas. The great thing about this is that it cuts through all of the formulaic approaches to constructing stories. You don’t have to second-guess the market to succeed because audiences always respond to stories which challenge them to experience moral complexity. Once you understand this, it is easy to see why television drama is currently outperforming cinema. Television drama is still largely constructed around complex characters either facing moral dilemmas or forcing their loved ones to face horrific moral dilemmas.
This article makes me laugh because it is an exercise in stating the obvious. What I’m really saying is that in order to tell good stories you have to have something interesting to say about what it means to be human, what it means to make moral choices, what it feels like to have to decide what to do on the hardest day of your life. Or, in other words, good stories flow from writers with artistic integrity.
So, here’s where this gets interesting. You are a writer who wants to build a career, however you have a dilemma, one hand you can develop stories based on trying to follow rules of storytelling which have been reverse engineered from past successful films or you can build an original voice for yourself by telling stories that are important to you personally. The truth of the matter is, you can’t do both at the same time. You either push for originality of voice and concept or you push for following the rules. Either of these two choices will have consequences for your career, but unlike the two questions at the start of this story, there isn’t a simple answer to this dilemma, you really have to work it out for yourself.
- More articles by Clive Davies-Frayne
- Breaking & Entering: Do You Have the Guts for a Screenwriting Career
- Balls of Steel: Finding Character Motivation, Conflict and Compassion
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