“All you need is a girl and a gun.”
This paraphrase of an actual quote by Jean-Luc Godard (who himself attributed the concept to D.W. Griffith) refers to the two elements Godard felt were necessary to make a crowd-pleasing movie: action and sex. I agree with Godard on these two elements and would add three more elements to the list: comedy, emotion, and wow. And I don’t think these elements are essential just to crowd-pleasing movies, but to successful screen storytelling in every form, from the most highbrow arthouse cinema to the cheesiest of grindhouse flicks.
Drama literally can’t exist without action. As has been frequently noted, literature (novels, short stories, etc.) has the option to tell stories from an internal perspective – by describing what a character is thinking and feeling – but drama can’t do this. Because they can’t take us inside their characters’ thoughts and feelings, stage and screen stories must tell their tales by external means only – by showing us what their characters do and what their characters say and nothing else.
Because there’s a limit to what actors can do live on a stage, plays tend to emphasize dialogue over action, but because cinema is primarily a visual medium, action takes precedence on screen. Good dialogue is certainly important in a screenplay and in a film, but good action is absolutely essential. Audiences don’t mind watching film characters talk from time to time, but when we watch a movie, we want to see things happen. Those things can be big and spectacular – battles, fights, chases, duels, physical challenges, competitions, derring-do, and so on – or small and intimate – a character taking a stand, making an important decision, falling in love, etc.
To be successful, the action in a screenplay/film must always advance the story – too many specs (and movies) include action sequences that are cool (or that the creators think is cool) on its own but that has nothing to do with the primary narrative. As a result, no matter how good or cool or fun the specific action in the segment is, the sequence itself brings the story to a crashing halt. The action also must be appropriate in context – for example, a car chase might work terrifically well in a thriller, but that same car chase might be wildly out of place in a small, intimate drama about a couple struggling to get through a divorce. Finally, the action must be fresh. We’ve seen a lot of car chases and shootout in movies over the years – to give the audience just another one won’t cut it. You have to come up with something different or that at least has an original twist to it.
People like sex. It’s an essential part of life, which is why human beings spend so much time thinking about it, talking about it, pursuing it, and sometimes even doing it. Which is why sex has always been a key component in drama and why -- from the shy wooing and chaste kisses in silent films to the earnest crushes in teen films, the delightful pursuits in romcoms, the torrid embraces of romantic dramas, and the explicit grunting and heaving in hardcore porn -- the attraction between people and the consummation of such has been one of the primary components of cinema since the very beginning.
Even when it’s not the main subject of the movie, a love story is usually thrown into the mix in most movies – including adventure, action, thriller, comedy, and horror films – because, as Weston, the theatrical agent in the 1933 King Kong memorably stated: “Everybody likes romance.” Which is why – unless it is wildly out of place in the context of your narrative – you’re likely to include a romantic plot or subplot in whatever story you’re writing. As with action, the key in concocting a love story is to give it some sort of fresh twist or come at it from some unexpected angle so you’re just not giving the audience the same old same old.
People like to laugh almost as much as they like sex. Some like it just as much. Some like it even more. Which is why – just like sex – comedy has been a staple of cinema since the very beginning.
Movie comedy comes in many forms: farce, slapstick, spoof, satire, whimsy, black, romcom, and so on. It is also inserted into “serious” movies – dramas, thrillers, action pictures, etc. – to provide relief from the seriousness.
When working comedy into a script/movie, there are several factors to consider:
- No matter what the overall style of the film, comedy works best when it grows out of the script/film’s characters and the situations, rather than get imposed on the piece from the outside.
- As with action, comedic set pieces should always advance the narrative, not bring it to a halt.
- And finally, the style of the comedy must be appropriate to the overall script/film – a broad, slapstick set piece might be hilarious on its own, but would be grossly out of place in a more realistic and subtle romcom. Likewise, a Noel Coward-style bon mot wouldn’t fit easily into a frat house comedy filled with fart jokes. And when incorporating comic relief into a more serious picture, a witty one-liner expressing the overwhelming challenges the characters are facing would be appropriate, whereas a pie in the face would most likely not be.
For a screenplay/film to be truly successful, it must move the audience in some significant way. A successful script/movie makes us cry. Or laugh. Or grip our seats in suspenseful tension. Or scare the bejeezus out of us. It can provoke us or annoy us or outrage out. It may make us consider things we’ve never considered before. Or see things from an entirely different perspective. A successful script/movie can inspire us.
Such emotional engagement is necessary for a film to really connect with an audience. With it, a film will burrow its way into the hearts and minds of its viewers and stay with them long after the movie itself has ended. Without it, an audience will watch a film and they may even enjoy it but they’ll forget about it as soon as the projector bulb dims.
Of course, no one can predict which films will grab an audience emotionally and which one won’t and, as we all know, not everyone will respond to a movie in the same way – one viewer may be enraptured by a film that leaves the person sitting right next to him in the same screening cold. Even so, it is incumbent upon the writer to know what emotional effect he/she/they want the film to have on the audience and do their best when they write to bring about that effect in the way they shape their story and develop their characters. It has been said that 90% of a movie’s impact is determined at the script phase and that includes its emotional impact as well.
One of the great powers of the cinema is its ability to amaze its audience. There are many ways a movie can do this – through great scope and scale and spectacle; through powerful imagery achieved via artful cinematography, impressive design, and dazzling special effects; through creative editing; through incredible stunts; and through powerful acting. Of course, most of these things are out of the purview of the writer, but there are still many ways a screenwriter can astound viewers including fresh and unusual premises; clever plotting; surprising (and yet completely logical) narrative twists; crafting unusual characters with eccentric personalities who behave in unexpected ways; creating spectacular new worlds for their stories to take place in; and by presenting powerful new ideas for the audience to ponder. The more amazing a script/film is, the more effective and memorable it will be.
An ideal screenplay contains all five of these elements. Depending on the particular script, it is possible to get away with only four – for example, if the script you’re writing is a heavy drama, you can probably get away with not including humor. Or romance. But probably not both – a heavy drama with no humor or sex to relieve the weight would likely be a pretty dreary slog. Likewise, if you’re writing a big action script, a romantic subplot may not be vital. But every script requires action or it’s not a script (although some have tried – I read a piece once that flowed a woman walking around a big city window shopping while her thoughts about the window shopping played in voice-over on the soundtrack. Gripping it was not). And any screenplay that doesn’t generate emotion or that doesn’t contain some intriguing element might find its way into the development pipeline if the other elements are strong, but there’s a pretty good chance it won’t make it to the end.
So when you write a script, by all means begin with a girl and a gun. But then be sure to add some yucks, some tears, and a generous helping of wow. That will allow you to create a script that is not just good, but also one that will connect with audiences on every level. Which is the best way to create a script that is both creatively and commercially successful.
Copyright © 2021 by Ray Morton
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