The following is a summary of the lecture given at yesterday’s Soho Screenwriters meeting:
Once you have a premise, you need to make sure you understand the genre of your idea. Is it a thriller, a romantic comedy, an action, an action-adventure or is it from some other genre? Once you settle on a genre, watch ten of the best examples of that genre. A good way of understanding the mechanics of a drama is to write outlines of the films you see.
An outline is made up of describing what happens in each scene: “Ripley is attacked by Ash for no reason, Parker appears, goes to her aid – he lands a killing blow, but they discover that Ash is a robot.” “In the school canteen, Marty attempts to convince George to ask Lorraine to the dance; he discovers that George writes sci-fi short stories, he says that George should try to find a publisher.”
This sort of outline is a synopsis only of what happens on screen. You can use this to examine the mechanics of your genre. You’ll see that in horror films for example, the leader of the group is often killed in the middle of act two.
For the main outline of your film, you need two objective outlines. These objective outlines show the actions and goals of your protagonist and antagonist.
For many genres, you need to build the antagonist’s objective outline first. What is their plan? How do they deal with the incursion of the protagonist? In Back to the Future, Biff plans to take Lorraine to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. His plans are spoiled by Lorraine falling in love with the mysterious Calvin Klein, the new kid who shows him and his gang up in front of the whole town. How does he deal with this change?
Having the antagonist’s plan designed, you need to come up with the protagonist’s objective outline. His objectives change as he goes through the story: Marty wants to take his girlfriend up to the lake, but Biff has totalled the car he planned to use. Later he needs to find Doc Brown so that he can find a way back to the future. Once they have a plan ready, they discover that his mother Lorraine has fallen in love with him, that means his parents won’t kiss at the dance, he needs to get his parents together.
The third outline you write is the one that maps the hero’s arc. This is the protagonist’s subjective outline: the one that describes the psychological development of the protagonist. This outline starts with scenes that show that the protagonist has come to an incorrect view on how to live their life. They have settled for something less than a full life due to some event that happened before the start of the film. This is how the theme is introduced. You describe the elements that describe the psychological state of your protagonist. As films cannot stay inside people’s heads, you need to add elements to your scenes that don’t directly further the objectives of your protagonist. In Back to the Future, the school principal says “No McFly ever amounted to anything.” After failing the Battle of the Bands audition, he tells his girlfriend that he won’t succeed, so why try? He’s settled for a life where he doesn’t risk anything for fear of failure: He won’t send off his demo tape to record companies in case they don’t like it.
The subjective elements of act one introduce the theme (“He who dares, wins”) by illustrating a less than full life of someone who hasn’t learned the theme lesson. In act two, the obstacles preventing the protagonist from achieving their objective goals are the ones that test the internal flaw (“I’m scared of failure”). In the first part of act two, the protagonist meets characters that embody the lesson of the theme (Goldie the janitor has the confidence to attempt to be the first black mayor of Hill Valley, Doc Smith of 1955 is galvanised by the thought that one day he will invent something that works). During act two the protagonist will start acting as if they understood the lesson of the theme without realising it. They might even advise someone else to follow the theme lesson (Marty tells George to send his stories to a publisher, he also attempts to scare him into asking Lorraine to the dance).
The subjective outline finishes at the beginning of act 3: the experiences of act 2 have forced the protagonist to learn their lesson. In act 3 they act based on the lesson of the theme (Marty goes up on stage to help the band so that his future parents will stay dancing and then kiss – he does this even though he might fail. After his parents kiss he goes too far with his music. The audience doesn’t get it, but Marty doesn’t mind this little ‘failure’ – he laughs it off with a joke).
These three outlines delineate the core of your film idea. Most screenplays don’t have a satisfactory protagonist objective outline. Those that do don’t have a good antagonist objective outline – they aren’t strong enough (‘the antagonist is the hero’s mental illness’) or their plan makes no sense. Even if you have two good objective outlines, your film won’t be satisfying if you don’t have a worthwhile subjective outline for your protagonist. What life have they settled for, what flaw do they have, what is the worst possible thing that could push them out of their life? What would be the hardest thing for them to do?
Looking for these outlines is a good way of analysing treatments and screenplays.
The fourth outline? That’s for protagonist of the main subplot…