The Perfect Story

By Alan Denman

Of all the forms of storytelling (the short story, novel, stage and radio plays) the screenplay is by far the most conscious and well-described. Volumes have been written about all aspects of the craft and some people have made very successful careers out of their publications and lecture tours, each offering special insights and new angles to screenwriters. Books by Syd Fields, Chris Vogler, Linda Seger and John Truby are likely to be found on most writers’ bookshelves, and of them all Robert McKee is still probably regarded as the ultimate screenwriting guru.

Structure, characterization, character arcs, dialogue, subtext, midpoints, pinch points, inciting incidents and rolling climaxes – there seems so much to learn if we want to be a successful screenwriter and few, it seems, is born with this knowledge genetically encoded. We have to learn to be screenwriters, with each script – and the reading of other screenwriters’ work - giving us more experience and increasing our skill level. There is the “ten thousand hour principle”: when you have reached this mark and put in sufficient writing time, it’s claimed, your brain reaches a “screenwriting critical mass” and you just get it, the art and craft of telling stories in screenplay form. Writing is said to get easier from this point on. It’s like riding a bicycle: with enough practice there comes a point when the skills are embedded and you no longer have to think out every move.

So, with tens of thousands of years of storytelling, a hundred years of cinema, with all the available knowledge of the craft, with all the books, seminars, workshops available, and scripts on line to read, why are so many films patchy, boring or downright unwatchable? Why, time after time, do films fail to engage us, to draw us into their story world and hold us there to the very end? The menu (poster/trailer) looks tasty and inviting but the meal itself (film) doesn’t fulfill its promise. Where is the perfect story? Is there such a thing? And if not a perfect story, where are all the really good ones?

Films fail for many reasons, but the biggest one is the script. There are certain misconceptions about screenplays and certain challenges that can be hard to overcome. Firstly, the misconceptions. A script is not a work of literature. You don’t need a degree to write a great screenplay. A script is a blueprint, a set of instructions or guidelines to the director, cast, director of photography, production designer, composer and so on as to how they should perform their particular role in the composite formation of the end product, the film. You don’t need a great vocabulary and an ability to use long, Latinate words. Think of a screenplay as a hundred page haiku – very few words and lots of white space that create a rich, memorable sequence of images.

So here’s the most fundamental requirement (and the biggest challenge) for a great screenplay: a simple idea. Screenplays are not novels. A man must find love (Mona Lisa), a woman must save her unborn child - and the world (Terminator), a man must wake up from his dream (The Matrix). Very simple - but very powerful – ideas. And each of them contains a ‘must’: the stakes are high - very high in Terminator and The Matrix, and there will be dire consequences if the protagonist does not succeed.

A major problem is that as adults we don’t do simplicity. Go to any pitching event and you will be overwhelmed with complex, intricate plots, which are almost impossible to follow. Our adult brains think complexity, not simplicity. (A good exercise for writers is to practice stating their story in one line: ‘A man/woman must .... or ..... will happen’.) A great story grips us by its simplicity and the intensity of its stakes.

A note on cultural differences is useful here. If Shakespeare were alive today, he would almost certainly be an A list writer in Hollywood. He could tell a great story and wrote to appeal to all levels of society. But if you’re a British writer, Shakespeare is not a good model. Why? It’s all dialogue. Even the sets were in the dialogue. Words, words, words. He was great at playing with them and inventing whole new phrases. British culture is steeped in great literature and it does not come naturally to British writers to write with primal simplicity and create screenplays that are visual rather than verbal. Novels and plays are stories told in words. A film, as Syd Fields said, is a story told in pictures.

Another cultural challenge for British writers is to do with the stakes. Perhaps because of social compression and complexity (“little Britain”), we are very good at writing class and domestic stories, but these tend to be inward-looking and culturally specific, and have limited stakes. America is a huge country and epic in its geography. Towering mountains, vast deserts and giant lakes suggest a scale that required a much bigger human effort to overcome. Possibly because of this, people in North America have a different psychology to British and Europeans: they think bigger.

America is also the land of possibility, of adventure and exploration, a place where you can expand and reinvent yourself. It developed its own mythology and became the land of the hero’s journey. Cinema came to encapsulate universal themes and story patterns that are ancient and deep in the human psyche – the Monster in the House, the Quest for Treasure, Rites of Passage, and so on, and this universality gave films a great breadth of appeal.

It is no surprise, then, that the majority of commercially successful films over the years have been American. The stakes are sky-high, the themes universal, the story is gripping, and audiences flock to cinemas to see them.

Are you getting the picture? Of course, like most of us, you began by thinking how easy it must be to write a great screenplay, and of course you dream of your 30 seconds of fame holding that golden Oscar and thanking your producer, the actors, and your mother for giving birth to you. I believe that, if we set our mind to it, we can achieve anything, but to get there you have to make certain fundamental changes and develop some key skills. A simple, gripping idea with high stakes, simple, powerful language, and a great visual imagination. Oh, and how many screenplays have you written – and, I mean, completed? How many hours have you put into writing – a hundred, five hundred, a thousand? Only another nine thousand to go.

Don’t give up. One step at a time. You can do it. It’s easy once you get there.

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About Alan Denman

Alan Denman is an award-winning British writer, director and producer with his own production company, Stinging Bull Films. He is also an experienced film teacher and script consultant. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles. More information about him and his courses can be found at:  www.script-to-screen.com

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The Perfect Story