Friday, November 21, 2008

The Soul of Screenwriting by Keith Cunningham

Keith Cunningham. The Soul of Screenwriting: On Writing, Dramatic Truth, and Knowing Yourself. New York: Continuum, 2008.

The author sees stories, movies, and psychology as parts of connected patterns. Screenwriters who write with strong convictions are often the most productive writers. A writer needs to tap into an internal creativity. Keith Cunningham states there are sixteen story steps to screenwriting.

The first influential book of screenwriting was ‘Screenplay” by Syd Field, published in 1979. The author believes these books like that teach writing techniques when it is really the process of writing that needs to be learned. This process includes finding storylines that work and knowing when to remove subplots that are distract from the story.

Cunningham warns against placing too much emphasis on analyzing existing good screenplays. Some good characteristics may be unique to the particular movie. A different story achieves greatness on its own composition.

A good screenplay will reach an audience and make them want to follow the characters and their story. Such a screenplay is considered as having “a path with heart.”
The author declares that screenplays tell stories. They must touch the emotions of the audiences. Audiences seek to learn about themselves and most appreciate stories that provide such insights.

Cunningham presents some important fundamental principles of screenwriting, A screenplay must have a natural energy that forms a good story that touches the human spirit. A writer needs both willpower and an intuitive sense for creating a story with good relationships amongst characters. A writer taps into a universal energy to create authentic characters. The screenwriter needs to internally feel and analyze the same emotions as exist in the story. Screenwriters allow the energies from their stories to emerge and use willpower to guide their characters to their goals. The audience through identifying with the story’s hero taps into the hero’s story and shares the hero’s emotions. The screenwriter experiences a psychological “flow experience” while providing each characters their voices. The process begins from an uncertain beginning. A writer’s inner life should be connected to the story.

Experiences in life provide insights that writers should notice. Writers should shape those experiences into adventuresome stories.

A screenwriter requires creativity. Bright ideas emerge from fertile darkness. The beginning of the story has much uncertainty. Writers face risk and overcome challenges while achieving creativity. Writers use observations to overcome resistance to finding new ideas. A writer’s internal energy can be focused on creating an energetic story.

A wrier subconsciously and unconsciously, instinctively projects when writing. Empathetic insight is at the core of writing. Empathy includes emotional connectedness to characters, a capacity to create appropriate analogies to situations since a writer likely will not have experience the exact same situations as the characters, and an understanding as to the appropriate degree of separation to avoid becoming lost within a character.

A positive process emerges from a screenwriter to creating a Hero’s Journey. A Call to Adventure moves a story forward. The hero needs to Cross the Threshold into a dramatic crisis situation. This is a crisis from which the hero can’t avoid. The hero then has a Descent into points of despair. The hero faces numerous trials. The hero then has an Initiation and Meets the Secret Master. A spirit guides the hero to act through the trials or initiations. This process transforms the hero. The Secret Master is the hero’s realization of a dramatic truth that allows the hero to overcome the obstacles being faced. The hero has a Return to the Day World where the hero realizes important insights. There is then a symbolic Sacred Marriage or Ritual Kingship where the realization is celebrated.

A screenwriter must know the true nature of the characters and how their natures relate to the story. The characters’ modes or motivations as guide by their self-images must be shown. The conflicts of the story will change these modes. The writer also needs to know aspects about each character which the character isn’t yet aware. The character should face a core of psychological conflict and values conflicts. The hero will be the Carrier of Values and face opposing vales that cause the hero to reach a new self-image. The need for self-actualization is a universal need with which audiences can identify. The hero’s needs propel the story. Mode tensions create conflicts, driving the hero’s mode toward achieving subtext to the story. There should be a resulting character arc that improves the character’s development. These universal needs project the character. An Antagonist appears as a Dark Mirror impeding the hero’s needs. The hero Reconciles Mode and Need with a Dramatic Synthesis.

The author desires for writer to think by using both sides of the brain, thinking visually and psychologically. This is different from most other academic approaches to screenwriting that approach screenwriting linearly and focusing on left brain analysis.

John Sayles, a screenwriter and director, connects all characters to each other. A Character Web is created. From this, a Story Molecule is created. Visual thinking develops roles between the characters. The Story Molecule explores Need competing with Mode. The Dramatic Trajectory escalates the Plot’s drama. Each character has a Point of View from one character’s view. A screenplay could show a Second Person Point of View which can permit parallel storytelling from several characters’ points of view. A screenplay could show a Third Person Point of View from the observations of a distant character. The Point of View provides a guide to the character transformation.

Some movies don’t resolve their stories. Some end with a dramatic resolution. The characters require Character Orchestrations within the Emotional Networks.

Character relationships can conflict and increase the Dramatic Stakes. The psychological Oedipal triangle of mother, child, and father is oft repeating in varying degrees that explore ego, anima, and shadow. Each character’s emotions conflict with each other. The story presents the Barometric of Change along with Orchestrating Subplots within the Emotional Network.

Ensemble Movies often present vast emotional networks amongst characters.

There are different levels of dramatic interest in constant motion. The dramatic conflicts can be shown through characters’ emotional networks. The Story Molecule presents hidden meanings driving plots. The external story is what is seen. The body copy of settings moves the plot and touches the viewers’ subconscious. The Story Steps create drama and alters the characters in the Story Molecule. The story goes through a catalyst event followed by a Threshold Crisis, a Core Crisis, a catastrophe, and climax. Dramatic momentum changes the man relationships. Foreshadowing can be used to peak an audience’s interest and move a story away from a linear progression. The hero goes through a journey that changes the hero, except in some genre and action films that instead rely on a peaking dramatic intensity raised by building outer actions. The Story Molecule becomes balanced, either on emotional or plot levels.

Story ideas are guided by idiom and genre. Idioms are film style constructions that present perceptions.

Realism is an impression of what is real.

Expressionistic films present stories in dream or nightmare terms.

Robert McKee observes there is no agreement on how to designate genres of films. Many films blend genres.

Thrillers and melodramas rely on emotions driven by audiences.

A main character does not always have to be active and facing conflict. A main character can be introspective. A main character can develop a presence, perhaps iconic or perhaps comedic.

A story is a series of events. A plot is a structure of growth in a main character through the story’s crises.

Howard Suber notes Act II has two different movements with their own separate feel and areas of action.

A hero’s journey consists of separation (desire), then descent (deception), then intuition (discovery), and then return (destiny). This is the three act operative convention.

A catharsis at the screenplay’s climax should create a resolution of the plot.

People have subliminal sexual cues where the nervous system responds in similar fashions to sexual responses as to dramatic responses.

A resolution doesn’t require a happy conclusion. A resolution requires achieving a better understanding of an issue.

A writer’s own energy creates energy for the characters they writer creates. This creative energy is where a writer’s dark anxieties and own needs filter into the story. Act I sets the conflict and brings it to a threshold crisis. Act II develops the crisis and drives it to catastrophe. Act III climatically resolves the conflict. All three acts consist of continuous dramatic action. Story Steps are major plot point sequences, which are Threshold Crisis, Core Crisis, and catastrophe, and climax.

A beat is a distant action created by a certain motivation, combining desire and dramatic action. Action is doing something in order to achieve a desire. Dramatic moments during a scene involve increasing conflict.

The 16 story steps are Establishing Function, the Catalyst that sends the hero towards a goal, Forward Movement of the actions the hero takes in responding to a call to adventure and the resulting consequences, a Threshold Crisis that conflicts with the hero’s forward movement, the Woundedness, the Shift to the Emotional Network (the Primary Relationship), the Reminder that Outer Plot Stakes are Rising, the Forward Movement in the Relationship, the Core Crisis, the Deepening of the Consequences, the Breaking Point, the Catastrophe, the Calm Before the Storm, the Climax, and the Resolution.

Screenwriting relies on a writer’s insights and abilities to create and distill a story.

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