When is a film about a group not a film about a group?
This issue's topic concerns group stories, more precisely, it's about pairs of characters and solo characters within groups. I give you some help in how pick the right structure to tell the particular group story you want to tell - along with examples and comments on problems you might hit in the writing.
Well, as one London writer said, 'This seminar melts your eyeballs...' I'm not sure whether that's praise or criticism., but I know I do take you through a lot of stuff that nobody else does (and while your head might explode during the fourth type of flashback or the explanation of how to write a TV series structured like Pulp Fiction - hey, what a way to go...) .
Anyhow, for the first time in ten or so years I'm back in Melbourne to give the latest version of my very popular big-guns structure masterclass , the one I'll be taking to professional writers in Europe later in the year. We'll cover my latest take on nonlinear and multiplot scriptwriting - not only in film but in the new long-form TV drama and with (for all you digital types) a quick look at their applications in games and VR. I have been writing multplot nonlinear VR, so I'm on to some very practical stuff there.
(By the way, if you came to my seminar 10 years ago or are familiar only with my first book Screenwriting Updated, I've developed my theories extensively since. There's a lot more since then, and now I've gone beyond book 2, The 21st Century Screenplay...(I've isolated a whole raft of new new structural types, plus the TV applications, games, VR, yadda yadda, I add to it all the time...) Further info and Limited tickets
New Turbocharged Advanced Mentorship
For years I've been nagging film schools to let me run a whizbang best-in-class turbocharged one-on-one diploma course combining my personally tailored mentorship program (in which people create a brand new script with me, as we focus together on their individual writing issues) plus the scriptwriting theory included in normal film school diploma courses (for which, I gather, a number of schools actually use my books). But while everyone loved the idea, film schools and universities aren't set up to give that much time to individual students. What to do? I always thought it could be great...
I then woke up one morning and thought: 'I should do it myself - plus another more advanced one on nonlinear'. So that's what I'm doing. I'm doing an online version. Starting next Jan, I think. It's not for everyone. It's for people considering a film school Screenwriting Certificate or Diploma, and requires the same commitment of time and fees. More to come.
As part of my plans for this new industrial-strength online mentorship thing, I was all geared up to run a free trial webinar and ask for volunteers to help me test my system - when I found I had a broadband problem. Wouldn't you know it. The best laid plans etc . Sorry. I'm getting it sorted out. Stay tuned.
Hope you enjoy the newsletter. Best wishes Linda
THIS ISSUE'S TOPIC ...When is a film about a group not a film about a group...?
Today I’m writing about certain subcategories within the multiple protagonist family, to be precise, groups within groups or individuals within groups. (And just for the record, for those of you who are new to the newsletter, I'm not inventing a whole bunch of story types for the sake of it or to sound smart or split hairs. I'm isolating the best structures for you to use to transmit the particular comment on life that you want your story to get across. It's all highly practical and boils down to how many plots you have to invent and interweave and what they're about)
Lots of people these days want to write film and TV scripts about groups. Don’t be misled into thinking that group stories are just one-hero stories with ‘subplots’ that will somehow hang together of their own accord. Alternatively, don’t assume that your group story won’t need plots and planning because it is ‘character-driven’. There are various distinct types of group story forms, each using a slightly different structure to demonstrate a different kind of story and each requiring a lot of different plots or strands that you need to interweave. If you don’t properly create and interweave these various plots or strands you're likely to end up with characters in search of a plot.
Same team, same adventure
Multiple protagonist structure deals with stories about groups of people physically together in one ‘adventure’. You can see it often in TV drama series. Your way of remembering this type of film is the motto: ‘same team, same adventure’. If your current film sounds like 'same team same adventure' you've probably got a multiple protagonist structure on your hands. The problem is that while most multiple protagonist films are straightforward examples of 'same team, same adventure', some aren't. You need to know about the exceptions to be sure you stay on track
Okay... All multiple protagonist films are about the individual within society - within a group - and the problems for the individual and the group. But there are different ways to focus on the group and the individual. For example, you might want to write about an adolescent's point of view of the world as they try to find a role model among six or seven characters and a way to fit into society. That's clearly different from writing about a family at war, where you want to get inside each family member. It's different again from a buddy story about two people against society, and so on. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which suits your film the best. I'll look today at stories about couples and solo characters within a group, but first some reminders about standard multiple protagonist structure.
TYPE 1 Standard Multiple protagonist films
Standard multiple protagonist films are:
about a group of characters on a mission OR having a reunion OR trapped in a siege (including an emotional siege, for example, being trapped in a difficult family) or sometimes a combination of these sorts of plot.
films in which the story you want to write takes us into the lives of each character in the group and is not just following one character in a group and staying always with the point of view of that character
The point of these films is to show different version of the same protagonist in the same situation. What makes your film interesting is the difference in the way each character reacts to the same situation. We can describe a multiple protagonist film as ‘same team, same adventure’.
Types of character
Some character types keep appearing in these films because they serve the purpose of pushing the story- the ‘adventure’ forward, particularly in the static 'reunion' and 'siege' forms. You may already have these characters in your idea or you may have to invent them.
the instigator (the one who causes the problem for the group);
‘the outsider’ (who, as an outsider, can comment on the group);
‘the traitor within’ (one who tries to undermine the instigator).
Sometimes characters can swap these roles.
Note that often only a few of the protagonists in standard multiple protagonist forms are seen in detail and one of the protagonists will often take centre stage (it’s often the instigator, as in The Full Monty, where the Robert Carlyle character has more screen time than the others). However, a defining quality of standard multiple protagonist film is that several members of the group are seen from the inside, albeit briefly. This isn’t the case in all multiple protagonist films, and I’ll talk about that below.
Type 2 A second sort of Multiple Protagonist Film – Double Journey .
Double Journey is a special type of multiple protagonist film. I gave it the name ‘double journey’ because it’s the sort of story that you have in Brokeback Mountain - when you have two characters who are different versions of the same protagonist travelling towards each other or away from each other or in parallel.
Technically, the headache with these films is that each traveller has a story that we need to follow separately as well as a plot line when they are together. So there are three action (‘adventure’) lines, but also three relationship lines. There is one about the relationship of the two characters when they are together and one about their relationships with other people when the travellers are apart (think of Brokeback Mountain, and the relationships each man has with his wife and family). The important thing to remember is that you need three action lines and three relationship lines.
P.S. Mentor Antagonists...
Just to confuse you even further, there is another form about partners that you need to know about. I've termed this Mentor Antagonist form. It's the type of story you have in Rain Man, in which we are inside one ordinary person, a single protagonist, as their lives are affected (sometimes turned upside down) by an enigmatic (and sometimes even threatening) outsider - who is always seen from the outside so that they stay mysterious. Mentor Antagonist form is not a group story or a double journey story or a buddy film. It's a special kind of one-hero story, since we stay always inside the protagonist as they deal with the unpredictable outsider.
Note: the big practical difference for you the writer is that it requires only one action line and one relationship line, whereas Double Journey films need three action lines and three relationship lines.
Mentor Antagonist is an interesting form, by the way, since the protagonist is always much less interesting than the engimatic outsider and is usually passive and/reactive. Indeed, the whole point of this sort of story is that a normal person is forced into an adventure by an abnormal person who often teaches them something. It thereby disproves the accepted wisdom that all protagonists must be proactive. In Rainman, had the younger brother been proactive he would have stuffed his older autistic brother into a plane straight away - and there would be no story. There goes another 'golden rule'...
Type 3 A third sort of Multiple Protagonist Film – ‘Different Versions of Me’ (multiple antagonist)
I used to call these ‘multiple antagonist’ films but I needed something more precise. ‘Different versions of me’ sounds clumsy, yes, but it’s actually extremely precise because it says exactly what it is thus it reminds you what you have to do, which is exactly what we need to stay on course.
Different Versions of Me films are set in groups but they stay always in the POV of one person, the major character, the protagonist, who is a member of the group. Technically, the main action line (the ‘adventure’) is about a protagonist who is our point of view, coping in their own way with a problem while others around them who are different versions of them, cope with the same problem in different ways. The relationship lines in the film are about that protagonist’s relationships with the other characters, often with the other versions of themselves, but also with, for example, their families. Crucially, the point of view in all plotlines is the protagonist’s point of view, the ‘me’.
They are about either:
one person seeing different types of person that they could become if they chose (as in Coming of Age films, which give the young person different role models) OR
one person’s point of view of different types of person like themselves - for example, in Bridesmaids, where we follow one person who is often a bridesmaid, surrounded by other versions of a person who is often a bridemaid, but we stay always with that one person, who is our POV, as she observes others. More serious films in this form are The Counterfeiters, set in a concentration camp, and Black Sea, about a submarine crew on a mission to find sunken treasure. Below I’m going to talk about a French film Aurore which is in this form.
Two 'group within groups' film and one 'Different Versions of Me'
1) Loveless – multiple protagonist structure, but not a double journey
Loveless is a brilliant, thought-provoking, heartbreaking Russian film. It’s about two selfish people, a married couple, whose lack of empathy catastrophically affects their son, but who do not ‘change and grow and become better people’ or travel through a transformational arc as a result of the tragedy, as screenwriting theories often assert is compulsory. Instead, the two, while chastened slightly by the experience (one feels only temporarily), remain selfish. The film ends with the strong suggestion that at least one of them, the husband, will repeat the precisely the same cruelty to his new child. It’s a brilliant film and it completely rejects redemption.
Structurally, Loveless is a multiple protagonist film, an emotional siege, with the couple, their lovers and their son as versions of the same protagonist, in this case, members of an unhappy family, and the police and search party as positive members of the social grouping, warm people with empathy (in contrast to the couple). The film asks the classic issue of multiple protagonist films, which is ; ‘will the group survive?’. In this case it's 'will the family survive'. The normality at the start of the film is that the parents are going through a divorce and neither wants the child. The first act turning point is when the boy runs away.
The boy is the instigator – he triggers the story by running away. He’s not present during most of the film, but he caused the whole problem. It’s a bit like The Big Chill, where the instigator, the person who caused the story to happen has just committed suicide. There are a few outsiders. The main one is the wife’s partner, who asks questions about the marriage, the others are the police and searchers. The traitor within role is played by both parents, who drive the boy away by their loveless treatment.
Should we think of Loveless as a Double Journey?
I can see why people would think this. But it has to be a multiple protagonist film because the film is not about two people traveling towards or away from or in parallel with each other as they divorce. It’s about a dysfunctional family, where a pending divorce has raised the issues that neither parent wants the child. The story is about a child being lost, not a divorce. The divorce is the disturbance, it’s what triggers the child to run away. It’s not the film’s point. Can you see the difference? The whole film is about lovelessness within a family, not just between two people who find themselves in a loveless marriage.
We need this kind of precise understanding of what films are about in terms of their deeper meaning or message - so that we stay on track and use the right structure. Good writers can easily write good scenes. But the scenes must be on track. Scenes must tell the story we intend, or, even if they are brilliant, the film will flag.
Problems that might arise if you think of the film as a double journey about a divorcing couple rather than a multiple protagonist film about a family could be, firstly, that during the short time you have the son on the screen you don't provide scenes that are specific enough in showing his feelings of being unloved. The second is that the absent runaway child needs to be a real presence in the scenes between the couple (so we need to know him and his feelings well) and if your mind is on the idea of an ‘ugly divorce’ you are likely to create scenes which might well be brilliant as they show the couple tearing each other apart but that don’t involve or suggest the child.
Note that in Loveless, the most scarring comments about the marriage are not made in a row in a random place. They’re made in the car journey to and from the wife’s mother and in the mother’s house when the couple go to check whether he’s fled to her. The way the film is written, the boy is always present by inference. We still get the ugly divorce but we get that while we are completely focused on whether the boy will be found and what horrible fate he might have suffered. The tension and dread about the boy never stop. The suspense mounts. However, if you’d focused on the divorce, the boy’s story might have stopped while the couple exchanged insults that had nothing to do with him.
Starred Up – Double Journey
Starred Up is a gritty, unsentimental UK prison film - and this time it is a double journey. A violent antisocial 19 year old boy is so uncontrollable he’s moved from juvenile detention into adult prison, where his father, never around in his childhood, is serving a life sentence for murdering another inmate. The boy is violent to all around him and has a love-hate relationship with his father, who’s trying to protect him and belatedly get close to him. The two do finally achieve closeness, albeit only for a moment at the film’s end, while the boy achieves a degree of anger control and finds a place and companionship within a prison group.
So how is this constructed? How could we write a film like this? While it’s set in a prison with hundreds of prisoners it isn’t a multiple protagonist film because the plot is not about the actions of a group of prisoners – which would mean we had to follow each of the group on a joint quest – same team, same adventure. It’s about the boy’s relationship with his father. It’s a Double Journey film. That said, the boy is at the centre of the film and the film stays primarily with him, but he’s not the single protagonist.
Some people would disagree. They’d see the boy as the sole protagonist with the father an antagonist. Does this matter? Yes it does. I’m not splitting hairs here or categorising for the sake of it. The film has to spend a lot of time with the father in order that we are emotionally invested in the father and really care that the two come together. This way, we make the story of the boy, the primary character, stronger.
If you think of the father simply as an antagonist to the boy’s protagonist you could easily put the father in the background, making him occasionally and randomly pop up with a few lines while the boy wreaks havoc in a million different ways with other characters. This would diminish our interest in the father and make us less emotionally involved with him. The huge side effect of this would be to make the father-son reconciliation less interesting, thereby making the boy’s story less interesting.
Thinking of the father as being as important a character as his son – giving him more time on his own and thinking of him as a joint protagonist with his own action line and relationship line when he’s apart from the son plus an action line and a relationship line when he’s with the boy - this, paradoxically, makes the boy’s story stronger. It makes the audience care more that the two come together.
Similarly, thinking of the film as a double journey where the two travel from being at odds to being together will also give you a plot line, which will prevent the father’s role consisting of random appearances and remind you that you need to build incrementally to a climax - where they’re united. Again, it’s all about preventing the film from going off course.
Aurore – Different versions of me (Multiple antagonists)
Aurore is a witty comedy with poignant moments about a middle aged woman, Aurore encountering a range of typical problems women have when they reach middle age – menopause, men abandoning them for younger women, the return of an old flame, children growing up, becoming a grandmother – and so on. She is surrounded by a range of other middle-aged women all reacting in different ways to these problems, also by younger women and older women. All of these women present her with alternative roles of what she might have been or has been or might be or will be. The film stays always with the point of view of Aurore, watching the other women. Aurore is the centre, the point of view, the 'me'. Her relationship lines are with her daughters, her best friend and her old flame. Her relationships/ interactions with women apart from these are mostly vignettes, brief scenes.
How will you decide what structure will work best for your film/TV piece?
Don’t just sit down and write whatever comes into your head. If you do, the result is likely to be pretty good (because the chances are you are a good writer so anything you write is going to be pretty good) but it’s likely to go off course. I know some writers do just sit down and write and then find their stories - and they’re brilliant stories That often works with novels, which don’t have the same need for pace and economy as film or TV. But alas, for film it usually fails and creates a film script that you never finish, or something that just doesn’t do you justice
The question you have to ask yourself with every script is ‘what am in interested in? What am I trying to say?’ And then you find the story to tell it. Or, if you have the story already, you ask: ‘what is attracting me about this story and no other?’
You need to know what your film is ‘about’ in terms of its ideas. Then you can find out what plot to make it ‘about’. Or if you know what the plot is, think what ideas in that plot are attracting you.
This is also a good way of working out what’s wrong with the script, if you feel it’s not working.
Over many years, Linda Aronson's internationally acclaimed and ground-breaking books and masterclasses on 21st Century screenwriting have repeatedly and methodically challenged Hollywood orthodoxy and exploded its taboos. To the delight of thousands of writers, producers and directors all over the world frustrated by the insistence on a linear, single hero, one-size-fits-all approach to story construction, she explains how to create and apply nonlinear, flashback, multiple protagonist, fractured and Pulp Fiction-style narrative structures opening up a whole raft of new storytelling possibilities in film, TV (particularly in the new long form TV drama) games and VR. .
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