The Past Opens A Window To The Future
By Daniel Dercksen, writing coach and mentor of The Writing Studio
Without its memory, a story is dull, boring and lifeless.
The writer has to mine the memory of each story and explore the richness of its history; the history between the characters, the history of events, and even the history of objects.
Look at how Walle’s discovery of a video of an excerpt from a scene out of Hello Dolly fuels the impassioned robot’s journey, and how it also amplifies the thematic purpose of the story, as well as the genre.
After hundreds of lonely years doing what he was built for, WALLE (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) discovers a new purpose in life when he inadvertently stumbles upon the key to the planet’s future,
The idea of using the musical imagery and songs from the 1969 movie version of “Hello Dolly” to help him define WALLE’s personality. In fact, it is WALLE’s repeated viewings of an old videotape of that film (the only one in his collection) that have led to the glitch of his romantic feelings.
“When I found ‘It Only Takes a Moment,’ it was like a godsend. That song became a huge tool for me to show WALLE’s interest in what love is,”says co-screenwriter Andrew Stanton.
“I became fascinated with the loneliness that this situation evoked and the immediate empathy that you had for this character. We spend most of our time on films trying to make our main characters likeable so that you want to follow them and root for them. I started thinking, ‘Well, where do I go with a character like this?’ And it didn’t take long to realize that the opposite of loneliness is love or being with somebody. I was immediately hooked and seduced by the idea of a machine falling in love with another machine. And especially with the backdrop of a universe that has lost the understanding of the point of living. To me, that seemed so poetic. I loved the idea of humanity getting a second chance because of this one little guy who falls in love.
This year there were many films where the narrative was driven by the memory of the story: in The Revenant, what begins as a relentless quest for revenge becomes a heroic saga against all odds towards home and redemption; in The Danish Girl Tom Hooper never infringes or invades the mindscape of our tragic hero; he does not rely on visual dynamics to reveal Wegener’s childhood through conventional flashbacks, but allows the character to gradually reveal this information through dialogue, drawing the audience into a trusting and confidential conversation.
The Dressmaker is a heartfelt coming-of-age story, with Winslet seeking redemption for a tragedy that occurred during her childhood, and one that caused her to leave the town and branded an outcast.
Spotlight tells the astonishing true story of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Spotlight” team of investigative journalists, who in 2002 shock the city and the world by exposing the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of widespread pedophilia perpetrated by more than 70 local priests.
The Magic Of Backstory
The backstory (or history) of your story is one of the first structural points in plotting your line of dramatic action.
You have to fully explore the history of your story, events and characters and identify what events that occurred in the past will impact directly on your story.
If you’re telling a romance, the history of how the romance was ignited will be important. If it is a crime story, the history of what influenced the crime is relevant.
These histories become vital subplots to the exterior line of dramatic action and can either drive the narrative, or events in the narrative may trigger the memory of the story.
Usually when something happens in a story, it is caused by something else, and that something else needs to be exposed to an audience. We need to know what a character is thinking and also need to be aware of past events that influence the dramatic or comedic action of the story.
There can be as many as 5 subplots that can enrich your story, amplify the theme, and allow the characters to have a loaded inner life.
Creating an emotional fictional reality
Without Real Emotion we simply don’t care. We may feel momentary excitement, terror, horror and even awe, but those emotions are relatively superficial and transitory.
There is no feeling, no deeper connection because no authentic view of the writer’s humanity has surfaced during the telling of the story.
You may have a clever plot that is masterfully structured and filled with complex twists and complications, but if there is no connection between the External Activity and the Internal Life of the story, it will be dull and boring, and ultimately disappoint.
As a writer you have to:
- Illuminate the thoughts and mindscape of your characters: You have to show us what a character is thinking, what is going on inside the character’s head, and how the character’s point of view guides us into a rich inner life that is meaningful and rewarding.
- Reflect the thematic purpose of your story: If your story deals with ‘Man versus Nature’, you have to delicately weave this into your line of dramatic action by creating subplots.
- Reveal the memory or history of the events and characters in your story: As your character journeys through the external plot of your story, you contrast the physical action with a rich emotional landscape that takes us into the past that informs the present.
How Do You Reveal The Memory of Your Story?
The writer can reveal past events and incidents through dialogue, or visually by making use of flashbacks.
Primary exposition is the telling and showing to the audience the time and place of the story, the names and relationships of the characters, and the nature of the internal conflict.
Exposition must come quickly and naturally; if the viewer or reader does not know the time, location, or the relationship between the characters, the viewer will be lost, confused and unable to follow the story.
- In Schindler’s List, the opening scene visually reveals a steam train puffing away at a station and we read: September 1939, the German forces defeated the Polish Army in two weeks. We then see a registration officer setting up his desk on the platform of the station and more exposition follows: Jews were ordered to register all family members and relocate to major cities. More than 10 000 Jews from the countryside arrive in Krakow daily.
- For the opening of Star Wars, George Lucas made use of inventive graphic design: The words ‘’A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’’ drifts off into a vast sea of
- In Mighty Aphrodite Woody Allen makes us of a Greek Chorus to tell the modern story of a couple adopting a child, and the neurotic father exploring the baby’s history.
Dialogue is necessary to explain past events and motivations that bear on the story. The writer can make use of voice over narration to reveal certain aspects or events in a character’s life, then visually show a picture of what the character is describing. Always keep in mind that the audience will be looking at something, and listen to what is being said.
In addition to time, place and relationships, exposition should reveal the nature of the world the viewer has entered, setting the mood, environment, and the tone of the film, as with Westworld, Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now.
2. The Flashback
This is one of the most obvious and one of the most effective tools you can use to provide the reader with information that cannot be incorporated into the screenplay in any other way.
The function of the flashback is to bridge time and place to reveal information about the main character or the story line. You are illuminating a character’s point of view. You are revealing what the character is thinking and feeling in present time, whether a memory, an event, or fantasy.
It is simply a tool or devise and should be used to give the viewer information about the character or story that he can’t get any other way.
When flashbacks are done well and integrated into the narrative line of the story, it works wonderfully.
Flashbacks become problematic and unnecessary when:
- the screenwriter throws it into the screenplay, not knowing how to move the story forward in any other way
- the screenwriter reveals something about the main character that could be better stated in dialogue.
When the flashback becomes problematic it will only draws attention to itself.
The Writer can make use of:
- A Memory Flash: When what you are revealing is directly linked to the emotions of the character and not an event, to illustrate how the character feels about something. In John Waters’ Serial Mom Kathleen Turner’s character drives up the road and when she sees one of her victims, a memory flash reveals why she hates and wants to kill the person.
- A Dream Flash or Fantasy Sequence: This is where the writer can use his creativity to illustrate a character’s state of mind. In Milos Forman’s Hair the main character is strongly affected by the use of drugs and takes the audience into an elaborate fantasy sequence which illustrates his idea of marriage.
3. Henry James’Theory Of Illumination
Henry James, the great 19th Century American novelist, had a theory of illumination: he imagined a main character occupying the centre of a circle. In this circle, surrounding the main character, are the characters and events the main character interacts with.
Every interchange between the characters should illuminate different aspects of the main character, just as various lamps illuminate different aspects of a dark room. You illuminate the room just the way other characters should illuminate the main character.
Henry James questioned: What is character but the determination of an incident? What is incident but the illumination of character?
What does this mean? That character determines the incident, or the incident creates character?
Sometimes there are events in our lives that bring out the best or worse in us. At other times, how we act, react, or deal with a particular situation tells us who we really are.
The events in a screenplay are specifically designed to bring out the truth about the characters so that we, reader and audience, can transcend ordinary life and achieve a connection, or bond, between ‘them’ and ‘us’. We see ourselves in them, and perhaps enjoy a moment of recognition and understanding.
As James said: The incidents you create for your characters are the best ways to illustrate the nature of who they are – their character.
In the 90s it has become more relevant. In Hollywood it has become a trend known as the ‘event film’.
Characters are placed in extraordinary situations and then we see how they react. The incident or event – the special effects – has become the star attraction in films such as Twister, Deep Impact and Volcano.
4. Joseph Chilton’s Circle of Being
Another wonderful tool that you can utilise in fleshing out the characters in your story is behaviourist Joseph Chilton Pierce’s ‘Circle of Being’. It will allow you to uncover some kind of incident or event in the character’s life that emotionally parallels and impacts the story time.
There is an event that happens to your main character when he or she is between the ages of ten and sixteen; an age period where some kind of traumatic event could conceivably occur that would affect the entire course of the character’s life: it could be the death of a parent, or a loved one, or it could be physical abuse that results in an emotional scar; it could be a physical event or injury, or quite possibly a move to a new city or country.
- In Thelma and Louise Louise shoots a man who is raping Thelma; this action is sparked by an incident that happened in Louise’s life when she was a teenager, when she was raped.
- The film Sleepers or even Dreamcatcher hinges on events that happened when the characters were teenagers, and drastically impacts on their adult lives.
- Cinema Paradiso is another great example of how the effect of cinema in a small Italian village, particularly the friendship with a projectionist, affects the entire life of a grown man.
- In Stand by Me the film is propelled by the memory an old man who reminisces about his teenage years, particularly his relationship with his friends and an incident that changed their lives forever.