Screenwriting: Predicting The Unpredictable

By February 17, 2016Main

A letter arrived recently from Screenwriting Newsletter subscriber Ronald M. Sandgrund, a prominent Colorado attorney, law professor, and writer. (Full disclosure: Ron is also my wife’s brother.)

We had both read Erik Larson’s masterful bestseller Dead Wake, which recounts the history of the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine during World War I. 

Ron wrote:  “Having read all your screenwriting books, I've come away with the impression that at the heart of all great stories lies conflict. Conflict creates tension. Tension engages the reader until resolution. Before we even start Dead Wake, however, we know the ending. What, then, makes it so riveting?”

I responded that we all know for certain how our lives are going to end: a banquet for maggots, worms, and bacteria, with us as the main course. All the same, we go about our activities, both mundane and profound. 

Ron continues: “What about seeing a movie for the second, third or fourth time? We know the story; we know what happens to the characters. Why do we still care? Why do we watch? Is it merely to experience once again the cinematography?”

It’s not the cinematography.

I’m reminded of an expression heard in the Broadway musical theater world: “Audiences don’t emerge from the auditorium into the street at the end of the play whistling the scenery.” 

More from Ron: “If we know exactly what is to occur, must that not stifle the stress?  Must that not mean there is a fundamental difference between viewing a movie for the first time and the second?”

I say that if a movie is truly great, watching it a second time (and a third and fourth time ad infinitum) is not as engaging as the first time but more so. 

Consider music. Once you’ve heard a great song, you know everything about it. Why would you want to hear it again? In fact, however, once you’ve heard a really arresting tune you want to hear it again and again and again.

Will it sound as strong the second time as the first? It will not. It will sound stronger.

That’s the nature of classics across all platforms: music, painting, sculpture, literature, drama. If it’s a true classic, instead of exhausting it via repetition you hear new stuff every time. 

I’ve mentioned that my late dad was a musician whose early career was in the radio era: twenty years with the N.B.C. Symphony Orchestra under the 20th Century’s preeminent orchestral leader, Arturo Toscanini. As a boy I was privileged to attend many of the symphony’s rehearsals. I recall one time hearing the maestro remark on a piece by Bach. “Hundreds of times I perform this score, and each time Johann shows me something new.”

I’ve argued in my books that dramatic narrative structure, first described 2500 years ago by Aristotle in his ragged little pamphlet called 'Poetics,' cites three basic components: beginning, middle, and end. These parts are not, however, equal to one another. The beginning is short; the end even shorter. The biggest part by far is the middle.

What is that if not a model of an idealized, romanticized human life?

It's natural to consider the movie screen to be a window through which, seated in the dark, we peer into the lives of the characters.

Over the years, however, my view has evolved. I’ve come to consider the movie screen to be not a window but a mirror in which we see reflections not of others but ourselves.

Tony Soprano, for example, is as different from me as it is possible to imagine. Yet when I see Tony I see a guy who has conflicts from time to time with his kids, with his spouse, with his colleagues at work. I see him struggling with issues that befuddle not only him but also me. I feel not separate from Tony but connected to him.

Doesn't everyone from time to time have a dream that seems absolutely real until we waken? The question arises: how do we know that this very moment is not a dream? How do we know we will not soon wake up? If that's the case, why stop at the red lights? Why watch what we eat? Why act morally and conscionably?

The earliest movie theaters, it seems to me, are the caves at Lascaux and Altamira, where ancient peoples painted on the walls images of antelopes and other prey, with multiple sets of legs, as if they were in motion.

These people's very survival depended upon slaying these creatures in order to provide food, clothing, and shelter. 

Wouldn't a hunter, however, confronting a charging antelope, its head down, prongs homing in on his gut, turn and flee? Wouldn’t that be the normal, natural reaction?

By replicating in a safe environment a facsimile of the hunt, the huntsmen could rehearse their fear in a safe place and learn thereby to stand their ground. In this fashion, in collaboration with their brothers, they could defeat and bag their prey.  Their very lives depended upon success in the hunt.

What endangers us today? Not antelopes. The greatest dangers we face are: crime, war, disease. Probably our single most dangerous activity is riding in a car. When a friend of mine recently expressed to me his worries about an upcoming surgical procedure, I pointed out to him that the most dangerous aspect of the operation was the car ride to the hospital.

The most perilous aspect of air travel is the taxi to the airport. 

So what subjects do movies treat? Crime, disease, war. Isn't it interesting that there are so many car chases and auto wrecks in movies? YouTube has thousands upon thousands of car crashes available for viewing on demand, many of which–the goriest–have been viewed millions upon millions of times.

The movie theater is a safe place to experience those lethal aspects of our nature risk-free, so that eventually we'll become inured to the emotions and be able to carry on in life when they occur not for reel but for real.

When I'm defending movie violence in the media, pundits complain that video games, movies, and TV render us numb us, desensitize us to violence in the real world.

But isn’t that its purpose?

We watch the best movies over and over again, even though after the first viewing we know their beginning, middle, and end. Why then do we watch? Because we need to experience and re-experience the emotions they provoke. We need to rehearse, to prepare ourselves for the inevitable tragedies that are the unavoidable aspect of the human condition.

In a very real sense, our lives depend upon it.


About the Author: Richard Walter is a playwright, screenwriter, author of best selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, associate dean, entertainment industry expert and longtime professor and chairman of the graduate screenwriting program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. His books include the novels Escape From Film School and Barry and the Persuasions. His non-fiction titles include The Whole Picture: Strategies for Screenwriting Success in the New Hollywood; Screenwriting–The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing; and most recently Essentials of Screenwriting. His books have been translated into eight languages. Professor Walter is also a court authorized expert in intellectual property litigation. For more information and to order his book visit Contact Professor Walter at [email protected] if you would like to subscribe to his monthly screenwriting tips newsletter.


Richard Walter Copyright © 2016