How to Write a Screenplay About Rebellion

This Independence Day weekend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t write a piece on how to write a rebellion screenplay. Movies with a strong rebellion aspect in them usually don’t make for blockbuster seat-fillers, but they do stand the test of time and often garner devoted fans.

There are some great examples of screenplays (many of them, developed into indie movies) that deal with the people involved in rebellions like The Lives of OthersCheMunich, and Hunger. For this article I’ll use the screenplay for Snowpiercer, one of my favorites, as an example of a screenplay that effectively tells the story of a rebellion and the interesting characters involved.

 Show Us The Oppressed and Their Situation

A revolt is primarily about oppressed people and their oppressors. In Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, which was revised by Kelly Masterson, the screenplay starts by telling us what caused the current state of things and we are brought into the world our protagonists and antagonists share: The Wilford Enterprises train. The slug line that introduces the oppressed people’s living area calls it the Tail Section and describes it as consisting of freight cars that are dark and filthy with “Tail Section passengers that are shabbily-dressed, looking like vagrants.” Our first glimpse of the oppressed people is a defining one that depicts them as poor, cramped, and the complete opposite of content.

The screenplay does a good job of using adjectives, dialogue between the rebels, and clear descriptive language to pull us into their story world and to show how bad their situation is. Present the audience with how your oppressed people live in order to then get us to understand why they’d want to change things with a revolt.

Show Us What They're Rebelling Against

In addition to the squalor they live in, the rebels also live under constant threat of abduction and violence at the hands of the soldiers that regularly storm their section. The soldiers are the law enforcement of the train, executing the will of Wilford, who stays at the head of the train, and Minister Mason, Wilford’s representative who comes to the tail of the train early in the screenplay to steal a young child away to the front.

When the people of the tail section understandably object to their children being stolen, a tail sectioner named Andrew throws a shoe at a front of the train helper named Claude, telling her to give him his son back. Mason punishes Andrew for this in front of everyone in the tail section, making an example of him. He finishes his intimidating speech by saying:

Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front, you belong to the tail. When the FOOT seeks the place of the HEAD, a sacred line is crossed. Know your place! Keep your place! Be a shoe!

There is no chance for upward mobility in their world. There is no relief for the suffering the tail section has to endure. They are where they are and will be kept there for their entire lives, with or without their cooperation. So, a rebellion ensues.

When penning your screenplay with a rebellion, let there be little to no confusion as to why your characters are rebelling. Build up empathy for them by showing the type of life they are subjected to, in order to make the audience care about them and about what happens to them. Especially as you…

Keep Us Interested in the Characters With Progress, Setbacks, & Mystery

The reluctant leader of the revolt, Curtis, takes them out of the tail section and forward through the train towards the engine and the front of the train. Along the way, we learn about his relationship with Gilliam and Edgar, who are an elder on the train and Curtis’ little brother. We eventually learn that Curtis raised Edgar, who was a baby when the train first boarded, and that Gilliam practically raised Curtis. We learn how lavish the other train cars are and just how deprived the tail section is. While they fight the soldiers looking to keep them back, the tail sectioners lose people we’ve come to know and root for.

Build and use relationships between the characters you want to get sympathy and support for as you use them to advance the plot of your rebellion screenplay. It’s always sad to know that rebels a struggling and dying for a cause but it’s gripping to know who characters are and the relationships they have while fighting for advancement. We don’t know all the details that affect their progress, which also keeps us invested in whether or not they keep moving forward or get squashed like bugs they share the tail section with.

Whether They Win Or Not, Include Change

The movie 300 was essentially a rebellion movie as well. In the end, the Spartans and their fearless leader Leonidas are defeated but they exposed their enemy Xerxes to be far less of a god than he purported. In the end of Snowpiercer, Curtis and three other tail enders change things in a major by dethroning Wilford but they don’t “win” the way they want. Despite that, they end the tyranny and give themselves a shot at a better life, which is the larger point of the rebellion. They are then able to do what they want and choose their own fate.

In your rebellion screenplay, you choose whether or not your rebels fail or succeed in their efforts. Make it all mean something by having the end not be the same as it was at the beginning.

The American Revolution was a long-fought, bloody battle that led to the Thirteen Colonies becoming the United Stated of America. That wouldn’t have happened with out a rebellion against the British, which makes for an interesting story. Enjoy taking on creating a screenplay about people rebelling. And good luck winning.