A screenplay is a film unfolding on paper. A story told for the screen. A story told to be seen. And, like all drama, told in scenes.
"The scene is unique to drama—though used sporadically in all storytelling—in being its very bonework," William Gibson says in Shakespeare's Game.
A screenplay is a story told in scenes for the screen.
But what is a story?
Definitions abound, but most are similar to the one I just found in the
American Heritage Dictionary that sits on my desk: The narrating or relating of an event or series of events, either true or fiction.
I'm a bit of a word freak, so I took a moment to look up "event": An occurrence, incident, or experience, especially one of significance.
Then I looked up "significance": The state or quality of importance, consequence. From signify, to have meaning or importance.
A story is the relating of events that have meaning, importance, consequence. That matter. That make a difference, however subtle, in the character's life. If a screenplay can't answer the question, "How is this day (night, week, month, year) different from any other?" it will raise the dread question "So what?" That age-old challenge, "What difference does it make?" is not idle talk. It's what we want to know when we watch the events of a movie unfold.
Making a difference, in fact, is the first definition of change, at least in my dictionary: To cause to be different; alter. And change is the heart of it all. After three decades of writing and a decade and a half of teaching, I've found the most useful, least rule-bound definition of story is a pattern of human change.
This change may be subtle, like Aadid's in My Josephine, which Barry Jenkins describes as "a pattern of change as glimpsed through a slice-of-life portrait. The film is a slice-of-life in that there's nothing extraordinary occurring within the physical scene: Aadid has done everything we see him do in the film at least five times a week for the last such-and-so weeks of the last such-and-so months, etc. What stands out, however, is the resonance these activities derive from the emotions Aadid assigns them on this night."
A screenplay is a pattern of human change told in scenes for the screen.
That pattern of human change has other names—spine, through-line, action—but essentially they mean the same thing. As Sam Smiley says in Playwriting: The Structure of Action, "Simply defined, action is human change."
As a writer and a teacher, I prefer thinking of the screenplay as a pattern of human change because it's dynamic. It's a process that an audience can see beginning (an event occurs that has meaning, importance, consequence), developing (the consequences of this event—and others—are played out), and ending (the outcome of the events is finally known at the climax). William Gibson says:
A play is an energy system, and the business of the precipitating event is to introduce a disequilibrium, that is, to release energy. Characterization, language, mood and tempo, meaning, all the other attributes which will give the play its identity, wait upon that release; it animates them, they cannot begin to exist without it. And once begun, the "play" is that of contradictory energies working to arrive at a new equilibrium, if it kills everybody.1
Gibson posits that a play—and, I would add, any screenplay—is made up of moves. The precipitating event is the first move, but hardly the last. "It is as in chess, also an energy system, one move provokes another." The example Gibson chooses is Hamlet:
Horatio, once he has seen the ghost, must act; the move is his. It requires a decision, and he can decide his eyes are failing and go off to the oculist, or the Denmark fog is too much and go south for the winter, but these decisions will take him and us into a different game, not too inviting. In truth, he has no choice, the one decision that moves this game forward is
Let us impart what we have seen tonight Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life, This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.2
Jump-started by the precipitating move, the energy system, game, story, pattern of human change is set in motion and will continue until the last move is made, until the energy system comes to an end, until the outcome is known. Until the climax. Until checkmate.
The best screenplays—long or short, serious or comic—create an energy system—a credible, compelling pattern of human change. That's what good screenplays do. That's what we pay our money to see. And we connect because our own lives—good, bad, or ugly—are also patterns of change.
In The Full Monty, Gaz—an unemployed steelworker on the brink of losing his son—becomes a one-night-stand stripper to make enough money to regain his son and, in the process, regains self-respect.
In As Good As It Gets, Melvin—an obsessive-compulsive writer who doesn't love anything in this world—falls in love with a dog and a waitress.
I could go on all day about features, but the subject here is short screenplays. And when you're writing short screenplays, thinking about story as a pattern of human change is even more useful. Why? Because this definition includes even small, subtle change, as long as it matters deeply to the character.
I've had students come into my office and slump in my yellow papasan chair and tell me that so-and-so said their short screenplay isn't a story. Then I ask, "Well, is there a pattern of change and does it make a difference to your character?" If the answer to both questions is yes, I assure students that they have a story. It may need rewriting (all screenplays do); nevertheless, they have a story, and with a lot of work and a little luck, they can figure out how to tell it in a way that connects.
What you're looking for when you write a short screenplay is that small subtle shift, that tiny turn of the screw in a character's inner or outer life. Preferably both. But small is the point. A simple but meaningful pattern of human change. As Patrick Duncan (Courage Under Fire, Nick of Time) said in Creative Screenwriting, "Let the story be simple and let the characters be complicated." (I'd jot that on a three-by-five card and stick it next to the one that says "Only connect".) And Duncan is referring to features. It's far more true for short screenplays.
The worst short scripts I've read suffer from what I call narrative cram. Too many big events occurring in too little time. ("Two pounds of shit in a one pound sack," as we say in the South.) A feature plot packed into one or two dozen pages. There's so much going on that nothing seems to matter. Important moments can't breathe. The result is suffocating.
In short screenplays, smaller is better.
In Slow Dancin' Down the Aisles of the Quickcheck, thanks to external and internal moments of change, Earl is finally able to say—or sing—how he feels to Maybelline.
How do screenwriters make these changes—some might say "miracles"— happen? By creating a pattern of change in their characters' outer life that changes their inner landscape forever. Hamlet was right. Art does hold a mirror up to nature, because our lives work the same way—external events force inner change.
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