What It's Really All About - Part Three
All one has to do is to listen to the political rhetoric floating around out there to know that there are many points-of-view on a given subject.
The characters in your story should be no exception. How each character relates to the Active Theme, i.e., the story's message, determines how much depth and dimension your story contains, while still maintaining focus.
This is the juggling act we all face, when we sit down to construct the next Great American novel or screenplay. Our stories need to be complex, without losing clarity. They must be logical in their construction, yet emotional in their intent.
Well, nobody ever said it would be easy, did they? At least, nobody ever said it to me.
Once again, this leads to my heavy emphasis on understanding theme, and learning how to reflect that theme through the prism of the characters who inhabit the world we've created.
Today's excerpt addresses the issue of theme through the eyes of each character in the story: protagonists, antagonists, lead characters and supporting characters. The intertwining of all of these characters into a single thematic thread is a difficult, but necessary task. The more we understand it, the easier will be the path ahead of us.
I hope the following excerpt from "The Blue Collar Screenwriter and The Elements of Screenplay" will help you on your journey.
The Character's Take on the Theme
Once your theme has been established, it must be reflected in every possible manner within your story. How do the characters relate to the theme?
I'm talking about every character, because they all must have an opinion; a point-of-view on the theme being explored. That's one significant way to add dimension and nuance to your story. It also creates areas of conflict between characters, and conflict is everything in a story, especially a story designed for the screen.
I'll use the same examples I use in my screenwriting class, from the terrific courtroom drama "A Few Good Men."
As a classic courtroom drama, the Master Theme of the story is Justice. First, for those who aren't familiar with this movie, here's the setup.
Two young Marines, Lance Corporal Harold Dawson and PFC. Louden Downey, are accused of murder while performing an illegal disciplinary action against a third Marine, PFC. William Santiago. We soon learn that this illegal action was ordered by their Commanding Officer, Col Nathan Jessup. Jessup's Executive Officer, Lt Col Matthew Markinson and Platoon Leader Lt. Jonathan Kendrick are a part of the conspiracy to cover up Jessup's involvement, Markinson reluctantly, Kendrick willingly. It's up to our heroes, Lt. Danny Kaffee, Lt. Sam Weinberg and Lt Cdr Joanne Galloway to defend the accused Marines. Capt Jack Ross, a friend of Danny Kaffee, is the prosecutor.
A veritable bevy of characters, no? But, each one has a "take" on our justice theme, and each take is slightly, if not significantly different.
Let's start with Lt. Danny Kaffee, our Central Protagonist, played by Tom Cruise.
Kaffee initially believes his clients' best defense is to attempt to plea bargain their murder charge to a lesser charge. In his mind, they are clearly guilty, and chances of acquittal are virtually nil. His take on justice changes, as the case progresses. Eventually, he will come to believe his clients should be acquitted. A change in goals is not unusual for a central protagonist, since we want to see them grow.
So, at first, Kaffee tries to plea bargain the case, meaning Justice would be a reduced sentence for his clients. When new information comes to light that they were ordered to perform the action that led to Santiago's death, he decides that Justice means setting his clients free, except he's not the attorney for the job. He's never tried a case in court, and has serious doubts about his ability to win the case at trial. On top of that, losing could destroy his career. So, justice is clear for Danny, but the risks of failure are enormous.
Sam Weinberg, played by Kevin Pollack, is Kaffee's friend and co-counsel. Yet, even though he's defending Dawson and Downey, and even though he knows Jessup ordered them to discipline Santiago, Sam still believes the two young Marines should be punished.
This is pointed out clearly, when Danny Kaffee suggests that Sam doesn't believe their clients' story, and thinks they should go to prison for the rest of their lives. Sam's reply is that he believes every word of their story...and thinks they should go to prison for the rest of their lives.
In Sam's view, all his clients did was "beat up on a weakling." That's his take on the theme. Yes, they were ordered, but that still doesn't justify the act they committed. They performed their duty, but in doing so, sacrificed their integrity and humanity. They need to be punished. That's justice, and a source of internal conflict within Sam.
Now we come to Joanne Galloway, portrayed by Demi Moore. Joanne has an idealistic take on the theme. These are two noble young men serving their country. They "stand on a wall" to protect the rest of us. They followed orders, like good Marines. They deserve their day in court, and they deserve to go free, plain and simple.
Our prosecutor, Jack Ross, played by Kevin Bacon, has a dispassionate point-of-view on the subject. He represents the government, and he has a case. No conflict within him, in that respect. The outcome is of no personal concern to him.
What does concern him, and where his internal conflict exists, is the fate of his friend and courtroom rival, Danny Kaffee, who Jack feels is sacrificing his career in a lost cause by defending these two Marines.
And, what about those two Marines? Do they, also, have a "take" on what Justice is? Of course.
LCpl Dawson, played by Wolfgang Bodison, is so convinced of his innocence, he literally forces Kaffee to take the case to trial, not because he's afraid of going to prison, but because his honor is at stake. That is his take on the theme. Justice is maintaining his honor.
Likewise, his cohort, PFC. Downey, portrayed by James Marshall, wants only to remain a Marine. Marines follow orders. He followed orders. Therefore, he's innocent. For him, it's black-and-white.
Now, let's look at our bad guys, starting with Col Nathan Jessup; portrayed by superstar Jack Nicholson. Naturally, being on the other side of the issue, he has a completely different take on what justice means. In his view, ordering Dawson and Downey to discipline Santiago was designed to make Santiago a better marine.
That's Jessup's job: to train marines to defend their country. Doing otherwise would put Santiago's fellow marines, and the nation, at risk. He didn't set out to have Santiago killed, only to train him. Santiago's death was a sacrifice that had to be made for the greater good, and Dawson and Downey likewise. Justice is flawed, because he, Jessup, answers to a higher calling. That was the "truth" we couldn't handle.
Lt Col Markinson, portrayed by the late, great J.T. Walsh, gave us one of the more interesting takes on the Justice theme. Markinson's character was so torn between duty and conscience that he ultimately turned to suicide. For him, justice clashed with duty, and there was no way to reconcile the two. He finally decided that the only real course was to reveal the truth, so that others may sort it out.
At one point, Markinson states to Kaffee that he's not proud of his complicity in the events of this case, but neither is he proud of informing on his long-time friend and Commanding Officer. He is a tragic character, so internally conflicted as to be unable to live with the consequences of his actions.
Keifer Sutherland's Lt Jonathan Kendrick gave us one of the quirkiest, almost humorous takes on this Justice theme. In his view, Santiago was an inferior marine. All Kendrick did was assist in trying to make him a better one. He, too, followed orders, but it goes beyond that. The victim, Santiago, violated a sacred code and sacrificed his honor, and therefore was doomed to die by a higher power. "God was watching," he tells us. How's that for a take on the justice theme? God killed Santiago!
The Character's Take on the Theme provides us with the vehicles to deliver the message of the Active Theme. All characters, not just the Central Protagonists and Antagonists. The more diverse the points-of-view presented by the characters, the more complex the story.
Robert's book, "The Blue Collar Screenwriter and The Elements of Screenplay" is currently available at:
Amazon digital and paperback
Barnes & Noble
Amazon digital and paperback
Barnes & Noble
A professional screenwriter for more than thirty years, Robert Gosnell has produced credits in feature films, network television, syndicated television, basic cable and pay cable, and is a member of the Writers Guild of America, West and the Writers Guild of Canada.
Robert began his career writing situation comedy as a staff writer for the ABC series Baby Makes Five. As a freelance writer, he wrote episodes for Too Close for Comfort and the TBS comedies Safe at Home and Rocky Road. In cable, he has scripted numerous projects for the Disney Channel, including Just Perfect, a Disney Channel movie featuring Jennie Garth.
In 1998, he wrote the Showtime original movie, Escape from Wildcat Canyon, which starred Dennis Weaver and won the national "Parents Choice Award." Robert's feature credits include the Chuck Norris/Louis Gosset Jr. film Firewalker, an uncredited rewrite on the motion picture Number One With A Bullet starring Robert Carradine and Billy Dee Williams, and the sale of his original screenplay Kick And Kick Back to Cannon Films. Robert was also selected as a judge for the 1990 Cable Ace awards, in the Comedy Special category.
In 1990, Robert left Hollywood for Denver, where he became active in the local independent film community. His screenplay Tiger Street was produced by the Pagoda Group of Denver, and premiered on Showtime Extreme in August of 2003. In 1999, Denver’s Inferno Films produced the action film Dragon and the Hawk from his script. In 2001, Robert co-wrote the screenplay for the independent feature Siren for Las Vegas company Stage Left Productions. His feature script Juncture was produced by Front Range Films in March of 2006.
Robert is a principal member of the Denver production company "Conspiracy Films." He is frequently an invited speaker for local writers organizations, served on the faculty of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference in 2002, and in 2007 was chosen to participate as a panelist for the Aspen Film Festival Short Screenplay Contest. Robert regularly presents his screenwriting class "The Elements of Screenplay," along with advanced classes and workshops, in the Denver area.