Writing On Writing: Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

In a previous blot post, I mentioned how I thought writers should familiarize themselves with behavioral sciences as this can lead to more realistic characters. There’s a particular theory that stands out to me as a “thing I wish writers knew.” That would be Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions.

The theory is often taught to people studying international business or communication, as it’s a tool for defining what makes one culture different from another culture. I’ll link something here and then type my own summary and how it relates to screenwriting below.

The reason why this tool is so helpful is because as writers, we have to build worlds. This is especially true in sci-fi or fantasy works, but it’s actually a needed skill across the board. If we’re telling a story of a different time period or a different part of the world, we need to build that world and make sure our audience is aware of relevant cultural norms. Hell, even New York City has a culture separate from that of say, Iowa, but because the city is portrayed in mass media so often, stories set here don’t necessarily need to invest as much time in defining the world.

The cultural dimensions help you figure out what kind of a world you’re building. And oftentimes, a protagonist is going to be out-of-the-norm in some way. It can clarify a lot to know that your protagonist is an individualist while your society is collectivist, or that your protagonist is future-oriented while your society is present-oriented. So what are they?

1. Power Distance Index

Power is ALWAYS going to be distributed unequally, but different societies have different levels of accepting this fact. In the U.S., we have a low-ish power distance. Most Americans buy into the idea that all members of a society should have some kind of a say in the society, and that leadership should be held accountable to its people. Regardless of how exactly this is carried out in practice, the cultural ideal is there.

This is radically different from a society where there is a king and the peasants simply accept that they are not king and that is the way the world works. A LOT of great movies play with the power distance index. Any time you have a tyrannical villain and a small band of misfits who refuses to accept it, that’s the power distance index. These types of stories don’t work unless we first establish that MOST people in the society are content to accept the tyranny, or at least they have been until recent events. That’s what makes our heroes the heroes that they are.

2. Individualism v. Collectivism 

To what extent do individuals have an obligation to make sacrifices for the common good? As you can probably guess, the United States is pretty damn individualist, even though this is an issue that different political factions within the U.S. will disagree on. Overall, we still reject the idea that individuals owe society blind loyalty. We like the idea of individuals being able to forge their own path in life and as long as they are able to support themselves, we don’t necessarily think they have to go above and beyond to support the rest of society too.

In other cultures, and perhaps even in the one you’re writing, individuals are expected to shove their own wants, needs, dreams, ambitions, and emotions to the back burner in order to look after the society. Think about Mulan. The story starts by establishing how important family honor was within that culture. Not even honor for Mulan specifically, but for her family. Mulan was expected to prioritize family honor over her own ambitions because her role as a member of a group (both her family and society at large) was more important than her role as an individual.

3. Masculinity v. Femininity

In this context, the words “masculine” and “feminine” have nothing to do with whether you like pink or blue, or prefer football to ballet. Instead, it has to do with what a society values. “Masculine” societies value assertiveness, and material success and are highly competitive. “Feminine” societies value collaboration and modesty. One might think that this is the same as individualism v. collectivism, but that’s not the case.

If you’re writing a war movie, odds are you’re looking at a culture that’s highly collectivist but also highly masculine. Individuals are expected to put the needs of their side over their individual needs, but victory and assertiveness are still top priority. That’s different from a say, a small business where assertiveness and victory within the marketplace is still a priority but individuals might not be expected to make the same level of sacrifice.

Knowing if you’re writing within a masculine or feminine cultural can help you figure out what kinds of obstacles your character is going to face. In a masculine society, you might have an assertive antagonist actively trying to destroy your protagonist (Oddly enough, some “chick flicks” such as The Devil Wears Prada or Legally Blonde provide some great examples of this). In a feminine culture, it’s less likely that you’re going to have a traditional “villain” but you might have a protagonist who wants to reach high levels of success and those cultural ideals of modesty will be what creates conflict.

4. Uncertainty Avoidance Index

Different societies (and people for that matter) have different risk tolerance levels. That’s what Uncertainty Avoidance is all about. Cultures with high levels of uncertainty avoidance are more likely to pass different laws and regulations to try to control the future The people in such a society are scared of ambiguity.

Think of the difference between a dystopian story like The Giver, and say an old John Wayne western. One culture strives for predictability while the other attracts people who aren’t afraid of the unknown. In a movie script, we always need a certain degree of uncertainty so it’s important to understand how the world you create will react to that. If your society has high Uncertainty Avoidance, it might only take a relatively small, simple change to set your story into motion. In a society where people are more comfortable with chaos, you might need something much bigger to cause drama.

5. Long-term v. Short-term Orientation

To what extent does a society care about preserving the traditions of the past? To what extent are they willing to change in order to have a brighter future? This is long-term v. short-term orientation.

Traditions oftentimes cause conflict in movies. “Young rebel wants to go against tradition” will continue to inspire stories from now until the end of time. Crazy Rich Asians does a great job of explaining why certain characters value tradition as much as they do while also giving the younger generation compelling reasons to break from tradition.

6. Indulgence v. Restraint

A newer dimension added in 2010, indulgence v. restraint is kind of self explanatory. While it does bear SOME similarities to individualism v. collectivism, this has more to do selfish pleasures and vices than say long term ambitions. How socially acceptable are things like sex, drugs, alcohol, smoking, etc.? Are individuals free to engage in whatever brings them joy or do cultural norms shame them? If so, what specific cultural norms are keeping people unhappy?

Boiling down “culture” into six different dimensions is surprisingly helpful when trying to figure out what sort of world your story takes place in. It can also enlighten which aspects of a culture really need to hit home because they’re relevant to your story and your character arcs, and which ones don’t really need that much screentime.

Writing About Writing: What Makes for A Good Scene?

I’ve written a lot about character development and story structure shenanigans. However it crossed my mind that I haven’t focused on the building blocks of a script: scenes. If you can’t write scenes, you can’t write a script. Period. Sometimes mapping out the big picture is actually easier than writing scenes. So let’s talk about the characteristics of a good scene. (Scene-eristics? Maybe?)

1. It should take us somewhere we haven’t been before. 

Is this scene showing us something we haven’t seen before? Is it revealing new information? When evaluating scenes as individual units it’s important to ask if the story serves the story. Maybe it’s revealing new information about a character. Maybe it’s giving us more insight into to the challenges facing our characters. But try to shy away from “oh I think this would be funny” or “oh I think this would be cool looking” if that scene isn’t actually advancing the story.

2. It should give us some indication of other scenes to come.

An expertly crafted scene makes us excited to watch another scene. You could write the most interesting conversation between the most interesting characters but if there isn’t at least a hint at other plot points to come it’s easy for audiences to feel like “Where are we going with this?”

If two people meet and set up a first date, now we’re waiting to see that date.

If our villain lets a monster loose, now we’re waiting to see if that monster attacks anyone.

You need to build tension, which means that most of your scenes should leave your audience waiting to see how the scenario will play out.

3. It should fit the tone of the overall film.

There’s a little bit more flexibility here, but in general comedy films should have funny scenes. Action movies should have scenes with action. While it probably will do more harm than good to try to make EVERY scene overly scary/funny/adventurous, at the very least you need to avoid violating your chosen tone.

Not every scene in a horror movie should be scary, but you definitely need to keep funny scenes to a minimum. You don’t necessarily need to be consistent 100% of the time, but you at least can’t go so far in the opposite direction that you confuse your audience about the tone.

4. It should entertain. 

At the end of the day, we watch movies to be entertained. Therefore, scenes should entertain. I’ve seen some movies that take the notion of setting up other scenes too far. You spend 90+ minutes just WAITING for stuff to happen. Making your audience excited for other scenes is important, but there’s also something to be said for making your audience love the moment that’s unfolding right now. The journey needs to be just as exciting as the destination.

So try to ask yourself, “what, if any entertainment value does this scene have all on its own?” if it is a relatively boring scene but is necessary to set up something else, try to find a way to have your cake and eat it too. Challenge yourself to find entertaining ways to set up all the plot points you need to advance your story.

I know it sounds hard, but the ability to write good scenes and the ability to write good outlines is what separates writers from people who have really good outlines. I know some of this advice seems contradictory, but in a lot of ways screenwriting is a precarious balancing act. You’re constantly trying to solve story problems without creating new problems for yourself. But if you think you’re up to the task, go ahead and write some. It’s the only way to get better.

Writing About Writing: Love Actually Syndrome

It’s that time of year again when people are more likely to to watch the 2003 film Love, Actually, since many people believe it to be a Christmas film. I am grateful to this film not because I like it but because it is one of those films that taught me an important lesson of writing. It has such a bad case of a certain problem that when I encounter other films that have this issue, I will say the other movie has “Love Actually Syndrome.”

Image result for love actually

The problem is that Love, Actually has so many unrelated plotlines going on that it forces audiences to pick favorites. It has roughly 9 different plotlines? I think?

– Laura Linney has an office crush but also has to take care of her mentally ill brother
– Alan Rickman is being seduced by some chick in his office and his wife (Emma Thompson) grows increasingly suspicious about it.
– Some dude named Collin who’s played by a non-famous person travels to the United States to cash in on his British accent.
– Hugh Grant is Prime Minister and crushing on some pretty girl in his office.
– Some dude has a crush on Keira Knightley which presents a problem since Keira Knightley just married his best friend.
– Liam Neeson has to deal with the death of his wife while trying to bond with his young stepson.
– Bill Nighy tries to get a Christmas #1 song.
– Colin Firth tries to write a novel while falling in love with the housekeeper who does not speak English.
– Martin Freeman is a porn stand-in and falls in love with the chick he has to pretend to have sex with.

None of these stories are really BAD. Each one has everything it needs in order to be the cute little love story it’s intended to be. The problem is that NO ONE is going to watch all 9 of these stories and become equally invested in all 9 of them. No one is going to be just as curious about all plot lines. No one is going to find all protagonists equally likable or all antagonists equally despicable.

Whenever I watch the movie, I always have moments of “Yeah, Colin Firth is cool I guess, but what’s happening with Hugh Grant?” There’s an adverse effect on the viewing experience when you have to spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for the movie to go back to a plot line you actually care about.

If you want to juggle several different plot lines, it’s not completely impossible, but I definitely think you should stop short of 9, and I also think it helps to make a more obvious connection between them. One movie that I think does this decently well is Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here. There’s several different plot lines happening but all the different characters are still part of the same family. It’s hard to have a “favorite” plot line, because each plot line has an obvious impact on the others. It’s hard to just not care about how much Kate Hudson hates her job because that job is directly connected to Zach Braff’s ability to stay home and homeschool the kids.

That’s different from Love, Actually where the characters are TECHNICALLY connected, but one mini-story often doesn’t have a direct impact on the well-being of characters outside that mini-plot. Sure, Collin the dude who can’t get laid in the UK was invited to Keira Knightley’s wedding, but it’s not like his excursion to the states has any real impact on anyone other than himself. Sure, Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant are siblings, but how does Grant’s ability to woo his subordinate actually affect Rickman and Thompson?

As a writer, I think you have somewhat of an obligation to tell your audience who their favorites should be. Yes, those feelings can evolve over the course of a story. Yes, sometimes it can be interesting to have intricate ethical dilemmas where reasonable people can disagree about who’s “right.” But don’t just throw a bunch of characters at your audience and let the chips fall where they may. Don’t give your movie Love, Actually syndrome.

 

 

Writing About Writing: The Struggle Is Real (Also a Bohemian Rhapsody review!)

I just came back from seeing one of the numerous movies on my “I should probably see that” list. On today’s episode of “Anne ruins a movie everyone else liked by being too analytical,” is Bohemian Rhapsody, which tells the story of Freddie Mercury and his bandmates.

Image result for bohemian rhapsody movieI can’t say the movie was BAD or that I regret seeing it, but I also didn’t really love all the storytelling decisions either. The basic problem is that this movie makes becoming Queen look freakishly simple. The band forms and almost instantly signs a record deal, starts performing on tv, charts in the US, and is touring the world. There was no struggle. The movie dove almost immediately into a “happily ever after” phase. This became an issue later on when the band starts to butt heads with each other. Losing what they had didn’t mean as much because we didn’t see how hard they had to work to get to that level.

Stories are about struggles. This is one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that truly is non-negotiable. Make your characters work for their success. Make them work hard enough that it really hurts when you take that success away.

When you write ask yourself: “what parts of this movie do I want to make truly painful? What parts should overflow with triumph?” and then write your conflict accordingly.

We need enough struggle to make success feel triumphant. Conversely, we need enough time to enjoy the highs of our stories before we hit the lows.

I wish Bohemian Rhapsody had put more time into developing the relationship of the band. There was occasional conflict, but it always dissipated in the next scene with no real struggle. We bounced back and forth between scenes where the band hated each other and scenes where they were fiercely loyal to each other and it was often unclear as to why. Towards the end of the movie as the band actually started to fall apart, I felt like I didn’t have a sense for what the band was truly losing. You need to ask yourself:

“What will I take away from my characters? What do I need to establish about that thing beforehand to make sure it’s a real struggle when they lose it?”

AND

“What will my character gain over the course of their story arc? How do I make sure it’s enough of a fight that my audience isn’t sitting around wondering why they didn’t have this all along? How do I make sure that this victory exudes euphoria?”

THAT is how you write. You make the struggle real.

Writing About Writing: I Guess I Should Talk About Tone

I’ve just passed the halfway point in this project and it crossed my mind that I have yet to dedicate a post to the rather important topic of “tone.”

“Tone” is what makes the 1971 Mel Stuart film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the 2005 Tim Burton film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory entirely different movies. They have essentially the same characters following along essentially the same story beats. Yet, I challenge you to find a person who would say “Yeah, those films are one in the same. I’m equally happy watching either one of them.”

Now tone, like anything else, is not 100% in the hands of the screenwriter. The director has a lot to do with it too. However, it’s still important to have a tone in mind as a writer. Tone gives you the sort of clarity you need to zero in on what your writing will be. If I gave you a simple prompt of “Describe the setting of your film” that’s not as clear as “describe the setting of your creepy, horror film” or “describe the setting of your family comedy.”

The best question I can think of to ask yourself when considering tone “how do I want my audience to feel during this two hour experience?” Please note that that’s not “how should this particular scene make my audience feel?” Some movies help us relax, while some movies are intentionally designed to make us uncomfortable. Some movies are designed to stimulate us intellectually while others focus more on touching our emotions. None of these are right or wrong choices, but I think it’s important to ask yourself not only “does my story work?” but also “what do I want this movie to really do for people?”

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory strikes me as pure escapism. It’s fun. It makes you want to live in this wonderful candy world and forget the miserable world you actually live in.

Regardless of whether or not you enjoy Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (I know I prefer the 1971 version) I just can’t help but think that Tim Burton wasn’t TRYING to do what the 1971 movie did. He wanted to make his audience feel a little uneasy. Perhaps he was trying to make some statement about how fantasy worlds are never all they’re cracked up to be or how being a creative genius means nothing if you don’t have a loving family. I’m not sure what he considered his mission to be, but I definitely think it was something beyond just “make a movie that’s fun.”

What do you want your movie to do for an audience? Once you know that, you can figure out what kind of tone you want, and then can help you fill in some of the nooks and crannies of your script beyond main story points.

Writing About Writing: The Well-Informed Mystery Paradox

There’s a great paradox that exists in screenwriting. How do you keep an audience in suspense while also keeping them informed? How do you make sure they understand your story without spoon-feeding it to them in a way that feels patronizing and belittling? How do you make sure they’re in the dark about enough things to keep them guessing while also making sure they care enough to guess?

Your script needs to be mysterious. But your script also needs to be informative. It’s a bit of a pickle, isn’t it?

I do not claim to have mastered this paradox in all my own writing myself, but it is something I’m constantly aware of. I long for my writing to be unpredictable. But I am also constantly asking “ok but what does my audience need to know in order to really get it?” So here’s a few strategies I’ve come up with.

I’ve already said in The Four Things You Need To Know what I consider to be essential for telling a good story:

  • What does my character want?
  • Why does my character want that thing?
  • What is my character’s plan to get this thing?
  • What will happen if this particular plan doesn’t work?

I think it’s INCREDIBLY difficult to write engaging if you are attempting to keep one of these factors a secret. Though it is worth mentioning that not necessarily ALL characters’ motives need to be evident from the get go. In a current piece I’m working on, I have a protagonist with a relatively straightforward mission while the antagonist has goals and plans far more sinister than they first appear. In general, I think it’s pretty much always easier to make the situation mysterious rather than making your main characters mysterious. If your audience knows enough about your protagonist to become invested in them, they’ll care when that character wanders into a mysterious house and we’re unsure

I also think this is another issue where you’re better off picking one extreme and then sticking to it. I’ve enjoyed some movies that falsely lured me into believing I was watching a formulaic, predictable story only to throw in a twist at the very end (Disney’s Frozen is a great example of this).

On the other end of the spectrum, we have one of my favorite films of recent memory, Bad Times at the El Royale. This one avoids giving you any background info until the exact moment that the story requires it to move forward. You watch with this constant feeling that anything can happen at any moment. There’s a confidence in the mysteries being laid out, as if the writer says “I know I’m not explaining much, but trust me. It’ll all be worth it.” Both are totally fine strategies that make for unpredictable movies.

What doesn’t work though are those stories that give you a lot of information, except it’s not all that relevant, or at least not relevant right now. While it’s kinda an apples-to-oranges comparison because this is a series instead of a film, American Horror Story: Murder House has this issue for me. I will grant you that the season is unpredictable, but it also gives you a fair amount of information that either doesn’t really need to be there at all or won’t be relevant for several more episodes. There were enough plot points on the table that I felt like I SHOULD be able to piece them together into a story and got confused and pissed off when I couldn’t. I got even MORE confused and pissed off when I reached the end of the season and realized just how much of it was pointless diversions. All the while the writing failed to give me information it probably SHOULD have given me. I wasn’t emotionally invested in most of the main characters and this was largely because every episode spent a fair amount of time on less relevant characters in an attempt to establish mystery.

Not every script really NEEDS a super dramatic plot twist, but it does need just enough mystery to make us say “hmm, I don’t know what will happen next but I want to.” When writing your script, ask yourself at the end of each scene “have I established a question about what will happen in another scene?” But also make sure you’ve made your characters interesting enough that people care enough to ask.

 

Writing About Writing: A Case for Something Instead of Character Bios

Maybe I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but thinking through your characters is really REALLY important. And I think sometimes conventional writing exercises designed to help you with characterization aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. (See Writing About Writing: A Case Against Character Bios)

When I first realized that I enjoyed creative writing, I oftentimes would “characterize” simply by thinking about the vague adjectives that applied to a character. Maybe they were adventurous, maybe they were shy. Maybe they were funny, maybe they were serious. And again this isn’t COMPLETELY useless… but I think we can do better.

The number one thing you need for a character is a framework for how they make decisions. This is especially true in screenwriting, where you often don’t have the luxury of an inner monologue explaining your characters’ thoughts. We need to watch them make choices to learn about who they are, and we need to understand WHY they’re making the choices they’re making. So let’s go through some questions that might help you get you there.

1. What does your character like most about themselves?

Our confidences are one of the things that drive our behavior. If a dude decides to post a shirtless selfie on Instagram and another one doesn’t, odds are it’s at least in part because he believe that selfie is attractive (whether or not it actually is is besides the point). The parts we like most about ourselves are the parts we have no problem sharing with other people. They’re oftentimes some of the first things others learn about us, or in the case of a fictional character, the first thing an audience will learn. Is your character more proud of their brain or their brawn? Are they confident in their business savvy? Their sex life? It all varies but it all determines why people behave the way they do.

2. What are your character’s insecurities? 

So shirtless Instagram boy probably wouldn’t post the picture if he genuinely believed it was ugly. HOWEVER, there also might be a part of him that wants external validation. He’s not quite confident enough that he’s willing to go without explicit reassurance that he’s as attractive as he thinks he is (we’ve all been there). Just as confidences drive behavior, so do insecurities. The parts of ourselves that we hide, or continually seek validation can have an even bigger impact on the relationships we form with other humans.

Sometimes characters are insecure about things that are totally fine (like the beautiful girl who wears glasses and a ponytail because she doesn’t see how beautiful she is). Other times those insecurities are reflective of actual flaws and that’s cool too. Just remember that a character flaw doesn’t actually change how that character will behave. Perceived flaws will, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to be there in the first place.

3. What is your character’s level of risk tolerance? 

We all have different levels of risk tolerance, and it’s relatively easy to show what a fictional character’s risk tolerance is even before you really get into your important plot points. For example, Marlin from Finding Nemo hates anything risky or dangerous, and this is established on Nemo’s first day of school before Marlin ever actually has to do anything dangerous. Dory on the other hand has a much higher level of risk tolerance which is why she oftentimes makes decisions Marlin wouldn’t have made on his own.

4. Does your character care more about the future or the present?

Some of us are here for a long time, some of us are here for a good time. Characters that are making their choices because they believe those choices will pay off in the future will behave much differently from characters who like to live in the moment. Again, there’s all sorts of ways to reveal this information before it’s about something important. When two friends go out to a nightclub, who is worried about a hangover the next morning and who is living life like it’s a 2010 Ke$ha song? This is a key factor in knowing how your character might handle the challenges you’re about to throw at them.

5. Whose opinion is your character most worried about? 

Some people really don’t care what anyone else says or thinks about them. They are content to live life however they like and they don’t care about others. Sometimes this is portrayed as a flaw (Bojack Horseman, Rick Sanchez), but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Other times we’re worried about what “other people” think. This could be a boss’s opinion, a love interest’s opinion, a parent’s opinion, or maybe just abstract notions of what’s “socially acceptable.” Either way, there’s pretty much always some human being that we are trying to please when we decide to make one choice over another one. Know who that guiding force is in each of your character’s lives.

6. What can inspire them to change? 

This is perhaps the most important one of them all. As mentioned in another previous post, movie magic really happens when characters go on some kind of transformational journey. Therefore, it’s important to know what is such a high priority for this character that they are willing to blow off your answers to the first five questions just for this one thing. Family is a common example. I already mentioned Finding Nemo, and that applies here. Marlin’s love for Nemo was so powerful that it was able to prompt Marlin into doing things he never would have done otherwise. A similar theme is in action in Breaking Bad where an otherwise typical suburban dad is prompted to cook meth because he wants to provide for his family after he leaves. But maybe it isn’t family. Maybe it’s a romance. Maybe it’s something more sinister like money or power. Maybe it’s an adorable puppy, I don’t know. But either way your character needs some force in their life so powerful it can render every other aspect of their decision-making framework irrelevant. That’s what you need in order to make change occur.

Is this an exhaustive list? No. It’s something I threw together in less than an hour of real writing, plus some casual outlining. The real takeaway here is that you need to define your characters in terms that will help you define what choices they will make. Just knowing that a character is “adventurous” may not be enough to do that.

Writing About Writing: The Songs in Every Musical and What They Can Teach You About Story Structure

There are certain things that you’re either obsessed with or you just plain don’t understand. Competitive cup stacking. CBS’s Big Brother. Professional wrestling. Pineapple on pizza. Musicals.

But regardless of whether or not you actually enjoy musicals you can learn SO much from them. In a good musical, the songs actually help to advance the story. They don’t just reiterate information we already know. Now to be fair, I am talking about those musicals that are at least attempting some conventional story structure (Sorry, Rocky Horror) and musicals where the songs were actually written with the intent of telling that story. I’ll been excluding “jukebox musicals” like Mamma Mia or Rock of Ages that just built a story around already-written songs. I’ll also be excluding stuff like High School Musical where most of the songs weren’t really intended to convey any plot information, even if they were written originally for that musical.

When you look at songs in musicals as building blocks of a story, you learn there are certain building blocks that appear over and over again. You realize there’s moments almost every good story has. And regardless of whether or not you have any ambition to write a musical, knowing what those building blocks are can still come in handy. And come on, listening to music is way easier than actual studying, so why not listen to music that will educate you on the story beats and emotional tension that make for great storytelling?  Let’s look at some of those songs that show up over and over again and what we can learn from them.

The Status Quo Song: 

One of the first things screenwriters have to do is establish the day-to-day life of their characters. The audience needs to understand the current status quo in order to properly understand how we’re going to stray from it. It’s quite common for the first song of a musical (or a song very close to the beginning) to serve this purpose. It establishes the time and place of our story and the typical life challenges of our main character(s). When you’re writing a non-musical, DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. Take us into your world before you try to shake that world up too much.

Examples: 
“At The End Of The Day” from Les Miserables
“Carrying The Banner” from Newsies
“One Jump Ahead” from Aladdin

The Dreaming-Of-Something-Better Song:
This song is such a staple of musical theater it’s not uncommon for a single musical to have more than one. Life is a constant tension between what reality is and what we want reality to be. That’s why every story is also about tension between what reality is and what characters want reality to be. In addition to a status quo song, musicals need a song where a character sings about why they’re dissatisfied with it. This song also describes a semi-specific vision of what characters would prefer, rather than a simple “the status quo sucks” (that part is clear in the status quo song if it sucks that much). Usually the two are also not that far apart, since we need to establish conflict as soon as possible.

Examples: 
“Maybe” from Annie
Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid
“The Wizard and I” from Wicked

The Villain Song:
I firmly believe that developing your villain is just as important as developing your protagonist, hence the prevalence of the Villain Song. In a lot of ways, the villain song is just a dreaming-of-something-better song but from a more evil perspective. The good ones explain why the villain doesn’t like the protagonist and how they plan to wreck havoc on said protagonist. I recently dedicated an entire post to writing a good villain, so I don’t want to dwell too heavily on this, but if you’re curious to know more about what makes for a good villain, go listen to some villain songs.

Examples:
“This Jesus Must Die” from Jesus Christ Superstar
“Be Prepared” from The Lion King
“Hellfire” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame 

The Hitting-Rock-Bottom Song:

Any story, musical or not, is going to have a low moment. In musicals, those moments can often take the form of a hitting-rock-bottom song. Sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re sad and reflective, sometimes they’re slightly more optimistic. Maybe it’s a sad reprise of a previously-happy song. Maybe a character dies in this number. Maybe it’s a duet, where one character tries to reassure another that they aren’t really at rock bottom. There’s a lot of different forms of it, and again, it’s possible for a single musical to have more than one as “rock bottom” might be defined differently for different characters. The important thing to remember is that your non-musical script probably needs this story beat. It needs a moment where it feels like all hope is lost and your protagonist is tempted to give up. It needs pain. It needs failure. That’s going to make their triumph that much more triumphant.

Examples: 
“Totally Fucked” from Spring Awakening 
“She Used To Be Mine” from Waitress: The Musical
“What You Own” from Rent 

The Ultimate Triumph Song:
Okay, so not every musical has a happy ending and therefore not EVERY musical really has an ultimate triumph song. However, they’re still common enough to be worth mentioning. Usually it’s one of, if not THE last song (though perhaps it could just be an ACT 1 finale). The ultimate triumph song is euphoric. It describes what the future WILL look like. Not in a maybe-someday sorta way like the dreaming-of-something-better song, but as though this new better future is a cold hard fact. The good ones often articulate some of the challenges that have been overcome, and there’s something inevitable about them, like the characters just can’t help but celebrate their victory.

Examples: 
“You Can’t Stop The Beat” from Hairspray
“You’re The One That I Want” from Grease
“From Now On” from The Greatest Showman

Writing About Writing: Make It the Same, But Different

There’s a huge paradox with screenwriting, or really storytelling in any medium. You have to make stuff the same, but different. Your protagonist needs to be special, but also universally relatable. Your story needs to be fresh and original, but you also can’t really stray too far from audience expectations either or else you risk being “too out there” or “experimental, but it just didn’t work.”

Screenwriting is the art and science of doing the same, but different. The best movies have a good balance between the two. It might sound challenging, but I think it can be a huge help to think of things in these terms when trying to figure out your script.
When you’re writing your character ask yourself “what aspects of this character are going to be similar to my audience? What are going to be those pieces of themselves that almost every audience member can see in this character?” After you make that list, make another one. “What are going to be the things that make this character exceptional? Their sense of adventure? Their intelligence? Their stupidity?” Whatever it’s going to be, figure out what’s going to make a character different and then go out of your way to make sure no other character in your script has that trait.

You could also try a similar exercise with the challenge that your protagonist will face. How is this challenge similar to something everyone in your audience has faced before? Maybe it’s relatively obvious, something like a dating problem or not getting along with your boss. But in something a little more out there like a fantasy piece, that might be harder, but it will still be possible. After you’ve done that, figure out what twist you’re going to put on that challenge to make it interesting and entertaining in ways real life isn’t.

For example Harry Potter is similar to us in some ways (he lacks confidence) but not similar to us in other ways (he’s a wizard, he’s also braver than most people his age). The fact that Hogwarts is so similar to muggle schools means we can relate to challenges like trying to get good grades, make friends, etc. But then Harry also faces a lot of other larger-than-life challenges that no one else in his universe has, like being The Chosen One who can defeat Lord Voldemort.

You need moments where your character and their challenges are just like the audience. Without those moments, it’s hard for your audience to become emotionally invested in your story. But you also need moments that go above and beyond anything your audience has experience. That’s how you build interest on a more cerebral level, and how your script takes on the escapist qualities so many great ones have.  You need both. You need the same, but different.

Writing About Writing: Three Strategies For Writing A Good Villain

I sincerely believe that a villain can make or break a story. There’s nothing that ruins an otherwise good story quite like an underdeveloped villain.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that not every script needs a traditional “villain.” Sometimes the protagonist and antagonist is the same character, fucking up their own lives and then finding ways to overcome their challenges. Sometimes two characters serve as antagonist to each other without either one being “good” and the other being “evil,” rom coms being a good example of this.

But for the purpose of this article, we are talking about villains. We are talking about those characters who are undoubtedly there for no reason other than to cause problems. We are talking about those villains where it’s impossible to argue they are the protagonist. Not anti-heroes, not foils-in-a-buddy-movie, but true villains.

In a lot of ways, it’s harder to write a good villain than it is to write a good protagonist. How do you write a character that the audience hates while also giving that character a logical motive that the audience understands? I find it helpful to revisit the The Four Steps and answer those same questions from the villain’s perspective:

– What does my villain want?
– Why does my villain want this thing?
– What is my villain’s plan to get this thing?
– What will happen if that plan fails?

All of this can help prevent your villain from becoming this arbitrary force that causes problems with no real explanation as to why. However, if you want to turn a good villain into a great villain, you might want to consider one of the following strategies.

Strategy 1: An extreme example of a relatable instinct
A lot of the best villains are a manifestation of immoral impulses that all humans have. We’re all greedy. And nosy. And proud. And lustful. And envious. And power hungry. And selfish. Maybe to different extents for different people, but it’s there. The Id, as Sigmund Freud would say (see how I linked it back to one of the other Fields Writers Should Study?)

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Regina George

A lot of villains are based around one or two of these universal motives, but then they act on those motives when other people wouldn’t. They push past the social and ethical rules that constrain everyone else and prioritize that hedonistic instinct above everything. This allows your audience to live out their sinful urges vicariously through such villains.

Regina George falls into this category. A lot of people enjoy gossiping. A lot of people derive pleasure from superficial bullshit like clothes and makeup. A lot of people have a desire for sex with people they find attractive. A lot of people are judgmental. And perhaps the biggest one of all, a lot of people have a desire to be seen as “popular.” Regina George is just a person who puts this kind of nonsense above all else, with no regard for the people she personally victimizes along the way. She’s easy to hate, but we still have a constant understanding of why she’s behaving the way she is, because it’s behavior most of us have been guilty of ourselves.

Strategy 2: A noble goal with extreme methods
Strategy number 2 is a better option if you want a villain who’s a little more sympathetic than Regina George. Give your villain some grand noble mission, as noble as the protagonist’s mission. Then just make them Machiavellian as hell.

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Erik Killmonger

Killmonger wants justice for black people. He wants all black people everywhere to be able to enjoy the benefits Wakandans have. That’s awesome. It’s actually a more noble and clearly defined goal than what T’Challa gets. What is T’Challa trying to do anyway prior to Killmonger’s arrival? Just… maintain the status quo? Kind of a snooze fest.

 

The only thing that makes Killmonger the villain and T’Challa the hero is Killmonger’s affinity for violence. He has a “by any means necessary” approach while T’Challa wants to keep things peaceful.

This is an awesome strategy if you want a result like Black Panther, where it’s possible for different audience members to have different opinions about just how villainous Killmonger was. 

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Lord Voldemort

Strategy 3: A parallel of real life villainy 
Now depending on your story, your “parallel” of real life villainy may in fact just be real life villainy. A story set in WWII where Adolph Hitler is your actual, literal villain is a 100% legitimate choice to make.

However another route is to come up with some analogy for a real life thing you’re trying to condemn. In the Harry Potter books/movies, the primary thing that sets Lord Voldmort and his followers apart from Dumbledore and his followers is their obsession with blood purity. The bad guys judge people based on the family they were born into while the good guys judge people based on their choices.

Hmm. I wonder what Rowling might be trying to tell us there?

Racism fucking sucks. It sucks in real life, and the equivalent of it in the Harry Potter world is bloodism. Bloodism manifests itself in all sorts of different ways: mean comments, wanting to restrict rights to pureblood wizards, and straight up murder of Muggles, Muggleborn wizards, and those who support them. All of this hits home because it bears such a strong resemblance to a real issue that’s plagued humanity for all of recorded history.

With Strategy Number 3, you start by thinking of a real-life evil you wish to condemn and then you write your villain around that. Whether it’s a mere analogy in a sci-fi or fantasy or a more literal case such as actual Nazis depends on what kinds of stories you’re interested in writing.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to claim this list is comprehensive. There are other wonderful villains that don’t clearly fall into one of these three buckets, but hopefully this can help you get started. Happy writing everyone!