In this post I want to talk about creating stories and characters that are completely original. I’ll go over what inspires my own ideas and scripts and how I go about making decisions on story and character arcs.
I watch films, I read books, I follow current events and have an interest in history. Already, through that, I have enough material to inspire me and to form ideas. There are a lot more interests I have and it is the collective experience of all of these that shape my view of the world and how I like to tell stories. More important than any of these external stimuli which have different effects on each individual is something which we all share and on which we should always trust; Our own thoughts and experiences.
These are the tools which allow a writer to construct an entirely believable story because how you perceive reality and existence is the most true thing you can possibly put on to paper. This may seem to be going down the route of existentialism and you may also scoff at the suggestion that Transformers is grounded in reality. Let me explain…
In my opinion, the two most important parts of a script are the characters and the story. In that order. It is a commonly held belief that the story is all important and that a script will fail if it doesn’t have something interesting to say or somewhere intriguing to take us. I agree but the way I see it you can envisage the most incredible story ever told but if the characters you follow in that story don’t seem credible then it kills any interest you might have and you start to forget why you care about the ending. For instance, in Transformers we follow Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBouef) as he becomes involved with a battle between warring alien robots. Far fetched, but the film is grounded in a coming of age story as Sam grows up, gets his first car and falls for a girl out of his league. One of the reasons the sequels failed was to put this story in the back seat and replace it with more ‘comedy’ amongst other things… It’s an example of how we can relate to the films we see no matter how outlandish that film’s premise is.
A lot of what I write is inspired by real life and the rest is dictated by the needs of the story and the motivations of the characters.
I’ll use my script ‘Beneath’ as an example. I have always loved monster movies and Gojira (1954) is a masterpiece. I wanted to create a monster movie that would be set in the UK (because I’m sick of seeing everything hit N.Y. or L.A.) and I wanted to give it a twist. Around the time I had this idea, the oil disaster off the U.S. coast occured and it struck me that the environmental message behind the disaster correlated with similar messages behind most other kaiju films. I had my origin (I won’t tell you exactly of course) but I needed a window in to this story. I came up with the idea that we could view the story via multiple characters á la Rashomon or 24. I decided on two characters. One is directly involved in the catastrophe that sets the story off and another is a man working undercover to investigate what’s really going on after the government declares a media blackout so as not to cause panic. They each have their paths in the story and at the end they come together nicely. The twist I used was to integrate a Bourne-esque conspiracy thriller story in to the mix which upped the socio-political message the screenplay is trying to convey. I also wanted to maintain the tradition of making the monsters themselves characters. It isn’t good enough to simply use them as destroyers or cannon fodder. They are living creatures and need to have their own motives and a side you can empathise with. In the context of this story, they were here long before humans and it is the destruction that man causes to the planet that is far worse than the monster’s rampage through London which will surely occur…
Of course with a story that involves an epic story and multiple characters in the present day, I had to think about how the way we live our lives might be affected by a rampaging giant monster and how current forms of social media might extinguish any attempt by the government to quell the spread of information. This element came from this year’s ‘Arab Spring’ which was fascinating to follow. Humanity will always find a way to overcome.
The interesting part about writing this script is that, much like Cloverfield, you don’t see the monster as much as you think you should. There is still enough excitement and pace in the human elements to drive the story and keep you involved. Much like other movies that deal with huge events such as natural disasters or alien invasions, it is simply a setting in which we can explore humanity. Think of Ridley Scott’s Alien for example. You hardly see the cause of the terror but the film still fills you with a sense of dread and atmosphere. It’s Ripley you become fascinated by as much as the titular acid spitting creature.
The script also demands a large amount of research- specifically military and geographical. I needed to include shipping lanes, places, flights, weapon choices, aircraft, marine vessels, oil rig information and a whole host of other elements to create a believable story that is grounded in reality. I set a portion of one character’s story in London and used places that I knew well enough to describe in detail. “Write what you know” is certainly important here.
The characters themselves need to be well defined and watchable. I gave even the smallest characters details and traits that would make them seem real; as if they were living and breathing as you I read the words in the script. You really need to put time aside for these details as they can actually inspire the direction of the story a lot of the time. I was recently stuck on a script for Mystery Boys, a comic book I write. I couldn’t figure out how the two main characters were going to figure out the puzzle behind strange goings on in a remote Japanese village. I had a vague idea about a ‘crazy’ old guy who knew something more but I didn’t know why he knew it or how they met. I came up with the idea that this elderly guy likes a to drink. The main characters meet him at the village inn. I then created a backstory that stretched to his childhood in the last days of WWII and involved his father. I linked it to one of the main characters who held a mysterious past which is something I also wanted to work in to the story. It was pretty emotional and had a real kick to it. Not only had I solved a few story issues I had now created a really good character and a different ending for the book which became something more than a simple tale of agents against the unknown. It was more human and it is honestly one of the best things I have ever written. It all came from the simple idea of the old man having a drink in his hand.
Similarly, in Beneath, the main characters eventually link up because of who they are and what they do not because I simply decided to place them in the same place at the same time which I feel is far too convenient and lazy.
So, a story can form by seeing what’s around us and by also by the characters we place in that setting. This when the evolution and major changes occur inbetween drafts. It is somewhat painful to change such large portions of script but if your character dictates they should follow a certain path and it works as a story then you need to take the chance and see if it works out better for the script. The story might change which means the characters will do something different which means the consequences might affect the story that follows on and so on…
The main point I want to make here is that when you write, the only voice you should hear is your own. I don’t mean you should write everything from your viewpoint. You need to stay objective if you’re writing something like Schindler’s List for example. What I mean is you shouldn’t be someone else. Keep your style, hone it and create something that within the first ten pages, the reader will say, “this is a <your name here> script and as usual, I love it!”