The Appeal to Reality in Screenwriting.
If I had a £1 for every time a screenwriting student said to me 'but that's how it actually happened' or 'but this happened exactly like this to a friend of mine', I'd reckon on having £4.67... no seriously I'd be rich. Maybe not Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos rich but maybe like Jay Z... okay maybe not like Jay Z... but like Touker Suleyman from Dragon's Den or the other one Theo Paphitis... okay maybe not even that rich, but you get my point. Screenwriting students regularly appeal to reality to justify their decision-making when they are trying to write believable scripts. I'm going to suggest in what follows that reality is the wrong point of reference.
The appeal to reality is a totally understandable position, live action narrative films (as opposed to animations) look so much like life that new screenwriters often think that screenplays need to reflect the realities of life and human behaviour as they are, and in some ways of course this is right. To some degree or other characters need to behave in a way that we deem 'real' and we need to believe the world is 'real'. Nothing should blow a hole in the reality of the film (unless that's the intention) because that's a sure fire way to alienate or lose your audiences interest.
The issue I have with the appeal to reality is that although a narrative film looks like real life with photo-realistic representations of people and places, it's not real life. Film is a facsimile of real life, and here's the important bit, it seems to preserve our common sense notions of space, time, cause and effect and human behaviour but clearly it's all constructed, and not just in the way it looks, but more importantly in the way it tells stories. At this point you may be thinking... who is this guy? This is obvious... bear with me as this has real implications for screenwriting.
What most of us want from good screenwriting is a good story. Now here's the thing, stories have their own conventions, conventions that you're familiar with even if you're not a screenwriter. Don't believe me? How many times have you felt short-changed by the ending of a film and wished it had been different? In some way the writer of that film didn't meet your storytelling expectations about how that film should end. You knew innately that they'd flouted story telling conventions, even if you aren't familiar with what those conventions are! So here's my point, to actually write a good film is to work with those narrative conventions and those conventions regularly overrule reality. We as audience may think we want reality, but actually what we want is story that is close enough to reality to be believable, but above all honours storytelling conventions which have some way made their way into our hard wiring (a topic for another blog).
A good screenplay is invariably 'cleaner' than real life which is messy, confusing, where nothing is black and white and rarely conclusive (or is that just my life?!). A good screenplay also needs drama to create emotional engagement with your audience. So to illustrate these points, let's consider the difference between real life and cinematic storytelling when it comes to someone changing their mind about something important.
In real life there might be a number of influencing factors that have a kind of cumulative and incremental effect over time until eventually the person changes their mind, that change of mind might be an internal change for the person who experiences it, and they might tell a friend or two, and perhaps life for that person continues as it ever did. In screenwriting there also may be a number of influencing factors, and we might see our protagonist doubting and questioning, like in real life, but, and this is the real difference, in cinematic story telling we need the decisive moment, that defining event that says everything will be different for this person from here on in, because at this point in the story they have unequivocally changed their mind. In cinematic storytelling we would seek to externalise the change, we would show through a dramatic event or action that this change of mind has taken place.
Now tell me which of these versions of a person changing their mind would you want to see on the big screen, real life or the screenwriting version? I'm hoping this goes some way to explaining why the appeal to reality is not the best measure of how to write a strong screenplay.
As to the truth of the screenplay, I'd like to argue it's not lessened by cinematic storytelling as the truth resides in the meaning and theme of the screenplay and not in the rendering of the specific events... more on that in a future blog.
Thanks for reading,
Your friendly neighbourhood scriptologist.