People often ask me what makes a great story. In my recently published book Screenwriting is Storytelling (Penguin Putnam, 2004) this complex subject is addressed in depth; and the foundations of screenwriting are conveyed through the major elements of story and the process of storytelling. Since the book's publication last fall, I have had the opportunity to address hundreds of inquiries from screenwriters all around the world, triggering my own curiosity regarding how to engage the inner world of this mysterious process.
One of the most compelling questions pertains to why American Classic Storytelling rocks at the worldwide film box office. By studying the themes and content of the top highest grossing 20 films of all time, I discovered that the films are all American-made, but more importantly, I noticed what unites them as films is that their content represents and conveys three transcendent elements that characterize the greatest film stories ever told and the story of America itself: Freedom, Justice, Truth.
"Creating a Hero, American Style" is meant to help you integrate these primary elements of storytelling into a strong narrative via the Main Character. To achieve this in a profound way, we must be willing to venture into our own spiritual lives, defining and questioning our deepest core values as a culture, understanding the source of our conscious and unconscious conflicts as human beings, and as storytellers, attempt to personify these hopes, dreams, and ideals through the Main Character.
America is unique in her staunch belief that "freedom" originates for all human beings from birth, from a Creator. The late Pope John Paul II knew this first hand as a child of Nazism who endured Communism, and he made it his life work that the world would give renewed understanding to the idea that "freedom" is a God-given gift to all mankind. The beauty of "freedom" is that it unites the human race with pride of humanity, offering dignity to one another and the ability to help those in need. This is the basis for what we know as "free will" which renders humankind able to know "good" and freely choose it. This is the primary foundation of "story" in that every great story features a Main Character with a strong moral choice, the ability to "do good" against equal and opposing forces. The Main Character faces escalating dilemmas throughout the story, expresses "free will" against greater odds, continually testing his or her own human weaknesses against universal ideals of life, liberty, and justice. This continual conflict moves the Main Character forward, evolving from immaturity into maturity - physically, emotionally, and spiritually - despite his or her own flaws.
Our strongest feature films test "free will" in the extreme. With great clarity, they characterize the ultimate human test in the ongoing conflict between good and evil. In Titanic, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) exercises his to save the lives of others, especially his beloved Rose. In Amadeus, anti-hero Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) refuses to surrender his envy for Mozart; in fact, he does the opposite, he exercises his "free will" to destroy Amadeus ("Soul of God") Mozart, ultimately condemning himself to his own prison of mediocrity where he descends into madness. In Schindler's List, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a corrupt war profiteer, is confronted with the reality that a little girl he recognizes as "Redcoat" has been sacrificed to the Nazi regime; only then does he make the choice to risk his own life to save one Jew at a time, such that by the end of his days, his lingering regret is that he would have rescued one more.
This element can be difficult to understand, particularly in context of our contemporary culture which confuses its meaning. Based on over 20 years experience with gifted writers such as Tennessee Williams and Jason Miller, as well as Academy Award winners, I have learned to listen and observe human nature on many levels. This is how we discover the layers of "Justice" within a story. We create a physical framework as a narrative, representing a Main Character who confronts moral, social, poetic, and absolute justice.
Moral Justice is easy to understand. It's the moral compass of the story. In storytelling, it's "good" vs. "evil," the right and wrong according to universally recognized standards. In Titanic, it's established through Jack, who risks his life to save the despondent Rose (Kate Winslet) from throwing herself overboard to escape her upcoming marriage to a corrupt, wealthy man. The moral compass is developed on many levels throughout the epic story, and one of the defining moments is when Jack risks his life to save 3rd Class Steerage; in the end, Jack and Rose are destined to part and Jack is willing to sacrifice his life for his beloved Rose. In Amadeus, moral justice is established in a redemption story through the anti-hero Salieri, who refuses to relinquish his envy for the talented Mozart. It is developed throughout the story as Salieri continually sabotages Mozart, and ultimately sacrifices his own soul to envy. And in Schindler's List, Oskar Schindler lines his pockets with the misfortune of others - Jews about to face holocaust - until he can no longer tolerate his own self-loathing and corruption. Once he makes this realization, he freely chooses to save the lives of others, rescue all the Jews he can, regardless of his own risk.
Social Justice is less understood. The key to great storytelling is that "moral justice" renders "social justice," not the other way around. Without moral justice there is no social justice. There are those who may believe doing social good works make up for moral offenses against our ideals and fellow man, but in the world of storytelling, we require both levels of humanity in unity, and more.
"The key to great storytelling is that 'Moral Justice' renders 'Social Justice,' not the other way around."
Ultimately, we test our Main Character against the moral compass of universal values as well as our understanding of social responsibility and the greater good. For example, in real life as in storytelling, we might tolerate or admire someone who would omit performing generosity in the larger picture, but in storytelling, we simply cannot engage a Main Character who robs us of our own sense of well-being in little ways, let alone the greater good. Sometimes it's as simple as establishing a Main Character who loves his family or his friend, or at the minimum, his dog. (The classic would be Don Corleone in The Godfather who kills human beings to effect his brand of manmade justice, but loves his cat!) In the larger context, audiences crave characters that defend the defenseless, liberate the tyrannized, and risk their own lives to save others, even if it means their own personal demise. In any and all cases, great storytelling requires the unity of moral and social justice for us to fully engage the story.
In Titanic, Jack saves Rose as well as 3rd Class Steerage and he is moved forward through the story with the cleansing experience of water that leads him to save even more lives. In Amadeus, the anti-hero Salieri seeks to destroy the genius music of Mozart, but in fact, Salieri is destroying his own soul and robbing himself - and his fellow man - of his own potential and gift for music. And in Schindler's List, Oskar Schindler seeks to save one life at a time, but in the larger context, he stands up to one of the greatest evils of in the history of mankind, Hitler's Nazism.
Poetic Justice is easy to comprehend, but in application, requires patience and maturity. If you practice storytelling on this level, your writing will improve exponentially. The word "poetic" refers to idealistic or transcendent understanding of history or nature. In storytelling, Poetic Justice refers to an outcome where "good" is rewarded and where "vice" is punished, in keeping with the depth of goodness or transgression. If truth be told, this is the most powerful reason we are drawn to storytelling. Life is filled with injustice and hurt on a daily basis, but in storytelling, the poetic paradigm allows us to experience the unity of moral, social and poetic justice as "absolute" so we can move forward in our own lives with greater clarity and meaning.
In Titanic, Jack sacrifices his life for others, and in so doing, earns Rose's eternal admiration and love, but it is our poetic hope for the romantic reunification of Jack and Rose in the next life that haunts us in the end and makes this the #1 movie in the history of film. In Amadeus, the anti-hero Salieri who seeks to destroy Amadeus ends up destroying his own soul, driven mad by his envy and vengeance, condemned to mediocrity. In Schindler's List, Oskar Schindler makes the decision to give up his worldly vices, and chooses to risk his life so that Jews may live; in so doing, he regains the respect and admiration of his estranged wife, but more importantly, he recovers his own self-respect and self-worth as a human being, with the poetic dimension that all human beings can be saved, even a debased human being named Oskar Schindler.
It has been said that the truth will set you free. But whose truth? Yours? Mine? Ours? Are there parallel truths, multiple truths, pluralistic truths? The beauty of truth is that it requires no explanation. It sets us free because it is held to be true for all. By featuring "free will" as the capacity to choose "good" - the challenge for storytellers is to create the unity of moral, social and poetic justice. This unity of absolute justice creates clarity of thinking that is absolute because it celebrates the nature, dignity and the universal ideals of man. It is the clarity that sets us free as human beings to discover the "Truth."
Test Your "Primary Storytelling" Elements
Understanding the primary storytelling elements of Freedom, Justice and Truth is the first step in improving your writing. In application, the next step is to identify and/or create the concrete dramatic situation for the Main Character, with special emphasis on isolating his/her main dramatic choice within the story. Then, trace this choice as it evolves from story point to story point, as the concrete narrative that features opposing characters. Usually there are about twelve major story points that move your Main Character's story forward to the climax of the story. Once you have committed to these twelve story points, write them down, and ask these questions:
* What is the original moral choice of the Main Character?
* Is this moral choice confronted in the Climax of the story?
* What is the internal conflict (flaw vs. moral ideal) driving the Main Character?
* Who challenges the Main Character's conflict throughout the story?
* Does the Main Character face a strong choice for the greater good?
* How does the moral choice support and/or negate the greater good?
* Are the roots of Poetic Justice established within the story?
* How is Poetic Justice revealed?
* Does my story convey a universal Truth?
Story Lights all Darkness
As human beings, we are perpetually in conflict with our human flaws, one another, and our universal ideals. Great storytelling allows us to explore man's nature through free will, to enter a world where there is a unified (absolute) understanding that moral justice renders social justice renders poetic justice. This deeply enriching universe is where truth reigns supreme. It is our opportunity to tell it like it is, but more importantly, it is our opportunity to tell it how we hope it can be.
As Americans, our highest ideals are Freedom, Justice, and Truth. But as storytellers, we know them as the basis by which we discover the poetic dimensions of the human soul. All human beings love stories because we need stories to understand life, our plight as human beings, and the path to the future. Story lights all Darkness, and the end of a great story leads us forward into a beacon of Light.