The Power And Importance Of Human Connection To A Great Screenplay

Posted by Claudia Johnson on

For years I gently browbeat my students. "Dig deeper," I said. "The best stories are about the human heart."

I wasn't quite sure what I meant. I knew I didn't mean that old Hollywood saw -- throw in some love interest! I meant something closer to Samson Raphaelson's remark about Shakespeare in The Human Nature of Playwriting, "[He] is not a realistic writer but he is overwhelmingly real because he reports the hearts of human beings." I was teaching dramatic technique: first, playwriting in the English Department at Florida State, then screenwriting when the Film School began. I was rounding up the usual suspects -- conflict, crisis, and climax -- but I had this nagging sensation that these overlooked something important in stories. I couldn't figure out what it was, so I hoped, if sufficiently coaxed, my students could.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Drama

Derived from the Greek dran -- "to do" -- drama means someone strives. Will meets obstacle, and this creates conflict. For two hundred years, perhaps more, we have talked about dramatic stories this way. George Bernard Shaw defined drama as "the conflict between man's will and his environment." Across the channel, Ferdinand Brunetiere said it was "the will of man in conflict." And so it has gone, like a roll call, each person casting a vote for drama's conventional wisdom.

"Since the early nineteenth century the 'conflict theory' of drama has dominated dramatic criticism and, to a considerable degree, the practice of playwrights," Eric Bentley says in Concepts in Dramatic Theory. "It is a central assumption of most Twentieth-century dramatic theory." In film, where the budgets (and insecurities) run wilder and the flops are more catastrophic, the rule of the game is more rigid.

"The basis of all drama is conflict," Syd Field says in almost every one of his books. "Without conflict there is no action; without action there is no character; without character there is no story. And without story there is no screenplay."

Most screenwriting books -- about long or short screenplays -- say essentially the same thing, though in Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade, William Froug is the most emphatic: "Without conflict, you might as well pack it in --
you are in the wrong field of endeavor. Without conflict, your reader will fall asleep and you will never have to think about having an audience. The ballgame is over."

Conflict has shaped the way that we think about drama and the way that we think to shape it. In Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV, Dona Cooper offers a new improved metaphor for the screenplay: a roller coaster. It's a rollicking image, more energetic and imaginative than most I have found in screenwriting books, but the author's graphic depiction -- action that rises and rises and rises then falls -- is merely a remake of a nineteenth century model, Freitag's Pyramid (conflict, crisis, and resolution), which keeps cropping up in all kinds of books about writing, including former editions of Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction. But Janet -- a friend and colleague -- was increasingly uncomfortable, too, with this conflict-bound way of seeing the story. Other writers, most of them women, were also uneasy.

But Ursula LeGuin came closest to articulating what I was feeling: "People are cross-grained, aggressive, and full of trouble, the storytellers tell us; people fight themselves and one another, and their stories are full of their struggles. But to say that that is the story is to use one aspect of existence, conflict, to subsume all other aspects, many of which it does not include and does not comprehend. Romeo and Juliet is the story of the conflict between two families, and its plot involves the conflict of two individuals within those families. Is that all it involves? Isn't Romeo and Juliet about something else, and isn't it the something else that makes the otherwise trivial tale of a feud into a tragedy?"

Conflict was not incorrect; it was incomplete. It didn't get to the heart of the matter, to that level of story that engages most deeply. It was half the story, but I couldn't figure out what the other half was.

Ruby & Me

In January 1994, taking a shower, I saw it: the other half of the story. (I don't know what it is about showers and baths that are conducive to insight, but the fact is well documented: Einstein reportedly claimed his greatest ideas occurred in the shower, and everyone knows about Archimedes. I'm a Pisces so I like to think it's the water, but it's more than likely the break from our work. "These insights tend to come suddenly and, characteristically, not when sitting at a desk working," Fritjof Capra writes in the Tao of Physics, "but when relaxing, in the bath, during a walk in the woods, on the beach.")

I'd taken a break from researching a documentary film about the most famous murder in Florida, the trial of Ruby McCollum, an African-American woman in my small town of Live Oak convicted of shooting and killing the town's Great White Hope, Senator-elect Leroy Adams, her doctor and, allegedly, lover. When she fired the gun -- if she, in fact, did it -- her life also came to an end: every major connection was severed; her husband died the next day of heart failure; she was separated from her children, other family, and friends for more than twenty years.

Immersed in Ruby's story, I wondered why it engaged me so deeply. She and I had nothing in common except for our gender and the small North Florida town where we lived. The surface events of her story were the stuff of soap opera -- wealth, corruption, infidelity, murder -- and this had no connection to my quiet life. There was something deeper at work. Mulling over what it might be, I saw that it was connection itself. Underlying the conflict of Ruby's story, underlying the events of her life and mine -- underlying any good story, fictitious or true -- is a deeper pattern of change, a pattern of connection and disconnection. The conflict and surface events are like waves, but underneath is an emotional tide -- the ebb and flow of human connection. It's just as essential to story as conflict but it has been essentially overlooked.

I'm no Einstein and I didn't run naked trailing bathwater into the street but I did shout "Eureka, I've found it!" I did. For the first time, I saw drama whole. Here was its deepest humanity, structure, and emotional rhythm; the "something else" LeGuin knew was missing.

Everything seemed to fall into place. I understood the emotional power of plays in a way that I hadn't before: What keeps Romeo and Juliet from being an "otherwise trivial tale of a feud" is the underlying pattern of connection and disconnection, not just between the two star-crossed lovers, but between them and those others who make up their web of connections: nurse, parents, Mercutio, Tybalt, Friar Lawrence, the Prince. What keeps Death of a Salesman from being a trivial tale of a failed businessman is Willy's tragic pattern of connection and disconnection with others, especially Biff. I saw tragedy and comedy in a new light: comedy ends in connection, tragedy in disconnection. "The tragic side of tragedy," to borrow Aristotle's phrase, is more than the hero's fall from position and power.

"Those who have had the misfortune to do or undergo fearful things," are, in the end, disconnected. We may pity the fallen because we fear falling but we fear it less, perhaps, than we fear disconnection. Even death, the ultimate disconnection, is less fearsome for some than life without connection.

"Ha! banishment," Romeo cries. "Be merciful, say 'death,'/For exile hath more terror in his look, /Much more, than death. Do not say 'banishment.' "

Connection is human sustenance, the substance of story. Its gain and loss provides the emotional power, as Aristotle implies in The Poetics: "Let us determine, then, which kinds of happening are felt by the spectator to be fearful, and which pitiable. Now such acts are necessarily the work of persons who are near and dear (close blood kin) to one another, or enemies, or neither. But when an enemy attacks an enemy there is nothing pathetic about either the intention or the deed, except in the actual pain suffered by the victim; nor when the act is done by "neutrals"; but when the tragic acts come within the limits of close blood relationship, as when brother kills or intends to kill brother or do something else of that kind to him, or son to father or mother to son or son to mother -- those are the situations one should look for."

I understood, too, that connection and disconnection provided the emotional power of the films I had seen, even the best of the hard-boiled genres. The Fugitive -- warmed-over TV show that it was -- engages more deeply than most films in its genre because of the grudging but growing connection between the fugitive Kimble and Federal Marshall Gerard, the deeper emotional journey from Gerard's "I don't care," (a line Tommy Lee Jones rehearsed for days) to his closing line, "I care. Don't tell anyone." This unlikely connection is the heart of the story, its pattern of meaning. It fills the emotional void created by Kimble's wife's brutal murder. In story as in life, human nature abhors an emotional vacuum.

I went to see Janet. She said, "This is big." She pulled books from her shelves that touched on connection: Lewis Hyde's The Gift and Jean Baker Miller's Toward A New Psychology of Women and Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice. She opened Hyde's book and showed me a passage from Pablo Neruda, a memory about a connection he made when he was a child, an exchange of small gifts -- a pine cone and a faded toy sheep -- with a boy about his own age, a stranger he did not see again: "That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all humanity is somehow together. This is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the backyard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn't know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet maybe this small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light."

This, I think, is the heart of it all: there are moments of change in our lives and stories that are not comprehended by conflict. These moments of change are connections, human exchanges, however fleeting or small -- a faded sheep for a pine cone -- or, as Stephen Jay Gould says in Counters and Cable Cars, "people taking care of each other in small ways of enduring significance." Large or small, they are like gifts; they create ties between us.

Janet asked if she could mention my insight in her new edition of Writing Fiction: "I'm indebted to dramatist Claudia Johnson for this further -- and, it seems to me, crucial -- insight about [LeGuin's]'something else': whereas the hierarchical or 'vertical' nature of narrative, the power struggle, has long been acknowledged, there also appears in all narrative a 'horizontal' pattern of connection and disconnection between characters which is the main source of its emotional effect. In discussing human behavior, psychologists speak in terms of 'tower' and 'network' patterns, the need to climb and the need for community, the need to win out over others and the need to belong to others; and these two drives also drive fiction."

As a writer who has worked in four genres -- plays, fiction, screenplays, and, most recently, memoir -- I suspect these two drives drive most stories (I'll leave it to others to explore the exceptions). In Metaphors of Interrelatedness: Toward a Systems Theory of Psychology, Linda Olds acknowledges our "vertical strivings for power, achievement, knowledge, and accomplishment," but she adds: "We no longer inhabit a universe capable of being represented vertically alone; the embeddedness of us all in an intricately interrelating dance of energy and space-time, of connection and change, has become the inescapable heritage of our time. We must reach out for horizontal metaphors which speak the language of embrace and interconnection, rather than striving and rising above."

The film Red does this with its powerful opening image of telephone cables carrying the young model's call at breathtaking speeds across land, under water, and across land again. One of the most compelling films that I've seen, it is a story told with almost no conflict, a film, finally, about connection itself. So, for that matter, is Lost In Translation.

But most stories have both. Rooted in the same Latin prefix (con - together), conflict (from the Latin confligere -- to clash or strike together) and connection (from the Latin connectere -- to bind or tie together) are complementary forces. The physicist Niels Bohr introduced the concept of "complementarity," but as Capra points out in The Tao of Physics, it goes back 2,500 years: "The Chinese sages represented this complementarity of opposites by the archetypal poles of yin and yang and saw their dynamic interplay as the essence of all natural phenomena and all human situations." Connection and conflict are also dynamic and interrelated. They are woven together like strands of deoxyribonucleic acid, the double helix of drama.

A Model Of Wholeness

Like the newly pregnant woman who never noticed pregnant women before but now sees them wherever she goes, I noticed connection wherever I looked. I saw its ebb and flow in the novels I read. Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years is a series of emotional movements of connecting and disconnecting and reconnecting as Delia drifts from her family, builds a new life, and returns to her own.

I saw connection and disconnection in films that I screened, even the wild-assed rides in Pulp Fiction: "Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife," "The Gold Watch," and "The Bonnie Situation." For all the vintage Tarantino violence and conflict, marvelous connections occur in each of the stories. In Apollo 13, I noticed how painstakingly the story establishes Jim Lovell's web of connections -- wife, children, colleagues -- and how these become the real stake in the film, as important as survival itself, the reason survival matters to him at all.

Like Forster's once cryptic epigram, "Only connect," this made a new kind of sense. Eight months after my insight, on tour with my book, Stifled Laughter, I heard a lecture by Betty Friedan. It was an interesting update of Abraham Maslow who ranked connection (belonging) just below survival in his well-known hierarchy of needs. Friedan cited research that shows connection is no less a need. "Connectedness," as she calls it in The Fountain of Age, "has a direct effect on mortality." Epidemiological studies across the country show that men and women without significant human connection are twice as likely to die. Widowers, disconnected from their central and often their only significant connection, are "40 percent more likely to die in the first six months after their spouse's death than other men their age."

That women live longer than men is well known. The conventional wisdom says that men die younger because of too much striving and competition, but Friedan and others show it is also caused by too little connection. New studies on the male midlife crisis have linked men's psychological pain to the realization that they have (like dramatic theorists) neglected connection. This lack of "closeness, relatedness, and intimacy," Friedan says, contributes directly to men's shorter lives. To survive, men and women alike must have "purpose and intimacy," what Tolstoy called "work and love," goals to strive for and what Friedan bluntly calls it "the life-and-death importance of connectedness."

I connect, therefore I am.

We cannot live by conflict alone; neither can a good screenplay. The best screenwriters understand this intuitively, but the rest of us will be better screenwriters if we think about both halves of the story -- conflict and connection -- when we think about the stories we're telling. In this way, we'll "facilitate new ways of seeing" the story and work with "a model of wholeness," to borrow two phrases from Linda Olds. Most important, we'll open the aperture wider, to use a film metaphor, and give our stories more light.

[Adapted from the Introduction of Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect]

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