Friday, 28 November 2008


I think it was Francis Bacon who effectively said that there's no such thing as learning - only remembering.

I'm reminded of that idea time and again when I read screenplays. The reason being that the basic laws of screenwriting should be embedded in practically all of us.

There are, if you will, two aspects to screenplays. There's the stuff that does need to be learnt. Formatting, for example - that takes some learning. And then there's the stuff that really we just need to remember.

Like how a story works.

Unfortunately, just as many writers stumble over the problems of format (really should address that one, some time), so the basics of story elude them. We should all be masters of story. It should be second nature - like remembering to breathe. After all, it's not as if we've never come across stories before, is it?

What happens, in my experience, is that the essential elements of story make it into the script, but in a muted, unconscious sort of way. This in itself is revealing. The fact is, we know how to write stories. We just don't know that we know.

So I'm going to look today at one of the first thing that happens in any story: the Call.

Okay, so a story has to start somewhere. And where that story starts is a place we can call the Ordinary World. The writer sets up a situation, showing us what life is like for our main character (or characters).

The 'Ordinary World' is just that. It's our starting point. We need to see what everyday life is like for our hero, before the adventure starts.

One thing we can be pretty sure of is that the Ordinary World is lacking in something. It's not ideal. The hero is bored, restless.

Then comes the Call.

It can come in many forms. A chance encounter, a summons to the boss's office, an incident witnessed on the street ...

This Call represents an invitation, from the World of Adventure, for the hero to make a move. On the one hand, it's an intrusion. Life had been trundling along, as per normal, in the Ordinary World - and now this. Something has happened, and life may never be the same again.

A good script sorts this out pretty early on. The sooner, the better.

In previous postings I've banged on and on about the three Acts of a script. The Ordinary World and the Call are (quite bleedin' obviously) elements of the first Act. And we need to get them out of the way for the first Act to work towards its conclusion, so that we can then get on with the fun stuff, otherwise known as Act Two or 'The Story'.

So we've met the hero and the hero has received the Call. Then what?

Let me ask you: have you ever been asked to do something quite out of the ordinary and found that you had doubts about the whole thing?

Isn't it easier to stay in your comfort zone?

I mean, after all, life in the Ordinary World might not be everything, but it's a damn sight safer than wandering off into the unknown, yeah?

So what does the hero do?

He, she or it REFUSES the Call.

Adventure comes calling, and the hero tries to avoid it.

(There are, of course, circumstances wherein the hero is not really in a position to refuse the Call. It would be unseemly of James Bond to tell M, no thanks, I'm quite happy doing what I'm doing, send somebody else. In such circumstances, the Refusal of the Call takes another form. Sometimes, he won't head straight off on the assignment because there's some woman for him to dally with. At least Moneypenny will give him a wistful look when she says goodbye, which indicates that, although Bond can't refuse the Call, somebody else might wish that he would.

(Alternatively, there's the 'Where Eagles Dare' option. Richard Burton can't refuse a Call. But one of his (shortlived) fellow soldiers can, by questioning the point of the exercise.

(One way or another, the Call must be refused.)

Often enough, at this point, screenwriting mirrors life. I've read many a screenplay in which - usually unknowingly - the writer has got the Call in there. At which point, it's not their hero who refuses the Call - it's the writer themselves. A lot of writers, I've found, are happier fiddling around in Act One than actually committing to the story of the script. Result - the script never gets on with it. Which is bad, bad, bad.

After the hero has refused the Call, usually by finding reasons not to go off on some madcap adventure, something else then has to happen.

The decision has to be taken out of the hero's hands.

Some kind of enemy action or divine intervention is needed to give our reluctant hero a kick up the arse. Because, for there to be a story at all, the hero must cross that threshold into the World of Adventure (the Story).

So - in the simplest terms:

1) The hero is bored in the Ordinary World;
2) Adventure calls;
3) The hero tries to avoid going on the adventure;
4) Something else happens - now the hero has no choice;
5) And we're off ...

These are the bare bones of any Act One. This is how pretty well every story ever told begins. It's a tried and trusted formula. It's practically unavoidable.

So why fight it? Make sure that your story, after a quick set-up of the Ordinary World, has a Call. A moment when the riskier World of Adventure irrupts into your hero's settled existence.

Then make sure that your hero has doubts, second thoughts, or simply appreciates that adventures can be scary things.

And then give them such a boot up the arse that they're left with no choice in the matter. Adventure, here we come.

And for heaven's sake, get all this over with before your script starts dragging on and going nowhere. Both heroes and writers need that lightning bolt which propels them into the story, somewhere towards the end of Act One (and Act One, please remember, should be a quarter of the script - no more).

This isn't learning - it's remembering. We all know this.

But so many writers spend so long refusing the Call themselves that they end up with a script without a story.

Which is a shame, to say the least.

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