To write a film that attracts an audience, you must satisfy the reason that they watch films in the first place. In the words of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord (Little Women, Matilda) in her Master Class on Adapting a Screenplay From Source Material, “Our yearning for a tremendous release of emotion, for catharsis, is why we watch movies. The truest thing that we can know about drama is that catharsis follows from the deliberate work of the dramatist, us. We construct the audience’s experience.” There are several different ingredients that all must work together to create this immersive, cathartic experience for an audience, and it’s your job as a writer to utilize them.
Ingredient #1: Theme
The first thing to consider is your story’s theme. This will serve as a North Star to guide your writing journey. Swicord prompts you to ask yourself, “What am I writing about? Yes, there’s an overarching story that moves from plot point to plot point, but what meaning do I want to convey by telling this story? What do I want the audience to feel and be thinking about when the end credits roll?” She suggests finding your theme by reflecting and journaling about your connections, similarities, and differences with your protagonist and the story. You then have this “magic letter,” as Swicord calls it, to look to for guidance when facing challenging obstacles as you write.
Themes resonate deeply with us because they speak to our shared human experience. On a deep, sometimes subconscious, level, the theme is a place where the audience connects to the story. To illustrate this, Swicord cites Italo Calvino’s work on universal themes and mentions well-known films that contain these themes. Her examples include:
- The departure from home – Lady Bird
- The trials of growing up – Moonlight
- The attainment of maturity – Little Women
- The proof of one’s humanity – When They See Us
- The arbitrary division of people – City of God, Parasite, Hidden Figures
- Love unrecognized when first encountered, and then, no sooner experienced than lost – When Harry Met Sally, The English Patient
- Having one’s existence predetermined by complex and unknown forces – The Matrix, Groundhog Day
- The liberation of self, only by liberating others – Milk, Selma
- The persecution of the innocent and their subsequent vindication – Matilda, Slumdog Millionaire (And almost every film ever)
Swicord explains the strongest themes are the ones that move us greatly and can create the catharsis described above. Through this release of emotion, we are able to unlock parts of ourselves.
Ingredient #2: Character Transformation
The next ingredients in telling a successful story are, “The infinite possibilities of mutation. The sense that anything can happen is what you want in your storytelling. That your protagonist is open to transformation, and in fact, unconsciously or not, we have come here to the story in order to see this person change.” If your character does not change, however, the world around them should.
To do this, the story should unfold out of your protagonist’s contending qualities and habitual actions. Meaning, they should have vulnerable and conflicted parts of themselves, and the story should be caused by the actions they repeatedly take in connection with these qualities. Each scene must inevitably be born out of a scene before, hence creating causality.
Ingredient #3: Story Structure
Swicord teaches that to create an emotional payoff, it is helpful to package theme and character in the container of story structure. According to Swicord, “The qualities of act one are the setting up and the setting out the awakening of longing or purpose.” An important component of this awakening is that the protagonist’s “normal” is disrupted which prompts them to set out on a journey.
In act two, “There is an early insurmountable difficulty that gets presented and obstacles that come up.” And then, “After the mid part of the movie, there’s the simplifying.” Swicord explains, “The midpoint is the point that gives great new meaning. The protagonist’s desire increases for reasons that are tied directly to the somatic and emotional strata of the story. In late act two is the shedding and the simplifying. You have to give up some of your expectations and desires. You realize, ‘I have to discard some of what I’ve been carrying. I have to do things differently,’ and this begins the contention, for real, with the things that’s inside themselves.”
Finally, “Act three completes the unfinished business of act one and often contains something unexpected…but often that unexpected thing is the thing that illuminates the whole film, as you look back.” It all comes back to the journey you’re taking an audience on, which is set up by generally following this traditional three-act structure.
“To have catharsis, you have to create stakes. People have to want something very badly for the protagonist.”
Ingredient #4: Dramatic Elements
In the marriage of structure and dramatic elements, you create the opportunity to evoke catharsis in your audience. The first element of drama is desire. Desire is almost like the connective tissue between the story arc and other elements of drama. Your protagonist’s wants are a catalyst for plot.
Another element of drama is suffering. Swicord explains, “We can see suffering in every movie. Some are suffering, suffering, suffering, interrupted by moments of sacrifice and then transformation. Sacrifice and transformation are also elements of drama.” Contemplation is another element of drama. “Contemplation is a moment of quiet, where the character is grappling with something in order to move on to the next. It isn’t just a rest for the audience, it’s an active moment where we often see a shift.”
Swicord believes, “If you think of these elements of drama as being just elements in an algorithm, you can infinitely construct stories that rely on these elements of drama. No two will be alike, because there’s so many different ways that you can use all of these elements.”
Ingredient #5: Stakes & Boundaries
The first thing that Swicord highlights when discussing stakes is that the story must feel “real.” Meaning, there needs to be authenticity to the story, and you should not simply add unrealistic emotions for effect. She notes there also must be an, “immediacy, the sense of ‘I can do no other’ contained in the realness of this. You want every action to count. Each action can only happen now.”
Besides happening for a legitimate reason, the character’s actions should, “violate a known established boundary. Boundaries in story also help us create stakes; we want penalties and jeopardy built into the actions; we want to anticipate the coming harm.” Additionally, in cases when the characters are able to escape, it should be a close call. Swicord explains that this is because, “It’s our job to create anxiety in people and to control it.”
Boundaries are an effective way to manipulate the anxiety of the audience, and Swicord gives a few examples: “Money is a boundary, ‘we don’t have enough money.’ Time is a boundary, ‘we don’t have a lot of time here.’” Playing with these boundaries exerts pressure on your characters and, in turn, heightens the stakes. Along the same lines, “When you shift a boundary, the story automatically changes. So when you’re stuck, explore what would happen if you change just one boundary.”
It is one thing to have stakes and boundaries in your story, but how you sequence them is also of critical importance for creating catharsis. You want your audience yearning to know how the story will end up.
If you follow Swicord’s rich recipe for developing a film, you will be able to tell an entertaining story that connects to the audience deeply and sends them on an emotional journey, building to a pinnacle moment of cathartic release that they will want to return to time and again.
Watch the full three-hour Master Class Adapting a Screenplay From Source Material to learn more about all of the elements of drama, the additional boundaries that can effectively manipulate the anxiety of the audience, and how you sequence stakes and boundaries in your story to create catharsis.