by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
This Sunday night marks the 88th Academy Awards, honoring the best cinematic storytelling in 2015. As writers, we get to see the finest in our field compete for the prize of Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay. While it takes tremendous talent to adapt an existing work for the screen, those who develop original screenplays begin with fewer resources. This year’s nominees span the spectrum of story, greatly ranging in premise, subject matter, and genre. Here are five lessons we can learn from this year’s nominees for Best Original Screenplay.
LESSON 1: The Most Interesting Character Doesn’t Have to Be the Protagonist
BRIDGE OF SPIES – written by Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Few would disagree that Mark Rylance’s Rudolf Abel is the most interesting character in Bridge of Spies. Even fewer would disagree that Tom Hanks’s James B. Donovan is the protagonist in the story. While it is greatly important that we construct protagonists that audiences will feel empathy for, it is not necessary for these characters to outshine everyone else in the story. The Godfather is a classic example of a story where the most interesting character (Marlon Brando) is not the protagonist in the film. Instead, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone holds this distinction. This method of storytelling requires a delicate balance, however, running the risk of having the audience become far more invested in the most interesting character, as opposed to the protagonist, who’s journey dictates the plot of the film.
LESSON 2: Universal Questions Engage Audiences
EX MACHINA – written by Alex Garland
What does it mean to be human? This is the question that lies at the heart of Ex Machina. Our protagonist, Caleb, is tasked with determining just how human an A.I. seems to be. But in answering this question, Caleb is forced to face questions about is own humanity. Throughout the course of their interactions, we are urged to confront the principle that humans will act deceptively and even violently to prevent being enslaved by someone else – a quality that makes us human. When a story can touch the base level of our identity, it suddenly becomes more than just a story. It becomes an idea we must wrestle with.
LESSON 3: There is Power in a Simple Story with Complex Subtexts
INSIDE OUT – screenplay by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley; original story by Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen
Even children sense that there’s more going on in Inside Out than the surface tale of a little girl named Riley with fun animated characters buzzing around inside her head. Pixar has consistently offered up stories that are enjoyable to the youngest audience members as well as the oldest. This has been in no small part thanks to their ability to layer narratives with internal and external goals, problems, and journeys. Inside Out doesn’t pander to younger audiences by offering up flat two-dimensional characters. Instead they develop protagonists like Joy, who is wonderfully likable and relatable but who still has lessons she needs to learn. The lessons that Joy benefits from involve difficulties all of us face, as we’ve all tried to suppress sadness and only live in happiness. Under-girding your story with beefy subtexts that the characters must tease apart can be an effective tool at creating memorable stories that appeal across generations.
LESSON 4: Secondary Characters Can Empower Your Story
SPOTLIGHT – written by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy
Many have lamented the fact that the Academy Awards lack an ensemble category this year. The comment is usually in reference to the outstanding performances we witnessed in Spotlight. Michael Keaton’s “Robby” Robinson leads the Spotlight team with all the force of a typical protagonist. However, Mark Ruffalo’s Mike Rezendes embodies conflict within the Spotlight team as they battle the larger institution of the Catholic Church. Rachel McAdams’s Sacha Pfeiffer brings a completely different layer of conflict to the team as she is torn by the faith her mother has in the church. Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron is on the same side as the Spotlight team but offers his own challenges and plays the role of the outsider. These secondary characters alongside a few others build a protagonistic force with Robinson that is far more complex and richer than any single character would be capable of.
LESSON 5: Put A New Spin On An Old Tale
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON – screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff; story by S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff
While based on a true story, Straight Outta Compton is a tale we’ve heard before in some respects. A man, or group of men, battle the system, fighting for their art to exist and their voices to be heard. What makes this story compelling is the new spin that’s put on this classic saga – until recently these characters were considered the bad guys. The old narratives were never about young black men from bad neighborhoods in L.A. What’s unique about the story in many ways is not the journey the characters go on, but who the characters are themselves. We would be wise not to forget that audiences will engage with most any story if they care about the characters involved from the onset.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.