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What can politics teach us about screenwriting?

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I’ve already talked about the importance of conflict so let’s skip over that for this blog. And first let me say that I took all the photos for this section in the months leading up to the famed Iowa caucus. Jay Leno joked that many people don’t realize that the word caucus is Indian for “The one day anyone pays attention to Iowa.” (Bonus points if you can tell which political “Where’s Waldo” is in the above photo.)

The highest point in Iowa is just 1,670 feet but the political view from just about anywhere is spectacular leading up to the caucus. We understand politics and power, but what’s this all got to do with screenwriting?

When I connect screenwriting and politics it is not the Watergate Hotel, Bill Clinton’s cigar, hanging chads in Palm Beach, restrooms at the Minneapolis airport, or the back stabbing kind of politics. I simply mean this year’s race for the presidency of the United States. The process of going from the many to the one.   I call this the power of one.

When I set out to write my first screenplay one of the first questions I wondered about was, “How do you keep track of all the characters?”  My answer now could make this my shortest post ever; Your screenplay is about one person. Not too hard to keep track of one person is it? Feel better?

Granted not every character is on a deserted island like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. (I still see Wilson sadly drifting away–“WILSON!”) But most scripts are like Cast Away in that the story is really about one person being transformed. Even if it appears that the film is about two or three people it’s really about one person. Just like there is only going to be one president. Here are a couple Academy Award winning examples:

Good Will Hunting – Will (Matt Damon) is the one who is changed at the end. Ben Affleck’s character is basically unchanged. It’s Will’s story.

The Shawshank Redemption – Where would Andy (Tim Robbins)  be without Red (Morgan Freeman)? But it is Andy’s story. Red is like the Vice President.

Rain Man – Dustin Hoffman got the Oscar and the memorable lines, but the story is really about Tom Cruise’s character. He is the one who undergoes the transformation.

Wasn’t that simple? Sure there will be more than one character in your script,  a strong antagonist and a supporting cast, even a couple subplots,  but your script will have one focal point. There are exceptions–such as ensemble casts (Crash, Magnolia, any Altman film)–but I am addressing probably 75% of all films made.

One could even argue that in buddy films like Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and Thelma & Louise that the characters are so close they represent one person. (And those dynamic duo’s are as rare as they are close.)

As I mentioned, here in Iowa we get a ground floor perspective on the presidential candidates. And not just for a week or two leading up to the caucuses but it’s a several month-long process. In fact, my writer friend Matthew said it should come with a warning, “If elections last longer than three months…see your doctor.”

My goal leading up to the ’08 election was to see as many of the candidates as I could. I got a nice jump-start when I received a call from Des Moines to cover an event in my neck of the woods where I would be video taping six of the presidential hopefuls. By the time the caucuses were over on January 3 I had seen a total of 13.

It is a bit overwhelming to keep track of what 13 people believe and what they say they can do for the country. For the majority of the candidates I was within ten feet of them and all this happened no more than ten miles from my home. Considering I had only seen one other presidential candidate in my life, I thought it was a pretty interesting opportunity.

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Tuesday night Mike Huckabee officially dropped out of the Republican primary so what was over a dozen candidates just two months ago is down to three viable ones. By November it will be either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama versus John McCain.

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But come January there will be one new president. And just one.

And so it is with your script. Pour your creative energy into one main character and you will be on your way to keeping track of your characters. I need to stress the importance of reading scripts a lot more than reading books about screenwriting. In reading a script multiple times you will begin to see patterns. Read Susan Grant’s wonderful script for Erin Brockovich and you’ll see that Erin (Julia Roberts) is in every single scene.   In most cases if your protagonist  is not in a scene you need to have a good reason for that scene being there. (And if neither the protagonist or antagonist is in a scene you need to take an extra long look at why that scene is in your script.)

To test this out I just flipped through Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning original screenplay Juno, I found three scenes without Juno but even those three were about or connected to Juno. The same thing holds true for A Beautiful Mind where the script I have has John Nash (Russell Crowe) in every scene. (Even if I missed a scene or two where the protagonist is absent you have to admit the evidence for the power of one is pretty strong.)

So the main ways to keep track of your characters is to limit them and don’t let them wander off-screen too long.

This isn’t just a Hollywood movie star thing, it keeps the story on track. Easy for you the writer, easy for the reader at the studio or production company who is reading four scripts a day, and easy for the audience to follow.

We’ll look at the importance of a strong protagonist later, but think of your favorite films and how one character is at the center of the show. Never underestimate the power of one.

I’m sure if Addicus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Virgil Tibbs (In the Heat of the Night), or Ellen Ripley (Aliens) were running for the presidency they’d get a few votes. Heck, I bet The Terminator could even win the thing. What would his plan for Iraq be? Maybe in the future there will be amendment to the Constitution that allows cyborgs to run for president.

Photos & Text Copyright © 2008 Scott W. Smith

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