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Base the Story on Character or Situation?

Copyright © 1994, 1996, 1997,
Dorian Scott Cole
From Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Base the story on events?  |  Start the story with character or situation?

Suppose you are a reporter and are given the following story: An earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter Scale has happened in Paraguay and has changed the course of a river by over twenty miles. Seven point eight is a major earthquake. Rivers changing course are rare. But what are you going to report? If you travel to Paraguay and film the geologic changes and get statements from scientists about the cause, your report is going to end up a science documentary for PBS. The general population won't want to see it. 

What if a town had to move because of the river's change? You could film that, but who really would be interested in watching a bunch of people pack and move? More fuel for a documentary. Situations don't even make good news, and especially not good movies, yet many screenplays are formed around a situation. What people care about is the situation's impact on people. What has it done to their lives? How do they respond to it? How do they overcome it? 

Topics and themes are other words for situations. Abortion is a topic. Communism is a topic. Freedom is a topic. Religion is a topic. Unconditional love is a topic. You might have strong feelings about any of these, but topics are nothing until you show the impact they have on people. A movie about freedom might have a lot of noble talk and maybe some saber rattling about freedom, but it has no impact. 

However, take a World War II Hungarian Freedom Fighter who fled for his life to this country when the Soviets took over. He calls his mother weekly and gets a steady torrent of news about his families' repression because of him. He is working two jobs to send money to his family - which routinely gets stolen in the mail - instead of pursuing his love of music. He never married or even had time to date. Suddenly the cold war ends and freedom comes to his family so he can return to see them. He suddenly can have a life but is fifty years old - he feels lost; what does he do? What has he done with his freedom but become trapped? Now completely free, how does he get on with his life? At fifty, can you start a new career in music? Are we ever really free?

Philosophers and politicians debate topics, but few people go to movies to see topics. Movies are about people and the impact that situations or topics or themes have in their lives. 

Trends come and go. The current trend in entertainment is for real situations. Is it because so much entertainment writing has gone so far into left field, too divorced from reality? How long will the trend continue? The rule of thumb is if you respond to a trend, you're too late. Interest will have dropped before you can get from first word to the screen. 

If you are writing about true events, remember what stories are really about. If you can't find the impact in people's lives, chances are no one will be interested.

Start With Character Or Situation?

Should you start a story first with the characters or with a situation? Advice varies. Popular wisdom has it that if you develop good characters with a lot of depth, and put them together, a story will come out of it. When you give characters wants and wishes like real people, they take on a life of their own and will write the story. Wants and wishes are the stuff of situations. That's very true, but will you have enough interest in them to write it? And will an audience have enough interest in the story to want to see it? 

If you start with a situation first, then there is a great risk that everything in the story will seem contrived. The story will be driving the characters, making them do things whether they really would or not.

It also depends on your interest level. I know from experience that stories about injustice don't get very far on my computer screen. I'm just not interested in evening the score, even if I love the characters.

How do you escape the situation versus character dilemma? Recognize there is some vital truth in both, and realize that writing is a process. Stories must have excellent characters who come to life before the story goes very far. And topics are the agendas which come with life. They are the framework that we are all busy adding details to. For example: coming of age brings sexual challenges for every generation; a flood displaces people, interrupting their lives and changing them forever; police officers continuously struggle with corrupting influences on the job. A strong plot is the main thing that will sell a story, and strong characters confronted by difficult situations are what create strong plots. 

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