(and figure out what the hell a polar bear is doing in New Mexico.)
One day over lunch a producer tells you that she has a development budget and is looking for someone to write a horror film or a rom-com or a detective crime story, or a whatever genre screenplay. You might be fortunate; the genre is right up your narrative street, a street you could walk blindfolded without bumping into anything, but even if it isn’t and you have no sense of direction in the world of your producer’s chosen genre – maybe you don’t even share her enthusiasm for it - you will of course immediately effuse your love for it anyway (remember, you have bills to pay) and will insist that films in that particular genre are the reason you became a writer in the first place; these kinds of stories are a part of who you are, as much as your heart, lungs, your soul….
…And if the producer doesn’t suspect that you’re also full of shit she may agree to develop an idea with you.
Later, pleased by your guile at having scored the producer’s interest, you log onto Amazon.com and order every genre-specific book you can lay your hands on, and maybe attend a course or two, confident that they will all furnish you with the commonly accepted genre expectations, motifs, themes and various other components that you can then add to your writer’s toolbox. If you put in the work, you’ll soon be able to talk and think the new language. You might even find that you have a natural affinity for it and realize in retrospect that this was really why you became a writer in the first place…
If only life were as neat and simple as that.
Unfortunately, it’s not so easy if the producer’s, or even your own ideas for a screenplay do not fit into convenient, easily-researchable niches. Sometimes we’re not so sure about what we want. And even if a producer is clear she might not be as interested in the story so much as the budget, initially. How do you understand what style of film should be written when the producer’s stipulations are for a screenplay with “two to four characters” or “no more than three locations” or “must be set in a high-school” or “must be a community film”? You may have seen these kinds of requests from producers or funding bodies in newsletter postings. Some are incredibly specific. One of my favourites in recent years was: “Producer seeks completed screenplay with polar bear as main protagonist (no children’s animations, please). Must be set in New Mexico”.
What kind of film is one that is “set in a single location”? That’s not a genre; it’s not a recognisable label of any kind; friends don’t say, “I love sci-fi, drama and films based in only one room”; Amazon.com does not stock books that will specifically address writing screenplays based in one room or how to go about getting that polar bear into the desert.
Whether you are trying to entice a producer or writing a spec’ screenplay in isolation with only a feeling of what you want to write, the following brainstorming technique may help. Ultimately, I’m sure you’ll find that it’s all just common sense stuff (for my article on brainstorming and developing new stories go here: http://rlittler.blogspot.com/2007/07/non-linear-brainstorming-and-story.html)
A Case Study:
Let’s say that a producer has asked you to write a pitch, the only stipulation being that the entire story must be based in minimal locations, preferably one room. As mentioned, this brief doesn’t indicate a genre, so what are a one-room-film’s driving forces? What are the main motifs and fundamental components? What elements are necessary to keep the audience interested?
You’d be right in noting that there isn’t only one type of story that has been confined to one room or location. No Exit, an existential drama by Jean Paul Sartre about three people in hell is based in a locked location, so are several Agatha Christie crime stories, including And Then There Were None (filmed as Ten Little Indians). Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal is based, as the title implies, in one airport terminal, and the farcical Arsenic and Old Lace and the spooky The Others are set in one house. There are many different films that span the genres: comedy, drama, thriller, sci-fi, horror, romance…
If it’s not a recognised genre that unites all these stories, what does? Indeed, does anything unite them at all or are they distinctly dissimilar, unconnected in any way? You’re going to have to find out for yourself.
Being a visual thinker I find it extremely helpful to start by creating a mind-map with my central ueber-heading ‘"CLOSED ROOM” - One location films’ (If you don’t know what a mind-map is, here’s an example):
Using a mind-map will help you search for patterns and repeating motifs in your selected films; in a sense you’ll be searching for the ‘genre-like’ themes in your chosen area of story investigation. But you can’t begin to see these patterns until you have your carpet rolled out in front of you, so first write down every single or minimal location films that you can think of.
Apart from those mentioned above you may recall films such as: Clerks, Phone Booth, 8 Women, 12 Angry Men, Rope, Alien, Lifeboat, Saw, Dial 'M' for Murder, My Dinner with Andre, Reservoir Dogs, The Others, Clue, Shallow Grave, Death and the Maiden, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Cube, Oleanna, Talk Radio, Key Largo, etc.
If you want you can also classify them roughly by genre, and if a movie crosses multiple genres categorise it by its most dominant genre. It might be worth noting if any particular genre is more likely to support a closed environment.
Then you sift through all these stories to look for recurring elements. You may not find any hard and clear data but that doesn’t matter; you’re only looking for general homogeneity. Permit your analysis to be loose and continually ask yourself questions. Imagine you’re a budding inventor who has taken apart a mechanical object: You want to know how each part works and what its function is. What are the core components?
If you are like me, the first thing you might want to know is why the protagonists are restricted to their environment in the first place. Looking through your list of films you see that there are two clear reasons:
i. They have been forced into the environment by external, physical forces.
ii. They have been forced into the environment by internal choice/psychological forces.
Some films will be a mixture of the two. Adding this discovery to your mind-map you can begin to identify and break down the specific kinds of external and internal forces in the films. For example:
External, physical threat
i. Remote or harsh external environment:
The Shining (An inhospitable winter),
Death and the Maiden (A storm),
Dead Calm (The ocean)
ii. Physical incapacity
Rear Window (L. B. Jeffries’ broken leg)
The Others (the children’s photosensitivity),
Misery (Paul Sheldon’s broken feet),
Reservoir Dogs (Mr. Pink has been shot)
Internal choice, psychological forces:
i. Mental or psychological disorder.
Repulsion (Catalepsy; hallucinations),
Psycho (Mental illness; ‘Freudianly’ challenged)
ii. A job must be completed.
12 Angry Men (A verdict must be reached)
Sunset Blvd (A screenplay must be written)
Dog Day Afternoon (The bank must be successfully robbed)
At this point lots of new questions and brainstorming opportunities should arise about the kinds of plots and characters that populate these claustrophobic material and mental locales. You might ask yourself if there are any common story concepts or plots that recur through your cross-section of films, even though, on the surface, they are very different. Again, sift through the films and look for duplicating ideas.
The following examples may come to light:
Common story concepts:
i. Protagonist(s) gather to solve a mystery (sometimes a murder) or conspiracy.
(Reservoir Dogs, Rashomon, Poltergeist, Clue (and other Agatha Christie style murder mysteries)) …etc.
ii. Protagonist(s) must escape from a madman/super antagonist.
(The Shining, Misery, The Thing, The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her
If there are common plots then perhaps there are other common elements such as:
i. A character of questionable morality.
(Rope, Phone Booth, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, Tape, The Others)…etc.
ii. The victim of an injustice/being unfairly punished.
(Phone Booth, Oleanna, Misery, Tape)…etc.
Importantly, these observations should in turn expose some common themes, which also offer connected concepts, i.e.:
i. Concepts of punishment, guilt, judgment and justice.
(Death and the Maiden, Oleanna, Midnight Express, Tape, Rashomon)…etc
iii. Psychological terror.
(Phone Booth, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining,)…etc.
iii. Murder or crime as an expression of cool intelligence.
(Rope, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, Phone Booth)…etc
iv. Addressing a social group.
(The Breakfast Club, Gosford Park, Clerks)…etc.
After this initial brainstorm you should have a mind-map that looks like this one (click to enlarge and see more brainstormed categories and entries):
You’ll also begin to realise that some very successful movies fill many of the categories. Take Reservoir Dogs as an example and note just how many boxes it ticks.
- A job must be completed (The guys won’t leave the warehouse because they must wait for Nice Guy Eddie to conclude the plan).
- The protagonists gather to solve a mystery (Who is the informant?).
- Therefore, there are accusations and defences of innocence. Someone is
accused (Mr. Orange), someone defends (Mr. White), someone is impartial (Mr. Pink).
- There’s a revelation about a character (Mr. Orange is revealed to be a cop – the informant).
- There’s a madman (Mr. Blonde is cool, ruthless and sociopathic)
- The story addresses a social group (The world of bank robbers. Most notably in the flashbacks).
- Very high stakes (The bank robbers’ lives).
- Physical incapacity (Mr. Pink has been shot and cannot move)…
Writing your own story:
Apart from familiarising yourself with the films that are most similar to the story arena in which you wish to work, your mind-map has, perhaps most crucially, highlighted some general concepts that bridge the films you have examined. You can now start to draw some conclusions about the story that you might write and what elements it might include.
Thrillers, mysteries and horrors seem to dominate minimal or one location movies. You can see that your story’s and protagonists’ stakes must be very high; the protagonists often find themselves in life and death situations – logical, I suppose, if we want to keep an audience in their seats for 90-120 minutes.Therefore, you’ve also learned that the antagonists must be real bad-asses, relentless killing machines that cannot with reasoned with – Alien, The Thing, the unnamed force in 1408, even Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, or they’re seemingly insurmountable, ruthless super-intelligent antagonists that have worked out all the angles, such as Brandon Shaw in Rope, or The Caller in Phone Booth.
You’ve also learned that many of the stories meditate on guilt, accusation, justice, punishment and moot morality whether it’s the protagonist who has been accused as in Phone Booth or Oleanna; or the antagonist is being judged, as in Death and the Maiden; the protagonist is defending, as in 12 Angry Men; everyone is accusing everyone else, as in Reservoir Dogs; or there’s a general analysis of morality as in Rashomon.
We also see from movies like this that there is sometimes a kind of ‘improvised court’ with an accuser, an accused, a defender and an impartial character (which may or may not also be the audience).
I’m sure that you will find many more patterns. This article’s purpose was just to illustrate the rudimentary brainstorming process, which hopefully has narrowed down and helped define the type of story you should be writing and made you aware of underlying narrative motifs and concepts in stories similar to the one you want to write.
But be aware: As much as this process will help you find patterns it will also identify clichés. You must decide for yourself what elements are worn, which can be built on and which can be twisted or reversed - knowing the tools in your toolbox will also allow you to play against type; you will have more control over your ideas. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but you do want to give it a new spin.
You should now be able to apply the technique that we used to break down ‘one location’ films to other story categories of your own definition, be they “surreal films”, “films that have non-linear time”, “films that contain magical realism”, or “films about desert-bound Thalarctos maritimus”. Create and define your own genres!
If you do try out this process, I’d be very interested to read your results, whether they are for a new category, or are additions to this ‘one location’ example. Feel free to send me an email.