In January, I announced a new feature for the Writers Room in Subtext: script analysis. For those who don’t know, The Writers Room is a weekly masterclass in narrative theory, held exclusively for subscribers to the service, and hosted by me (Jim Hull. I built Subtext, and I write everything you read on Narrative First).
Speaking with a client who found great inspiration in reading yet-to-be-produced screenplays, I thought it might be interesting to do the same in a class setting. By examining these scripts through the lens of Narrative First and the Dramatica theory of story, writers everywhere could benefit from a greater understanding of why these stories deserve special recognition.
Unless, of course, they didn’t have a story to begin with.
Shuttering the Unicorns
The Blacklist is a yearly collection of speculative screenplays identified by professional readers as being great. This greatness, unrecognized by the producers and studio heads who passed on the script, demands further attention and a second chance. After all, everyone knows that those in charge really don’t know what they’re doing, right?
Every single person in the world can intuit a great story—even a studio executive. Complete stories are models of a single human mind working to resolve an Inequity. We all have the same primary operating system regardless of pay grade. We know when a story is broken because a story functions like us.
Sure, the movie producer’s taste in projects might not be current—but every single one of them wants to make money. They want to be successful, and they want to make great films. There is an excellent chance that the reason they skipped over a particular screenplay was not that they’re shortsighted or stupid—there’s a chance that screenplay just didn’t have a complete story.
Like Get Home Safe.
When Trend is Not Enough
Get Home Safe is very much a product of the time (The screenplay can be found here). The brazen cover letter attached to the start of the script makes no attempt to hide the screenplay’s intent to jump on the TimesUp and MeToo bandwagon. The screenwriter is fed up with being marginalized and has something significant to say about it.
But unlike similarly themed material like The Wife and Can You Ever Forgive Me? Get Home Safe lacks the goods to make a difference.
The model of a story functioning as human psychology requires consideration of conflict from all angles. While the script dutifully covers the objective point-of-view and personal point-of-view, it does leave out the other half of the story.
The screenplay makes a very one-sided argument—and that’s why it was rejected.
Designing a Complete Story
The mind assumes four perspectives while considering conflict:
These four find a correlation in narratives with the Four Throughlines of a complete story;
- The Main Character Throughline (I)
- The Influence Character Throughline (You)
- The Relationship Story Throughline (We)
- The Overall Story Throughline (They)
Get Home Safe resolves the two that most everyone with some relative degree of competency can—the Overall Story and Main Character Throughlines. The Overall Story is all about a twenty-something woman trying to get back home safe, while the Main Character Throughline is all about Skylar—a Millennial trying to navigate a world not ready for her progressive thinking.
The challenging alternate point-of-view is woefully absent, as is the relationship that is supposed to build between Skylar and this other person.
Her mom kinda sorta fits this role, but only for a brief moment. The first 30 or 40 pages are spent building this safe space between them, this “treehouse,” but then they never once revisit this safe space. Their relationship is static and sparsely populated throughout the story—not enough to truly experience what “We” work to resolve together.
The Author sets up a high potential for a meaningful relationship but then fails to follow through on that promise with the rest of the story.
The mother’s final change of character, which is supposed to find resonance with Skylar’s “be the mountain” philosophy, is more matter of fact than anything else. Her mom’s adoption of salty New York street talk is supposed to come as the culmination of several scenes of back and forth with Skylar—character development that naturally leads to a meaningful explanation as to why she starts to curse.
But again, a dynamic relationship throughline fails to materialize.
The Definition of an Influential Perspective
The Writers Room class where we discussed this script was phenomenal. I don’t think I’ve ever taught a more productive and thought-invoking class in all my years of teaching narrative theory. The replay of that discussion is available here on Subtext. While I go into greater detail within the class, there is one important concept that I want to make clear.
Several writers in the room felt as if the men in the story acted as a sort of collective Influence Character. The thought was that this male-dominated view of “be what I want you to be” was somehow the determining factor in Skylar’s growth.
That reductive way of thinking is already a part of Skylar’s personal throughline. In other words, she is already dealing with the fallout of that thinking. More of it isn’t going to challenge her, and less of it isn’t going to make it go away altogether.
The Influence Character Throughline perspective of a narrative is meant to challenge the Main Character’s approach with a complete different way of dealing with conflict. It doesn’t merely increase the amount of friction already in place.
This is why her mother is the closest thing resembling an Influence Character. Her mother’s acceptance of her fate at the hands of cancer runs in direct opposition to Skylar’s steadfast “mountain” point-of-view. They’re both facing impossible odds, but they both have very different ways of going about to solve that inequity.
The Influence Character challenges the Main Character with a different way of seeing things. These two approaches battle it out throughout a story until one or the other finally capitulates and adopts the other’s point-of-view.
This is how you develop a meaningful—and producible—screenplay.
Making It Worth Everyone’s Time and Money
It’s ironic that a screenplay that seeks to explore the vulgarity of marginalization marginalizes its own sense of purpose. By failing to balance the story out with essential alternative points-of-view, the effort comes across as merely whining about the current state of affairs.
Get Home Safe suffers from the same affliction all twenty-somethings endure—the inability to look outside of themselves. Stories make a difference when they make a compelling and complete argument. Telling only one side of the story fails to convince and convert because the Audience instinctively knows you’re not giving them the whole picture.
Get Home Safe is on the Blacklist not because of gender politics, but rather because of a deficient narrative structure. The script is written well and is very engaging—but it still lacks the necessary goods to motivate further action. The cover letter is an attempt to make up for the broken story by positioning the Author and Reader into a relationship - one that doesn't exist within the narrative itself.
In short, Get Home Safe reinforces the idea that the reason the Blacklist exists is that there are those within the industry who still don’t recognize the essential components of a complete story.
And until they do—they will always have the treehouse that is the Blacklist.