Developing A Cinematic Story

Developing A Cinematic StoryIndependent filmmakers are known to dive into projects without fully developing their story. Some come up with a cool scene idea and toss together a film to facilitate what’s in their mind’s eye for that 2-3 minute segment. The words that flow from their lips two years later is something like, “It didn’t quite turn out the way I pictured.”

The reason is elementary: Film is an argument, and the scene didn’t attempt to address anything worth arguing about.

The first place I’d check out, if given a new time machine, would be that large room where the Constitution of the United States was argued. I can imagine a group of passionate men fueled by their ideals on freedom of speech and religion, and the increasing weight of taxation without representation. It was a venue of the greatest arguments in the history of our country.

Great films cover both sides of an argument. The development process determines how the filmmaker will visualize the argument and lead the audience from a general understanding of the topic to his perspective. But most independent filmmakers can’t tell you what their film argues, which gives insights into why their film will fail at the box office.

A couple months ago, I watched an independent film that will fail during its release this summer because the story’s argument wasn’t explored with the audience, but rather was covered over by 22 unrelated messages. In fact, the argument was so underdeveloped that it took me the first 45 minutes of the film to determine who the main character was and his goal.

Here are a few guidelines that I’d like to suggest to new filmmakers for their consideration during the development phase of their motion picture:

  1. Determine what your film will argue.
  2. List all key points of the argument from every vantage point or perspective.
  3. Determine what view you’d like the audience to hold when leaving the theater.
  4. Select the strongest or most widely-held opposing argument for your antagonist.
  5. Create an 8-step flowchart that moves a person from an opposing viewpoint to your perspective, starting with their belief and ending with yours.
  6. Brainstorm a character that can best move the audience from the start box to the end box of the flowchart in a way that leads the audience to embrace his process.
  7. Based on the above, write a premise that can drive the action or movement of the film.

A simple way to develop a premise is to use an outline similar to the following:

[Title] is a [genre] about a [hero] who, after [big beat that happens to hero], wants to [hero’s desire] by [hero’s plan], which becomes increasingly difficult because of [obstacles/complications].

This quick formula will get your story launched in your mind’s eye and help you to immediately see if the story can be further developed. Here is a sample using The Fugitive that I tweaked for readability.

The Fugitive is a thriller about an innocent doctor who, after being sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife, escapes to find the real murderer, which becomes increasingly difficult with a determined Marshall hot on his trail.

Once you have your argument and premise, the next step is to determine how to weave the two ideas into a compelling story. The throughline will drive the audience’s interest, and the visual depiction of the argument will alter their perception of culture and their future life choices—that is, if the story is well crafted.

A well-designed argument that takes a person from a common view to your perspective is entertaining and can help audiences make culturally significant life changes. Since the motion picture is an argument, it’s easy to see why films have driven our culture for over a hundred years.

Our rich history of cinema suggests that filmmakers must learn how to properly develop their stories for the silver screen. To help encourage filmmakers move in that direction, I’m going to pull together some steps worth sharing in future blogs.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

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Film: A Redemptive Argument

Three Secrets to Box Office SuccessFilm is an argument and the exploration of the human condition. Take for instance a story about a husband and wife who both hold perspectives of the truth: his view; and, her view.

Each holds a precious and important opinion that has the right to be expressed. The expression of their heartfelt view creates conflict and a soulful stand for what is right or of value. The person and their ideas are a treasure waiting to be explored, which is the role of film story.

The conflict drives curiosity that must be satisfied within the audience. They cling to every word expressed and action taken, as they try to unravel the conflict and learn how it impacts their personal life. But from the dueling of ideals or assertions also comes the acknowledgment that not all answers to life are black and white.

In the words of philosopher Jacob Needleman, “There is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.”

When my family was young and my wife and I were locked in a decision making tie, we always considered that we each held only a portion or a degree of the full truth and God held the vantage point we were unable to see. By seeking his views together, we found new insights that brought all of our views into perspective.

The turning point in film accomplishes the revelation of that third perspective, bringing the two opposing viewpoints into a clear light. This gives way to a new vantage point that resolves the third act, while reconciling the husband and wife to a new world view filled with redemptive qualities. This climatic moment raises both the husband and wife to a new understanding and a better life than they could ever anticipate.

By scrutinizing the issues as they worked through the struggle, the husband and wife realized their flaws and the blessings of the other. Their passion for their outlook in life shifted into a mutual drive for the best right answer, which bonded the two during their journey. When the new perspective was finally revealed, they were both able to embrace it, reconcile with each other and agree on their next steps together in life. Their story had been redeemed.

Films that are not made as an argument ever reveal the truth about the human condition and our need for redemption. Nor do they show the struggle of opposing truths that can be resolved from that third perspective, while reconciling the characters to each other and their new world view.

Audiences are unable to pull real fixes for their personal walk in life from films that don’t start with the human condition, argue through important issues to a resolve, and come to a point of reconciliation that redeems their relationship and circumstances.

An example of a film that is out of touch with reality might be about prayer always being answered. It wouldn’t cover the other truth that not all prayers are answered. Instead of struggling through conflict created by the human condition in a search to understand how prayer works, it would fall short. The audience might go home and pray vigorously for a couple weeks, but the first sign of unanswered prayer might send them into a tailspin, or cause them to think they aren’t good enough for God to answer their prayers.

A redemptive story shows what happens when a prayer is answered and unanswered. It reveals the struggle humans go through in trying to figure out how to get their prayers “to work.” The second act is filled with emotional battles of people trying to get God onto their side, which spins the characters into a mix of opposing prayers.

It’s kind of like the last World Series Championship Game. Some people prayed for the Cubs and others prayed for the Indians. The characters in the film would have to face their feelings about their prayer being answered or unanswered, and what it was that “caused” the outcome.

But then, the third act turning point would reveal that not only was there a third perspective, but the final game in the World Series Championship turned out to be the most entertaining baseball game in the audiences lifetime. The climax of the film would show that the Cubs were redeemed from the goat curse and audiences would have to consider what they explored about prayer during the feature length journey.

As the credits rolled, the audience would better understand that prayer isn’t a connection to a catalog house waiting to deliver our next desire, but instead is a communication line to chat with the one who wrote our owners manual. The one who can help us get the right and third view on life, so we can be reconciled to live and love to the fullest.

The audience leaves the theater with hope in their hearts and a desire to better know their creator. They also leave knowing that prayer is not necessarily a quick fix, but a relational tool for understanding and expression of our needs. They might even pick up The Book to learn more. But one thing is for certain; the audience is less likely to treat prayer as a lottery ticket for life.

When done right, film is definitely an argument and the exploration of the human condition.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

Pro-Lifers Gift Abortionists through Bad Communication

scales of justice_gavelThe courts ruling on the Texas case yesterday was a huge win for abortionists. It was such a big win that the news anchor I watched no longer used the words “Pro-Choice”, but “Abortionists.” The goal of the Pro-Lifers was to attach so many medical regulations to abortion clinics that most would be forced to close down for lack of funds. This naturally backfired and made a woman’s access more important than the quality of her surrounding medical standards.

Pro-Lifers were winning the battle in the days when the argument was about killing unborn babies. Once the argument shifted to protecting the mother’s right to determine what surgeries she will or will not have, Pro-Lifers lost the battle. The only way they could win the battle is to shift the focus back to the babies. But instead, their strategy was to limit a woman’s access to abortion clinics, which is now illegal.

In an earlier blog, I suggested that Pro-Lifers should stop their wrong messages and not go back to battle until they know what and how to communicate a winning message. Some people were upset at me for suggesting that the activists should stop and reflect. They didn’t understand that wrong messages or bad communication could bring about a more solidified win for their opponents, which happened yesterday.

Had Pro-Lifers taken time to rethink their position of fighting for women, and instead fight for babies, they would have noticed a growing vegan movement. Social media is slowly increasing the visibility of Vegans fighting on behalf of animals who can’t defend themselves. Their campaign is about protecting anything with a heart.

This growing movement demonstrates the importance of knowing what battle to fight and with what message it should be fought. If you’re trying to protect the heart of the unborn then the battle must be about the heart of the unborn. The message should not be about the woman’s right to give it birth or not.

Pro-Lifers aren’t the only group sending bad communication. Christian films do the very same thing, while Marvel’s Captain America sends a clear, positive message about truth, morals and the conservative way of life.

I’ve never found a Christian producer who will tell me why he proudly sends the wrong message in film after film. Nor can I find a person with funds that is willing to invest in a moral film with the right message, as they are too busy supporting Christian films that use bad communications.

To send the right message, we first must know the argument at hand. If it’s a circular argument, it is not a battle that can be won. But if the logic is sound, just off a bit or twisted, then a properly positioned message can correct its course. It’s not rocket science, yet professional communicators seem to be so set on their vision that they can’t adjust based on market perception.

It’s no wonder there is so much noise in our society today – Too many well-meaning people chasing after political rhetoric. Let’s focus on what is truly important and learn how to communicate it today.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers