When we settle down in the cinema and lose ourselves in two hours of fantasy, romance and thriller, it’d be nice to know the script popped seamlessly out of the pen of an effortless genius. More likely, it’s the product of hours and hours of drafting, redrafting, polishing… and starting again. And, if the writer’s lucky, putting his offerings in the hands of Christopher Vogler, a “script doctor” who has tweaked a catalogue of hits from the sentimental Lion King to the Shakespearean brutality of The Fighter, and including Fight Club and The Thin Red Line.
In his time, Vogler has read 10,000 scripts and realised he had a bit of a knack for turning words on their head to more striking, compelling effect from his days at film school, where “I couldn’t help myself suggesting moving a scene, or introducing characters earlier”. Ahead of his Raindance workshop in London later this month, he gives HuffPostUK readers some top tips for a more perfect piece:
What are the biggest creative crimes you’ve come across?
A very frequent situation is where the story just hasn’t been set up right, so it isn’t going to deliver, because the audience doesn’t have the information it needs, they don’t understand the relationships, or what the movie’s really about. These basic settings must help readers get orientated, otherwise we’ll be detached from the story, and we won’t care.
We really want to be involved in it, as though it’s happening to us, so good writers draw us in, make it clear the character is like us in some way, flawed or wounded, wanting the same things, so audiences can plug themselves in.
People are very self-centred, and need to think the story is about them in some way, so a smart writer will cater to that – with little phrases, just like in the olden days… “on that mountain just over there…”
Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in the Oscar-winning The Fighter
What are the best stories?
Film noir thrillers from 1930s and ‘40s, although they’re simple crime stories, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Maltese Falcon, and lots by Hitchcock. We see two levels going on – the crime, but also the philosophical essay underneath, much richer, about human beings, and moral responsibility, and threat of god and the devil. I love the richness of that. I’m really a classicist, so I try to read The Odyssey again every few years, with all its ‘modern’ narrative techniques.
What is the one unique ingredient of a good script?
You have to bring a character on stage, and that is death, or the shadow of death – not necessarily end of life, but failure – will he or won’t he win? And that threat of failure is what gives it spice, and it’s what nails us to the screen.
It dignifies and elevates a script when death is present. I’ve seen scripts where people were going through a lot of things, but there was no real risk that they were going to die or lose, or be more than minorly inconvenienced. The stakes need to be higher. We need to raise the eyebrows of the audience, hook their organs, make them susceptible to laughing, shivering, ultimately caring.
Can you still be surprised by a script?
Oh, no question. The form is 100 years old or so, but it’s still very young. The rules are arbitrary, and stumbled upon, we’ve barely worked them out, so it’s wide open for people to come along and say, “movies don’t have to be 40 minutes or 8 hours.”
And the same for content, it’s up for grabs, which is delightful.
Christopher Vogler will be presenting Raindance's The Essence Of Storytelling in London at the end of the month. Click here for more information and to book tickets.