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This is the fifth in a series of essays about alternative sources for structure and plotting for screenplays and television series (for earlier entry in the series, see the bottom of the essay).
By alternative, I mean sources other than the usual tomes written by the usual gurus, sources you might not immediately think about, that can be used as guides in trying to tell your story, sources that you might not have even considered of any use in this area.
The idea of writing these essays originated with the sudden rise of what is now being called a second golden age of television, as well as a paradigm shift in the way movies are made. There are now so many different ways of telling a story on television, while in movies there has been a swing away from the Hollywood/Studio type of filmmaking, that I believe thinking outside the box when it comes to finding ways to tell stories might be a wise move to make at this time.
However, before proceeding any further, I would also like to say one other thing. You may look at many of my lists and recoil at the hoity-toityness of them all and even accuse me of being a snob.
Well, what can I say? I am a snob and I’m proud of it.
But I seriously doubt it would hurt anyone’s ability to write if they let a little more snobbishness in. In fact, it might help. You never know, so give it a try.
And this essay will probably be the snobbiest of the snobbiest in that it focuses on films that take a lot of their cues from philosophers, theologians and great thinkers. These are films that really try to get to the heart of what makes us, well, us; what is the meaning of the universe; why were are here at all; why there is something instead of nothing; what is the point of being alive at all. These are questions that artists have been dealing with since time immemorial, and they still influence us today.
These are sources that have given guidance and depth to films since their inception and have influenced directly or indirectly such filmmakers as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Martin Scorcese, Paul Schrader, Woody Allen, Michael Haneke, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antoinioni and many, many others.
Of course, the reading list I reference is not an exhaustive list, just some suggestions that reflect my personal preferences. I suppose I chose these because they are the books and writings that have influenced me over time. So I apologize if I didn’t include your favorites. But please, do share. The more choices given, the more writers have to choose from
- The Book of Job/The Book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible: In The Book of Job, bad things happen to a good person. A man, who is righteous, has nothing but tragedy happen to him out of nowhere and for no discernable reason. When he demands God tell him why, all God tells him something to the effect of “I don’t have to tell you and I’m not going to tell you”. In the Book of Ecclesiastes, a prophet says such things as “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity” and “What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.”
- Hamlet/Macbeth/King Lear by William Shakespeare. Hamlet is, in addition to being about someone seeking revenge, about a young man questioning the meaning of life, is there a god, why shouldn’t we kill ourselves, how do we live, and says “To be or not to be, that is the question”. In Macbeth, an overly ambitious warlord realizes that the world is “sound and fury, signifying nothing”. And King Lear, a foolish monarch, realizes “as flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; they slap us in their fun”.
- Bleak House/Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens: I’ve always thought of Dickens as being more Kafkaesque than Kafka. His books are often filled with Catch 22’s and people caught up in conflicts over which they have no control. In Bleak House, some people are caught up in a court case over an inheritance; the problem is that once the case was brought before the court, no one can stop it or withdraw or even compromise; by law, it must play out until it plays out. In Little Dorritt, people are put into Debtors’ Prison when they have unpaid obligations, and can’t get out until the debt is paid; the problem is that once in jail, there is no way to raise money to pay it off. This book also satirizes the Patent Office at the time, a huge and hopeless bureaucracy in which everything is buried and lost.
- Crime and Punishment/The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky: both of these books question morality and the existence of God. In Crime and Punishment, a young man thinks that he is a Super Man, someone who has the right to be above all laws and morals and doesn’t have to answer to the rules of lesser men; he kills two women and discovers that he may be wrong in his look at life. In many ways, The Brothers Karamazov is a murder mystery; the decadent and amoral father of four brothers is killed; who did it and why sets up an exploration of theological issues.
- The Trial/The Metamorphosis by Kafka: Kafka often writes stories about average men caught up in nonsensical, even surrealistic, situations (like Hitchcock, but more extreme and surrealistic). In The Trial, a man is being investigated by the authorities, but they refuse to tell him what crime they suspect him of. In The Metamorphosis, a young man wakes up one morning to find that he has been turned into a gigantic insect; but why and how is never revealed.
- The Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran preacher and theologian who became involved in the plot to kill Hitler and was executed for it. He preached the idea that though God exists, we have to act as if he doesn’t.
- No Exit/The Flies by John Paul Sartre: Sartre was the leading exponent and apologist for Existentialism, a philosophy that arose out of World War II and the occupation of France by the Nazis. In No Exit, three people are trapped together in a hotel room and come to realize that there is no need for hell because “hell is other people”. In The Flies, Sartre explores the existential hero through Orestes who rebels against the gods and takes responsibility for who he is.
- The Plague by Albert Camus: The government blocks off a town when the plague comes to its shore. In the city, people try to find meaning in what is happening to them, but in the end, the only meaning to the plague is that it will come back.
- The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann: a young man is diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a remote spa only to discover that we are all victims to the whims of nihilism and that essentially life has no meaning.
- Waiting for Godot/Happy Days and other works of Samuel Beckett: Perhaps the greatest playwright of the 20th Century, Beckett’s writings all explore the horror of life, but often in a humorous way. In Waiting for Godot (possibly the greatest play of that same century), two bums have to decide whether to leave or stay and wait for someone called Godot to arrive, though every day he sends a messenger who tells them Godot can’t come today, but will come tomorrow; in the end the human condition wins out. In Happy Days, a woman buried up to her waist in act one and then up to her head in act two continues to claim that life is good and she is happy.
- On Being a Christian/Does God Exist by Hans Kϋng: One of the major theologians of the 20th Century, Kung is a Catholic who keeps getting into trouble with the Church by having more liberal interpretation of Christianity, especially Catholicism.
- The writings of Soren Kierkegaard: the major theological proponent of existentialism, his thoughts revolve around approaching life and its meaning with a leap of faith.
- Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by William Kaufman: a great compilation of writings that give a great introduction to the major philosophical movement of the last one hundred years.
Just for kicks giggles
- The works of Philip K. Dick: In such stories and books as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, We Can Remember it For You Wholesale, and Second Variety, Dick explores the ideas of are we who we are or are we who we think we are, and if you can’t tell the difference between an AI and a human being, then is there a difference.
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard: In this play on the play Hamlet, the events as Elsinore are shown through the tragicomic viewpoints of two supporting characters, two people trapped in events that they don’t understand and have no control over.
Remember, “the book you don’t read won’t help”: Jim Rohn
YOU WANT ME TO READ WHAAAAAAT? A Snob’s Guide to Alternative Sources for Structure in Plotting for Screenplay and TV Writing-earlier essays
Part 1: Epic Stories http://ow.ly/U6Mao
Part 2: Rom Coms http://ow.ly/WBUnN
Part 3: Night Time Soaps http://ow.ly/WCeDX
Part 4: Grindhouse/Exploitation http://ow.ly/XNWpW