As screenwriters we’re always watching the latest movies, reading the hottest screenplays, and keeping up with the trades to see what’s sparking interest in the business. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing this, I think that we’re too insular in our thinking. Too often we imagine the world of art to be like a labyrinthine mansion where each room is dedicated to a single medium and that they should never cross over. This is like putting an arbitrary set of blinders on yourself, limiting your true potential.
Instead, venture outside the realms of movies. You’d be surprised how much inspiration can be found in other mediums and what solutions they can provide to the most challenging problems we face as screenwriters. Although the bounds of such an exploration are near endless, I’m going to limit myself to talking about what screenwriters can learn from video games, theater, and music.
For a long time video games were the black sheep of the art world where they weren’t taken seriously and constantly undermined. However, as all new art forms want to do, video games seized an increasingly large share of the entertainment industry and formed a fundamental part of everyday life for millions of people around the world. So what lessons can be learned from them?
For me, the fundamental building blocks of video games can fill the second act of our scripts with much needed energy and pizazz. On a basic level, a game is about reaching an objective with the tools provided to you while avoiding or overcoming an obstacle that specifically challenges the skills you’ve learned. This is identical to the second act of movies. What is a second act if not a prolonged test of the skills of your protagonist?
Just like the challenges of a video game reveal whether you are truly capable of progressing, the challenges of the second act can illuminate the true interior life of your protagonist. Whether it be an action protagonist’s skill of jumping from one skyscraper to another, or a drama protagonist’s ability to meaningfully confront difficult emotional issues, the second act should test your protagonists ability to progress. Just like reaching the end of the game with no struggle feels empty, if a protagonist gets what they want with no struggle we miss an opportunity to glimpse their inner lives and their victory feels hollow.
Hell, many writers think of their second act as a specific set of games. In Green Room the central concept of surviving a group of neo-nazis from the confines of a seedy bar’s green room informs the games that make up the second act. Escaping, finding supplies, fighting better equipped enemies, gathering intel… does this not sound like the exact sort of thing video games have us accomplish too?
The grandfather of narrative storytelling, accompanied only by literature and oral storytelling, theater has formed a central part of public cultural life for millenia, going back to the ancient Greeks and beyond. Even if you were illiterate you could engage with a story told on stage. Theater has held onto its relevance into modernity as it shares a lot of DNA with films. Many early films were based on plays, and the introduction of sound meant that adaptations of Shakespeare were plentiful in early cinema. So what can we learn from them?
Chiefly, limits. In a screenplay you can write whatever your imagination can produce and your words can communicate. It is an essentially boundless medium, much like prose, where anything is possible. However, screenplays differ from prose in that their chief goal is to be produced into a movie. Theater has been dealing with a similar problem for centuries (script to stage), so we should take our lead from it.
I highly recommend checking out a production of any Shakespeare play done by the Globe Theatre in London. Their goal is to try and replicate a similar atmosphere to how the plays would have originally been staged so the staging is minimal at best. Much of the scene setting is done in our own minds, and the props are limited. On a practical level this keeps costs down and logistics simple, but on a creative level this forces the audience to engage with characters before plot or setting. Is it any wonder that Shakespeare’s characterizations still persist to this day?
Don’t get me wrong, finding an engaging setting and a riveting plot is excellent, but character comes first. There’s truth to the old adage that restrictions breed creativity. Look to Rope, !2 Angry Men, or One Cut of the Dead. Each film has a fundamental restriction (Rope is filmed in one shot, 12 Angry Men takes place in one set, One Cut of the Dead had a tiny budget to work with) that forced the writers to extract every ounce of dramatic potential, drilling deep down into what makes the scenario tick. Movies have been doing this for just over a century. Theater has been dealing with this issue for far longer.
Ok, video games and theater are both inherently narrative driven and have clear ties to the storytelling structure of screenplays, but music? Really?
Music, no matter the genre, is a masterclass of structure in the pursuit of rich themes and emotional resonance. Take Bach’s Prelude in C as an example. You may not know it by name, but you’ll recognize it instantly upon listening. Bach’s Preludes follow a firm structure by introducing the theme (or leitmotif) in the first bar before developing that theme throughout the entire piece. This means the theme is warped with counterpoint, it changes keys, it veers in different directions, and always goes to a polar opposite emotional place before returning to the original motif at the end in a surprising way. Is this not the same structure as a screenplay? State the theme, explore the theme, test it to its limits, then come to a resolution in a surprising way. Sometimes words aren’t needed to express the fundamentals of storytelling. Pop music uses the exact same ideas, reinventing the idea of leitmotifs into the verse / chorus structure.
Jazz is an even better example. Most jazz is performed off lead sheets, a template that tells the musicians the structure of the piece, when to play chords, and what the core melody is. However, the lead sheet is short. Once a jazz musician reaches the end they go right back to the top, but instead of playing the lead sheet verbatim like before they improvise over the original structure, creating new music in the moment as whims take them. I think this is a brilliant analogy for story structure. Yes, it can feel limiting, but once you are familiar with it you can use it as a skeleton to bolster your own creativity so that when you feel most lost, you can always return back to the proverbial lead sheet.
So explore. I truly believe that screenwriters need to be like sponges, soaking up all the inspiration, lessons, and ideas from everything the world has to offer, and especially other mediums. Go back to your favorite video games and ask yourself how the gameplay systems that keep you engaged can be reinterpreted to give your second act some vigor. Ask yourself whether your story will hold up if you strip back the surface level aesthetics as plays often have to do. Listen to music that you’re intimately familiar with and fresh to seeing how the structure, attitude, and storytelling within music can enrich your own relationship with the screenwriting “rules” that inform many of your favorite scripts.
Further Reading: I limited myself to talking about three mediums, but lessons can be learned from the many others too. Screencraft have a great article on what screenwriters can learn from the art of improv.