Story rises from character, not the other way around.
Far too many screenwriters enter into the process of writing a screenplay assuming that plot is the primary story agent, and that the characters are secondary. It is a prejudice that most of us learned from the way in which we were taught history. People are taught that events make history, they are taught to memorize the events and the dates upon which these events transpired. This offers only a partial view of the actual story - or history - and all but neglects the driving agent(s) and emotions that actively encouraged and brought about these events.
Story rises from character, and it is character and the characters’ needs, fears, ambitions and frustrations, that drive the story forward.
BUT do not make the simple-minded mistake of thinking that all of the characters that drive a story are located in the screenplay or script. Sure, that is where the dramatis personae “live” and act, but they are not the ONLY characters involved in finding - or enacting - the story. One must enlarge one’s vision and understanding of the actual process, and when one does, one realizes that there are other characters at work here, characters that are mostly invisible to a writer whose understanding of character is limited to the cast of characters in the script.
A CHARACTER - a dramatic character - may be defined as a human or human-like person that wants something, and is driven by this need or frustrated desire to attain what he or she wants to such an extent that they are not prepared or able to wait for it to just happen, but actively go out, and in the face of threats, risk and personal safety, seek to claim, win, restore of grasp it. Given this definition we can see how the writer, too, is a character. The writer wants to write a story, and is driven by a writer’s need to tell it in a way that evokes real emotion. They want to move and transform their audience. The audience, too, is a character, insofar as the writer conceives of them as something with a point of view and a susceptibility to be moved. In a sense, the audience is always an act of the imagination - that person or persons to whom the story is addressed. They have an attitude that the writer imagines and seeks to confront with the story. They are resistant to that story and that resistance goads the writer towards more vivid and confronting storytelling. Likewise, the writer is the product of a number of tribal circumstances or contexts that have affected and influenced his or her view of the world. The writer is a product of his or her environment, those cultural, societal, economic, legal, political and spiritual circumstances in which he/she came of age. The writer’s tribe wants something too, and it’s claims on the writer and the writer’s sensibilities cannot be under-estimated.
When one writes a story or screenplay one must sit down and ask the characters - ALL the characters - what they want, and then allow them their voice in the evolving series of actions and events. Don’t get in their way - the writer that works as a ‘medium’ for these characters and their proclivities understands that the art of dramatic storytelling resides in the facility to get out of the way - to free the characters to become what they can (and want) to be. You must fight against the dumb inclination to promote yourself as the Grand Puppeteer - the leading mastermind whose weighty responsibility is to plot out a plan, regardless of what and who the characters actually are, emotionally and spiritually. Your job is not to tell the characters’ story, but to free them enough so that they can tell you, and you can follow them. Sounds passive, doesn’t it? But it’s not. To do that you must fight the battle of your life, confronting all your demons and fears, your assumptions and expectations, concerning who and what you are. It is a battle to the death - the death of ego that is. So, follow them. See where their story goes.
Remember: everyone wants to live an ‘easy’ life, but nothing worth having comes easily.
Every choice comes with a price, every action comes with an opposite reaction. Your character can desire to live an ‘easy’ life as much as any other character… but fate always intrudes… if you have the courage to face it.
Billy Marshall Stoneking
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THE MOUNTAINS HAVEN’T MOVED
There are mountains behind my house,
big mountains; I see them from my kitchen window.
I have been watching them closely
for a long time. Today,
a letter arrived from Sydney:
a friend reminding me that soon
I will be coming back to the city.
She says I will love every minute of it;
she can hardly wait.
I wash the dishes and walk around the house.
The mountains outside my kitchen window
My son has grown three inches this year
and my wife, at twenty-seven, complains of getting old.
I tell her she is ravishing and she laughs:
“don’t be stupid.”
For four years I have watched
the hairs in my beard turning gray.
Outside my kitchen window
the mountains haven’t moved.
Jenny tells me things have changed in Sydney.
There are soup kitchens again –
first time since the Great Depression.
Everything is dirtier, noisier, but
you can still get a free meal at Hare Krishna.
In the city, all my friends are splitting up.
I haven’t seen a dentist for ages.
In the last two years I’ve put on a stone.
Today, I’m reading a book; it tells me:
Outside my window, the mountains haven’t moved.
I’ve got a skin cancer on the bridge of my nose.
The packing boxes are already stacked in the corner.
In three months I’ll be back in the city.
The windows, the buses,
the Proctor & Gamble plant,
the soapy fumes of Rozelle and Balmain,
the speaking “as a matter of course”,
the touching “as a matter of course”,
the rows of doors,
the Land Rights stickers in the windows
of the terraces and semi-detached.
For years I have traveled from one place
to another. In one year I lived
in four different houses.
I am beginning to wonder if, in my life,
I have collected more than I have thrown away…
I haven’t lived in one place longer
than I have lived here.
Outside my window, the mountains haven’t moved.
I write, I smoke, I read stories to my son.
I teach English to Aboriginal boys, and doubt
that even that will help them.
I know I have reached middle-age because
I think about death everyday.
Where does one go from the centre,
except a little closer to the edge?
The windows. The mountains.
Something we all must heed.
AUSTRALIAN SPRING is the working title of a feature film currently in development that will be produced by the screen and media students at SIFA (Sydney Institute Film Academy), Randwick TAFE. The film is the outcome of an on-going script development workshop, now into its second year, involving four writers writing four, stand-alone 20-25 minute short films., all of which are set over one, long Australia Day weekend.
The rationale and methodology behind the conception and making of AUSTRALIAN SPRING has its origins in a project developed by Billy Marshall Stoneking and Amin Palangi entitled SEEING THE ELEPHANT. The methodology offers a practical and innovative approach to film studies that offers film students a way of creating viable feature-length films without sacrificing the experiences derived from writing and producing short-form dramas.
The stories that make up the content of the present film are self-contained dramatic stories, each dealing with an aspect of what it means to be part of a developed and diverse, multicultural community in the first quarter of the 21st century. The fundamental issues and problems confronting the characters are, however, both universal and timeless, exploring as they do the themes of betrayal, trust, guilt, self-doubt and the eternal disconnect that so often characterizes generational differences and values.
The stories that comprise the feature are not, as is often the case, presented in an anthology format, with one film following the next, as is the case with films like Subway Stories, Paris, je t’aime and Twilight Zone, The Movie. The stories of AUSTRALIAN SPRING are inter-cut together, each one featuring its own set of characters, and each story providing the possibilities for affecting the emotional charge and meanings of the other stories by virtue of the contextual possibilities the stories offer. Indeed, each of the stories in this multi-plot drama resonate with and help to illuminate the issues presented in all the stories.
The nature of the project has been and continues to be highly experimental, both at the script work-shopping stage, which includes working with both actors and camera, exploring choices of coverage, casting and POV, etc. , as well as in the production and post-production phases, which will incorporate re-shooting scenes where necessary and the development of original soundtrack music, produced in the RANDWICK TAFE recording studio as well as a “Making Of” documentary that will chronicle the process from conception to completion. Selected footage from some of the Scene workshops (which also serve as a thorough-going audition process) are posted on this website for use by cast, crew, and others.
I used to marvel at the way that Aboriginal men and women hunted kangaroo and goanna and the like. They did it with such an amazing sense of respect and care, with love. It was borne of a psychic or emotional connection that they had with the animal and was often done with such great feeling that you believed they were engaged in an act of prayer. A sacrifice was made by both, the hunter and his/her prey. I’m not sure I would’ve ever said the sort of thing I said above unless I had lived with the Pintupi all those years. They taught me much I am still learning from.
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, BILLY MARSHALL STONEKING?