When screenwriters set out to tell a story, the better ones (that is the better screenwriters) realize that they have two stories to tell.
Now let’s look little closer at how stories are written and the how they are connected to our spiritual journey.
The Two Stories
In the best movies, and movies are our our most popular from of storytelling, we respond to the plight of the characters on an emotional level. We do this because, whether we are aware of it or not, we have become invested in the “B” story of the Characters.
Screenwriters tell two stories. First there is the “A” story. The “A” story is all the action, intrigue, comedy, drama and romance that we see up the screen. This is the exciting stuff. The visual eye-candy that keeps our eyes glued to the screen. This is the sword fights, the space battles, the rescues, the rejections, the recoiled lovers, all the thrills and chill that we go to the movies to experience.
But alongside all the action and drama there is another story being told, the “B” story. The “B” story is what is referred to as the “Character Arc.” The “B” story is about the evolution of the character from one state to another. In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker goes from thinking of himself as a farm boy on a distant backwater planet, to the realization that he is a Jedi knight, like his father. This realization helps him to realize his full potential and he becomes a leader of the resistance.
The “B” story is not always obvious and it may not always be the protagonist who experiences it. In “Beverly Hills Cop” the protagonist, the main character through whom we experience the events of the story, is Axel Foley. Axel doesn’t really change during the run of the film. He is essentially the same person at the end as he was in the beginning. But rookie detective Billy Rosewood, and to a lesser extent his veteran partner, does change. He goes from being an uptight, by-the-book officer of the Beverly Hills Police Department, to a more hip, street-wise detective thanks to the influence of Foley. In a terrific comedy/adventure, it is Billy Rosewood who anchors us emotionally. It is in Billy’s character development that we find the “B” story.
Plot versus Theme
One of the most difficult concepts for new writer’s to grasp is the idea of “theme.” When asked to describe the theme of their story, many young writers will start to describe what happens in the story. But that is the plot of the story, no the theme.
The theme is the idea that you have to accept in order to make sense of what is happening on the big screen. The theme is the concept or thought that ties the events of the plot together. Most importantly, it is the theme that allows us to make sense of the “B” story.
In “Beverly Hills Cop,” for example, I would suggest the theme is that, what is right, i.e. justice, is more complicated than following a set of rules, no matter how necessary the rules are.
In “Guardians of the Galaxy, volume 2” there is a very clear theme of the importance of family, even when all you do is yell at each other.
A better example is the 1966 movie “A Man for All Seasons.” In the film, Thomas More, Chancellor of England and a devout Catholic, butts heads with his King, Henry VIII over the authority of the Church. More’s refusal to compromise his most deeply held religious beliefs eventually results in his arrest, trial, and execution.
The plot of the movie is the conflict between More and Henry, and all the political intrigue, testing of friendships and family, that goes along with it. But the theme is something else entirely. The theme of “A Man for All Seasons,” is that man is immortal, and that what we do in this life matters immensely in the life that is yet to come. If you cannot accept this theme, or at least understand it, then the story makes no sense. Without at least an intuitive understanding of the theme you may sit there watching the movie thinking “why doesn’t he just sign the paper (The Act of Succession) and get on with his life? It’s just a piece of paper.”
But at one point in the movie More himself tells you exactly why he cannot take the easy way out. “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
The idea of an immortal soul, and the implications that our actions here on earth have on that soul, is the theme of the story. It guides the decisions of the hero and helps us to make sense of the “B” story; a devout man’s convictions are tested to their limits, and he is forced to decide whether or not he can truly live up to those convictions.
The Journey of the Soul
The “B” story is an inward emotional, spiritual journey. This is the story that underlies all of the best movies. This is the story of the transformation of our souls. It is the “B” story that speaks to our hearts because it is the story or journey that we are all on. It is a journey of self discovery, a journey to find who we truly are, who God meant for us to be. And as a great man, paraphrasing a great woman, once said, when we discover the person God meant for us to be, we will set the world on fire.