This was a question our scriptwriting tutor, Christine Rogers outlined to us last week. While it’s true it mainly applies to traditional narratives, that happens to be what we are currently studying and putting into practice in Film-TV 1. It’s a valuable question to ask yourself when trying to come up with an idea for, and write a screenplay. This leads on to another point outlined in the Film-TV lecture. Characters advance the plot, or at least their actions do. In order for them to take action, they need to want something, and almost always, there’s something that stands between them and their goal.
It sounds straightforward, but even if you have a very interesting and dynamic character, their actions have to be believable. If a plot point requires a character to do something unusual, then it requires extreme circumstances, or a rethink of the plot. When writing for a short film, while you can have a more complex plot at the expense of character, I don’t think that is a beneficial way to look at it. The two should be intertwined, with character actions resulting in a plot, rather than a plot resulting in character actions. The former is so much more naturalistic, and also much more logical. I don’t like to think of a film as a work of engineering – the technical aspects of filmmaking are more than enough to make up for that. Writing by numbers, or ‘story beats’, isn’t necessarily a good thing. They should be the consequence, rather than the cause, of character motivation.
So what are the stakes? The character needs something to strive for, or a problem to resolve. In the end the stakes can be anything, but what the point we keep coming back to in the course is that someone running late to class, or losing a pen, isn’t exactly engaging for most audiences. I should point out that the Community bottle episode where Annie’s pen is stolen is incredibly good. So in the end, if you’re a good writer, and the cast and crew are great, low stakes can easily engage us. When resources are limited and we remember we only have one day to shoot a student film, we realise high stakes might be an easier way to have an impact. Especially when we only have five minutes to do it.