(SPOILERS: Amelie, American Beauty)
The majority of films are structured around an external journey for the character. This makes sense – film is a visual medium. We observe the external actions of the characters. For the most part we have to infer their internal feelings from these actions. Sure, you can use voiceover, but if the movie is built on the running internal monologue of the main character, it’s probably not going to be very visually interesting. And if characters constantly reveal their feelings in dialogue, the dialogue will seem clunky and unrealistic.
So does that mean you can’t tell the story of a character’s internal journey on film? Of course not! Most films do tell an internal story. But they pair that story with an external journey that allows them to reveal the character’s thought process through behavior. I use the concepts of want and need to define the character’s external and internal story, and to tie them together so that both are organic to the movie.
For example, Amelie (scenario by Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, dialogue by Guillaume Laurant) is a story about a woman who has closed herself off from the world and needs to open her heart to another before it’s too late. The film builds an external story where Amelie tries to locate a quirky man whose scrapbook book she’s found. Once she’s found the man, she must learn if he’s truly worthy of her affections. Then she must attract his interest. And finally she must gather the courage to reveal herself to him. This goal of finding and investigating the stranger provides an external story that has action and momentum, which in turn allows revelation of her internal journey of trust and connection.
As you can see, the internal and external stories interact. Something happens in the external story that causes a change in the character’s way of thinking. That leads her to take action in the external story that has a result that leads to another character change. This leads to another action, and so on. But as related as the two stories are, one is usually structurally dominant.
If you’re interested in telling a story that is primarily about someone’s internal journey – say coming to terms with grief, or coming-of-age, or overcoming prejudice – I suggest devising an external story that will allow you to reveal that internal journey. If this bothers you, think of it this way: If you’re telling an external story, you need to come up with an internal arc for your main character so that the external story has meaning. And if you want to tell an internal story, you need to come up with an external arc to reveal the meaning of the character journey.
Structure is always hard, but structuring a movie around an internal journey is often a lot harder than structuring it around the external story. The first step is to remember that the internal journey actually has to be structured!
Ask yourself these questions: What does the character learn? How do they change? What are the stages of this internal journey? How do you externalize those to show the internal change?
American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) is a story about a character’s internal journey. Lester goes from an ineffectual, unhappy, unassertive man to a man who has the courage and determination to live his life on his own terms – but with moral responsibility.
What are the stages of this internal journey? First, Lester realizes how unhappy he is. So he stands up for himself, and discovers he likes the results. As he continues to assert himself, he goes too far, becoming selfish. He starts catering to his own desires without concern for others. Then he realizes how his actions can hurt others. So he finally decides to be both true to himself and responsible. And then he discovers he is happy.
This internal journey is revealed through an external journey of Lester falling for his daughter’s friend, Angela. Seeing Angela triggers his first revelation of his unhappiness. He starts to get in shape and smokes pot, and he discovers that doing things for himself makes him happier. This culminates in Lester quitting his job, which is incredibly freeing. But then he becomes selfish, doing whatever he feels like regardless of the consequences. And he actively pursues the underage object of his affection – something very selfish.
His transition doesn’t always go smoothly – the results aren’t always what he expects. But at each point he learns more about himself. Then finally, on the brink of sex with Angela, he realizes his selfishness could destroy this girl. He backs off, realizes he has to temper his desires with responsibility, and his journey is complete. And it works because the journey has been revealed in stages through external actions.
I commonly see students struggling to structure a story that is an internal journey. The two most common problems are: 1. They are only describing a particular state of being, or a start and end point, rather than moving coherently through each stage of a full journey; and/or 2. They have failed to create an external journey that will reveal that internal journey.
The other side of this is the student who has created an external story, usually a genre piece, with a one-dimensional character that has no internal journey. The solution to both situations is often the same: figure out how the character changes, and structure the stages of that change.
If you're in the L.A. area, I'm going to be co-teaching a one-day seminar on the first ten pages of your screenplay at The Writers Store on October 15. My fellow teachers are Paul Guay (Liar, Liar) and Jeffrey Berman (Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story). There are only a couple more days to get the $149 rate. Here's the link: The First Ten Pages.