(Spoilers: The Martian, Gravity, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sicario, Spy)
Today I want to coin a term: Conceptual Synchronicity. I'm using this to describe when two parts of a story heighten each other.
I often discuss this in relation to the character/plot dynamic. The question we often ask is, “Why this character for this story?” There should be a core aspect of your main character that synchs up with your plot. You should ask yourself, who is the best character to be in this situation? Best could mean many things – it may be the character best qualified for the challenge, or the character worst qualified for the challenge, or the character whose core belief would be challenged by some aspect of the story.
Let’s look at some examples.
In The Martian (screenplay by Drew Goddard), Matt Watney is an accomplished scientist and an optimist. He is the only type of person who could survive being stranded on Mars with limited resources. The conceptual symmetry in this story is taking someone who is extremely competent, and then putting them in a situation that poses a challenge even to their competence.
This is somewhat the opposite approach to the one taken in Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron). Though the situation is similar, in this story Ryan Stone is a neophyte astronaut who has lost purpose in her life. She is the least qualified astronaut (admittedly, still a highly qualified category of people) to survive a disaster in space. And the situation she finds herself in will challenge her to decide how badly she wants to live.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) combines both approaches. Who is the most qualified person to race against Nazis on a hunt for the Ark of the Covenant? An archeologist who is skilled with a gun and bullwhip. But Indiana Jones also doesn’t believe in the religious/supernatural aspects of the object of the quest, making him in some ways the worst person for the job. Ultimately he will come to question his non-belief in the climax of the story.
Sicario (written by Taylor Sheridan) is about the moral grey areas in the war on drugs along the Mexican border. Who is the best character to put into that situation? Sheridan chose an ethical, by-the-book police officer. When this character is thrown into this morally ambiguous world, she will find it difficult to figure out the right thing to do.
In a completely different genre, Spy (written by Paul Feig) places a frumpy, unglamorous desk jockey into the world of espionage, getting humor from the fish-out-of-water situation. Feig has built a character completely unsuited to the James Bond-like environment (while still giving her enough skills to succeed).
Note that synchronicity doesn’t mean symmetry. Often the thing that gives you conceptual synchronicity is opposition. This can create dramatic irony (such as in Sicario) or comedic irony (such as in Spy).
The idea of conceptual synchronicity doesn’t just apply to the basic concept of your story. You should ask yourself what is the best/worst choice for every major story element. And the possibilities should be evaluated in relation to your other story elements. In Spy, they make the villain a beautiful, glamorous, sophisticated international arms dealer – the conceptual opposite of the heroine.
In The Martian, Watney’s improvisational problem solving and faith in his ability is contrasted with the bureaucrats back on Earth with their cautious risk analysis and PR concerns. The two approaches to the situation provide a conceptual synchronicity that adds thematic depth to the story.
You can apply this theory on a scene level as well. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones finds the Ark, it is in a room filled with snakes – his personal phobia. And in Sicario, when the lonely Kate finally pushes herself to try making a connection with a man, he betrays her, playing on her biggest insecurity.
In a way, the concept I’m calling conceptual synchronicity is simply asking yourself what is the most interesting choice in any situation, given the premise you’ve concocted. Making choices that resonate with other aspects of your story will increase the dramatic power of the entire script.
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