One glance at the most successful films at the box office these days, shows that reality as we know it isn’t a big seller. So what to do if your story is set in the real world?
Reality, But Not As We Know It
I love watching trailers. Partly because I’ve got too little time to go and watch all the movies I’d love to see, and partly because they are such a good guide to what’s unique about a film. Two current trailers, Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method made me realize that a screenplay can have a unique selling point without necessarily having to pander to superstition. What these films share, as far as I can see, is a reference to a real-world phenomenon that everyone is familiar with, or at least familiar enough to be able to engage with, without the film having to explain anything. It’s this that elevates the stories beyond their basic plots, and gives them that something extra: a unique selling point.
Example: Habemus Papam – The Pope
Whether you’re a Catholic or not, the figure of The Pope is something that automatically evokes all sorts of associations to do with religion, tradition, history, celibacy, men in dresses, and so on. A bit like Father Christmas, but then… real. As far as I can tell from the trailer, the film does an excellent job of playing with these familiar aspects, while telling a really funny story. Because the starting point is something that most people have some kind of idea about, the film doesn’t have to do any explaining for it to work.
Example: A Dangerous Method - Psychoanalysis
Whether you’ve been in psychoanalysis or not (the vast majority of the world’s population hasn’t), the name Sigmund Freud is likely to ring a bell and evoke some associations with therapy, Freudian slips, the unconscious, a long cylindrical object a hairy orifice (Freud’s cigar), Vienna, etc. A bit like Sherlock Holmes, but then… real. Starting from that more or less familiar arena, David Cronenberg weaves a dramatic tale based on real events, about lust, unconscious desires, challenging authority and so on. Here too, because many people have a pre-existing idea about who Freud was and what psychoanalysis is, the arena is already there in the audience’s mind before the start of the film.
Tapping Into The Collective Unconscious
To me, this is one of the most difficult aspects of screenwriting. But I can see why it makes perfect sense. All the aspects of screenwriting craft, such as conflict, character flaw, character arc, sequences, three act structure, and so on, are all well and good. There’s no doubt that being able to write well and according to industry standards, is necessary. But perhaps not sufficient. What really makes a screenplay stand out from the crowd, is something at the centre of the story world, that goes beyond the familiar world we inhabit, while touching on something that lives in everyone’s mind, in the collective unconscious. Something original that has universal resonance. It sounds contradictory, but it isn’t. Very few people are intimate with The Pope, but billions of people have an idea of The Pope in their mind. The same is true of fantastic and supernatural concepts such as vampires, angels, werewolves and fairy tale characters. But also of familiar, real-world phenomena, such as historical figures (monarchs, dictators, politicians, artists, biblical characters, etc,) famous sporting events, battles, illnesses (mental or physical), festivals (national, religious, etc.), inventions, and so the list goes on.
Any one of these phenomena integrated into an otherwise "merely" dramatic or funny story, can elevate it to a level that makes it accessible and interesting to a much wider audience. It’s not a guarantee for success, because if the story isn’t emotionally engaging anyway, then nothing will help. But it certainly increases the chances of a screenplay getting attention, which is what a unique selling point is supposed to do.