Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray’s full bio.
There are many important ingredients in a screenplay: premise, plot, characters, dialogue, and so on. One of the most important is logic.
According to Merriam-Webster, logic can be defined as a mode of reasoning that connects facts or events in a way that seems sound (there are a number of other definitions as well, but this is the one that best suits our purposes). In a screenplay, logic is the conceptual reasoning behind (among other things) what the story is, how it unfolds, how the characters behave, and how all of the different components of the piece fit together to form a unified whole.
Here are some of the many ways logic functions in a screen narrative:
In the story:
- For a script to be creatively successful, it’s story must be a logical extension of the premise. In other words, the plot must flow directly from the narrative situation established in the first act set-up; it must expand, develop, and complicate that situation in accordance with the principles of dramatic storytelling throughout the second act, and then finally resolve that situation in the third act. For example, if your premise is about a meek and mousey librarian who acquires superpowers, then the logical extension of that premise is to tell the story of how the librarian uses her newfound powers to accomplish some fun and amazing feats before finally using them to save the world. If your premise is about a meek and mousey librarian who acquires superpowers, then it would be an illogical extension of that premise to tell the story of how the librarian is forced by circumstances to go on a cross-country road trip with the girl who bullied her in high school so that they can resolve their differences and attend their class’s tenth reunion. This may seem like a no-brainer, but as I have written about many times before, the most common problem I encounter in the many spec scripts I read is a narrative that kicks off one story in the first act and then tells an entirely different one (using the same characters) in the second and third acts.
- A script’s theme must be a logical extension of its story (or vice versa). For example, if your script tells the tale of an aging detective on the verge of retirement who attempts to solve an unsolved case from his first year on the force before he finally packs it in, a logical theme for such a piece might concern the quest for redemption for past mistakes or it might concern the denial of age by attempting to relive one’s youth or it might concern coming to terms with an old hurt or overcoming an ancient trauma. On the other hand, a theme related to the inspirational power of romantic love would be an illogical theme to develop out of such a tale (again, this may seem like a no-brainer, but…)
- The world of the story must have its own logic and the narrative must abide by it. Every work of fiction takes place in a specific world – a place with its own look; its own environment; its own social structure, norms, and customs; its own belief system(s); its own governmental, political, and economic methods; its own technology; and its own laws of nature and physics. The structures and rules of a screenplay’s world must be clearly established and defined in the script’s first act and all of the events that occur in the story from then on must occur within those structures and abide by those rules. If they do not, then the audience will become confused as to why things are happening in the way that they are. And if the story’s resolution turns on something that violates its world’s norms or regulations, they might even feel cheated or conned and turn against the picture. If a screen story takes place in the “real” world – the one its audience lives in — then its logic doesn’t require much explanation, since the audience will already intuitively comprehend it. However, if the story takes place in an unfamiliar world (e.g. in a different culture, environment, time period or field of endeavor), in a heightened reality (e.g. many action movies are ostensibly set in the “real” world, but actually take place in a heightened reality in which the characters can drive cars like airplanes, jump from incredible heights and land without injury, emerge from brutal fist and gunfights without a scratch, and survive a lot of incredibly big explosions without singing a raised eyebrow), or a wholly invented one (as is the case in many sci-fi and fantasy films), then the logic must be painstakingly laid out in Act I and adhered to in Acts II and III.
- Dramatic narratives progress in linear fashion (even those told in non-linear fashion): something happens and then something else happens and then something else happens and so on as the plot builds in intensity and momentum until it finally reaches an exciting climax. These events cannot occur at random – there needs to be strong cause-and-effect between everything that happens in a dramatic storyline: something happens that directly causes something else to happen that directly causes something else to happen and so on. And of course that cause-and-effect must be logical: the relationship between each individual cause and its corresponding effect must be plausible (in the context of the story – e.g. if a woman falls off a building in a comic book movie and Superman flies up to save her, that cause-and-effect is plausible. However, if a woman falls off a building in a grittily realistic detective movie and Superman flies up to save her, that cause-and-effect is not plausible) and understandable to the audience (the mechanics of why a specific cause results in a specific effect must be clearly laid out in the screenplay); each successive incident of cause-and-effect in the plotline must result directly from the incident of cause-and-effect that preceded it (there is no place for coincidence, convenience, or arbitrariness in dramatic storytelling); and each incident of cause-and-effect must propel the story towards its inevitable climax in an evident manner (any incident that does not directly advance the narrative towards the climax should be eliminated from the script).
- Plot twists must grow logically out of the narrative. Like cause-and-effect, plot twists advance the story, but in an unexpected way. However, even though plot twists are unexpected, they can’t come out of nowhere – they must emerge plausibly from the events that precede them and they must propel the tale towards the intended ending. And plot twists must make sense within the context of the overall narrative. You don’t want viewers to see a plot twist coming, but when it does arrive, you want the audience to buy it – to enjoy the surprise, but to also think that the twist makes perfect sense. You don’t want them thinking “WTF was that?”
- The story’s climax must be a logical resolution of all that has come before. As with plot twists, you don’t want viewers to see the climax coming, but when it does you want them to feel it was inevitable (“Yes, that’s absolutely what had to happen”), correct (“Yes, that’s absolutely what should have happened”), and satisfying (“Yes, that’s absolutely what I wanted to happen”). The ending must be earned – it must come about as the result of the protagonist’s efforts rather than simply just happen – and it must resolve all conflicts and arcs and tie up all loose ends. In ancient Greece, some playwrights who couldn’t figure out how to end their plays would simply have a god descend from the heaves onto the stage and solve everything magically. Since the actor playing the god was usually lowered from a winch or other mechanical device positioned above the playing area, this practice came to be called a “deus ex machina” (“god from the machine”). It was often spectacular (such endings were often accompanied by thrilling special effects) but it was always a cheat. Today, the phrase “deus ex machina” is used to refer to a cheat ending – one generated by convenience rather than one that is a logical culmination of the narrative. As with convenience and coincidence, there is no place for a “deus ex machina” in screenwriting.
In the characters:
- Your protagonist and his arc must be logical extensions of the theme of your screenplay. For example, if you are telling a story about redemption, then your protagonist must be a character in need of redemption: a criminal, a coward, a sinner, etc. And the protagonist’s arc must illustrate the theme: the criminal must reform, the coward must find courage, the sinner must repent, etc. If your protagonist is a coward and your theme is redemption, then the story must show how he overcomes his cowardice and is finally able to do something brave. It should not show how he learns to become thoughtful and considerate.
- Every human being has a specific and unique internal logic – which we call “psychology” — that determines how he/she thinks and acts in life. Every character in your screenplay must also have a unique and specific internal logic. A character’s psychology determines how he/she thinks and feels, which then directly influences how he/she speaks and behaves. A character’s internal logic must be established in the script’s first act and from then on the character must behave in accordance with that logic – the character’s personality, choices, actions, and speech must all be a clear reflection of the psychology you have devised for him/her. A character should not act in ways that are inconsistent with his/her core psychology – especially not for reasons of plot convenience (e.g. a stupid character cannot suddenly become smart just because the plot needs him to be [this is a frequent mistake in comedy writing]). If he/she does behave in ways that are at odds with his/her established psychology, the character will lose definition — the audience will no longer know how to respond to the character and the actor will no longer know how to play the character.
- Developing a character means elaborating on the psychology you have devised for that character – by showing us how the character developed their particular internal logic, the ways (both expected and unexpected) that internals logic influences and affects the character’s life, and the ways in which that internal logic change as a result of the character’s experiences in the story. Developing a character does not mean allowing the character to act contrary to their established psychology.
In the writing:
- Storytelling devices should emerge logically from the tale being told, rather than be arbitrarily grafted onto the narrative. For example, the choice of a non-linear narrative construction for a film such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento is logical because the story itself is about a man with amnesia whose memory is jumbled and out of order and the story is about his attempts to make sense out of that confusion. Style and substance worked together with terrific results. Nolan’s choice to impose a non-linear structure on Batman Begins was not logical because nothing in the characters or the story required it and the results were not as successful – it made the story (especially in the first half of the film, where the device was employed the most) harder to follow without providing any sort of significant payoff. In this case, it was style over substance, which is never as satisfying.
- The tone of the piece must also emerge logically from the story and from your storytelling intent. For example – if you are purposely telling a dramatic story, it would be logical to employ a serious tone to tell the tale; it would not be logical employ a broadly comedic tone. However, if your script is a satire, then it would be logical to tell a serious story with a comedic tone.
In the whole:
In screenwriting, logic is the intellectual framework that supports your creative construct – it should motivate all of your creative choices and it acts as the glue that binds the myriad elements of your piece together into a coherent expression of your artistic concept. Without it, your screenplay may contain many great bits, but it will not tell a story. With it, your screenplay will tell a tale with the potential to engage, entertain, and ultimately move an audience. That’s what we’re all trying to achieve – I mean, it’s only logical.
Copyright © 2017 by Ray Morton
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