Paul Joseph Gulino is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright, whose book, Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach has been adopted as a textbook at universities around the globe.
Do your characters need an arc or inner conflict to make a screenplay work?
Spotlight (written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy and directed by McCarthy) has been nominated for a slew of awards, including Oscars in Best Picture and Best Writing categories. The obvious reason for the attention is that it is a polished, well-crafted, and engaging film.
Very likely, another reason is the subject matter: intrepid reporters doggedly following a trail to expose evil in a rich and powerful institution and make wrongs right is the kind of story appealing to people attempting to make judgements about the importance or worthiness of material. And the fact that the evil is even now making headlines (thus current) is surely a plus.
With all the accolades, two issues in the storytelling strategy the filmmakers employed will likely go unnoticed: a lack of a character arcs, and a lack of personal, inner conflicts, in any of the principle characters.
Do such things matter? Not always, but in this case, they might’ve made a difference between a good film and one with greater and longer-lasting impact. When the shock value—and current event value—of the Catholic priest scandal fades, are there any other, perhaps deeper human issues that will resonate in the future? It’s difficult to discern any.
Many Characters, No Inner Conflicts
The story itself is an ensemble, with multiple characters pursuing the various threads of the story they are investigating, while others manage the progress and make higher-level decisions. Still, it follows a traditional dramatic structure broken into smaller pieces: a reporter needs information, but the source is unwilling to divulge it because they’re being paid off, or they’re faithful to the church, or there’s some claimed legality involved, or they just don’t want to. The reporters keep doggedly onward and overcome these obstacles.
Gradually the pieces come together, the various protagonists gather what they all need, assemble it into a story, and finally win out in the end.
Spreading out the audience’s connection with multiple protagonists is itself a move that tends to dilute strong emotional connection with any of them, and thus reduce the intensity of the emotional impact of a film.
Aside from that, none of the principle characters has a personal stake in his or her pursuit; i.e., none of them risks losing a job, or being beat up, or even being ostracized. True enough the reporters are Catholic, and one of them, Mike (Mark Ruffalo) confesses to falling away from the Church due to the revelations, but this is not dramatized; it’s merely mentioned as something that happened offscreen. For the rest, they seem to have little trouble throwing the Church under the bus; their only concern seems to be that the Boston Globe might lose subscribers, who are overwhelmingly Catholic.
What we have, then, is a movie about a group of good, admirable people doing a good, admirable thing, paying no price for what they do, and winning out in the end. Who wouldn’t like to watch a good, admirable person doing a good, admirable thing?
Character Arcs and Inner Conflict
I have discussed the issue of character arc elsewhere; essentially, it can be understood as a transformation in the character’s awareness, a contrast between what a character wants (something they are aware of at the outset) versus what they actually need (often quite different, and something they become aware of under the stresses of the story). In short, character arc is a process of learning.
Two recent books, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) and The Storytelling Animal (2013) argue for the evolutionary advantages of storytelling, and identify learning through the mistakes of others as an important component. It is thus no surprise that the character arc—as a description of what a character learns in the course of a story—is a very common pattern in cinematic storytelling.
Meanwhile, the notion of an inner conflict is a means by which drama can be intensified, and relates as well to the teaching function of storytelling, because it reflects common life situations. Escaping from a burning building is an inherently dramatic situation, since the fire is a life or death obstacle that must be overcome. However, the choice is clear: get out or die.
On the other hand, suppose you are a healthcare worker and patients you are responsible for are in the building? The fact that if you escape those left behind in your care will die creates an inner conflict that makes the situation far more intense. Now it’s not just about escaping from the fire: it’s about navigating one’s inner conflict between the desire to survive and the call of one’s duty to others.
Toward a Solution
Delivering a work of the polish and effectiveness of Spotlight is no mean feat. Further, the writers were working with a real story, and I don’t know to what extent they were expected to follow that story (nor the extent to which they actually did). Finally, of course, when developing a story at the studio level, especially with an ensemble cast, there are limitations to the freedom a writer may have in writing roles. It’s all highly collaborative, with many chefs involved and agendas to serve.
However, setting these considerations aside and approaching this purely as as storytelling matter, solutions to the problems of a lack of character arc and a lack of inner conflict are readily seen.
The character Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) comes to mind immediately as a potential protagonist.
Sullivan is an attorney for the Church, who defended ninety priests from exposure and prosecution. He’s also Catholic. His inner and outer conflicts exist on multiple levels. He’s aware of the crimes of the people he is defending, which are surely all the more painful as he is devout. He’s playing a role helping evil. Yet if he listens to his conscience and talks to reporters, he’s not only going against the Church officialdom, he could lose his job, his career, and perhaps face prosecution himself. If his family and friends are devout, he may destroy all those relationships, too. There is, too, room for a character arc: in the process of doing his job, he finds himself unable to continue, and takes action despite all these inner conflicts. (This change of heart actually what happens in the film, in micro fashion, during one scene).
Such a solution also can yield scenes of intense suspense born from his need to keep his contacts with the reporters secret, and to cover up the fact that he’s the one leaking the information, not to mention the scenes in which he’s getting more and more closely questioned by colleagues who are suspicious. Such scenes would be much more intense than one in which a reporter runs the risk of having to wait an extra day to copy court documents because the copy service closes at 4pm, or another reporter who can’t bring herself to go to church any more with her grandmother because of the scandal.
Add in a reporter character who isn’t such a white knight—someone desperate for a big story for his or her own purposes, and who actively exploits the guilt of Sullivan—and manipulates him for information—and then who walks away with the Pulitzer Prize while Sullivan finds his life destroyed by doing the right thing, and you’ve got a story that delivers a far more potent punch, and is far more nuanced and lifelike. Think Eric Snowden, who exposed wrongdoing by the government but may live the rest of his life in exile for his trouble.
The film Music Box (1989) uses this approach. The story involves the prosecution of a suspected war criminal as an old man living in the U.S. The storytellers (in this case writer Joe Eszterhas and director Costa-Gavras) could have made the prosecuting attorney the main character. His objective is clear: get the Nazi. Yet they chose as their protagonist the daughter of the suspected Nazi (Jessica Lange), an attorney who adores her father, believes him innocent, and takes up the case to defend him. As the truth gradually unfolds, she finds herself confronted with a terrible dilemma.
Spotlight is a good, solid film. Introduce inner conflict and character arcs, and it could have been one for the ages.
- More articles by Paul Joseph Gulino
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- Storytelling Strategies: Tension, Release and ‘Interstellar’