Susan Kouguell is an award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker, and chairperson of the screenplay and post-production consulting company Su-City Pictures East She is the author of The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself). Follow Susan on Twitter: @SKouguell
Family relationships are complicated. (Yes, that’s an understatement!) Parents and children have their own specific backgrounds, attitudes, motivations, agendas, and feelings. And this is in real life.
In a successful screenplay, these relationships must ring true in order for film executives to want to turn the page and keep reading, and embark on the journey you have created for your characters.
Regardless of the genre you’re writing in, the plausibility of the family dynamics and their conflicts are steeped in your characters’ histories. Past successes, triumphs, arguments and failures are just a few of the elements that comprise family relationships.
Family conflicts can occur at any age. Becoming an adult does not necessarily shift the feelings a child has for a parent.
Two films, which center on family conflicts: Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman’s A Tale of Love and Darkness in her directorial debut, adapted from the book by Amos Oz, focuses on a relationship between a mother and her 10-year-old son, and Daniel Burman’s The Tenth Man, centers on an adult son and his father’s relationship. These two films are poignant examples that indeed family conflicts are complicated and continue to evolve at any age.
A Tale of Love and Darkness is based on the memories of Amos Oz, growing up in Jerusalem in the years before Israeli statehood with Arieh, his academic father and Fania, his dreamy, imaginative mother. They were one of many Jewish families who moved to Palestine from Europe during the 1930s and 40s to escape persecution. Arieh was cautiously hopeful for the future but Fania wanted much more. The terror of the war and running from home had been followed by the tedium of everyday life, which weighed heavily on Fania’s spirit. Unhappy in her marriage and intellectually stifled, she would make up stories of adventures (like treks across the desert) to cheer herself up and entertain her 10-year-old son Amos. He became so enraptured when she read him poetry and explained about words and language; it would become an influence on his writing for the rest of his life. When independence didn’t bring the renewed sense of life that Fania had hoped for, she slipped into solitude and sadness. Unable to help her, Amos was forced to say an untimely good-bye. As he witnessed the birth of Israel, he had to come to terms with his own new beginning.
The Tenth Man: This dramatic comedy wrestles with notions of identity, home and the intricacies of the father and son relationship. After years away, Ariel returns to Buenos Aires seeking to reconnect with his father, Usher, who founded a charity foundation in Once, the city’s bustling Jewish district where Ariel spent his youth. In the process of trying to meet his father Usher, who staves off a meeting with his son; roping him into a number of small assignments getting more entangled in his charitable commitments, Ariel meets Eva whose independent spirit motivates Ariel to come to grips with the traditions that once divided him and his father and rethink his own identity.
These two very different films in eras, settings, tone, genre, and plot do share important themes; the protagonists’ need to please and understand their respective parents. In The Tenth Man, the father and son relationship is portrayed in a unique way; (without revealing too much of the film) although we hear them have conversations, the two share only a brief, yet satisfying, time together on screen. In A Tale of Love and Darkness a young son’s adulation of his mother and their trusted bond becomes threatened as her health spirals downward.
In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I discuss family relationships. Here’s an excerpt:
Relationships between parents and children, siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and grandparents, and so on, are wrought with misunderstandings, jealousy, poor communication, disappointments, as well as love, joy, and pride.
Unstable family relationships are portrayed in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale and in writer/director Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages. The Squid and the Whale examines the Berkman family’s transition and redefinition when parents Bernard and Joan decide to divorce. Teenage sons, Walt and Frank, prematurely come of age, struggling with their conflicted and confused emotions, as they must cope with the repercussions of their estranged parents’ respective actions. In The Savages, Wendy, an aspiring Manhattan playwright, and her brother, John, a theater professor in Buffalo, New York, are forced to come to terms with their respective troubled lives and romantic relationships, when they must take care of their unsympathetic father, who is suffering from dementia.
Equally complex father/son relationships are seen in Big Fish, (directed by Tim Burton, screenplay by John August) and Catch Me If You Can, (directed by Stephen Spielberg, screenplay by Jeff Nathanson). In Big Fish, traveling salesman Edward Bloom’s fabled tales about his fantastical life captivate everyone but his journalist son, Will, from whom he becomes estranged. When Will returns home to reconcile with his dying father, Edward does not understand how his stories have truly affected his son and Will struggles to accept his father for who he truly is. In Catch Me If You Can, Frank Jr., learns the art of deception from his father whom he tries to impress and financially supports. Although Frank Sr. senses that his son is a fraud, he does not confront him or tell him to stop his cons. As the plot unfolds, the father/son relationship shifts to Frank Jr. and FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who always tells Frank the truth, and repeatedly tells him to stop his cons.
Top Five Family Conflict Tips for all Genres
- CONFLICT: Agreements and disagreements, discords and disharmony, must be conveyed in a realistic way that readers can gain an understanding of what’s causing the root of their issues.
- EMPATHY: Readers need to feel something for your characters’ relationships whether it’s hate or love; they need to understand their dynamics, regarding the reasons for their discord or harmony.
- MULTI-DIMENSIONAL: Humanize your characters by giving them identifiable histories, vulnerabilities, flaws and behaviors. Whether your characters misbehave or are always on good behavior, demonstrate their specific emotional, mental, physical, and/or social behaviors.
- MOTIVATIONS: The reasons your characters take the actions they do to help or hinder each other in families, stem from inward and outward motivations. Characters’ motivations should be plausible and should offer insight into who they are and the actions they take.
- ATTITUDE: Show your characters’ specific attitudes towards each other and themselves and how they relate to others or don’t fit in with their family members.
Parental relationships can indeed be challenging at any age. Implementing these subtle and sometimes not so subtle truths about the underlying forces that comprise familial bonds will lead you to a successful screenplay.
Check out all of Susan’s Upcoming Classes!
Seven Weeks to Your TV Spec Script (NEW COURSE!)
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting: Give your Script a Solid Foundation
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting, Accelerated
Writing the Family Feature Film
Writing the Family Feature, Accelerated
Writing the Documentary
Writing the Documentary, Accelerated
Writing the Animated Feature
Advanced Film Rewriting
World Building: Crafting Screenplays Readers Can Step Into