“Why are some films watched by people repeatedly, while others are watched once and forgotten?”
This is the question that I have been asking myself for over 10 years, and during those 10 years I carefully analyzed the films that I personally enjoy watching repeatedly.
In this post I will outline the screenplay elements that, in my opinion, make it more likely that a film will truly touch people’s hearts and attract repeated viewings.
*Health warning: if you hate the idea of commercially successful films, this post might have adverse effects on your blood pressure.
1. Characters we really love, in some serious trouble
A character we absolutely love, with a serious problem and some very high stakes: this combination appears in all of the films that I watch repeatedly. Obviously not all characters appeal to everyone, but that is never the goal: as long as the characters in the film appeal to a specific segment of the market, there is good business to be done.
I will return to the “big problem” aspect of screenplays in a separate section below.
Here are some movie characters that have successfully appealed to large audiences and attracted repeated viewings and a cult following:
- General Maximus in “Gladiator” (dir. Ridley Scott)
- The good Terminator in “Terminator 2″ (dir. James Cameron)
- Ellen Ripley in “Alien,” “Aliens” and “Alien 3″ (dir. Ridley Scott, James Cameron and David Fincher respectively)
- Oskar Schindler in “Schindler’s list” (dir. Steven Spielberg)
I must emphasize that many of the elements described in this article, in addition to applying to the screenplay in general, also apply to characters in particular. For example, when I write about texture, frequently these textural elements apply to characters.
“That’s all very well, but what exactly makes a character charismatic and compelling?”
Texture, in my opinion, is a major ingredient. What is texture? It means adding details to a character that are not strictly essential to the action, but that humanize the characters and make them believable. This tends to give us the impression that we are observing real characters who have a life outside the film, as opposed to flat characters that only exist for the purposes of telling the story. We need to see shades of humanity in such a way that we can relate to the characters as real people, whom we either identify with (because we perceive them as very similar to us) or whom we look up to (because they have qualities that we wish we had). This is a big one!
2. Triple repeats
“Triple repeats” is a term I use to refer to a question or statement that is made three times in a screenplay. After the third instance there is usually a payoff that resolves the issue.
“Saving Private Ryan” (dir. Steven Spielberg) – The soldiers ask Captain Miller what his civilian occupation is. The first two times he avoids the question, and the third time he answers it (English teacher).
“Catch me if you can” (dir. Steven Spielberg) – Carl Hanratty asks Frank William Abagnale how he managed to cheat in the Louisiana Bar exam. The third time Hanratty asks the question he finally obtains an answer: Abagnale didn’t cheat in the Louisiana Bar exam – he studied for two weeks and he passed.
“The Abyss” (dir. James Cameron) – Bud Brigman says “keep your pantyhose on” twice in the early part of the film. He then uses it a third time when he is typing a message from the bottom of the ocean in the third act.
Triple repeats work incredibly well.
Why are triple repeats so satisfying for the audience? My hypothesis is that these triple repeats give the audience the illusion that they are truly getting to know the character intimately. The human brain craves knowledge and understanding, and anything that fools us into thinking that we have known someone for longer than we have is appealing at a very primal level.
That is my hypothesis, and it really does not matter whether it is correct or not: what does matter is that triple repeats work very reliably. Steven Spielberg uses them a lot.
UPDATE: A reader kindly left a comment and informed me that my hypothesis has some merit — it turns out that triple repeats and similar tricks work as a result of a psychological phenomenon known as “mere exposure,” also known as the “familiarity principle”: we tend to find a stimulus more appealing when we are exposed to it multiple times. This is why triple repeats make us warm to a character, and to the film as a whole. More about this in the comments section at the end of the post. Thanks for letting us know!
3. Dialogue symmetry
This is related to triple repeats, but is distinct. In dialogue symmetry a character delivers a line or question, and that statement or question is then repeated by another character at some point subsequently.
Another example from “Aliens”:
“Titanic” (dir. James Cameron) – Early in the film Jack asks Rose “Do you trust me?” when she is about to jump off the ship.
At the end of the film, as the ship is sinking, Jack once again asks Rose “Do you trust me?” as he helps her over the railing in the same spot where they met, although this time he is helping her go over the railing in the opposite direction.
Why does dialogue symmetry enchant us so much?
I offer the same hypothesis as for the triple repeats: this repetition gives us a heightened sense of understanding what is going on. The human brain craves patterns, to the extent that it even detects patterns where there are none (a well-known phenomenon among scientists).
4. Plot symmetry
In plot symmetry a situation early in the film is repeated later in the film, usually in a way that is highly significant to the story.
“Vertical Limit” (dir. Martin Campbell) – At the beginning of the film, the protagonists find themselves hanging from a rope after a serious rock climbing accident. The device securing them to the wall is under considerable strain as a result of three people being attached to the rope. The protagonist, played by Chris O’Donnell, faces an excruciating dilemma: his father warns him that he must cut the rope and let him fall to his death, otherwise all three of them will fall to their deaths when the belay device slips out of the crack in which it is jammed.
The drama in this scene is exquisite, because his father is right: either he or all three of them will die, so his son may as well cut the rope and save himself and his sister. It makes sense, but we can certainly see why he is reluctant to do so. He cuts the rope and saves himself and his sister.
In the third act of the film, a very similar situation arises: several climbers attached to a rope dangling into the void. The two characters at the very end of the rope are the antagonist and a very important secondary character, who decides to cut the rope, causing him and the antagonist to fall to their deaths. This is a splendid example of plot symmetry, and the audience finds it exceedingly satisfying.
Why is plot symmetry so satisfying for the audience?
Same reason as for triple repeats and dialogue symmetry: by giving the brain a generous dose of carefully designed narrative pattern, a feeling of intense understanding is induced, and as humans we can’t get enough of that.
Triple repeats, dialogue symmetry and plot symmetry are most definitely the pleasure-inducing drugs of screenplays, and as such they must be used with great care. Use them in a miscalibrated way and your screenplay will die of an overdose.
5. Love interest: “Romeo and Juliet” vs. “estranged lovers”
When the screenplay’s central characters are romantically involved, essentially two distinct narrative models are observable in screenplays: the “Romeo and Juliet” model and the “estranged couple” model.
In the Romeo-and-Juliet model the two lovers meet for the first time in the story, and the story then proceeds from there.
In the estranged-couple model the two lovers already have a substantial history that predates the film’s narrative, and are now experiencing difficulties in their relationship, even though the foundations of that relationship are still fundamentally sound (this last detail is very important).
Examples of the Romeo-and-Juliet model: Jack and Rose in “Titanic” and, of course, the title characters in “Romeo and Juliet.”
Example of the estranged-couple model: Bud Brigman and his wife Lindsey in “The Abyss” (dir. James Cameron): at the beginning of the film they have already been together for three years and are in the process of divorcing, although it quickly becomes clear that there is still more chemistry than ever between them and that the relationship can be saved.
Both models can work, but in my opinion the estranged-couple model has an edge over the Romeo-and-Juliet model. There is something irresistibly compelling about lovers who already have a history and who are experiencing difficulties in the relationship, provided the following two criteria are satisfied:
- it is made clear that the relationship is fundamentally still a sound one and is worth saving;
- we like both characters in the relationship (none of the two lovers is an antagonist).
The estranged couple in James Cameron’s “The abyss” is one of the elements of that film that make it so incredibly effective. James Cameron could have opted for a Romeo-and-Juliet situation in that film – it would have worked, but not as well as the couple already having an established history.
Why does the estranged-couple model have an advantage over the Romeo-and-Juliet model?
My hypothesis is this: in the context of relationships in movies, I suspect that fear is a more powerful feeling in the audience than desire. In other words, the fear of seeing a couple we really like split up is greater than the desire to see a new couple form.
It appears that, in this context, saving is a more urgent desire in the audience than building.
I suspect this is because the audience instinctively knows that the pair bond is stronger in established couples than in newly formed ones, so they tend to be more invested in established couples. It is a powerful effect.
6. The reluctant expert
The importance of having a good subplot in the screenplay is one of the famous basics of screenwriting and will not be dealt with in detail here. I will instead focus on the specific element of subplots that appears to work exceptionally well in screenplays: the expert who helps the protagonists more or less reluctantly.
“Vertical Limit” (dir. Martin Campbell) – Montgomery Wick (played by the awesome Scott Glenn) is a highly experienced climber who has a long-standing issue with the antagonist (played by Bill Paxton). When the protagonist’s sister becomes stranded at high altitude on K2, Montgomery Wick – the grumpy, reluctant expert whom we nevertheless like on a deep level – refuses to assist, but he quickly changes his mind when he learns that his archenemy is also stranded on K2. This character goes on to play quite a big role from this point on in the film.
The significance of this character is also that he is essentially a father figure to Chris O’Donnell’s character, a very significant detail when we consider the fact that he lost his father in the opening scene of the film.
“Minority Report” (dir. Steven Spielberg) – Dr Iris Hineman, who pioneered the precrime technology, helps John Anderton (Tom Cruise) with the issue of the minority report and how to get hold of it. She also expresses some regret in connection with the precrime department, which pays off later when the whole department is shut down. This scene also has considerable textural value in the film.
For this important secondary character element to work, the following criteria must be satisfied:
- the secondary character must be a solid expert in a field that is critically important to the story;
- the expert must be initially uncooperative and reluctant to help the protagonist;
- the expert must have a long-standing issue with the film’s antagonist;
- the expert must be fundamentally benevolent and likeable;
- the expert must finally resolve to help the protagonist, and must do so effectively.
7. No way out!
Although this is in theory one of the basics of screenwriting, in my opinion it is not followed by enough screenwriters, so I will include it in this post.
What we mean by “No way out” is this: while it is true that the protagonist must have a big problem to solve, the film still won’t work if you have a sense that the protagonist is not completely trapped in the problem and can walk away at will, unless you can convince us that the protagonist has a genuinely compelling reason to put himself in harm’s way when it is not strictly necessary.
“The Abyss” (dir. James Cameron) – This film is the ultimate example of a “No way out” situation: the characters are trapped in an oil platform at the bottom of the ocean, completely cut off from the surface (there is a hurricane raging topside), and additionally they have a paranoid navy officer on board who is suffering from High-Pressure Nervous Syndrome, and who also has the keys to a nuclear weapon. One can scarcely imagine a tighter situation than this!
If we also consider the sheer likeability of Bud Brigman (played by Ed Harris) and his considerable chemistry with estranged wife Lindsey (played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), it is hardly surprising that “The Abyss” is such an effective film.
In my opinion “The Abyss” is James Cameron’s most effective film in all respects – he set out to make the marine equivalent of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and he succeeded spectacularly.
“Titanic” (James Cameron) – you are in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on a ship that is sinking quickly. The water is cold enough to finish you off in 20 minutes and the closest source of rescue is four hours away. Another sharp example of “No way out” from James Cameron.
Quick clarification: this setup is conveniently referred to as “No way out”, but the whole point is that there is a way out, but only one: to succeed in the mission. Opting out and walking away from the problem is physically impossible in these situations.
A note of caution: while “No way out” is a compelling narrative setup, it is not the only option. Sometimes a character wants to solve a particular problem, even though there are other options – for instance, in “Aliens”, Ripley doesn’t have to go all the way down to the Queen Alien’s nest to save Newt: she could simply hop onto the ship and abandon her. It is obviously not a palatable option, but that is not enough: the burden is on the screenwriter to convince us that she really would go down and save her, at considerable risk to herself. If the screenwriter can pull this off, it is a viable option.
Ripley freely chooses to put herself in harm’s way to save Newt, and this works just as well as the “no way out” option, because we find her motives convincing, mainly because James Cameron set up their relationship so well in the earlier part of the film. Cameron also made sure we warm to Newt earlier in the film, as a result of which we want Ripley to go down and rescue her. There isn’t a single thing in the third act of a James Cameron film that wasn’t properly set up earlier in the film.
That said, the earlier part of “Aliens” is very much a “No way out” situation, with a bunch of bewildered characters stranded on a remote planet surrounded by preternaturally hostile aliens.
Texture is anything that adds value and nuance to the film but is not directly relevant to the narrative.
“Munich” (Steven Spielberg) – There are several scenes in which the protagonist, Avner (played by Eric Bana), cooks food with his colleagues. These scenes are very detailed, with shots of food preparation and eating. Avner is of course a good cook, but that in itself is also textural element, because it is not an essential requirement to what the character does. The inclusion of these cooking and eating scenes is a very comforting and humanizing element of the film. Quite simply, it helps us bond with the character.
“Schindler’s List” (Steven Spielberg) – We frequently see Oskar Schindler smoking, drinking and eating with a variety of characters. The real Oskar Schindler was famously a heavy drinker and smoker, but an effort was clearly made in “Schindler’s List” not to shy away from the consumption of food and drink, for exactly the same reason as in “Munich” – seeing a character enjoy food and drink helps in fooling the brain into thinking that we are looking at a real person rather than an actor performing lines in front of the camera. This distinction is immensely significant.
Any film by the Coen Brothers – Films made by the Coen brothers are absolutely replete with texture. Indeed, I always like to say that Coen Brothers films are primarily texture-driven. It is very much their distinctive feature and they do it masterfully, to the extent that the Coen Brothers are not just writer/directors: they are a film genre unto themselves.
How many times have I watched “The Big Lebowski”? I have lost count. I can’t get enough of that distinctive Coen brothers texture.
Having completed the first or second draft of a screenplay, by which time its narrative structure ought to be reasonably sound, you would be well advised to produce a further two or three drafts, adding texture with each pass.
That is, incidentally, another distinctive property of screenplays: it takes many drafts to arrive at something decent, let alone something brilliant. With technical writing, such as this post, depending on one’s experience, the first draft is 90% of what one wants, and good writers can usually reach 100% by the second draft. With screenplays, even screenwriting geniuses need several drafts just to make it good, and then further drafts – and usually the help of another screenwriter – to make it excellent. That’s just how it is, and it is quite clearly a significant undertaking.
9. Tension distribution
To illustrate this element I will go straight to the top and describe what James Cameron does. A cursory analysis of all of his films shows that he wisely alternates high-tension scenes with quiet scenes, and, significantly, the overall trend of the film is that the tension and entertainment value get higher and higher, with the highest-value set piece saved for last.
The lessons from the James Cameron tension distribution pattern are as follows:
- high-tension scenes should be followed by more peaceful scenes (“if everything is loud, nothing is loud,” he said in his commentary to “Terminator 2”);
- the overall trend must be upward (tension must increase during the film, breaks notwithstanding);
- the most dramatic set piece must be the final one.
All successful films follow this general pattern and it is not optional, but I use James Cameron to illustrate it for the simple reason that he does it masterfully.
Observe the best; learn from the best.
10. Complementary pairs
I use this term to refer to highly complementary relationships between the protagonist and a supporting character.
“Schindler’s List” (Steven Spielberg) – Schindler and his accountant Itzhak Stern: Schindler is charismatic, loud, extroverted, a persuasive leader who does not have time for details. Conversely, Stern is quiet, detail-oriented, introverted, cautious and thoughtful.
“Rainmaker” (Francis Ford Coppola) – Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) is intelligent, young, idealistic and uncompromisingly ethical. Conversely, Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito) is older, experienced, jaded, not academically inclined and with flexible ethics.
The importance of secondary and supporting characters is one of the screenplay basics, but there is clearly more at play here: why do we find these complementary pairs so compelling?
As always, one can only hypothesize. It is certainly very satisfying to see such complementary characters play off each other and highlight each other’s character traits. Ultimately, however, it does not matter: this narrative device works and is well worth keeping in mind.
Two more points
- It must be emphasized that it is the completed film, not the screenplay, that captivates the audience. The issue of casting therefore cannot be underestimated. When the movie character turns out to be truly unforgettable, it is due to both to the script and to the cast. A charismatic character must be played by a charismatic actor – I will not compromise on this and, as I have written in the past, I do not subscribe to the idea that any actor can be molded into a role by the director. Talent counts.
- If you look at the massively successful films that garnered repeated viewings from many loyal fans, you will find that the scripts were usually written by more than one writer, and over a period of more than a year. This is not a coincidence. It is quite phenomenally difficult to write a screenplay that, beyond just working well, actually goes absolutely ballistic and conquers hearts and minds. The only person I know of who can consistently and single-handedly write masterpieces is James Cameron. His talent is worthy of awe.
I have poured 10 years of observation and thought into this post and I hope that you enjoyed it and, more importantly, that you get some real value out of it.
It is an indisputable fact that these elements are present in films that achieved massive, long-lasting success with audiences. Even with this knowledge, however, it is a significant challenge to write a screenplay that will truly touch people’s hearts. Have you noticed how finding a recipe does not guarantee the successful preparation of a spectacular dish? If recipes were enough, the world would be replete with brilliant chefs. Recipes help, but they are not a magic bullet: it takes some experience and some failure to attain excellence.
I wish you every success. Thanks for reading!