Week 14 – The Human Condition

“Good stories are explorations of the human condition; thrilling voyages into foreign minds. They’re not so much about events that take place on the surface of the drama as they are about the characters that have to battle them. Those characters, when we meet them on page one, are never perfect. What arouses our curiosity about them, and provides them with a dramatic battle to fight, is not their achievements or their winning smile. It’s their flaws.“

Will Storr

This week is about the ’human condition’ as I call it: all the crazy things that we do and say to each other. Human actions or non-actions are in the end “the core of drama“ but whether drama is needed at all – that’s the question!

Whether we talk about jealousy, envy, obsession, love, ambition, greed etc. all of these emotions – sometimes called ’universal concepts’ – can be the origin of an action, a chain of actions, a change in human behavior, i.e. the starting point for an idea. If you are looking for more of these ’universal concepts’ you can already check out week 14. There I am talking about keyword lists, and most of these keyword lists try to classify human behavior, emotions and actions these emotions can trigger.

For most books on scriptwriting the above mentioned ’universal concepts’ are linked to a specific and identifiable conflict. For conflicts create tension and tension engages the viewer’s emotions, until the conflict is resolved. That’s the reason most narrative stories start with establishing a problem, dilemma, or goal. And then afterwards obstacles to solving the problem show up. The idea behind this obviously is to intensify the conflict.

Side note: Linda Seeger furthermore speaks of 5 different kinds of situations of conflict: inner conflict, interpersonal conflict, social conflict, situational conflict and cosmic conflict.

The above-mentioned problem, dilemma or goal is generally related to the ’human condition’. E.g. a woman finds out that her husband is cheating on her: how will she handle this situation? Jealousy, hatred or the wish to take revenge could be the consequences. Combined with values and principles this easily could become the ’cocktail’ for a story. Steven Barnes speaks in this context of motivation-reaction-units. A character has a goal and this goal is almost always one of three things:

  • Possession of something
  • Relief from something
  • Revenge for something

Many of the books on scriptwriting follow the path of putting things to an extreme right from the start, i.e. exaggerating emotions, circumstances and characters. E.g. see J.M. Evenson:

  • The hardest decisions you’ve had to make.
  • The biggest family fight you ever experienced or witnessed, and then embellish it to make it ten times worse.
  • Think up a character. Now imagine the worst possible setting for that character.
  • Think of the most heinous crime you can imagine. Now challenge yourself to create a good reason for a character to do such a bad thing.

But a story can also be told without stressing the conflict: we are just observing. For Michelangelo Antonioni for instance it has never been so important to examine the relationship between the individual and his environment. Moreover the individual himself is examined.

We can set up a story by starting with an emotion like greed. But we can also do it the other way round. Imaging someone who has totally changed his or her behavior within one day. What could have happened? Think of different reasons for this change of behavior!

The goal always should be – referring to Tarkovsky – to create emotions and ideas. To experience the events on the screen as a mirror, as personal experience. Being able to relate your own life to the events on the screen:

“Anyone who wants can look at my films as into a mirror, in which he will see himself. When the conception of a film is given forms that are life-like, and the concentration is on its affective function rather than on the intellectual formulae of poetic cinema (where the aim is manifestly to provide a vessel for ideas) then it is possible for the audience to relate to that conception in the light of individual experience.“ (Andrei Tarkovsky)

That’s why we should collect observations of real life and not models and soulless constructions of a simulated life only for the purpose of cinematic expressivity! You can put this to the extreme: Let bad things happen to you! Talk to guys in bars, to muscle men, homeless people. Leave your comfort zone, visit places you’ve never been before.

Carlos Reygadas, a former lawyer, who worked for the UN, is actually one of my favorite directors. He has a unique approach and style of telling a story. You need patience to follow his cinematic path.

Nearly all of the films I chose for this chapter have a deciding emotional turning point in the beginning.

Your turn!

1. Imagine a meeting of the Anonymous Alcoholics: everyone (people of all ages, with a different background, from a different social class) talks about their addiction, how it started and how it affects the daily life.

2. Write down five imaginary lives of yourself. Where would you be right now if your first girl friend had become pregnant? If you had lived abroad with your parents as a kid? If you had taken this job in Iceland? If you had left high school to become a professional musician? Etc.

3. Outline a few ideas with have to do with universal concepts like honor, identity, responsibility, ambition, greed, and guilt.

4. Make notes of people you know that could be the basis of a story, people who in one way or another fascinate you.

5. “Many patterns of life are almost incredibly self-destructive, but nonetheless familiar.“ (Rust Hills) Think of obsessed characters. How would their daily life be? What would be their worst nightmare? Get inspired by this article on Wikipedia.

6. Many people have experienced a trauma in their lives. Try to build a story around that particular incident.

7. Imagine a tragedy, such as the death of a loved one or an accident. Let it be the starting point of a story. How does life change after such an experience?

8. Have a meeting with your best friends. Ask them to have a discussion on memories and incidents related to love, relationships, obsession, desperation, the worst encounter they’ve had etc. Record the whole discussion and try to extract some ideas out of these talks later.

Films to watch

Woody Allen

  • Another Woman (1988) IMDB

Pedro Almodovar

  • Hable con ella (2002) IMDB

Alejandro Amenabar

  • Mar adentro (2004) IMDB

Alain Berliner

  • Ma vie en rose (1997) IMDB

Nana Ekvtimishvilli & Simon Groß

  • My Happy Family (2017) IMDB

Bill Forsyth

  • Local Hero (1983) IMDB

Abbas Kiarostami

  • Through the Olive Trees (1994) IMDB

Juan Pablo Rebella & Pablo Stoll

Alain Resnais

  • Muriel, ou le temps d’un retour (1963) IMDB

Peter Weir

  • Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) IMDB

Andrey Zvyagintsev