Today I'd like to go over some bullet points for the layperson, or beginner screenplay writer, that may help you determine how to "rank" a film or series episode not just by a vague sense of enjoyment or dislike, but by objective standards of writing. Now, obviously a lot of this relies on personal taste, as well as the quality of the presentation, but within reason, I think the basic elements I'll be discussing should be viscerally available to the average person, even if said person is not an avid deconstructionist, or is thoroughly unaware of the whys and why nots they enjoy or dislike a work of media.
That being said, my personal enjoyment of a piece of media can be easily undermined by my perceptions of structural, thematic, philosophic, or continuity flaws in a script, let alone stylistic heavy-handedness, timidity, or the promotion of an overt agenda by the screenplay writer, or writers.
If you recall from my recent deconstruction of Toy Story 4, you might remember that I stated that within reason I enjoyed the "ride of the film", but the Little Bo Peep character not being supplied with a story arc, but rather a blanket of feminist stereotype attributes, suggested to me that it was the weakest written film in the franchise. Thus, while it was tolerable and somewhat enjoyable, my perception of its flaws were there all along, and when I thought them out in retrospect, only then did I understand what the problem was. I believe that you too might have felt similarly before reading my assessment, but couldn't put your finger on the reason as well. Thus, the impetus for this article.
So, let's begin, shall we?
Let's take a look at a classic of all classics, dissect it, and see why it passes muster regardless of theme, setting, social morays of the time, etc. etc.
I think Casablanca will do.
So, background: Casablanca was a 1942 Romantic Drama directed by Michael Curtiz, with a screen- play written by Julius and Phillip Epstein and Howard Koch, which was in turn based upon a stage play called "Everybody Comes to Rick's" by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.
The film starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre - all perfectly cast for their roles.
It cost about $1 million USD to make at the time, and pulled in about $3.7 million on its initial box office release.
According to Rotten Tomatoes, it maintains a rating of 98%, and frankly, how could it not? It is as close to a perfectly written film as possible and contains elements that are "resistant" to being tarnished by the passage of time.
The story is actually rather simple, or as the Ilsa Lund character puts it: "It's about a girl who had just come to Paris from her home in Oslo. At the house of some friends she met a man about whom she'd heard her whole life, a very great and courageous man. He opened up for her a whole beautiful world full of knowledge and thoughts and ideals. Everything she knew or ever became was because of him. And she looked up to him and worshiped him with a feeling she supposed was love."
Now clearly, the tale of Casablanca is a lot more complex than that - politically, emotionally, and structurally, but Ilsa's quote from the middle of the second act relays almost all we need to know about her back-story, and sets the stage for her conflicted emotions, and the excuse for why she left poor Richard standing in the rain waiting for the love of his life who was never to return.
Emotionally, Casablanca is a about a love triangle, but it is even more so about the character arc of the cynical and detached anti-hero Rick Blaine, all set in a universe where loyalty, principle, and honor, are commodities to be readily traded for one's own benefit or in order to gain exit from the netherworld that Second World War French-Moroccan Casablanca is depicted as.
So what is it exactly that clues you into the fact that the story and script are so solid?
1. Unilateral Character Arcs
Every character in the film, not just the protagonists, or a single protagonist, possesses a story arc. Literally all of the main, secondary, tertiary, and even incidental characters evolve in concord to events depicted in the film. In some cases, their arcs end with death or an exit from Casablanca, but invariably, beforehand they move from being self-serving to choosing a side in the increasingly tense divisions that have found their way to the distant way-station. This makes the story a true ensemble tale, regardless of the fact that the main pair's love affair seems on the surface to be the only story that really matters.
2. Linear and Causal Progression of Events
All actions in a quality script or story must be, like real life, subject to "cause and effect" and events must evolve over time (i.e. from act to act).
In Casablanca this is done repeatedly with masterfully penned dialogue, often relayed in "second-person" - where one character, or characters, speak about a character who isn't present, revealing some deeper truth about the "spoken about" character. For example:
Annina: Monsieur Rick, what kind of a man is Captain Renault?
Annina: Oh, Monsieur, you are a man. If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world, but she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?
Rick: Nobody ever loved me that much.
Annina: And he never knew, and the girl kept this bad thing locked in her heart? That would be all right, wouldn't it?
Rick: You want my advice?
Annina: Oh, yes, please.
Rick: Go back to Bulgaria.
3. Substantive Dialogue
Rule of thumb: If you as a viewer can readily recall a line of dialogue, or many lines of dialogue from a film, even years after seeing it, it's a clear sign that the writing of the dialogue was spot on. It had emotional resonance, it was cleverly phrased, was revelatory in some manner, or encapsulated the situation or a character at that point in the film or episode so perfectly that it hit the bullseye without seeming like it was just exposition or was too on the nose.
"We're gonna need a bigger boat.", "Luke, I am you father", "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse.", "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." etc., etc., I barely need to mention what films these lines are from, because all of them succeed in meeting the criteria I mentioned. You probably have your own list in your own head, if you think about it.
4. Low-High Context
This is a tough one, for both viewers and writers. Low and High Context has to do with the delicate fulcrum of relating vital information to the viewer in a natural way without it appearing as if it is a monologue, explanatory, exposition, diatribe, or polemic.
For instance, here's an impromptu example of cringe-worthy dialogue. The entry character walks onto the bridge of the space ship, and melodramatically states something like: "I love this old ship. It brings back fond memories of the good old days when I was it's Captain, and you were the pilot, and we smuggled goods under the evil empire's nose, all the while having a passionate love affair."
This is not something anyone would say to someone they shared the experiences in their statement with. This is something the character would explain, in a different way, to a stranger. It is exposition for expositions sake - an attempt to relate the characters back-story in a sloppy, rushed manner.
How would it be achieved properly, with pretty much the same words and setting?
Entry Character: I love this old ship.
New Captain: If you loved it so much, why'd you leave?
Entry Character: Smuggling was never a life-long career choice. The Empire saw to that.
New Captain: I'm not talking about the Empire.
See what I did there? The back-story is all related, but the context is appropriate for a personal conversation between former significant others.
Casablanca does this perfectly. Small phrases, and even sighs and eye rolls, relate how characters feel about one another. For example back in Casablanca, when the bartender character "Sascha" comically says to Yvonne - the barfly who is heart-broken over Rick and has been cut off, "Yvonne I love you, but he pays me", you understand that Sascha is indeed in love with her. You also learn that Rick's heart is not open for business, which makes his damage over Ilsa all the deeper and more visceral.
Once again, every line has multiple effects and relevance and is contextually apropos.
5. The Cathartic Turnabout
Perhaps the greatest thing about Casablanca is the ending, which is open ended, and one could argue, is not the typical Hollywood happy ending. Yet, it is at the same time the epitome of a Hollywood film of the classic era.
To encapsulate (spoilers here): After several characters spend much of the second act either encouraging or discouraging Rick from assisting Victor and Ilsa in securing transit from Casablanca to a new life in New York City, it appears as if Rick is willing to give Victor the shaft and turn him over to the Germans in order to get his beloved Ilsa back. While the self serving quality of this is a motif that can be easily understood by every viewer, it is a high moral conundrum. Victor is important to the cause, Ilsa is important to him, Rick loves Ilsa, Ilsa loves Rick. Ilsa is of course Victors wife, but when Ilsa met Rick she believed that Victor was dead, thus, any wrong-doing on anyone's part in the messy triangle is thoroughly innocent. It is even presented at one point that the perceptive Victor suspects that Ilsa is in still in love with Rick - a fact that makes Victor all the more noble and sympathetic in the audiences eyes.
So, after Rick finally concedes to aid the endangered pair, his sudden turning on them is both under- standable as well as being quite a shock to the viewer. But not as shocking as when he turns the tables 180 degrees again at the penultimate moment of the film. The second turnabout is perhaps even more shocking in that, not only does Rick embrace the fact that he can no longer stand on the sidelines and must sacrifice his own happiness for the betterment of humanity as a whole, Captain Renault does so as well, turning on his German master, Major Strasser; by shooting him dead. Thus, Ilsa and Victor depart, leaving Rick and Renault alone on the runway to become closer friends, and we're led to believe, mem- bers of the French Resistance in Africa. A stunning double turn about that manipulates our sympathies and the expectations the earlier parts of the film set up and then destroyed in a wild catharsis ride that resolves in retrospect the only way it really "should have".
Symphonic flourish, end credits, bring up the house lights. Perfect!
If somehow you've never seen Casablanca, or it's been some time, and you are interested in the rules of thumb that I laid out in this article, I suggest you heat up the popcorn and cue it up and think about the Unilateral Character Arcs, the Linear Causal Events, the Substantive Dialogue, the Low-High Context fulcrum, and the amazing Cathartic Turnabout(s) of the conclusion.
Next thing you know you'll be writing your own scripts, or better ones if you already do.
Not that they'll be as brutal as Casablanca! But hey...the attempt is all that really matters, right?
Till next time.