Seeking truth in opposites, Myth of Dionysus in Euripedes’ Bacchae


God, not god? Structuralists come at mythology with the intent to weed out opposing binaries, rooted in biology, that stand out as clear thematic red flags within a read. Claude Levi Strauss thought this kind of view was important in accessing mythology because the human brain works that way. In binaries. The human brain processes information as pairs of opposites used to structure our basic understanding of the world.

Dionysus: God, not god? Man, or beast? Man, or woman? It is the detail in these opposing relationships that matter in the myth, according to structuralists. What is the distinction in what makes a man in Euripedes’ Bacchae, and not man? What are the defining features of being a God? Is it about being drunk? Not drunk? Is it about perception? As in visual appearances, or how other people perceive the truth?

So, if structuralists pick at the biologically-rooted binary opposites that permeate the Bacchae, what would they find? What makes the myth tick?

What drives this story is fundamentally the dissolution of identity as Dionysus returns years later to punish people for not according him the worship/rituals of a deserving god. Dionysus AKA Bacchus. In the pantheon of Greek gods, we learn that Dionysus is seen to be some kind of misfit.

The God of Wine insists that his worshippers are drunk and therefore outside of themselves, when they worship him.  His rituals happen at night, in the hillsides, with a hunt staged. We learn that Dionysian rituals are the complete opposite of standard Greek rituals, which happen in daylight, crowded/public spaces in the center of the city, inside a main temple, involving controlled animal sacrifice.

Pentheus is the King of Thebes who bans the worship of Dionysus and forbids women from joining in his rites. The ensuing wrath of Dionysus sees a scheme hatched where Pentheus, disguised as a woman, climbs a tree to spy on what he thinks are the sexual activities of women engaged in Bacchic rites. Instead, the women (including his own mother) are in a trance. They mistake him for a lion, hunt him down, tear him from limb to limb and decapitate him.


Red flag 1: Man or beast? So we see Pentheus’ identity dissolved.  Is he man, or beast? Is he King of the land, or a lion, king of all animals? But what about the women who kill him? Are these Dionysian revellers logical (wo)men or posessed beasts? Categorizing “civilized” humans as repressed and rational and controlled, whereas “savage” beasts have unfettered appetites and actions in a Dionysian ritual — involving alcohol and orgies… And what about Dionysus? Does he exact controlled justice or does he unleash monstrous wrath? Is it necessary to punish everyone in Thebes with such violence save Tiresias? Do Agave and Cadmus really deserve their ends?


Is Dionysus a Greek God? He certainly has the name of one. But the circumstances around his birth are suspect, right. His mortal mother Semele was impregnated by Zeus. Through some trickery by Hera, Semele insists Zeus shows himself to her and when he does, Semele is immolated by his glory. Zeus snatches the baby Dionysus who is reborn from his father’s own thigh.

Red flag 2: Mother — not my mother?  Dionysus’ stature as God is in question. Is Semele really his mother? Or is Zeus his mother for giving birth to him from his own thigh? There’s been scholarly debate about whether Dionysus went too far in punishing Agave after she’d already suffered by mistaking her son Pentheus for a lion and ripping him to pieces/beheading him. If you see the whole story as a son avenging others for insults on his mother, you can understand why he targeted her. Perhaps more than he targeted Pentheus.


Red flag 3: Myself — not myself. Dionysus disguises himself as a stranger. Pentheus disguises himself as a woman. Are the Dionysian worshippers really themselves when they are drunk? Being drunk, we step outside ourselves and excuse ourselves from normal behavior. You have unwilling worshippers on this hillside driven mad by Dionysus. And those who willingly followed him from Asia to Thebes. Going into a trance, the maenads have magical powers imbued by Dionysus. Out of the trance, the maenads realize their undoing.

Red flag 4: Predator, or prey? And now we’ve come full circle to the most obvious of binary oppositions in this play. Pentheus stalks women from up a tree – he certainly starts as predator. But is he, really? A victim of a god’s scheme, the women he spies on mistakes him for a lion. Isn’t a lion a predator? But wait. If a lion’s a predator, what’s it doing in a tree? It gets ripped apart and becomes a sacrificial animal in a Dionysian rite.


Gods and Humans: Reading Hesiod’s Theogony with Freudian lens

In taking Peter Struck’s Mythology class at UPenn (via Coursera), I learned that Sigmund Freud made many contributions not just to psycho-analysis, but also to literature. He tells us that myth s dramatize events in every individual’s mental or psychological development.


Freud thinks that hidden messages inside a myth are always going to be about just you and me as individuals, developing, working our way through the developing of our psychological state. In his book, The Interpretation of Dreams (~c 1900), Freud explains the psyche: a repression barrier that blocks the expression of our unconscious desires from our conscious desires.


Freud says that myths are the dreams of an entire culture. So what we get when we take a look at myths is we get this kind of displaced and condensed expression of primal desires in a culture that are displaced onto now more acceptable targets for those desires.

Sigmund Freud would have had an absolute field day with Theogony.

I mean, I don’t think you could call Hesiod’s Zeus in any way repressed. Here’s a King-god dead set on taking the throne to the cosmos and not being challenged. Why would a culture want to tell itself a story like this? Overthrows the father-figure, carries out his mother’s crazy wishes, makes siblings (Cyclops and Hecantosheires) his soldiers and weapon makers, overthrows all his aunts and uncles and chains them for all eternity in a pit, divides the universe between him and his brothers but gives the short end of the stick to the other two, mates with all of his aunts and sisters!

Perhaps because a culture wants to go back to the drawing board and completely consolidate order and power in one single entity and produce an empire unchallenged. Or, perhaps a culture wants to tell itself, look, we’re going to be this great empire, because look at the Gods we worship – Zeus was a powerful god who ruled supreme and because we worship him, we’re going to inherit the Mediterranean.

We don’t care if it’s forbidden or how we get there (through cruel means/ gross misconducts), creating an empire is going to be ugly and we’re going to get there. Maybe that’s the repressed cultural dream or goal coming out in a historical context. Maybe it’s all peacocking.

The Prometheus myth, read with a Freudian lens, transposes this expression of angst against the unjust politicians/parents on Greek Gods as mythological deities.

(Going back to Freud’s statement that myth is an expression of dreams of a culture (in this case dreams of justice) or “myths dramatize events in every individual’s psychological development”, so “I’m trying to, as a citizen of the polis, try and figure out why my political leaders are doing such and such”. I prefer to think of parents, though, simply because of the genealogical theme in Hesiod… like ‘why didn’t dad give me fire today’, or ‘why did dad give me all the good meat to eat and save only thigh bones for himself’. And maybe, with a Freudian lens, it’s then possible to see it as, human beings are these younger, less important, stepchildren of Gods on Mount Olympus, and the overbearing parents/father figure in Zeus makes these judgment calls about fire and sacrifice, and more important siblings (such as Prometheus) totally influenced how things developed before we got a chance to grow up and get a say in it, so… that’s life! It’s not fair, you know, but my brother ruined stuff for me and my dad — this is his way of just being a controlling parent — and since Prometheus is busy getting his liver pecked out, let’s just lay low and try to go with it.

Zeus’ battle with the Titans is really interesting from Freudian ‘repressed subconscious / desire to mate with forbidden parents’ point-of-view.

Because, unless I read it wrong, it looks as if Zeus gets rid / puts in chains in Tartarus all the male Titans from the alpha generation. But puts all the females in Mount Olympus and marries/mates with all of them, creating a new generation of gods. He wants to usurp in this case, Kronos’ role not just as ruler of the universe, but also as chief mate of all the first generation goddesses and himself swallows Methis for wisdom. It’s an expression of reproductive supremacy and hereditary legacy. Maybe he swallows Methis to prove he’s better than Kronos, ‘I’m smarter than you, dumbass, let me swallow her before you do…’. I mean, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I don’t think you can say that in Zeus’ case. He really got busy!

What is Myth?

Herder‘s view, “it bubbled up automatically”, resounds with me [Myth as human attempts at coming up and expressing deep ideas that resulted from human beings feeling of being alive.].  The brain is wired to remember story and that’s why we can remember Aesop’s Fables read to us as toddlers when we face the world. Not only is the brain wired to remember story, people, whether Ancient Greeks or modern-day Hollywood screenwriters, want to tell stories because something bubbles up and they do want to share.

When we go out into the world and come across unusual, or surprising, or wonderful, experiences, we tell them over and over to our friends at the dinner table, at the bar. Our motivational structures for storytelling are driven by passion, and passion really comes from an experience so profound, so impactful and meaningful to us, that we must express it.

We are physically-expressive creatures. We can’t explain why and when we want to dance, or sing… or jump for joy.. there is a physiological thing that happens in our bodies at the moment in time, we want to do it!

We are triggered, by an emotional reaction, a physical sensation, a mental state, and we follow through on it. It’s also in our learning systems. Ask any auto-didact, the best way to learn something and remember it is to tell a story about the thing that makes sense to you.

Something in the closed-frame, open-frame, closed-frame arc of a story that has a beginning, middle, and end serves to secure that information in our brains’ hardwiring.


I think that’s why when you do a Milton-Ericksonian trance induction to go into a resourceful state in your brain and give it a story, give it a chance to solve the problem in a resourceful way… it works.

To me, stories, songs, movies, etc captivate us in their telling because they are structured in a way that the brain understands and remembers at a physiological level.

The Art of Story

The Art of Story

Can you learn the art of storytelling? Or is it something that you’re just born with?

Bill Martell: There’s a million things you can learn about how to tell a story. What you can’t learn is how to tell it. That’s the thing that you’re either born with or you’re not born with. If you’re a good enough storyteller you can maybe bypass the not-having-the-amazing-amount-of-talent… uh, that’s why I’m here. It’s not ‘cause I’m immensely talented, it’s just because I figured out how to tell stories that people paid me money for.

Karl Iglesias: It’s really not about the art of story, it’s more about the craft of story… meaning that the art is what you have inside (that’s your talent). The craft you can learn. That’s the only thing that somebody can teach you. We can’t really tell you what to write but we can tell you how to write it in a way that’s appealing to an audience, that’s engaging to an audience, that makes an impact to an audience. One of my old-time favorite quotes by the writer Juan Luis Borges, who said “art is fire plus algebra”. The fire is what’s within you. The algebra is the craft, what can be taught.

Pamela Jaye Smith: Both of the gentlemen make very good points there, so I’m going to approach it from a slightly different angle, which is mythology – the basis of very good stories. Myths are the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world around us and within us.  As artists, you naturally tap up into that collective unconscious and start bringing it down (that’s the art part), and then what we can all work on is the craft of it. Presumably you are all here because you have tapped into that huge overshadowing world story (what’s often-called ‘the raincloud of knowable things’ ) and you bring it down and tell the same stories we’ve been telling each other for thousands of years but with your unique individual perspective.

Karl: One of the things that took me a long time to learn is why stories are so important in our lives. It all comes down to myth and Joseph Cambbell. If you study all the myths of the world you’ll realize that they all tell the same stories. And the reason for that is because stories have a bio-evolutionary purpose in our lives. We’re ingrained to really appreciate story to learn from story. Stories are like the owners’ manual to life. The reason we love stories is that there are owner’s manuals and how-to-manuals for everything, except for life. And stories kind of take that purpose, so when you go see a movie, unconsciously your body wants to learn something about life. About love, relationships, about how to solve problems.

Bill: Well, the thing with action films usually is… and again, this gets into the myth: life is a mess… in real life, our problems never get solved…they just go on forever. In an action movie, the problem gets solved because the protagonist steps up and does something that solves the problem and that becomes the lesson of outrunning the fireball and in stories like that. As people we need to step up and confront our fears and confront our problems and resolve them. The fantasy of a good action movie is, you leave it going, “Ahhh… all my problems are solved.” And then you go home, and flip through the bills, you know, and … all this stuff that’s not your problems solved.

Storyworld Panel

When we’re telling a story, we’re always told you should be thinking about theme…

Karl: Why you’re writing it! Why you’re writing a story.  Think about your stories and ask yourself, “why am I writing this?” Other than –  ‘Oh boy, I want to get an agent!’, ‘I want to make a million dollars!’, ‘I want to have my name in print!’ which are all kind of fake motivations, right? They’re like materialistic, ego, fame and all that stuff –  which is the last thing that’s going to happen to you when you’re a screenwriter. You know you’re not going to hob-nob with Tom Cruise and… no, ok, nevermind… that’s the business side of it. But the dream is that you’re going to be rich and famous. But your motivation is, should be, about wanting to tell a story and why. Like there is something within you that you want to communicate to the world, in other words, you want to teach to the world. There’s something you want to teach that you know the answer to, in a sense. The trick is how to do it so that it’s not in a didactic, preachy way…and that’s where the craft comes in: you want to make it entertaining.

Bill: What you want to do is you want to make the story theme, rather than have the character tell the theme.

Karl: Exactly. The story is the illustration of the theme, in a subtle way

Bill: Right. For me (and this sounds stupid because I write explosion movies)… is, everything always comes from a theme. When I write a script, I sit down and I go, OK. I come up with some crazy idea, and I go, ‘this is a cool idea… but what about it is me personally?; Because every story idea I came up with came from my brain, which means, it’s me! And no matter how crazy the idea is, in some place, there is some issue inside my brain that I’m trying to work out in that story idea… and once I figure out what that issue is, then I can use the story to explore the theme… because that’s really what it’s all about.

Karl: And that’s probably why he has 19 produced credits. Because his stories are thematically driven. In addition to just explosions. When you see that movies are just explosions, and are empty in just a sense, it’s like cereal. Your cereal that’s empty: it’s a sweet treat right now, but it’s devoid of any nutrients and then you’ve got your really whole grains and full of vitamins and stuff. It’s the same with stories: you’ve got your empty stories that you enjoy for like an hour and then you forget about it, and then you want the ones that become classics, you know? I don’t know about you, but the stuff I write, I want them to become classics. I want my movies to be spoken about in film school and in books and analyzed.

Pam: Back at the Mythic Challenges program, what we do is identify a couple of themes that address the 15 Global Challenges. Our pilot program went to a high school in Los Angeles and we chose along with the instructors 4 of the challenges: water, the technology gap, the rich-poor gap… and as a mythologist and using my Beyond the Hero’s Journey work… 2 of the kids decided between themselves which themes they wanted to use, and we had 6 plot points that for their short films they would touch upon about 4 of those 6 plot points.. then they would be tapping into that thematic pattern. And it would resonate with their audience. They were also working with sister schools in Afghanistan. So these kids chose their mythic themes, wrote their stories, filmed them, and you could see them online at Mythic It will take you to it. The Millenium project is going to translate it into 27 different languages so it’s addressing what the gentlemen were saying about using theme to communicate messages to give cautionary tales, and sometimes just to entertain. One of my favorite ones that they did is barely 2 minutes long and some of the other films are 18 minutes, 11 minutes… but this one, in fact, I won’t tell you about it. I’ll just tell you to go see it. It’s 2 minutes long. There are 2 people in it. It’s shot against a brick wall. And it says so much about the problems of water in the world. And it’s done funny. It’s entertaining. So you can still get across a great message even if you’re blowing a lot of things up.

Think about theme in your subplots too; it’s not just in the A-story…

BillThat’s where the theme ends up surfacing is that most often too; the subplots are where the characters most often symbolize the theme.

So let’s talk about structure…a lot of people use Save the Cat, Beatsheets, Hero’s True Journeys… with Michael Hauge and Kris Folger…what about writing to formula?

Bill: There is no easy answer. Every script’s its own animal and the thing about it is, at least for me: every script is its own animal, and the basic concept of the 3 act structure, I use… there’s no page numbers involved with that… Except if I end up with like a 50-page Act I, there’s probably something wrong with it, you know? But other than that, there’s no page numbers. There’s no Act I ends halfway down page 27 because I think that’s bullshit.  It’s ‘What’s good for this script?’ And often, scripts work different ways. Some scripts are going to have a short Act 1, some scripts are going to have a longer Act 1… Some scripts are going to have a short Act 3 or longer Act 3… you can’t give a page number on any of that stuff. It’s whatever the story is.

Karl: I do actually tackle this all the time in my classes, because it’s always brought up. The fear that people have about structure. They think oh, structure is formula. And the reason they think that is they read that in books, and they think “oh, you should do this, you should do that”.

The way I look at it, I actually have an interesting way of showing it to the class… and the way I look at structure is…imagine you are looking at a human body, right? We’re all human bodies. The structure of the human being  is the skeleton. And if we took away, if we peeled away what you look like outside, we all look the same, in a sense. We all have similar skeletons, right? Well, the skeleton is the structure to a story. So, all stories have the same structure in a sense. But they…none of them look the same from the outside.  Human beings have the same skeleton but they don’ tlook the same. They all look unique.

The whole thing about page counts and 3-act structure and everything like that is similar to them telling you you have to build a human being and telling you that the bone of the arm has to be exactly 27 inches wrong.  And that’s ridiculous! Because everyone has different proportions.

Michael Hauge

However, what  the Greeks used to do, in terms of art, they tell you, well, the head should be about half the size of the torso, and the human being should have two arms and two legs. Well, that’s correct in principle and you should follow that because if you construct a human being that has 3 heads and 1 arm and the foot is over here and the leg is over there, you’re going to go, that’s a mutant, not a human being. And that’s the same with stories. You can go ahead and defy the 3-act structure, but it’s not going to look like a story.  It’s going to feel weird. Something’s going to feel weird. Just like if your first act is 50 pages, the audience is going to start feeling weird because it’s ingrained in our psyche, in a sense.

So what I prefer instead of page numbers is percentages. I think Michael Hauge talks about that… like your inciting incident should come in at around 10% of your story… so if you have a 300-page book, well, it should be around page 30. AROUND page 30, doesn’t mean you have to be exactly that. And like, you know, Save the Cat. Save the CatThe only thing that I really hated about the book was the fact that he would say, ‘it cannot come on page 4, it has to come on page 5…not on page 6’, and that was a little too weird. Well, you can’t. And now they’re starting to do it by the minute. He has a book where he tells you there’s a beat. Every beat of the story, like something startling should happen on … and he does it by the minute…like 120 beats in your story which…well, what do you do when you have a short, that’s like 2 minutes long? It doesn’t work.  So.  Look at it that way. Don’t be afraid of structure, because everything has to be structured.  This hotel, this room is structured. It has got 4 walls and doors. You can’t construct a house without walls.

Bill: For me it goes to Billy Wilder’s whole thing where Act 1 you get a cat up a tree, Act 2 you throw rocks at it, Act 3 you get the cat down from the tree. And for me, that’s it! You create, you introduce the conflict, escalate the conflict, resolve the conflict! And, that’s it.

Pam: I’d agree with that and add once again, a little bit of mythic perspective to it. Absolutely you need to have structure or you’ve got a mess. And I think any of us working with other writers helping to instill structure is to identify the theme, and then once you know what the theme is, you can start working on how are those themes best portrayed? In the mythic themes, I found that there are typically a dozen if not twenty plot points that you will find in each story, each well-told mythic story, on a particular theme… like Stealing Fire from Heaven. And you can look at those plot points and select for a feature story or for a novel, let’s say, at least 12 of them… unlike the kids projects where they just used 6. So go back and look at the old, old, stories that worked and identify, you know, analyze those old myths yourself and you can find those plot points, those beats, and say OK, if I get at least half of these,  I’ll be tapping into it. And as far as the cat up the tree, etc, one thing that I like to teach is the SDS: Sympathy – Danger – Salvation.  In order for us to want to go along on the journey with your protagonist, we have to have some kind of sympathy with them, for them. So you have to give us something about them that we can either relate to personally, or say, “Oh, I know somebody just like that”, or “I’ve always wanted to be like that”… to get that kind of identification. So the first step is sympathy. The next step is danger. What is the danger that the person is going to be put into? That now that we’re sympathetic to them, we’re going to care, we want to know… what’s going to happen? The explosions are fine!


And then salvation. And the neat thing I like about the Greek tragedies, what they show us is: it doesn’t have to be a happy ending for there to be salvation. We know what it would look like even if the protagonist doesn’t get there.  So if you’re telling a cautionary tale, if you’re telling a tragedy, you still want to show us what salvation would look like. What surviving the explosion would look like even if your hero does not survive it.

Resolution doesn’t mean happy ending. Resolution means there’s some sort of end.

PamFor those stories that you want to be really getting across a message, sometimes it is better if there isn’t a salvation for your heroine.

KarlEndings are EVERYTHING. There’s a lot of tips and advice about starting with your story and work backwards. In other words, there are a lot of writers who do not start a story until they know the ending. And writers who once they know the ending, work backwards. When you think about it, your whole story is designed to get to that endingAnd if that ending is powerful, if it’s emotionally satisfying to the audience, then you win. I think Robert Town that said an audience will forgive you if you have a boring 5-minutes opening, but they’ll never you if you have a 1-minute, boring ending.  In other words, the ending is what you leave the theatre with. The ending is what, when you finish reading a script, you have that feeling and then you read the coverage you’ll read, either the reader is satisfied with the ending or not. It’s what people remember. Even if you have movies that are great movies, and then the ending sucks, that’s what people are going to talk about.

Bill: I’ve seen movies that sucked, and then they had this AMAZING ending! And you go, “That was a GREAT FILM!” and watch it later on and go… “That wasn’t a great film, that was just a great ending.”

The Sixth Sense

Karl: The Sixth Sense is a perfect example. I remember when that script was going around and it was in development, and people were RAVING about that script because it sold a lot of money and then it was in the wrong font and everything, and people were reading it going, “what’s with this script? I felt it was kind of boring, right?” And then the ending, and you go, “Oh my god!”, you know? And look at the power that it had.

One of the ways that endings are important too is the transformation over character.

KarlThe whole purpose of a story is to transform the character. In cautionary tales, the character didn’t learn the lesson and therefore suffered. And you show that in the ending. On the ones where you see the character transforming, the epiphany, when the character realizes what the lesson that he’s supposed to learn and now he’s armed with enough power to then deal with the ending and then confront the antagonist and …whatever.

Subtext is good, but there are THREE TIMES when somebody NEEDS to say EXACTLY WHAT IS GOING ON.

PamSomeone needs to say the thematic statement (what the movie is about), somebody needs to say the mission statement (what the protagonist is supposed to be doing) and then someone needs to say the lesson statement ( that typically is at the end).

Apocalypse Now

But for a wonderful example of a story that turns around that kind of structure, watch Apocalypse Now. And watch just the first 10-12 minutes of it, because it starts off with the lesson statement, and then the mission statement, and the thematic statement is the 3rd thing.  And I could quote it to you word for word, but I would suggest that you go and watch that.

Watch the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now and get to the point where Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) has just gotten his mission and turns and looks out the window as the helicopters start whacking. And it’s a brilliant setup for then what is a more linear film but you’ve been pulled into the story by knowing in the beginning what the lesson is, what the theme is, and what the mission is.

The closer to reality you can get your characters, when you put them into fictitious situations, the easier it will be to identify with them.

Karl: Probably the longest education from me in terms of storytelling  has been about character. If you want a story to really have an impact overall… if you want it to be a classic, if you want to be able to relate to it, then it starts with character because all stories are basically illustration of the character who transforms. Because they’re supposed to, right, the purpose of story is to teach you something. To teach you how to live and how to deal with it and how to problem-solve.

The only way for us to really absorb that is by jumping into the skin of the character. the first thing that the reader wants to do, or the first thing that the audience wants to do is: they’re looking for a character to jump into as… like surrogates…that’s why I always advise, when you open a script, try to introduce/try to start with your main character because the reader is going to go, “is this the main character?” and if you start with an empty action scene, or like a waitress and she’s like a no-character, then the reader is going to be really frustrated going, “is this my character?” “oh no, that’s not my character”… or if you introduce ensembles… scripts that open, when you introduce like 20 characters,“hello?” it’s like, how’re you going to realize who your main character is?

Bill: Personal stakes and global stakes. In an action film it’s really important. The biggest problem with a lot of action movies is that they have the global stakes but no personal stakes. Personal stakes is what it’s all about. That’s why we care about the character, that’s why we want that character to succeed.


Pam: Armageddon is a good example of that. Where Bruce Willis is saving the world but he also has connection with his daughter and he’s trying to save her.

Bill: But sometimes characters don’t fix the issue.They face the issue, but they don’t fix it. But the thing is, they faced it and but every single scene is going to be about that character dealing with that emotional conflict in one way or another.

Even if it’s outrunning a fireball..although that’s probably not the best example…so what you do, is you give characters in an action scene you give characters decisions to make in the action scene which feed that character decision they have to make.  

If a character is all about being selfish and their whole thing is they have to be selfless, then the action scene is they have to rescue somebody else instead of just only rescuing themselves. You create an emotional situation at every scene…even if it is an explosion.


Pam: Indiana Jones (the very first one) Raiders of the Lost Ark, I think is a good example of that. When we first meet Indian in the opening scenes, we learn that he’s afraid of snakes. So we learn that that’s his foible, his fear, his phobia, and then later on in the story he has to jump into an entire pit of snakes in order to save the day. So you got that book ending…

Bill: Not just the day. The woman he loves…

Pam: Save the world!

“Well, Indiana Jones doesn’t change..he doesn’t have a character flaw or whatever…”

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Karl: But the whole movie, when you really think about it, is an argument between secular and spiritual power. And at the beginning, when the agents come and talk about his missions and the arc of the covenant, Indiana Jones kind of scoffs at it. He scoffs at it, he goes, “Oh, that’s just mumbo-jumbo, it’s like spiritual stuff”. And at the end, when he’s tied up, and he tells… this is his moment of realization, when he has changed, really. Is when he tells his girlfriend “Close your eyes”. “Close your eyes”, because he knows now the power of this thing and that’s what saves him at the end. I consider that his transformation; his lesson of learning the power of the arc.

Cast of Characters

Cast of Characters

Cast of Characters

Does character drive story, or does story leave place for characters?

In other words, how do you go about figuring out plot? What comes first? Character, or story? I took notes recently on a conversation between screenwriting experts on the matter:

Dwayne Alexander Smith, Screenwriter, Damn Good Ideas Productions
Steve Faber, Screenwriter
Pamela Jaye Smith, Consultant, Teacher, MYTHWORKS
Anthony Grieco, Screenwriter, Story Specialist at The Writers Store and a mentor for the Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest
Michael Hauge, Story Consultant/Author/Lecturer
Lee Jessup, Career Coach for Screenwriters

Pamela: “Character-driven story” vs “Action adventure” – both are valid instances of screenplays that start with character

Anthony: Various inspirations lead to story. The big question, “what if”… and start to play with a ball…How would the ending sentence go and what is the moral of the story? I will create a character with a flaw in opposition to the moral…If you’re not interested in figuring this flaw out, the reader won’t be. I would find the story and then find the character that helps me find that story.

Michael: Don’t think stories are plot or character-driven. They are DESIRE driven, but character in pursuit of goal drives the plot. What is the big desire?

Steve: Obsessed with story. Best when focused on, outline story like crazy. It’s about an outline. Tell the story in a few sentences. No more high-concept stories. They are anomalies. Done. When budgets were high. A good story can be described to someone in a few words.

Dwayne: It starts with story. Outline like crazy: Always be writing for a star. Then create a protagonist or lead that a star wants to play.

What are the must-have ingredients for a great lead character for a star?

Dwayne: Changes by genre/movie. Likeable. Focus on Point-of-view. A strong character is in almost every scene in the movie. Rocky, Raiders, Indiana Jones. And looking over their shoulder and follows the movie (pulls you in).

Michael: Elevating character from OK to great: What terrifies this character emotionally? What is the deep, hidden emotion, fear they don’t want to face? Where does it come from? What armor do they wear? Unite this with plot: find the fear they must face. In Wedding Crashers, it’s the fear of commitment.

Steve: Level of ambiguity. This is one important aspect that propels them along the journey. It makes them stop to question, are they doing this for the right reasons? They must have some level of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Pamela: Aligned with one of the archetypes. This works. Because it’s about who we are. The closer they are aligned, the easier it is for us to sympathize (subconscious patterns that live in the psyche of humanity). Get recognition. A great character’s job: is to use Point-of-View as a lens to view humanity.

Anthony: Make sure your character has an attitude towards the world (what Michael calls “armor”). Whether they’re introverted or extroverted, how they approach the world matters. Throw people who don’t have that attitude with them. A curmudgeon with a Sunshiny. Other characters must be affected by or impacted by the lead character. Don’t buy into your character must be likeable.  Dude in Big Lebowski – identify with strong, laissez faire. We like watching people get tortured.


How much does the development of character dictate their ultimate fate?

Anthony: With one of my heroes, the outline falls apart at the midpoint because character becomes…uncontrollable? Interesting. By the time I get to that part of the script, I let them take control… it’s very organic. You should outline and structure, but once you get good at it, throw it all away… Most sell-able screenplays have happy endings. Cautionary tales and heroic tales.

Pamela: Inner drives – putting a different backstory to characters to same lines of dialogue is a good way to flesh out characters’ inner drives…

Michael: Don’t use biographies. I often get bombarded with questions about stories and characters. Oftentimes, writers don’t know their character… yet they more likely to say, they know the answer to these questions. The end goal is to know the character as well as your siblings, or spouse.

Steve: The Graduates. Did they stay together at the end? You need to know every aspect of character. Question: do your scenes compromise the character? Be stubborn. Throwing a cake away, in the script, that you don’t necessarily need. Always give them a cut if the budget doesn’t work out. If you really know your character well, they not to compromise (on throwaway scenes).

Dwayne: Rarely gets a note about character. More about changing the story.


How would you pitch a character-driven story?

Steve: Would spec Napoleon Dynamite. Not pitch it. Very difficult to pitch them. Well done, but not easy to pitch. e.g. Juno is never going to come out to people even if it looks good in your head. “Pitching to an oil painting” – you get nothing.


If you had 10 aspects to a character, how many would you bring in as subplot?

Anthony: Never approach a story that way. The big question is what bomb went off in their lives before this movie started? How do we break this spell? The other stuff fills in with re-writes. “I don’t need to know what my character had for breakfast.”


In an age of Transformers, is film the place for character development, or more TV?

Pamela: New fertile ground: short-mini series. Storylines over six to twenty episodes produced by people like you. Not done with majors. Freedom of expression without the restrictions of studio executives, development people, and investors. Check out the Web Series (Marseilles Webfest/ LA Webfest). A lot of creative projects ** All into TRANSMEDIA. Transformers is about toys. The movie platforms put a story that is more attractive to investors.


What do you never want to see in a character?

Steve: Pedophelia. Unnecessary side journeys to go make sandwiches. Romcom’s bother me. Because I know what’s going to happen.

Michael: Static, inaction, indecisive characters. Whether it’s a right or wrong decision, force them to take action.

Anthony: If a character can just stop what they’re doing and say “I don’t need to be here” then you have a problem. Because there are NO STAKES. It must be about life and death.

Michael: Whatever they pursue, if they fail, what are the consequences? Don’t have a millionaire who falls in love. It has got to be life and death.

Dwayne: I don’t like protagonists who don’t believe in their course. They must be totally gung-ho about their goal.