STORY HARMONY

A good script is much like a symphony.

Just like a symphony, it is composed of harmonious elements which fit together in a particular way.

Like a symphony, it has themes, melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, dissonance, suspense and resolution. Like a symphony, it is organized into discrete movements, each with their own feel and mood. A script is even composed of beats, like music in general.

The elements in your script are like parts of a symphony. They should fit together in a harmonious whole, to create an agreeable and unified experience for your audience.

What you want to achieve with your script, to create the most integrated and powerful effect, is an interrelation between all of its parts — a kind of story harmony.


A Symphony Is Like A Script
Symphonies are as different from each other as scripts are different from each other. Ultimately, there are no hard and fast rules.

Generally speaking, a symphony follows an opening-development-resolution pattern. Just like the three main sections of any screenplay. Some symphonies have a five-part structure:  introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, coda. Much like a three-act screenplay with a framing story. Some symphonies have a four-part structure — like modern scripts with their two-part 2nd act, separated at the midpoint.

Within symphonies, as within screenplays, the form is variable in the extreme — but a symphony generally states a theme or themes, points and counterpoints, puts the themes through changes — variations and modulations — then ultimately resolves all melodic conflicts in a harmonious finish.

In a script, you open the story world, introduce the heroes and villains, then break at a crisis. In the next act, you develop and deepen the crisis, and bring the hero to his knees. In the final act, the hero triumphs (or not) and all outstanding story business is resolved and brought to a close.

A good movie is more like a symphony than like a play, really, because it deals in intangibles. Music can embody many things, but being wordless, it primarily deals in emotional states — and screenplays, especially dramas, are nothing if not symphonies of emotions, played on the instrument of your audience.

(If you just want to make action flicks, or sex comedies, then you may not have even read this far — but the ideas we're talking about here can help you construct your paranormal action high-concept sexy comedy much more easily, and in a self-consistent way which a producer will understand and the market will appreciate.)


Theme And Counterpoint
You have script harmony is when as many elements as possible are linked to one another. They are not random. They all interrelate.

A good screen story has a theme, which is expressed in the plot. A good screen story also has one or more subplots, which are not chosen at random, but which relate to the plot. These serve as a counterpoint to the plot.

As Wikipedia puts it, "In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm and are harmonically interdependent."

It goes on to say, "counterpoint involves the writing of musical lines that sound very different and move independently from each other but sound harmonious when played simultaneously".

This brings up a very useful concept: a particular plot or subplot is a "voice" — the voice of a particular character. Just as in opera, a character has a certain voice and uses it to "sing" certain themes specific to that character.

Consider the space opera, "Star Wars". Luke has a voice, and he sings his theme. He meets other voices who combine in chorus with him. Eventually all are singing together, working toward a particular goal — the destruction of the Death Star.

But each voice has its own melody — its own narrative thrust, its own plot. Han wants to make money to pay off Jabba and maintain his independence. Leia wants to lead her people to triumph at any cost. Ben facilitates Luke's goals, and performs one last valiant act to atone for old sins and ameliorate old guilts (as we now know post-prequels). These all either support or provide counterpoint to Luke's plot.

The protagonist, the "singer" of the main plot, will generally carry the theme of the screenplay, simply stated. But taken together, all will express the theme's various aspects, in the richest and fullest way possible. That's what it means to create a good screen story.

That's the difference between a good script and a great script. The harmonic relation between these elements is what allows for a rich and varied treatment of the theme or story.

In great scripts you can always find the theme and tease out a character's relation to the theme. It's not always easy, and even in a great movies some characters just exist to amplify some small detail or drive the main plot.

But the more they harmonize with each other, the stronger the main theme is, and the stronger the movie is. Spine, center, keel, however you want to characterize it, a theme is what holds the movie together and keeps it harmonious.


Creating Harmony
Engineer harmony into every level of your screenplay — between and among themes, plots and characters.

Thematic harmony, as we discussed above, is a measure of how each character's plot relates to the theme expressed by the hero's plot.

Just as plot is embodied within the characters, so will your harmonies be. So you'll find you will mainly create harmony on a character level.

It would be imaginative if one character in your screenplay was a recording studio engineer, and he fell in love with a woman who was a viral epidemologist. But if your story had them stopping a ring of car thieves who only stole electric cars (from the Leaf on up to the Tesla), then their careers wouldn't make much difference. Clever, but not functional.

However, if your story consisted of them stopping an evil musician who had discovered a way to create auditory viruses, which he planned to unleash via satellite radio on an unsuspecting public — then their careers would be functional in your script. They would relate to the plans of the antagonist, and to the plot as a whole.

That's harmony on the character level. Backstory, temperament, capability. Such harmony provides a natural and unified framework for your story, and can't help but inspire organic plot developments... furthering that all-important harmony between character and plot. This helps create an agreeable and unified experience for your audience.

And by that, we don't necessarily mean sweet and sappy. The harmonizing of script elements is how you create a script with power — when all voices are working together in melody and harmony, the chorus is that much more powerful and thrilling. In that sense, Schindler's List was agreeable.

You have Schindler, who starts out as an operator, looking only to profit from any situation. And you have Goeth, who also looks only to profit out of any situation. But as Schindler discovers the humanity of the Jews, he changes — while Goeth remains the same. While he goes up, Goethe — contrapuntally — descends.In the end, Goeth is "rich"...and swinging from a noose, while Schindler is "poor", yet rich in spirit.


Correspondences like this can be spotted everywhere in any well-constructed script. That's because the script has story harmony. It's been written, configured, as a collection of elements placed in harmonic relation to each other. And while that's no guarantee the script will be great, there is no great movie which is not full of story harmonies.


Harmonic Elements
So far we've discussed harmony at the structural level, but there's also a level of harmony at the scene level as well. Rhyming scenes, callbacks and parallels are just some of the ways scenes can relate harmonically to each other. Some talk about "symphonic dialogue", creating a musical sort of dialogue within the scene... in actual practice, though, this kind of thing is very difficult to engineer unless you understand the theme of your script, the point of each scene, and the voices of your characters — then internalize that and let the force flow through you as you're writing the scene. To coin a phrase.

A rhyming scene is when a scene occurs early on — then later, the same kind of scene occurs again, after the characters have gone through transformations, learned something...  leading to a different outcome.

In Night Shift, Henry Winkler plays a decidedly non-Fonzie character, a nebbish pushed around by everyone, including the deli deliveryman and a fearsome neighbor's dog. Late in the movie, we see him again encounter the deliveryman and the neighbor's dog — only this time he stands his ground, demands a new sandwich and tells the dog "Go home!" The dog does.

Rhyming scenes are most often used to show how a character has changed, but they can be used in many ways — ironically, in action sequences to add variety, or for pure comedy.

A callback is when something which has occurred early on between two characters occurs later, and serves as a poignant reminder of that earlier time, and of all that has happened in between.

"Ditto", from Ghost, is a classic callback. Callbacks have great power, and reach back across the span of your story to enlarge it in your audience's mind.

Parallels are simply similarities between action in one sequence action in another sequence. For example, in a redemption story, where the character is thrust into a similar situation as the situation which he failed to triumph over before. They are like rhyming scenes, only they operate on a much larger scale.

We used a parallel of this kind in our WWII screenplay. Our hero had been at a remote desert base when Germans overran it. He was unable to fight them and survived with his guilt intact. Later, he found himself assigned to an arctic base, where he again found himself dealing with an unexpected influx of Germans. The question was, would he find the valor and bravery he lacked before? Or not?


Go Make Beautiful Music!

These are just some ideas on how to harmonize your screenplay and turn it into an melodious presentation. These parallels and correpondences on the level of structure, theme, plot, character, and scene don't always come right away — but the nearer you come to the heart of your script, the more you'll find things falling into a pattern of interrelationships.

If you go into it with story harmony on your mind, you're bound to get where you want to be that much quicker!



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