Good screenplays have both world-building and story and they have them in the right balance.
- The WORLD of Star Wars has planets and aliens and mythology. You could tell any number of stories in the Star Wars Universe, as evidenced by all the sequel and spin-off novels that exist.
- The STORY of Star Wars is what’s portable, that has nothing to do with the setting.
EXAMPLE: Ryuko is an orphan in feudal Japan. He meets a messenger looking for Kenobi-sensi, who turns out to be a missing imperial guard. He and Kenobi team up to save the Emperor’s daughter Reiya from Daimyo Baderu, an evil samurai lord. (1)
- The world of Looper: America, 2042. The film seems to take place around a depressed Kansas City and we sense that the rest of America hasn’t fared much better. Laws have fallen by the wayside, the only power structures we see take the shape of time travelling gangsters from the 2070’s who use 2042 as a sort of toilet to dump bodies in. Also, there are telekinetic people.
- The story of Looper: A mob hitman must kill his future self or else be killed by his mob bosses. He ends up dying to save a young boy from his murderous older self.
Looper is an interesting movie because it’s setup is as interesting or more interesting than the meat of its second act. Consider the midpoint split: the first half of the movie explores science fiction ideas, past selves and future selves. The second half of the movie plants Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a farm in the middle of nowhere and is more about relationships. While the setting of the second act logically flows from the setting of the first act, it’s not as connected as most science fiction movies.
Screenwriting is a craft, but much of the “art” is created by “inefficiencies” in the development process. Looper’s choices become easier to understand if you consider its creation: It started as a passion project, a short script written by Rian Johnson. It began with the overall idea of looping, which is cool (and apparently indispensable to Mr. Johnson), but apparently wasn’t enough to sustain a feature. If you look at the actual execution of Looper, it would actually work without Looping (it would also remove a major plot hole – if murder is so difficult that it necessitates time travel, why do the gunmen gun down Bruce Willis’s wife so casually?).
As with any solid story, you could transport it to another setting:
Japan, 1700: Jyo is a samurai who only cares for silver. When a wizard’s spell transports his older self to 1700, Jyo must kill Old Jyo or else lose his silver and his life. At first he cares only for silver, but Jyo eventually dies to protect a young boy from his older self’s vendetta.
The world of Looper is fascinating because of its little mysteries. We sense that we’re only seeing one corner of a larger tapestry. There are a lot of stories to be told, whether it’s about telekinetic whores, the possibility that Abe and the Kid are the same man, or the weird fact that there’s a hospital somewhere filled with amputated young Loopers who are kept alive until the day they can be shoved back in time to be killed by their younger selves (I have a lot to say about this scene, it will probably be my next blog for SHT).
I already have visions of angry fan boys writing in with elaborate theories that completely justify every choice made in the movie. Please spare me (2). Rian Johnson is a brilliant writer and every choice he makes works, but Looper is definitely a movie that places cool imagery over air-tight logic. It’s a cool movie, a solid movie, it was critically acclaimed and it made its money back. It chooses to value audience experience and authorial intent over bulletproof, Abed Nadir-like logic and it’s richer for it.
Looper works because it marries a vivid world with a solid story, and it’s instructive because it succeeded at both. A good story has BOTH a coherent logline and a vividly constructed world. Most beginning writers fail at one or both – either by creating scripts that have absolutely nothing in the second act, or by over-describing the world until it feels like I’m reading a Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook instead of a compelling story written for the screen.
Looper is a great movie with great writing. By analyzing where it succeeds and identifying where many writers fail, you can anticipate problems in your own work and be that much further ahead of the game.
(1) Star Wars borrowed some of its plot from a samurai flick called The Hidden Fortress. It’s worth watching.