In writing a screenplay, we go into the story. That’s critical in order to connect with the characters and immerse ourselves in the story universe. But we also need to balance that by stepping outside the story universe and take a meta view of the narrative.
I like to do that by thinking of five ‘passages,’ broad movements in the Protagonist’s or key characters’ experience. Those are:
- Life before FADE IN
- Life after FADE OUT
The middle three come straight from Joseph Campbell and his articulation of the Hero’s Journey:
“The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return: which might be named the nuclear unit to the monomyth.” — Joseph Campbell
The monomyth is another term for the Hero’s Journey. The comparison to a rite of passage is instructive. Campbell claimed the whole point, symbolically and psychologically, of the Hero’s Journey is transformation. The person passes through the “test of fire” and in that process is made “new”. To accomplish that, they need to go through a separation.
So what is separation? For a screenwriter, it involves three macro components:
The Old World: Providing a sense of place, time, mood, and environment for the Protagonist’s ordinary world. This is critical to set a touchstone against which to measure the character’s metamorphosis. Moreover the Old World helps us to understand why the character is the they are. This is the distillation of key narrative elements and dynamics arising from Life Before FADE IN and laid out as part of the Act One setup.
The Call to Adventure: Something happens. That is common to all movies. The Protagonist is going about their business in the Old World when something happens. A Herald arrives with important news. An event occurs which inspires or forces the Protagonist to make a decision, take action.
The New World: Whether it’s geographical, psychological, or symbolic, the Protagonist leaves the Old World behind and enters the New World.
This last point represents the essence of separation, a severing of a character’s presence in and connection to the Old World. Why is this important?
- To rattle the Protagonist’s cage: Beliefs, behaviors, defense mechanisms, coping skills, the psychological armor the Protagonist has cobbled together in their life leading up to FADE IN, their shift into the New World calls everything into question, shaking things up.
- To expose the Protagonist to their True Self: As long as the psyche dynamics of their life leading up to FADE IN are locked in place, the Protagonist has no hope of accessing let alone embracing their Core Essence. But being a Fish-Out-Of-Water / Stranger -In-A Strange-Land can cause the Protagonist to see the flaws in their Old Ways.
- To begin to build on their True Self: Not fully or perfectly, but a start. Shedding the Old Ways allows the New Self to emerge. That becomes the foundation of who the Protagonist will eventually become.
“The herald’s summons may be to live…or…to die. It may sound the call to some high historical undertaking. Or it may mark the dawn of religious illumination. As apprehended by the mystic, it marks what has been termed “the awakening of the self.”…whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of life, the call rings up the curtain, always on a mystery of transformation-a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth.” — Joseph Campbell
The result is a transformed character who has “passed through the test of fire” and is made new. That process begins with Separation.
For Part 1: Life Before FADE IN, go here.