There’s a famous piece of screenwriting advice that “if you want to send messages, use Western Union.” Now it might go, “if you want to send messages, Tweet about it.”
The implication is that such idealised notions about art improving the world don’t belong in show business (emphasis on the business).
It’s true that clunky moralising is an instant turn-off in a script, film or TV show. No-one likes to be lectured when they sit down expecting to be entertained.
You as a screenwriter might try to be apolitical, to not send messages, thinking that this will help attract as big an audience as possible.
However, storytelling is how we make sense of the world. Odds are, intentionally or not, your script will end up saying something about how the world is or how the world should be.
How genre films send messages
Genres like science fiction and horror allow us to explore dangerous experiences in a safe way. We don’t actually want to be eaten by zombies, but it’s enjoyable to watch characters go through this experience.
No wonder films are so often compared to roller coasters. It’s the same fundamental idea, allowing us to come close to death or life-altering situations without actually experiencing them.
The best genre film and TV shows work the same way on a metaphorical level. They allow us to explore ideas that are dangerous to society or disturb us personally.
The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise.
The PLANET OF THE APES films are a great example of films that send messages. The original series began by metaphorically depicting racism and prejudice through a world where apes had subjugated humans.
As the films went on, they also explored the power of the atomic bomb and the modern rise of a fascist state.
Arguably, that’s one reason why the new films have succeeded where the 2001 remake failed. Apart from the advances in prosthetics, there was no compelling reason to remake it at that time.
What did the bizarre time-travel ending of the 2001 PLANET OF THE APES actually mean? Compared to the shocking reveal in the original – that man is destroyed by our own hubris – it means nothing.
RISE, DAWN and now WAR have used the conflict between apes and humans to show how factions and tribalism lead to misunderstandings that lead to conflict.
Even if deep down most characters on both sides want peace, cynical and self-serving actors can manipulate them into war.
These films still serve up plenty of simple blockbuster thrills, such as the sight of monkeys riding horses firing rifles. At the same time though, there are thought-provoking ideas beneath the surface.
Man, I told you not to go in that house.
GET OUT resonated with audiences in a huge way and was a huge hit worldwide.
Its plot is somewhat comparable to THE STEPFORD WIVES. Writer-director Jordan Peele has also mentioned ROSEMARY’S BABY as an inspiration.
Those films used sci-fi and horror premises respectively to explore women’s anxiety at a time when women’s liberation was very much in the popular consciousness.
GET OUT does something similar but with race relations in 2017 (and specifically in America).
GET OUT’s fantastical premise allows the audience to be scared, to laugh, to consider other points of view on complex and contentious issues, and ultimately to experience catharsis.
Given its generally shorter development and production timetable, television is often able to respond quicker to recent events and the changing times.
Many shows embrace this potential for topicality. For example, LAW & ORDER was well known for its episodes that were “ripped from the headlines.”
Recently in the UK, LITTLE BOY BLUE dramatised the shooting of an 11-year-old boy in Liverpool. The four-part series shows how this one act of violence spirals out, having consequences for so many.
Audiences are used to seeing the news on TV. Dramatising and only lightly fictionalising true stories can be enough of a step removed from reality.
When real cases are incorporated into an existing series like LAW & ORDER, the presence of recurring characters and the clear closure are reassuring.
Still, as television has become more crowded, shows have stood out by being bolder about their messages.
For example, MR. ROBOT updated FIGHT CLUB for our paranoia about the information age.
BLACK MIRROR resonates because it sends messages about the destructive and self-destructive ways we use technology. Both shows have a very clear point of view.
Now get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there, but I’m boss up here!
Think about what your story is saying.
Even if you think it’s not saying anything, it’ll likely be saying something unintentionally. It’s better to be aware of and in control of this.
For example, when Duane Jones became the lead in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, a role originally written as white, the film’s shocking ending took on a new dimension.
Writer-director George A. Romero understood this and listened to Jones when he defended the film’s ending and proposed dialogue changes.
While big blockbusters often use politically charged imagery, they don’t always have something coherent to say about it.
This is often deliberate, a way of avoiding controversy or alienating audience members.
Done badly though, raising real world issues and skirting away from them can become frustrating or unintentionally offensive.
An audience can tell when something has been flattened out, focus grouped to death, or is playing it too safe.
Well… the television said that’s the right thing to do.
As a writer, you should be aware of your point of view, of your insights and blindspots, and what is different or interesting about them.
At the same time, avoid writing with a message first. This can easily become heavy handed and work against the story and characters.
(Even great writers can be guilty of this sometimes, for example moments of Aaron Sorkin’s THE NEWSROOM.)
Allow yourself to discover the message in the material. Try to get to the core of what appeals to you about an idea, what is relevant and real about it in the first place.
Perhaps “send messages” or having a “moral” sounds too preachy. “Worldview” might sound too theoretical. A good old fashioned word for could be “theme.”
If you enjoyed this article, why not check out our article about When Screenwriters Should Unsettle the Audience?