Movies move. Great movies can move us to emotional extremes and give us a new perspective on life. The possibilities for stories seem as endless as the universe we live in. Yet one thing remains constant across all stories, and that is change.
In all stories, something in the world of the story is changing. Let's take a look.
A character's personal values can change. For example:
The relationship between two characters can change. For example:
An external situation can change. For example:
Story values are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next.
Let's get more specific. Story values are simply change with a direction, change that is positive or negative. On Story Charts, the x-axis is time and the y-axis is used to show story value. For example, in Finding Nemo, Nemo's dad is looking for Nemo. At the beginning of the movie Nemo is lost, at the end of the movie Nemo is found:In this Story Chart, we have chosen "found" to be positive and "lost" to be negative. So as the movie progresses, the story value becomes more and more positive. Which direction is positive and which is negative? It doesn't matter, as long as we are consistent.
Let's see what else happens in the movie:
Nemo's dad figured out that Nemo is somewhere in Australia. This is positive in his goal of finding Nemo. Nemo's dad also runs into sharks who want to eat him. This is negative in his goal of finding Nemo (can't find Nemo if he's eaten!).
The cool thing is, story values can be used on all three types of change. The Finding Nemo example above describes an External Change (the quest to find Nemo). Here is an example of Internal Change from Casablanca:In this example, the story values reflect Rick's Internal Change. Rick goes from being apathetic about the war effort to becoming a bonafide patriot by shooting a German Officer. Along the way, he became a little more patriotic by helping the rebel Annina. He also almost became a traitor by bartering to betray the rebels.
Here is an example of Relationship Change from Casablanca:In this example, the story values reflect Rick and Ilsa's love. They begin by being apart from each other after having been in love. Once Ilsa is back in Rick's life, Rick says he never really loved her. Later, Rick finally admits he loves her. But in the end, Rick sends her away forever, destroying their chance to being together.
All stories have change. This change is embodied in story values. With Story Charts we track story values and can visualize the change that takes place.
A plotline (or simply plot), represents a single thread of a story. The plot represents the same Story Values from the beginning to the end. As we have already seen, a plotline's story value can be that of Internal Change, Relationship Change or External Change. On a Story Chart, a plot is represented by a line. Here are the three plots of Casablanca:
Robert McKee believes all films have story values that change through the progression of the story. This change in the specific context of the world of the story is what produces meaning. And meaning, according to McKee, is what moves the heart of audiences. He gives a name to express this meaning-making change at the heart of any story; he calls it the Controlling Idea:
A Controlling Idea may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.
Lajos Egri devotes the entire first section of his classic work on The Art of Dramatic Writing to express the sentiment that a writer’s primary task is to find this idea; he calls it the story’s premise, and every story must have a well-formulated premise:
No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise. If you have no such premise, you may modify, elaborate, vary your original idea or situation, or even lead yourself into another situation, but you will not known where you are going.
So a premise provides the goal your story is trying to achieve. McKee agrees:
Storytelling is the creative demonstration of truth. A story is the living proof of an idea, the conversion of idea to action. A story’s event structure is the means by which you first express, then prove your idea … without explanation.
Robert McKee believes most of the writing process needs to be devoted to designing the story. Of that effort, most time needs to be put towards thinking about a Climax (Resolution) that proves the Controlling Idea and working backwards through a sequence of conflict that makes the Climax inevitable. Inspiration for a story may come from anywhere: it could be a situation, a character, an action or an image. Only hard work, persistence and heart will shape the metamorphosis of this inspiration into a story and then into a screenplay.
As Robert McKee believes:
A story’s Controlling Idea is a truth about the cause in irreversible change of story values. The story exists to prove the Controlling Idea through action and conflict.
Let's use Story Charts to see how the story of Casablanca proves its Controlling Idea.
From the Story Chart above, we can see the movie has three plots. Each plot happens to work with a different type of story value. The love plot is driven by changes in the Relationship story value of love between Rick and Ilsa (fluctuating between bitter resentment and love). The escape plot is driven by changes in the External story value of the rebels quest to escape (fluctuating between doomed to success). The final plot is driven by changes in the Internal story value of patriotism in Rick (fluctuating between passive bystander to patriot).
To discover the Controlling Idea of the film, we examine its Climax where all three plots have their Resolutions. For simplicity, let's look at the three plots with just their resolutions:At Climax, Rick decides to let Ilsa escape with her husband Victor Laslo. Then Rick shoots the German officer to guarantee their safe departure. This action also completes his inner journey from apathetic bystander to a patriot in the war effort. At the story’s climax, Rick and Ilsa’s chance at love goes to an irreversible anti-climax (negative) while Rick’s irreversibly becomes a patriot (positive) and Laslo escapes to America with Ilsa (positive). If we put this exchange of story values into words it would be: Rick becomes a patriot and as a result gives up his chance at love. If we look at the turning point that brought us into the final stretch of the movie, we realize that it is when Ilsa admits her love for Rick and leaves their fate in his hands. So at Climax, Rick willingly gave up his chance at love to become a patriot. The story values in flux are Rick’s patriotic responsibility and the love between Rick and Ilsa. So the Controlling Idea is:
True love leads to living responsibly.
This is the truth that the sequence of actions and conflict of Casablanca had set out to prove. Revisiting our definition, we remember that a story’s Controlling Idea is a truth about the cause in irreversible change of story values. This is true in the case of Casablanca. The story values are irreversibly changed: Rick is a patriot since he shot a Nazi officer and all hope for reuniting Rick and Ilsa is gone since Ilsa left for America with Victor Laslo. What has caused this change? Rick’s love for Ilsa made him decide to let her go. So in the context of this story and its sequence of conflict, the Controlling Idea is a truth. True love does indeed lead to living responsibly. Rick’s love caused him to begin living responsibly. Do other aspects of the story support this Controlling Idea? Let’s take a look at the components of the story of Casablanca: its spine, plots, turning points, obstacles, cast of characters, narrative structure and thematic resonance.
The term spine refers to the primary narrative thrust of the story; it is the direction of the story that is setup from the Inciting Incident that foreshadows the eventual Climax. If a hero embarks on a quest, the story is not completed until the hero succeeds or fails at the quest; the quest itself is the spine of the story, although many other things may happen along the way. How the quest ends tells us the Controlling Idea. McKee calls the spine the deep desire in and effort by the protagonist to restore the balance of life. We will use a definition that makes it easier to visually find the spine on a Story Chart:
The spine is the minimum number of plots whose change in story values demonstrates the Controlling Idea.
By plot we refer to any story value that goes through change. Just because something is value-charged, does not make it a plot. It must also go through change in the course of the story with a beginning, middle and end. We use the generic term plot to encapsulate this story value and its journey. Since story values can represent internal character changes as well as external quests, our use of the term plot covers both character growth and external events that are traditionally considered plot.
A plot on the Story Chart represents a story value that changes through the story with a beginning, middle and end.
When we use Story Charts to find the spine of a story, we want to find the minimum number of plots that tell the story of the Controlling Idea. The distinction helps us see what is truly essential to the Controlling Idea and what is potentially superfluous. In Casablanca, the Controlling Idea is about the exchange of values between love and responsibility. In this story, it is impossible to have both love and responsibility. One must be sacrificed for the other. In our Story Chart, the spine of the story is thus made up of love plot and the plot depicting Rick’s journey from bystander to patriot.
In the Chart above, we can see that at Climax, love is sacrificed for responsibility. This exchange shows us the Controlling Idea of “true love leads to living responsibly”. The third major plot, which is not part of the spine, is the escape plot: the quest of Ilsa and Victor Laslo to escape to America. It is not part of the spine because the Controlling Idea can be told even if this plot were changed: Rick could give up his love to become a patriot by some other sequence of actions. However, that is not to say the escape plot is not important. It provides the very specific context for conflict and complicates both other plots. The escape plot is what makes it such that Rick cannot have both love and responsibility, it provides the catalyst for the true dilemma at Climax. By noting which plots make up the spine of the story we gain insight into the film’s construction. We could tell the same Controlling Idea in a different context by preserving the spine plots and altering the third plot. In fact most Adventure films have the identical Controlling Idea of “perseverance helps the underdog triumph”, but all told in very different contexts.
We can see the Controlling Idea of Casablanca at work at the film’s Climax, but in order for the story to prove the Controlling Idea, we must experience it. The rest of the story is carefully constructed to help us experience, through action and conflict, what is “true love” and “living responsibly” and how one inevitably “leads” to the other in the very specific context of the story.
Acts are used to refer to the beginning, middle and end of a story. So for each plot there are three acts that show us the setup, complication and resolution. Each plot then has at least two major turning points between its three acts:
A turning point of a plot is an action or event that turns the story value of the plot in a drastic new direction.
A plot may have many more than two turning points. Lets see how the major turning points of all three plots contribute to the Controlling Idea.
For Rick and Ilsa’s love plot, the first turning point is when Ilsa meets Rick again. Prior to this, their love had no chance since they were physically separated. Their reunion is a turning point in their relationship as it gives them a second chance at love (positive). The next major turning point is when Rick and Ilsa fight at the marketplace and Ilsa denies ever having loved Rick. This throws their love into a state of seeming hopelessness (negative). The next turning point is when Ilsa admits her love for Rick (positive). Followed by the final turning point (the Climax) when Rick lets Ilsa go with her Victor Laslo (negative). We can divide this plot into three acts by using the turning points to find a beginning, middle and end. At the beginning, Rick and Ilsa are separated. Her arrival (turning point) changes this and propels us into the middle. In the middle, Rick and Ilsa fight and their love would seem hopeless until Ilsa finally admits her love (turning point) and propels us to the end. In the end, Rick has Ilsa’s love but gives up the chance to be with her (turning point and Climax). The turning points on the Story Chart reflect the turning points of this main spine plot. We can see the turning point that propels us into the third act is crucial. It is when Ilsa admits her love for Rick. At this point their love seems sealed. This sets us up for the Climax at which Rick’s decision reverses the fate of their love as it plummets to an ironic anti-climax. So the turning point that launches Act 3 clearly helps to emphasize the Controlling Idea, it raises the story value of love that is lost at Climax.
Lets take a look at the plot representing Rick’s journey from an apathetic bystander to patriot. At the beginning, Rick is a bitter cafe owner who “sticks his neck out for no man” and refuses to help freedom fighter Ugarte (negative). He also refuses to help Annina but then turns around and helps her (positive). He risks his cafe by helping the freedom fighters sing the French anthem in front of Nazis (positive). He refuses to help Laslo escape (negative) and barters with Renault to imprison Laslo (negative). But he turns on Renault and helps Laslo get to the airport (positive). Finally he shoots the Nazi officer to help Laslo escape (positive). At the beginning Rick is an apathetic bystander who refuses to help Ugarte (turning point to second act). In the middle he begins to help the cause and but ends up refusing to help Laslo for selfish reasons, landing Laslo in jail (turning point to third act). In the end he springs Laslo from jail and has become an active patriot by shooting the Nazi officer (turning point and Climax). The turning point that launches the third act of this plot is when Rick refuses to help Laslo and Laslo is thrown in jail. This turning point helps setup the reversal in Act 3 by which he becomes an active patriot and loses his chance at love.
The third plot is the escape plot of Victor Laslo and Ilsa. This plot carries us through the entire film and provides the context for the other two plots. In the first scene of the film we learn that German couriers have been killed and some exit visas stolen (positive turning point for the French Freedom fighters). Then Ugarte is arrested after he gives the visas to Rick (negative). The Nazi threatens Laslo as he tries to make contact with other fighters (negative). Laslo defies the Nazis by singing the French anthem (positive) and is arrested when Rick refuses to help him (negative). Rick then helps him get to the airport (positive) and shoots the Nazi to ensure his escape (positive and Climax). The beginning is an optimistic start as the freedom fighters have stolen the visas, but the Nazis threaten as Ugarte is arrested and executed (turning point into second act). The middle shows us the struggle between the two sides and all seems lost when Laslo is imprisoned (turning point into third act). The end has Rick saving Laslo and Laslo getting away to America (turning point and Climax). The escape plot also makes use of the act structure to setup a strong reversal in Act 3. Victor Laslo’s escape seems doomed until Rick chooses to help him escape.
Together, the act structure of all three plots help setup the exchange of story values at the Climax. They have made it such that Rick must choose between love and responsibility and in his painful choice we experience the Controlling Idea that “true love leads to living responsibly”.
Robert McKee believes that the only difference between a turning point that pushes us into a new act and the turning point of a single scene is the degree by which the plot’s story value is changed. Ideally, each and every scene in a film is a turning point that turns the story value of on one or more plots. The degree by which a story value is turned in a scene is directly proportional to the difficulty of the overcoming the obstacle preventing the action of the scene. By designing progressively more challenging obstacles to each of the plots, we create momentum and pace in the story. We move from obstacle to obstacle until the ultimate obstacle that is confronted at Climax results in an irreversible change in story value. This causes us to experience the Controlling Idea. The obstacle design of CASABLANCA contributes greatly to its Controlling Idea.
Lets focus on Rick’s path to becoming a patriot. Near the beginning, he is given a package by Ugarte. He realizes this package helps the freedom movement and he accepts it (positive for his patriotism). The obstacle to his accepting the package is very small, the risk is that he may be seen as a supporter and be persecuted by the Nazis. But the exchange takes place in his cafe and he is sure he is in control. Later, Ugarte is discovered by the Nazis and confronts Rick to help hide him, which Rick refuses (negative on his patriotism). The obstacle to Rick’s helping Ugarte are substantially larger, since he himself is likely to be caught by the Nazis if he helps Ugarte. Later in the film, Laslo sings the French anthem in Rick’s cafe in front of Nazis, Rick allows his band players to support Laslo (large positive). The obstacle to this action is great as it could anger the Nazis. Indeed the Nazis are angered and shutdown his cafe. Rick has paid for his actions, but the story value of patriotism is greatly increased because of the big obstacle he overcame to perform the action. However, the obstacle was not so large that it is irreversible. He could always bribe the officials so they let him open again. At Climax, the Nazi officer threatens to stop Laslo and Ilsa from escaping. Rick shoots the officer (positive Climax). The obstacles in him performing the action include the possibility of his own death since Renault sees him shoot the Nazi. The change in story value is irreversible. Rick is a patriot now. He cannot reverse the action and carry on as he was even if he chose to.
Similarly, when Ilsa admits her love for Rick, the obstacles to this action are tremendous. She has dedicated her life to the freedom-fighting cause and to supporting her husband. By declaring her love for Rick, she stands to lose her life’s work and her reputation. The gain in the story value of “love” is huge because of the giant obstacles that were overcome by Ilsa’s actions. We feel the risk in her action because these same obstacles stopped her from reuniting with Rick on multiple prior occasions. The gain in their love sets up the final reversal at Climax when Rick chooses to send Ilsa on her way: this is another irreversible action that cannot be taken back. It destroys any chance for their love.
The cast of characters can contribute to the Controlling Idea by showing parallels and variations to the Idea. Here is the cast of Casablanca:
With regards to the story value of love, Rick and Ilsa’s relationship is contrasted with many other relationships. Victor Laslo and Ilsa’s husband-wife relationship is defined by loyalty and professional dedication. They trust and understand each other while to Rick and Ilsa’s relationship burns with passion but is also full of misunderstanding and hurt. Rick is trusted by Ugarte and receives warm gratitude from his staff for continuing to pay them while the cafe is shut down. Other characters also help us compare and contrast the story value of responsibility. Ugarte and Berger are dedicated freedom fighters. They risk their lives to help Victor Laslo escape. Renault is a corrupt French official who plays the Nazi pawn. He abuses his power for personal gain and has no political convictions except to further his own wellbeing. In the end, Rick shoots the Nazi officer and inspires a similar patriotic turn in Renault, who risks his own life and decides to help Rick get away. Renault’s change at the film’s end echoes Rick’s journey.
We will see in our discussion on Thematic Resonance how the actions of all the characters help explore the themes of the Controlling Idea fully.
We have seen how each plot has a clear beginning, middle and end with turning points driving the action from act to act. A film’s narrative structure is how every part of each plot is placed in relation to one another. Just because each plot has a beginning, middle and end, does not mean they must come in that order or that each piece must be shown on screen. Certainly the action of the spine plots should take precedence while the action of minor plots can be left off-screen. Traditionally, the spine plots should have their Climax happen after the end of all other plots. This is because the Controlling Idea is experienced at the Climax of the spine plots, so the story is largely over once it happens. Casablanca tweaks this principle to reinforce its Controlling Idea. The Climax of the love plot happens when Rick decides to send Ilsa away with Laslo. This happens prior to the Climax of the other two plots in film time. We first see Rick sending Ilsa away, then we see Rick shooting the Nazi officer to Climax the patriot plot and the escape plot. This reinforces the Controlling Idea that Rick gives up love to live responsibly because of love. So love is given a slightly less preferential treatment compared to the other two plots at the end of the film. This is also understandable since we end on the high note of the positive Climax of the other two plots rather than the down note from the love plot’s anti-climax. We leave the film with an uplifted feeling, satisfied that Rick made the right (but painful) choice.
Controlling Ideas present truths about the cause of changes in story values. Every Controlling Idea has some related human value that can be taken to be a theme of the Controlling Idea.
A theme is a human value that is an inherent part of a Controlling Idea. Themes have a spectrum of expressions as well as a spectrum of opposite expressions.
For example, with the Controlling Idea of “true love leads to living responsibly”, we have the human values of “love” and “responsibility”. With the Controlling Idea of “perseverance leads the underdog to triumph” we have the human value of “perseverance”. With the Controlling Idea of “embracing one’s identity leads to self actualization” we have the human values of “identity” and “self actualization”.
We can amplify the impact of the Controlling Idea by fully exploring its themes. Given any theme (“responsibility”), we must not only explore the different expressions of the theme, (“professional”, “ethical”, “moral”, “civic”), we must also fully explore its opposite. Robert McKee proposes that a story that progresses to the limit of human experience must move through a pattern that includes the Contrary, the Contradictory, and the Negation of the Negative. So given the value of “responsibility” we can explore “ignorance” (the Contrary, not knowing what one’s responsibilities are), “avoidance” (the Contradictory, purposefully not performing a responsibility) and “abuse” (the Negation of the Negative, purposefully going against a responsibility). The full exploration of a story value and its opposites takes place in a film’s actions by any of its characters.
Lets see if Casablanca fully explores its Controlling Idea’s themes of “love” and “responsibility”. The following chart plots out the actions in the film as related to the theme of “love”:
The four quadrants of the chart represent: the theme in the top left corner, the contrary actions to the theme in the top right corner, the contradictory actions in the bottom right corner, and the end of the line actions in the bottom left. The spiral represents the arbitrary progression of the film. It begins from the middle and makes its way through all the shades of the theme both in support and in opposition. The color represents the plot the action is from. The distance from the center of the chart represents the strength of the action. Closer to the center are mild affirmations or oppositions to the theme; further from center are full expressions of the theme or its antithesis. You can see that the actions of Casablanca paint a very full spectrum of the theme of “love” both in support and in opposition. The actions in support, as shown in the top left corner of the chart, range from Sam protecting Rick, Rick picking up the bill and Ilsa admitting her love to Rick. The actions in opposition cover the other three quadrants of the chart. They range from the mild Contrary actions such as Rick sending Yvonne home to the Contradictory actions such as Rick refusing to help Victor. The end of the line action is Ilsa suggesting she never loved Rick at all. For the theme of “love” this action is worse than the direct opposite of “hate” for it implies Ilsa used Rick and took advantage of his love for her. The actions of Casablanca seem to explore the theme of “love” quite thoroughly both in support and in opposition.
We can also paint an action chart for the theme of “responsibility”.
Here we see that the theme of “responsibility” is explored in actions ranging from Laslo refusing to rat on his compatriots, to Rick standing up to his managerial duties by paying everyone while the cafe is closed, to the climactic action of Rick shooting the Nazi officer. The opposite spectrum to “responsibility” is also fully explored. These range from the minor Contrary actions such as Rick berating Sam for playing the forbidden song, to the Contradictory actions such as Renault and Rick wagering on the likelihood of Laslo’s escape, to the end of the line actions such as Renault abusing his authority for personal gain and Rick refusing to help Laslo because of his own feelings. Through this examination, we can see how even seemingly insignificant actions contribute to the theme (and therefore to the Controlling Idea). The film has a few scenes of a pickpocket stealing money from tourists. The action adds humor to the film, but it is also an unethical act that shows us another shade of the antithesis of being “responsible”.
By fully exploring the themes of the Controlling Idea thoroughly both in support and in opposition, Casablanca imbues even the smallest action with thematic resonance. Altogether, the actions add up to reinforce the Controlling Idea.
Here are three full story analyses using the theory described above:
The major works in field of Screenwriting are:
Also important in the field of dramatic writing is the classic: