Literary Techniques and Ethnicity Role in Screenwriting

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Abstract

Screenwriting is a long, winding process, the submerged part of the iceberg, whereas the screen version of the film represents its tip. Screenwriting stands on a crossing between art and science, which means that it can be analyzed and broken down into smaller categories. This paper provides an overview of the most powerful literary techniques used in screenwriting. In addition to that, the paper explores the role of ethnicity in modern screenwriting, particularly whether screenwriter’s creative freedom should be limited by ethnicity factor.

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While ethnic diversity is an important part of the contemporary social and political agenda, the study supports an argument that ethnicity-related limitations are harmful for the promotion of diversity. Instead, the screenwriters should be provided with unlimited creative freedom, which would allow them to write powerful, memorable roles for non-white actors. The positive examples of such works can be found in filmographies of renowned screenwriters and directors. Finally, the author provides a short screenplay draft of a psychological thriller written for an ethnically diverse cast without any ethnicity-related restrictions.

Introduction

When viewers go to the cinema, they may have different expectations. Some of them may be searching for ethical and philosophical messages; others may look only for pure thrill and entertainment. Regardless of goals in the director’s mind, none of those is possible to offer without a good quality script. As such, screenwriting is a long and unglamorous work that requires a significant investment of time, skill, and effort.

During the preparation of a screenplay, the screenwriters use various literary techniques to keep the viewer interested. As a result, a script serves as an invisible foundation, whereas the picture on the screen represents only the end product. All other elements of the future film depend on the script. A script can be compared to a skeleton, while the work of the director and actors represents flesh and organs backed by that skeletal structure. In other words, the lack of a good script creates a strong possibility for making a boring, meaningless, and lackluster film.

While screenwriting is not considered a literary art, the screenwriter still has to turn their ideas into enjoyable reading. Therefore, literature and script creators should strive to create an engaging narrative with well-developed characters whose presence in the plot is logical and justified. This task can even be considered academic rather than artistic. Černík (2021) conducted research among several Eastern European screenwriters, who follow academic research on screenwriting themselves and encourage their students to participate in workshops and training sessions. Overall, modern screenwriting has turned into a discipline that stands on the crossroad between pure art and fine arts such as ethics and philosophy.

In that regard, it is essential to explore the role and impact of ethnicity and racial diversity in the modern age of cinema. World trends and movements against racial discrimination have made these concepts extremely relevant. Conveying values of diversity and equality is commendable; however, a screenwriter should seek to find the right balance of literary techniques to achieve that noble goal. A simple replacement of white characters with characters of other ethnicities is a lazy approach that can potentially harm the cause of diversity. A mindless, mechanical inclusion of empty, bland characters for diversity is disrespectful to non-white actors.

Practice in Driving the Research

It is possible to separate the following practical stages of this research: information search, evaluation, processing, analysis, generalization, and specification. Searching for information was the least complicated part due to the relevance of cinema in the modern age and a wide selection of sources stemming from it. Evaluation required understanding, which sources are credible, and what useful insights they contribute to the research.

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Processing and analysis demanded separating and defining main points, such as particular literary techniques used in modern screenwriting. Finally, generalization and specification included structuring the work into a cohesive and easily understandable reading. Overall, I strived to assess the opinions of scholars and screenwriting professionals and build a personal position on that basis. The insights found during the source assessment stage appear to be immensely valuable for my future filmmaking effort in the sci-fi genre.

Literature Review

The sources assessed during the preparation of this research can be separated into two major categories. The first group explores literary techniques used in modern screenwriting. The second group provides an understanding of what impact ethnicity should possess on the contemporary screenwriting process. The end goal lies in assessing as many helpful literary techniques of screenwriting as possible and answering the question, whether ethnicity should limit screenwriter’s freedom or not.

The first portion of scholarly sources on literary techniques is dedicated to analyzing the role of fiction in screenwriting. Batty and Taylor (2019) argued that some modes of fiction, particularly comedy, can be utilized for research in which the protagonist’s knowledge gaps highlight theoretical concerns for the audience. Regarding screenplays, comedy fiction encourages the audience to accept and celebrate the shortcomings of humanity (Batty and Taylor, 2019).

As a result, it becomes easier for the spectators to realize the problems and understand their importance. A study by Batty and Baker (2018) complements the previous work by further exploring the practical applications of fictional screenwriting in research. For example, Jacey (2014) categorized fictional stories that involve relationships between men to understand possible ways of male character development (as cited in Batty and Baker, 2018). Therefore, fictional elements can serve as a valuable source of screenwriting insights and an effective tool for spectator’s engagement.

An important place in academic research on screenwriting is dedicated to the screenwriter voice technique. For instance, Finnegan (2017) points at the value of screenwriter voice since it severely affects the final version of the script. In addition, Ferrell (2017) defined screenwriter voice as a screenwriter’s contribution to the script; their personal characteristics manifested in tone, pace, coordination, and other script features. As a result, the screenwriter voice significantly impacts the narrative and how it conveys ideas to the audience.

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Another relevant technique reflected in the academic works on screenwriting is an increasing addition of anti-heroes to the plots. According to Dean (2020), this archetype of characters has become increasingly popular since anti-heroes tend to attract more attention from the audience than strictly positive characters. Dean (2020) claimed that screenwriters use anti-heroes to increase the variety of cast and instill a certain amount of empathy to non-standard characters. In that regard, a solid anti-hero can add extra depth to the script and attract viewers by shifting the narrative from the traditional “good protagonist” versus “evil antagonist” route.

When it comes to more controversial techniques, screenwriters can affect the impact of the script through violent expression. According to Martinez et al. (2020), filmmakers resort to violence in scripts and on movie screens to enhance viewer’s experience and boost profits. However, this tactic can lead to potential side effects, such as shaping stereotypical attitudes towards certain groups or evoking several forms of aggressive behavior in real life (Martinez et al., 2020). Therefore, in a perfect scenario, a screenwriter should understand the intended target audience of the end product and refrain from filling the script with excessive violence and abusive vocabulary.

Another valuable literary technique in the screenwriter’s arsenal is the language used in the script. The abusive and violent vocabulary discussed in the previous section represents only a small fraction of language elements at the screenwriter’s disposal. Benis (2020) claimed that language in the form of words, phrases, and expressions allows the viewer to understand the idea of the film. As such, language is immensely valuable for creating an engaging atmosphere for the viewer. Correct language selection may drastically improve the script or, on the contrary, worsen it and alienate the viewer.

In addition to all these techniques, a screenwriter can directly affect the film through a screenplay. According to Joyce (2016), the action on the screen unfolds depending on the script written for the film. Therefore, a screenwriter holds a considerable influence over the performance of roles by the actors. Through the power of the script, a screenwriter can force actors to play according to their intentions in order to create an immersive atmosphere for the viewers and elicit certain emotions or introduce important matters and ideas.

The powerful impact of screenplay opens opportunities for awareness creation and self-adaptation of screenplays by the screenwriter. For instance, Batty and Taylor (2019) argued that comedy effectively conveys significant problems through outwardly positive or funny characters and events. However, that strong potential for awareness creation is also relevant for other genres, such as crime or military drama. Self-adaptation allows one to reincarnate ideas and events previously written or shown by others (Fryer, 2018). As a result, it becomes possible to revise and rethink classics or maintain a strong connection between the generations of cinema.

Another important aspect of screenwriting lies within its capability to acknowledge the viewer with previously unknown cultural influences and personal styles. For example, Nigerian cinema has not developed traditional screenwriting in Western understanding of that notion (Ajayi, 2017). As a result, Nigerian screenwriters and filmmakers rely on principles and techniques derived from the traditional oral heritage (Ajayi, 2017). Modern French comedies allow the viewer to see the attitude changes to such concepts as nation, gender, and ethnicity in the French society (Harrod and Powrie, 2018). Overall, screenwriting presents an opportunity to share cultural information or apply a unique personal style to affect the viewer.

Storyline represents an additional literary technique available to a screenwriter. A standard script can include several storylines that contribute to the original idea of the film. A skilled screenwriter can use storylines to grab and hold the viewer’s attention. According to Cutting (2016), general narrative formulae have been honed over millennia, and storytelling in the filmmaking industry has been perfected over the last century. Therefore, screenwriters possess a powerful and reliable mechanism for the creation of solid and captivating narratives.

Finally, the last group of sources on literary techniques covers classic and modern elements of screenwriting. While classic elements imply conveying atmosphere or creating intrigue, innovative elements concentrate on introducing conceptual models and visualizations (Ogle, 2019). As a result, screenwriting has turned into a mixture of art and science, making the academic approach beneficial. Furthermore, modern screenwriting goes beyond writing a textual script, as the sound design gets considered at the early stages of the writing process (Lee and Stringer, 2018). Overall, contemporary screenwriting encourages supplementing classic elements with innovations in order to achieve optimal results.

The second group of academic sources utilized in this research focuses on ethical questions, particularly the role of ethnicity in modern cinema. These sources were explored in an attempt to understand whether ethnicity should limit screenwriter’s creative freedom. Sinnerbrink and Trahair (2016) have provided three ethical approaches to cinema: ethics in cinema which involves conflicts and actions, ethics of cinematic representation, which focuses on elements of film production, and ethics as a cultural medium. The last of these approaches implies expressing moral beliefs, values, and ideologies in a popular film (Sinnerbrink and Trahair, 2016). Therefore, such matters as the role of ethnicity would fit the approach of ethics as a cultural medium since modern cinema is increasingly affected by anti-discriminatory agenda.

The most important concept related to ethnicity in cinema is so-called colorblindness. Doane (2019) argued that racial ideologies in the U.S. have evolved, and “classical racism” has been mostly replaced with a new racial ideology — colorblindness, or a claim that race no longer matters in America. In regard to cinematography, colorblindness leads to a situation in which “post-racial Hollywood remains in the realm of fiction, better suited for Wakanda than the United States” (Doane, p. 27). The proposed solution to combat colorblindness in the filmmaking industry lies in promoting black (or at least non-white) directors and casts.

This position is supported by Banjo (2019), who argued that Hollywood needs to take steps and present narratives that not only include but center on non-white characters. Finally, Molina-Guzman (2019) urges audiences, scholars, and producers to advocate for color-conscious production and consciousness, as opposed to the current color-blind structure dominated by white heterosexual men. Overall, these scholars advocate for imposing certain ethnicity-related limitations in filmmaking in order to promote diversity. However, while the intention of promoting diversity sounds noble in theory, the proposed solutions are not necessarily desirable for screenwriters and viewers.

Influencing Screenwriters

When it comes to literary techniques and screenwriting, I find inspiration in the unique style of Quentin Tarantino. The main appeal of Tarantino’s works is their deep connection with cinema genres and film history (Roche, 2018). As a result, his films have racially and ethnically diverse casts that include strong female characters, and at the same time, avoid what I perceive as artificial diversity. Tarantino inspires me since he shows how a screenwriter should utilize ethnicity to contribute to the fight for diversity and inclusion in the film industry.

Ethnicity does not limit Tarantino’s artistic freedom; on the contrary, he uses it to introduce iconic, memorable characters such as Stephen and Django in Django Unchained and Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction. According to Hervé Mayer (2018), Tarantino deconstructs and resignifies conventional Hollywood storytelling, which makes him an heir to New Hollywood and independent U.S. cinema. By occupying that niche, he managed to find a perfect spot where ethnicity is smoothly introduced in the film narrative through the setting-appropriate screenwriting techniques.

Stanley Kubrick is another director and screenwriter whose skills fascinate me is. His screenwriting, camera work, and attention to detail are masterful and deserve extensive studying. For instance, Kubrick’s genius turned Full Metal Jacket into an eerie horror from a standard war drama. The final scene that shows American marines marching through the burning ruins of Huế and singing Mickey Mouse March is incredibly frightening. This feeling gets even stronger if a viewer takes a moment to realize that those marines who now kill and die without much remorse or care watched the Mickey Mouse Club only several years ago.

Finally, I find inspiration in the works of Lars von Trier, especially in the deep symbolism and psychological messages hidden in his works. I admire Antichrist and, especially, Melancholia for being a vibrant portrayal of such complicated matter as the human mind. While von Trier can be overly provocative and shocking, sometimes, that sheer shocking element is necessary for sending a powerful message. However, one must remember that grotesque, sex, and violence are not meaningful by themselves. It takes a genuine skill to utilize these controversial themes as artistic elements, and von Trier is a master of that art.

Literary Techniques of Screenwriting: An Overview

This section of the study contains personal reflections on literary techniques of screenwriting represented in the reviewed academic sources. Consequently, it includes an analysis of what a particular technique can contribute to screenwriting, as well as thoughts on how it can be used for the best effect. In addition, certain reflections contain examples of personal experience, where it was possible to trace and comprehend the impact of particular screenwriting techniques.

Fiction

It is self-evident that most films in any genre are based on fiction or, at least, have a certain degree of it. Fiction allows screenwriters to utilize imagination and creativity to its full extent, thus serving as a crucial element for viewer’s engagement. In the case of certain genres, such as fantasy, fiction becomes the most vital literary technique since it helps immensely in the creation of highly believable, authentic settings. In addition, a fictional framework presents an opportunity for transmitting the screenwriter’s message and avoiding unnecessary parallels with real-life events. For instance, in Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino did not claim that Hitler was killed in the French cinema instead of committing suicide in besieged Berlin. Tarantino rewrote the history in order to add an extra layer of evil to Hans Landa’s character and reinforce a motive of satisfaction with revenge when Landa received his punishment.

Screenwriter Voice

Screenwriter voice can be understood as a manifestation of the screenwriter’s ideas represented in the film. In a way, this technique allows introducing screenwriter’s perception of the world. The screenwriter voice also adds a unique touch to the end product and reflects the screenwriter’s personality, beliefs, and life experiences. Overall, it is important to study the voices of accomplished professionals. However, if one aspires to make a successful career in filmmaking, at some point, they will have to develop their personal screenwriter voice.

Anti-heroes

When it comes to anti-heroes and anti-heroines, it is crucial to avoid confusion with villains. While anti-heroes can display negative personality traits such as anger, greed, selfishness, or hatred, they still pursue objectively noble goals. On the other hand, a villain does not care about the common good or has a twisted image of it in mind. For instance, Joker from the same-titled 2019 film initially rebels against objectively existing injustices of Gotham City, which makes him closer to an anti-hero. However, by the events of The Dark Knight, Joker has turned into a genuinely evil criminal mastermind. Overall, the addition of anti-heroes allows engaging the viewer by offering a fresh and often relatable alternative to perfect heroes.

Violence Expression

Violence can grab the attention of the audience; nevertheless, it is necessary to realize that level of violence must match the setting and target audience. A perfect expression of violence can be found in the opening battle scene of Saving Private Ryan. The viewer can feel a sheer, visceral horror of landing at Omaha Beach as the fire of German machine guns inflicts heavy casualties to advancing American infantry. In that case, violence represents a critical literary technique for screenwriting on war-related themes since it amplifies the bloody, dirty, and terrifying nature of war.

Language

The language used in the films is heavily depending on the genre and context of particular scenes. Literary devices, emotionally charged words, even verbal abuse and slurs can contribute to the screenwriter’s ideas and elicit desired emotions from the viewer. For instance, Stephen and Calvin Candie from Django Unchained do not hesitate to use highly offensive racial slurs, which makes their characters off-putting and contributes to anti-racist narrative of the film. However, one must always consider the context and the original idea. What is tolerated from such masters as Tarantino, DiCaprio, and Jackson might not be feasible for a lesser figure in the industry unless they provide a solid explanation of controversial language.

Screenplay

The screenplay includes the guidelines and remarks added to the script’s text by a screenwriter. Therefore, screenplay directly affects the end product since actors memorize the script and perform according to it. The screenwriter can utilize literary additions to the screenplay to convey a particular atmosphere, mood, or ideas. However, minor deviations of the screenplay in the form of actor improvisation can sometimes improve the film’s quality. For example, Ronald Lee Ermey improvised his famous rant in Full Metal Jacket and created an iconic portrayal of the USMC drill instructor. Consequently, a screenwriter should always evaluate whether deviations from the screenplay are beneficial or detrimental to the overall picture.

Creating Awareness

The art of cinematography offers a chance to convey social, economic, political, ethical, and other issues which otherwise might have gone unnoticed. Therefore, a screenwriter can utilize literary techniques to create awareness about the existing problems or challenge the mainstream views on them. A good example of awareness creation is a famous war drama Platoon, written and directed by Oliver Stone.

Stone used his experience of Vietnam veteran to contest war glorification and raise public awareness about how the U.S. troops conducted this war. In the end, he convincingly showed that Vietnam was a fight for survival at any cost in which American soldiers often crossed the line, rather than a heroic effort to protect freedom and democracy overseas. Overall, a screenwriter should never forget that awareness creation is a powerful instrument that can be used to attract and influence the audience.

Cultural Influence and Personal Style

It is important to realize that contemporary filmmaking is not limited only to Hollywood. Screenwriters, especially of non-U.S. origin, can apply cultural influence and personal style stemming from it to create unique screenplays. For example, Indian Bollywood is famous for its special atmosphere, which originates from the Indian national culture. When it comes to Hollywood, one might remember Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who were born in the families of Italian immigrants. The cultural heritage had a significant impact on the style and themes of their works. Overall, the cultural factor can serve as an additional advantage for a screenwriter since it allows to enrich the narrative with culture-related elements.

Storylines

The inclusion of multiple storylines is a powerful literary technique that allows a screenwriter to showcase certain situations from different perspectives or illustrate character development. In addition, storylines may be introduced in a non-linear order, which adds to viewer’s engagement since viewers have to put more thought into watching. Pulp Fiction serves as an example of a high-quality narrative with multiple non-chronologically arranged storylines. In the end, all storylines convey Tarantino’s message on the importance of redemption and mistake acknowledgment, and the non-linear structure makes it even more powerful. However, a screenwriter should understand that a non-standard storyline structure requires a connection with an overarching original idea to maintain the film’s integrity. Otherwise, the narrative can collapse into chaotic fragments, confusing the viewers and leaving them dissatisfied.

Classic and New Elements

The literary techniques discussed in the previous sections are related to classic screenwriting. However, modern screenwriters constantly monitor the industry and introduce innovative elements to attract viewers and hold their attention. For instance, South Korean screenwriter and director Bong Joon-ho, whose film Parasite won multiple Academy Awards, has established a creative alliance with Live Tone post-production audio studio (Lee and Stringer, 2018). This partnership allows Bong Joon-ho to plan sound effects and soundtracks used in his films at the screenplay stage instead of post-production (Lee and Stringer, 2018). Such changes confirm that screenwriting evolves from literary discipline to a complex art, and a screenwriter must constantly develop to stay relevant.

An exploration of literary techniques confirms that screenwriters have a variety of powerful instruments at their disposal. They can use it to achieve different goals, including the promotion of such values as equality and ethnic diversity. However, the question of whether ethnicity should limit a screenwriter requires additional clarification. With all due respect to scholars who champion ethnic diversity in the filmmaking industry, their arguments require careful deliberation, especially from the screenwriter’s perspective.

Ethnicity Role: Should Ethnicity Limit Screenwriter?

In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In a touching manner, Luther King Jr. expressed a dream that one day his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by their character” (Luther King Jr., 1963). In that regard, Luther King Jr. prayed for a de-racialized future, in which Americans of all ethnicities shall be united and live in peace.

However, the previously explored concept of colorblindness goes against Luther King Jr’s proclamation. On the contrary, the scholars who use it urge for the racialization of the filmmaking industry in order to combat colorblindness and promote inclusion of non-white ethnicities. While ethnic diversity is an admirable goal, the suggested inclusion strategies are dubious from the screenwriting perspective. Most importantly, they are based on the limitation of creative freedom. Therefore, such strategies can be compared to Hays Code, with a difference that right-wing censorship would be replaced with opposite practices.

Additionally, the implementation of anti-colorblindness measures would create additional pressure for non-white actors. Renowned stars as Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, and many others have proved that a talented actor does not need artificial support to show their mastery. Applying diversity quotas to screenwriting can lead to situations in which the presence of non-white actors in the cast could be attributed to ethnicity instead of professional skill. As such, ethnicity-related limitations can potentially contribute to the racially-based backlash against non-white actors, which would be the opposite of equality promotion.

Finally, ethnicity-related limitations in screenwriting can result in an inability to provide non-white cast members with well-written roles that fit the setting or narrative. As a result, the professional reputation of non-white performers could be damaged since they would be disrespectfully forced to play awkwardly written characters added to meet the diversity quota. On the contrary, creatively free screenwriters can provide non-white actors with powerful, memorable roles. Quentin Tarantino was not affected by ethnicity-related restrictions, and he managed to create iconic characters for talented non-white actors. Therefore, ethnicity should not limit screenwriting, and an alternative to limitations lies within complete creative freedom, which allows composing setting-appropriate and ethnically diverse casts without unnecessary restrictions.

Significance of the Research

This work is important since the issues of literary techniques and ethnicity in filmmaking are more relevant nowadays than ever before. Despite the overall shift towards racial equality in American society, directors from various racial and ethnic backgrounds continue to be underrepresented in the industry. In today’s society, cinema has become an essential part of nearly everyone’s life, so it can serve as a valuable instrument of equality promotion if used smartly. Therefore, it is vital to understand what literary techniques can be used in successful screenwriting. In the end, a good film can hardly be imagined without a decent script, so understanding the basics of storytelling and character building is crucial.

In regard to ethnicity and racial diversity matters, this research underscores the importance of finding the right balance. Screenwriting must consider the geographical and historical factors, especially if the plot takes place in the historical setting. In the end, a screenwriter should utilize ethnicity as an instrument of narrative enrichment rather than a limitation of creative freedom. The screenwriter should understand how to construct well-written and diverse casts instead of filling them with hollow characters in order to meet a racial variety norm. A single strong, memorable non-white character is more likely to cause positive changes in the industry than dozens of boring characters introduced only to meet a quota.

Personal Experience with Literary Techniques and Ethnicity in Screenwriting

During the preparation of this paper, I have written a short screenplay draft to a psychological thriller. The draft is based on several literary techniques, such as fiction, anti-hero inclusion, and language. The plotline features Prisoner 1488, a young white man who is waiting for a parole interview. The Parole Officer, a black man, carefully watches every Prisoner’s move through surveillance cameras but does not call 1488 for the interview. Slowly but steadily, the days of waiting in a snow-white room drive the Prisoner to hallucinations. Finally, he escapes the torture by pressing a mysterious button that electrocutes him.

However, that desperate move only forces the Prisoner to face provocative questions and borderline sadistic interrogation from the Officer. The central themes of the plot are redemption, mental resilience, and the ability to acknowledge the mistakes of the past. In addition, the cast is ethnically diverse, but the decision to include actors of different ethnicities was dictated by my considerations rather than any limitations. As such, I stayed true to my conviction that a screenwriter should exercise full, unlimited creative freedom.

Conclusion

Modern screenwriting has become a highly complex task that stands on the border between art and academic science. Screenwriters have access to a wide selection of proven literary techniques which can assist in the writing process. However, when applying particular literary techniques, a screenwriter must always consider such factors as the target audience of the future film, film setting, and consistency with original ideas. A failure to meet this demand would likely result in a flawed script and, consequently, a low-quality end product.

Given the complex nature of screenwriting, any artificial limitations, including ethnicity-related restrictions, are undesirable. Racial equality and diversity are commendable, and they can be an important part of the film’s idea. However, ethnicity-related limitations imposed as a means to combat colorblindness might lead to opposite results, and promotion of diversity through creatively free screenwriting is preferable to them. In the end, forcing non-white actors into the roles of poorly written or setting-inappropriate characters would be disrespectful and professionally unethical.

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Sinnerbrink, R. & Trahair, L. (2016). ‘Film and/as Ethics’, SubStance, (45). pp. 3-15. Web.

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