Stephen Cleary – What an audience feels
The world’s screenwriting gurus inscribe pages of instruction to assist heroes, after their incident has been incited, to claim their personal elixir after victory in a supreme ordeal and a cathartic sacrifice. It’s noble work being the hero behind the hero. Aristotle knew it.
International screenwriting lecturer and all-round story scholar, Stephen Cleary,
sailed from Australia’s shores, leaving behind the question ‘Has this focus on writing from the writer’s point of view led to better storytelling?’
Cleary was Head Of Development at the UK’s national film agency, British Screen, and has developed 67 produced feature-films including The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006), Rob Roy (Michael Caton-Jones, 1995) and Tsotsi (Gavin Hood, 2005). He founded Arista, Europe’s largest private film development agency, whose graduates have written, directed or produced over 250 feature films. It’s a resumé that affords him reverence among the screenwriting world.
Fuelling the hypothesis that the gurus have had their way for too long, is his statement that ‘We approach story development from the writer’s point of view, not the audience’s point of view,’ says Stephen Cleary, ‘and this needs to change.’
While at the VCA School of Film and Television in Melbourne, Australia, Cleary delivered a series of three public lectures positing the question ‘Would understanding more about how audiences engage with stories mean we should change the way we learn to write stories?’ The title of his lecture series, What an Audience feels, is quite literal: What, in fact, is the process that leads to the audience identifying and emoting with characters?
On the first night, Cleary spoke to a packed house of 300 film students, writers, actors, directors, producers, academics and storytellers. He introduced his hypothesis- a set of eight questions, the glue of the lecture series, to represent how an audience deciphers the information on screen. According to Cleary, viewers ask themselves these questions, in chronological order, at the beginning of every new scene. It is a subconscious process that occurs in the blink of an eye:
Where are we in time?
Where are we in the world?
What is happening now?
How do I contextualise it?
Who or what motivated it?
Who are the characters involved?
How do they feel?
How do I feel?
‘Question one,’ states Cleary, ‘is the most intellectual question whereas number eight is the most emotional’. To answer the first question takes thought, the last takes feeling, the fourth and fifth questions a combination of the two. The screenwriter’s aim should be to propel the audience to questions seven and eight as quickly as possible because it’s there that empathy with the character begins.
To show how our brain might take all this in, using these eight questions, let’s look at the opening scenes of Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) starting with the iconic scrolling text, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ Question one and two answered right off the bat. When? A long time ago. Where? A galaxy far, far away. Right. Onto question three. What’s happening is a period of civil war. Four? The context is that a rebel alliance is trying to defeat the evil Imperial forces that rule the universe. Five’s answer is the evil Empire again. Question six? We can’t answer six because there are no characters so far as it’s just been text on screen. Then a space-ship flies overhead and we jump on board.
Back to question one again: When are we? Same time. Where are we? On a space-ship. What’s happening? The ship is under attack. How do I contextualise it? Two Robots are given a secret mission. Who motivated it? A Princess in peril. Who’s involved? A Princess (Carrie Fisher) and two robots. Then a big, black Evil looking guy with an asthma problem boards the ship.
Back to question one: When are we? Same. Where? Same. What’s happening now? Darth Vader (David Prowse) is killing everyone. What’s the context? He’s after the Princess. What’s the motivation? Stolen plans of a new weapon called the Death Star. Who are the characters involved? Darth Vader and the Princess. How do they feel? Darth Vader is angry and the Princess is scared yet brave. How do we feel? We like this Princess but she’s in danger, so we care about her. We’ve got to the end of the eight questions, having done all the intellectual work, and have begun to align ourselves to these two neurotic robots and the brave Princess. And that’s the set of questions in action.
For an audience, keeping up with Stephen Cleary is a task in itself. His delivery is rapid-fire with very little punctuation or pause for thought. This is not to say he’s not well-prepared, the opposite is true. Cleary is both lecturer and entertainer and his style of delivery structured and methodical. The challenge is in the material itself. It’s thought provoking stuff. Cleary’s own breakdown of his set of eight questions works like this:
Time then place, followed by cause and effect, because it underpins plot, the understanding of which drives intention, thus revealing an underlying motivation and so defines character which allows audience identification with the character.
Now try that sentence again, using a British accent, in less than four seconds and you’re getting close to the Cleary experience.
But how does all this knowledge help screenwriters? Cleary presents us with the much-derided device of the flashback. When audiences are presented with a flashback they must go through the same series of eight questions. Where are we in time? Where are we in the world? What is happening now? And so on.
So, for a screenwriter, the very important question when writing a flashback or any jump in time is, how do I signal a change in time? Is just writing FLASHBACK in the scene heading or slug line enough? Usually no. The longer the audience asks itself the first few questions, the further they are from emotional engagement.
Stephen Cleary cites Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) as an example to heed. At the beginning of each new scene, the audience must intellectually decipher ‘When are we in time?’ In this jigsaw of a film, the answer is not always immediately obvious. The story follows a man with amnesia and the plot unfolds in reverse chronology. By the time the audience has made it to question seven and eight a new scene has begun and they’re back at question one again not having had time to empathise with the character. Cleary says Memento an intellectual story, not an emotional one:
It is dangerous for the storyteller to weaken the audience’s identification with the character. Complex time jumps is how this happens. It’s no coincidence that teenage boys are the biggest audience for the film; geeks who love to work things out. It’s not a deep character study of the criminal mind. It’s a complex “What the hell is going on?” story.
If he’s right, then Cleary might have found the answer to why Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) returns over six million Google hits. Now that’s a film with a Rubik’s Cube-like plot structure that had teenage boys drooling over chat rooms. (Not to mention guns, drugs and pretty women, of course.)
If we consider Cleary’s eight questions as the spine of the What an Audience Feels lecture series, then the series also had three acts: Act One was titled Time and Emotion, the focus of Act Two was Narrative Point of View, and Character and Morality the third and final act.
Cleary likes the Greeks. In the first lecture, Time and Emotion, he states, ‘They’ve done everything. They had it all worked out.’ Aristotle comes up more than once over the three lectures, so too Greek mythology. It accords Cleary a sense of timelessness, a feeling that we, the audience, are learning something special. His analysis takes Greek theories and makes them relevant to the twentieth century.
According to the Greeks, all the emotions have four kinds. There are four kinds of fear, four kinds of love and four kinds of thrill. The only element that is consistent between the four variations is their relationship to time.
Cleary explains ‘The four types of fear are terror, dread, horror and unease.’
Terror operates in relation to what is happening in the present moment. ‘The axe maniac is chasing me! I’m terrified!’
Dread concerns what’s going to happen in the future, when you have not yet discovered what it is you are scared of. ‘What’s that creaking noise on the staircase? I’m dreading going out there to look!’
Horror relates to what has happened in the past. ‘Did you hear about the axe-murder last week? I’m horrified just thinking about it.’
Unease occurs when reality is dislocated and the boundaries of time have been broken. Ghost stories are like this. Ghosts break the boundaries of time. ‘No, you’re dead! That’s not possible!’
For the writer of a thriller or horror movie, using the four types of fear builds a dynamic tension and keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. Playing with time is playing with emotion.
The second night’s lecture was devoted to Narrative Point of View.
This is not the perspective from which the story is told, but the writer’s choice as to how much information they give to a character about the scene in relation to how much they give to another character. Or in relation to what the audience knows.
Cleary called the relationship between a character’s knowledge and what the audience knows, ‘the Understanding Gap’.
If the audience knows more than the character, then they are ahead which creates suspense and Concerned Sympathy for the character. Cleary points out that, ‘Concerned sympathy is difficult to sustain because the audience is always ahead and begins to think “Why are you so dumb?” We get annoyed with the character.’
If the audience is less informed than the character, then they behind which creates mystery and Curious Sympathy about the character’s behavior. However, Stephen Cleary warns that, ‘Curious sympathy is also difficult to sustain. We don’t have time to care for the character, as we’re too busy analysing their behavior.’
If the audience has the same knowledge as the character they are equal which creates empathy.
Empathy is the easiest type of narrative point of view to engage with but it must be swapped around or else it all becomes ho-hum. When Narrative Point of View shifts and changes, it leads to a more impactful story. It’s what creates the dynamics of the story. If you don’t change the narrative point of view, the audience gets bored and annoyed.
A fourth could be confused sympathy, which means it’s probably a David Lynch movie.
At the third public lecture, Character and Morality, Cleary adds a ninth question to his original set of eight; ‘Do I approve of what they do?’ This ninth question is the least important among them:
It’s the moral question and the fact whether a character is either good or bad doesn’t strongly affect whether the audience engages with a character or not. Audience identification with a character comes from an analysis of the character’s actions and this comes before motivations.
Empathy is not reliant on morality. Cleary screened the shower scene from Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) from the point where Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) murders Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) at the Bates Motel. Bates then proceeds to dispose of the body. He painstakingly cleans the bath, wraps the body in plastic, dumps it in the trunk and drives to a swamp. Once at the swamp, Bates pushes the car towards the water. At this point, says Cleary, the audience wants the car to sink. When the car is half-submerged, it stops.
In the cinema that night, right on cue, came a collective gasp. The audience was emotionally engaged with Norman Bates and his attempt to dispose of his victim’s corpse. We didn’t agree morally with what Bates was doing but, as Cleary puts it, ‘Any character with a strong action overpowers all other audience concerns.’
Stephen Cleary’s lectures at the Victorian College of the Arts & Music allow a glimpse into his vast repertoire; lectures on thrillers, romantic comedies, adaptations and on short documents. He believes in the power of genre and focuses much attention on deepening the screenwriter’s understanding of it. Most of all, like any good screenplay, Stephen Cleary entertains. His workshop on the Horror movie is so matter of fact that one forgets he’s comparing the menstrual cycle to Count Dracula or proving that werewolf stories are just teenage boys sprouting pubes and chasing girls. It’s both informing and wildly funny – a combination that has him in demand all around the world.
At the close of the three lectures, Cleary summarises that with the rise of the Hero’s Journey and Jungian theory in popular culture, character has taken on too supreme of importance regarding what constitutes good storytelling. Cleary feels writers should concentrate more on how an audience feels, not how a character feels. ‘Writing development is too focused on character and not enough on action. It needs a rebalance.’