Free Film School #121: Technology vs.Screenwriters! FIGHT!


Today in CraveOnline's Free Film School, we're going to be looking at the way screenwriting has evolved in the face of technology. I have previously written about how sci-fi movies tend to shape future technology and can be used as a predictor for the future, but this time we're going to look at that same process from the outside in, so to speak. How does the evolving face of technology affect the way we write stories? Not the way we make movies, mind you – this lecture will have nothing to do with cameras, digital technologies, or any of the like. It will be entirely about writing.

We're all familiar with that scene in most recent horror films. You know the one I mean. The one wherein our brave hero or heroine is lost in the woods, being pursued by a maniac with an axe, and they think to call for help. They reach into their pockets, extract their cellular telephones, and wince in anguish, as they find that their telephone has no reception. This scene is now a common trope in many horror films, or other films wherein the hero or heroine is being pursued, or is trapped. I'm kind of surprised that a low-budget filmmaker hasn't thought to make a slasher film that was simply called Service Not Available.

The idea of a hero being lost in a remote place, alone, cut off from the world, has been a storytelling trope going back much, much further than feature films, and is a story we like so much, the writers of stories are constantly being drawn to back to it. But as the world grows increasingly small thanks to mobile communications technology, the notion of being alone at all is growing increasingly moribund. You may be thousands of miles from the nearest soul, but a satellite phone can instantly link you to anyone. No more loneliness.

If Robinson Crusoe had been written in the era of GPS and satellite telephones, there would either be no story, or Daniel Defoe would have had to write a scene explaining exactly why those technologies were absent on his island.

Midnight Run

Indeed, the dynamic of communication has changed and evolved rapidly over the course of the last 15 years or so, and cellular telephones have gone from exotic technologies of the rich, to commonplace wallet-like items one must have to merely move about any sort of urban (or even rural) area. This is reflected directly in movies. I was recently watching the 1988 Martin Brest film Midnight Run, and I noticed how much the story relied on tracking down missing people, and trying desperately to communicate with police headquarters. The main characters were nowhere near a payphone, and the race was on. The film had a desperate and frantic tone.

That film could not be made today. So much of the story relied on being incommunicado, that the story would be undone by the mere presence of working cellular telephones.

One would think that screenwriters would be savvy enough to adapt to the way technology works, but that's not quite the way storytelling evolves. We love archetypes and tropes and familiar characters. From Commedia Del'arte all the way up to the recent trend of easily-recognizable cinematic remakes, audiences and screenwriters alike are drawn to the classically reliable. It's even been said by certain professors that there are as few as three to ten stories in the world, and we've just been remixing them ad infinitum. As such, letting go of familiar story situations is not something that happens quickly or readily.

Sure, there may be young upstarts who seek to undo all storytelling traditions, but for the most part, screenwriters are going to fall back on the good ol' Hero's Journey screenwriting hints. The characters will be largely familiar to anyone who sees movies regularly, and their dramatic journey is probably going to go through similar beats. Some have even complained that The Hero's Journey has become too much of a cult; too many people rely on those tropes, and many big-budget Hollywood movies feel similar to one another as a result. But that's as may be.