15 Surefire Techniques To Add Complexity To Your Screenplays

Add layers to your screenwriting cake

Stories have been told since time immemorial. And screenwriters have always enjoyed writing them.

They inform the human experience and strive to invoke our curiosity, engagement and understanding of both our environment and ourselves. They are designed to activate our two most primal emotional responses; love and fear. They represent a world view and act as a starting point for audiences to process these views and how they affect them.

In essence, stories are a sequence of inter-related events that help us internalise external events into a meaningful emotional and intellectual experience.

Stories must serve multiple functions and function on a much deeper level than simply the plot (series of events).


In modern cinema, the primary purpose of movies is to entertain audiences. In its purest form, entertainment is the act of holding an audience’s attention between events. The definition has evolved into a more positive tone. It now means to amuse, distract and delight audiences.


This is the superficial pass of the story. The actions that we see on screen. It forms only the main story spine, but in itself lacks depth because it doesn’t fully engage audience. Too much modern cinema relies mainly on spectacle to tell its stories, but the emotional resonance is lacking.


This is when audiences process and individualize stories. Do we like them or not? What do they mean to us? Do they speak to their world view? Is there a deeper meaning or is it purely literal? It is based on our perception of how things should be? Our interpretation of stories helps us determine underling patterns (genre) of what causes conflict and how we might address them.


This concept was derived when humans formed tribes. Morality is a code of dichotomous ideas depicting right from wrong. The Ten Commandments is a solid example. We are expected to believe in certain things and behave in certain ways in our communities. It could be a lesson, a warning or punishment if an individual thinks or acts outside social norms.


Allegory uses a traditional narrative structure to illustrate an abstract concept such as Marxism. It can use codes, metaphors or symbols to define the central conflict in a story, show its effects and lead to a satisfactory conclusion. An example of an allegory is George’ Orwell’s Animal Farm and its famed rule of “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”


This a static literary device when one thing represents another to highlight or simplify a concept. Using our previous example of Animal Farm. the farm is a metaphor for society and Old Major (the prized boar) is a metaphor for a leader corrupted by power. It is no co-incidence that the leaders of the farm are pigs either.


This is an attempt by the audience to find meaning of their personal experiences and beliefs through an emotional experience from the world view created by stories.


This is often used in a religious context because it relates to how stories transform audiences to become better people. It teaches us what should we strive to be (or not).


This is the act of searching for a greater purpose and meaning in our lives. Stories are transformative and therefore have the power to achieve this.


This related to our most closely, held immutable beliefs. Stories must address these in order for them to resonate with us.


These are stories which defile, mock, contradict or threaten what is sacred to us.


Its Latin roots define irony as a falsified ignorance. Today it’s used as a subtle or underhanded tool to subvert expectations or values. Sometimes it’s used to show hypocrisy. Using George Orwell’s Animal Farm as an example, the irony is that the revolution didn’t improve the lives of most animals. In fact, many were worse off.


These are inanimate objects used to represent abstract ideas. Consider the windmill in Animal Farm which is a symbol of the ruling class exploiting the working class for their personal gain.


These are recurring symbols in stories used to remind audiences of the underlying conflict, theme and mood. They are more subtle than symbols and therefore have a greater emotional meaning to audiences. A noble cart horse is a motif in Animal Farm because it represents the exalted status and inequality of the rulers.


Humans process visual information up to thirty times faster than audio. We are most responsive to visual queues that stimulate pleasure, pain and preservation; namely sex, danger and food.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. SAVANNAH says:

    In Laymen terms: what is the difference between an allegory and a metaphor??

    1. Excellent question. Both use one notion to compare it to another. A metaphor is simply a literary flourish e.g. he rode like the wind. An allegory has deeper social, spiritual and intellectual complexities e.g. Animal Farm

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