The Theology of Screenwriting, Part 3: Predestination

September 19th, 2012 by

This week, I am exploring theological themes in relation to screenwriting, considering them metaphorically because in my view, we see these themes in movies all the time. By understanding them, we can use these theological themes to enhance the meaning and depth of our stories.

For background on the general subject, you may read my introductory comments in Part 1 here.

Today in Part 3: Predestination.

The concept predestination [literally "to predetermine, decide beforehand"] has its roots in an understanding that God is all powerful and all knowing, and therefore must preordain certain events to happen. The logical extreme espoused by certain groups extends to individuals, God determining who will be saved and who will not.

Setting aside the merits of this attitude and looking at the concept metaphorically in relation to story, and in particular screenplays, there is an interesting idea at work here, one I have proposed several times on this blog.

Noted analytical psychologist Carl Jung asserted:

“The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains divided and does not become conscious of his inner contradictions, the world must perforce act out the conflict.”

If we apply this idea to stories, what we may say is a Protagonist is tasked with getting in touch with and embracing all aspects of his/her psyche. If they don’t, the story universe itself forces them to.

In other words, the story you write about your Protagonist is in some ways predestined, the specific combination of the character’s psyche and life circumstances creating a synergy between how they have been living and who they are supposed to be in relation to the story universe which creates events that compel the character to move from Disunity to Unity.

In Aliens, Ripley was predestined to confront the aliens again to deal with her trauma and intersect with Newt to experience the meaningfulness of being a mother, an opportunity she had lost in the first chapter of her life saga.

In Inception, Cobb was predestined to go through everything he did with the implantation of the idea in Fischer’s mind in order to resolve his relationship with Mal and finally be able to reunite with his children.

In WALL-E, the little robot is predestined to go on its hero’s journey in order to find and save a connection with another being [EVE] and through those efforts help human beings reconnect with their home planet Earth.

In Braveheart, Wallace is predestined to fight and die, his life and martyrdom inspiring the Scots to gain their freedom and Wallace to reunite with his wife who had been murdered.

This principle extends to stories in which the Protagonist does not change, but changes others. In Forrest Gump, perhaps the ultimate story of predestination, Forrest moves from one preordained event to another, changing history at each turn, and specifically impacting the lives of Lieutenant Dan and Jenny, resulting in Forrest’s ultimate role: Father to Forrest Junior. Indeed the use of a feather is a metaphor for Forrest’s destiny:

As writers, the choices we make about characters mean that the story we tell about them is the only one we can craft. That story is endemic to that character. The story universe calls the Protagonist to an adventure, a unique destiny of metamorphosis moving from Unconscious to Conscious, Want to Need, Disunity to Unity.

What do you think? Predestination as a lens through which to look at and analyze the stories we write? An example of a character’s life-destiny and the story universe calling them to an adventure? See you in comments to discuss.

For Part 1: Sin, go here.

For Part 2: Conversion, go here.

Tomorrow: Another theological theme in screenwriting.

11 thoughts on “The Theology of Screenwriting, Part 3: Predestination

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    Thank you for this series, Scott. I’m always excited when you roll up your Yale Divinity sleeves on the blog.

    For me, predestination is a lens best looked through backwards:

    1. I want my characters to have free will and plenty of it, but by the end of the story, I want the course of events to feel inevitable in retrospect: these are the only choices these characters could have made in those moments and been true to their natures.

    2. I’m not ready to write until I know the characters well enough that the choices they make create that sense of inevitability. In that way, predestination is a good benchmark to measure when I have grasped the story world to the point that I can write it.

    Across the board, creating a feeling of predestination is a goal I work toward in screenwriting.

    1. Scott says:

      Shaula, in the Calvinist tradition, the Reformed group asserts that God predestines whom God wants to be saved and that without this predestination, none would be saved. The non-Reformed group states that God predestines people to salvation, but that these people freely choose to follow God on their own.

      Translating that to writing, we want to understand the sense of destiny of our key characters, but we want script readers to experience it as free will on the part of the characters. Hence screenwriters are [metaphorically] non-Reformed Calvinists. Who knew!

      1. Shaula Evans says:

        I like that. I’ll add “[metaphorically] non-Reformed Calvinist” to my list of affiliations.

  2. Debbie Moon says:

    Nothing particular to add, but just wanted to say I’m really enjoying this fresh perspective on writing. Whatever your religious outlook, if any, these are themes and issues that run through all of our lives, and directly exploring the way they work in stories is fascinating.

    1. Scott says:

      Concur. I continue to look for new language systems / metaphors to explore to help us gain new insight into the craft of writing.

      1. Shaula Evans says:

        Speaking of religion and paradigms that help with writing, I meant to share this article with you ages ago. It’s from a very good Zen blog and it discusses the Six Realms of Existence in Buddhism:

        Staying Human.

        When I read it, I thought it was a great tool to think through character flaws: which realm does this character inhabit in general? Which realm is this character inside in this moment?

  3. EDN_80 says:

    Fascinating articles! Been a long-time lurker/reader, but I confess I didn’t know

    It’s actually nice to point out that, as much as we’d like to forget it in our increasingly secular world, elemental notions such as sin, transformation, predestination, salvation, etc… are and always will be part of the human experience.

    While doing research for my own script, I was reading and listening to what Tony Keen, Susanna Braund, Andreas Kluth, and other scholars had to say about the role of predestination in cinema and fiction, and out all the above notions, it seems to be the most problematic in our modern, “egalitarian”, and decidedly deterministic society.

    They spoke of THE AENEID and why Aeneas was NOT a type of hero Hollywood could espouse. Achilles in TROY was. Achilles = warlike, defiant, vainglorious = modern. Aeneas = predestined to save people, yes, but dutiful, passive = old.

    Modern audiences, it seems, respond better to a take charge hero, a hero who controls his own destiny. The skill, as has been said above, is to make the predestination seem inevitable in the end, yet invisible throughout.

    I wonder how the writer(s) will handle say, the upcoming NOAH and MOSES, two instances where the moral imperatives impelling action and leading to salvation will not be inborn, but rather divine, external forces (unless it’s made clear that the divine forces are indeed inborn – that is, born in the mind.)

    Let’s wait and see!

  4. EDN_80 says:

    * but I confess I didn’t know that you had a background in Divinity.

  5. Win Vahlkamp says:

    This makes me think of your mantra, Scott – “the only way out is through.”

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