The Theology of Screenwriting, Part 17: Despair

December 11th, 2012 by

This week I continue to explore 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 17: Despair.

There is the general definition of despair: loss of hope; hopelessness.

The term takes on a special meaning in a theological context. For example in Psalms 42, the word is used three times:

Verse 5: Why are you in despair, O my soul ? And why have you become disturbed within me?

Verse 6: O my God, my soul is in despair within me.

Verse 11 [repeated]: Why are you in despair, O my soul ? And why have you become disturbed within me?

It is not just loss of hope. It is an existential question tied to one’s soul.

Perhaps the single most powerful moment of despair in the Bible occurs in Mark 15:34 when Jesus, nailed to the cross and in the last moments of his human life, cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Again, not just loss of hope, but an existential experience, a deep sense of separation from God.

Let us look at this idea metaphorically. Here we may think of God as a Protagonist’s purpose, not only their goal, but the psychological connection to and meaning of achieving that goal. If some major reversal occurs in the plot that puts achieving that goal at risk, indeed makes it seem like an impossibility, that can put a character into the screenwriting equivalent of despair.

This is what commonly occurs at the end of Act Two what is often called All Is Lost. Scenes of despair like these:

But if we go back to the Psalms, there is the second part of the verse: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my savior and my God.”

Again consider that metaphorically, God equals purpose. And almost always after moments of existential despair, the Protagonist reconnects with his/her Authentic Self, finding reason for hope — the purpose is still there, the possibility of achieving that purpose still alive:

In a screenplay, we want to plumb the heights and depths of emotion in order to take a reader on an expansive journey. Hope. To Despair. To Faith. That right there is a great way to articulate the psychological arc of a story.

Tomorrow: Righteousness.

3 thoughts on “The Theology of Screenwriting, Part 17: Despair

  1. John Arends says:

    Scott, to pull a tad bit more on the thread of the book idea: Rather than “A Theology for Screenwriters” as a full-bore text book (and all that that implies, footnotes- and time-wise), perhaps you could shape it into more of a personal handbook, sort of a “Book of Common Prayers for Screenwriters”…

    As you said, no one on this rock has both the screenwriting chops and that investment you made in Yale Divinity. And it could be another meaningful way to monetize your incredible gifts and generosity, while honoring and extending the karma of the GITS brand…

    1. gbolahan says:

      After Hollywood, there is still Heaven and Hell. You can’t live your life alone for screenwriting and all these worldly things. Scott is doing the right thing. Doesn’t matter if heathens like you consider it boring.

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