Glimpse the Unconscious

Very early on in its existence, the “Hollywood Dream Factory” realized that fantasy sells. At the movies, the depths of unconscious fantasy and desire — love and sex, death and destruction, fear and anger, revenge and hatred — can all be indulged in safely, without risk of embarrassment and with a virtual guarantee of a happy ending. A thorough understanding of the unconscious mind — the birthplace of fantasy, dreams, and imagination — is a fundamental point of departure for creating psychologically resonant scripts and films.
William Indick, Ph.D., Introduction, Psychology for Screenwriters

Having written, last time out, about Ronald B. Tobias’s book, 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them,” I thought I might as well write about a few books which will help the screenwriter build on that book’s foundation of plot types in terms of developing rich characters and terms of conflict, both inner and outer.

I’ve been reading Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, lately, anyway, so I’m already walking around in a twilight state between waking and dreaming. So, today, for purposes of this blog, it seems like a perfect time for reviewing another book I keep within easy reach, Psychology for Screenwriters — Building Conflict in Your Script, by William Indick, Ph.D.

Psychology for Screenwriters

Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick, Ph.D.

You’ll know right away that you’re in Freudian territory when you get into this book, which leads off in Chapter One with the Oedipus Complex. Even if you don’t figure you’re writing about a guy with an erotic desire for his mother, you might want to consider this:

“Oedipal themes are ubiquitous in movies because they portray the two most basic elements of character development: the integration of moral wisdom and the formation of a mature romantic relationship. As you write your script, many different elements of ploot and character development will arise, but the core issues in the story rearely diverge significantly from these two elements.”

You know, he’s got a point there, and this is just page one of Chapter One.

“The essence of Freudian theory is the notion that the majority of emotions, anxieties, behaviors, and issues that rule our lives are essentially enigmas to us, because we are unconscious of them.” Indick explains in the introduction. Can you imagine how much enrichment the skillful application of that existential fact of life can bring into your writing? I get excited just thinking about it. But, then, I have been known to watch David Lynch movies repeatedly.

“…neurotic conflict is an internal psychological conflict between what we desire and the rigid constraints of civilized society.”

Haven’t you had problems with that? I have! And they have triggered my ego defense mechanisms, and plagued my dreams… as they do with any normal person, no matter how much or how little tormented the individual. We all have to deal with these issues. As screenwriters hoping to write stories we can sell for big bucks to moviemakers, we’re supposed to develop stories with universal appeal. You could do worse in that endeavor than to spend a little time examining the human mind. How nice to have a writer’s resource to dip into to gain clarity and focus on these aspects of our characters. There’s a good chance we can end up with work that’s somewhat less shallow, less contrived, when we dip into this deep well of emotions, desire, and unconscious conflicts we share with all living, suffering, sentient beings.

Now, if you happen to have issues with Freud’s work in the field of psychiatry, not to worry, this is not a book which projects Sigmund Freud’s overarching biological-sexual views of psychology onto the topic of screenwriting. Applying Freud’s theories to the craft comprises the work of Section One, which is the first five chapters. These examine how to apply The Oedipal Complex; Neurotic Conflict; The Psychosexual Stages; The Ego Defense Mechanisms; and Dreamwork to the development of character and plot.

The psychological views of Erik Erikson, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Rollo May each get two chapters as the book proceeds, and those of Alfred Adler receive three. Erikson expounded on Freud’s “neurotic conflict” work in exploring “normative conflict” in the struggle to establish one’s own identity in the face of external, societal pressures. Jung explored the unconscious in a way which led to his discoveries pertaining to the collective unconscious, symbols, and the archetypal figures which guide our actions. After this much psychological territory is given as a background, applying Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey from The Hero with a Thousand Faces is explored. Next, Alfred Adler’s contributions concerning the “inferiority complex” and “sibling rivalry” become the focus of the book, topics which can be especially helpful if your story includes a child protagonist.  These and his view of “life styles” as a source of character development and psychological conflict can actually serve in developing characters of practically any age. Finally, exploring issues of existential anxiety conflict through the lens of Rollo May and examines archetypes for the “age of Narcissism” he detected as a hallmark of late modern society.

Though it covers the theories of the pioneers of psychotherapy, this book is by no means theoretical. For the screenwriter, it is practical to the max, chock-full of example from movies and suggestions on how to employ this motherlode of devices in developing rich characters, flawed, virtuous, determined, and cross-purpose bound. At the end of each chapter is a list of summary points, a set of exercises, questions to help you decide how to address the themes covered, graphics to illustrate the stages of psychological development along various trajectories, and cheat-sheet style charts to sharpen the definition of the subject matter in your mind. If you’re determined to develop great characters and pertinent plot types, Psychology for Screenwriters can easily make you feel like a kid in a candy store. Given my naricisistic, idiotic ego, frustrated sense of fulfillment, desire for revenge on a world that doesn’t understand me, and a superego that likes feeling triumphant, well, overall, that’s a feeling I enjoy,

Peace out.


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