Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

How to Find the Meaning in Your Screenplay’s Story

“The great stories make you feel less alone in the world.”

Phil Cousineau, Filmmaker

SoCreate’s interview with Phil Cousineau, a storyteller with many credits to his name, held many “ah-ha” moments for me. Of course, I know there’s a reason we tell stories, but Cousineau really made it click for me with that quote above. Stories help us understand the world and our place in it. And stories let us know that we are not alone in our experiences.

Audiences invest themselves in stories that have some relevance and meaning to them. And while not every story has been told (in terms of plot), Cousineau argues that the underpinnings of every story you’ve ever heard are based on some element of universal truth. How do you get to the universal meaning in your screenplay’s story?  

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Cousineau spent decades exploring this topic. He authored “The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work,” in which Campbell recounts his own mythological quest. It’s one of the top books on storytelling. Cousineau also has more than 20 screenwriting credits to his name, including a co-writing credit on “The Hero’s Journey” documentary. He knows a thing or two about getting to the deeper meaning in your script to make it resonate with audiences around the world.

“If you read the myths, the legends, the fairytales, the literature, these rhythms of storytelling begin to move into you,” he explained. “André Gide, a great French novelist, once said if you’re only writing the surface, just the plot of a story, it’s confessional. The deeper you go into a story - in which someone from St. Petersburg, Russia, somebody from Bolivia will identify with the story - now you’ve hit the universal, and people all around the world will identify with it.”

To go deeper, look for that recurring theme behind your plot. If the story is comprised of a sequence of events, and the plot explains why those events are happening, you can think of the meaning as what you want someone to feel as they walk away from the film. What does the narrative tell us about the universal human condition?

Most stories naturally have meaning - the meaning the writer meant and the meaning the audience takes away by perceiving it through their worldview and lens. Write the story you have in your head first, then go back to nail down the meaning. You can add elements to convey that meaning more clearly when you go back and do rewrites.

“Myths are stories that never happened, but always are happening,” he said.

They’re age-old tales that still have relevance today and that, without knowing it, we often see repeated in films and TV shows because they’re stories that resonate with us all. Cousineau gave the example of Persephone and Hades, a myth about a young woman yanked into the underworld. He said most young women feel abducted by their culture or even another person at some point in their lives, and you’ll see this theme referenced in many modern-day stories.

“Everybody’s on the quest for home,” he said. “That’s the story of The Odyssey.”

You can watch the story of Homer’s “The Odyssey” play out in dozens of movies and TV shows, including those made for adults such as “O Brother, Where Art Thou” (Coen Brothers) and those made for kids, such as “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” (Derek Drymon, Stephen Hillenburg, Tim Hill, Kent Osborne, Aaron Springer, Paul Tibbitt).  The meaning behind the story remains the same, and people of all ages and backgrounds can understand that feeling of trying to find a home or a place in the world.  

“We can feel alone if we don’t know stories, but the more stories you know, the less you feel alone,” Cousineau concluded.

We’re all in this together,

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