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How Lulu Wang Writes From the Heart of the Screenplay in The Farewell

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Last week I wrote about one way of looking at your story that can make every decision easier, and that is finding the heart of your screenplay. This week I’m following up with a little case study.

Movies are about defining moments, transformative experiences. And the process of transformation often comes down to finally accepting a particular lesson for living or new way of seeing the world. That lesson starts the protagonist on a path to a happier or healthier life. By watching the protagonist learn that lesson, we learn it also. You can look at your screenplay as an argument to convince us of that lesson.

And if you pay attention, a lot of times you’ll find a moment toward the end of Act 2 when that lesson is articulated to the protagonist. I’ve started calling this moment the heart of the screenplay. Up to that point, the protagonist has been either ignoring the lesson or oblivious to it. But right there at the heart of the story it’s waved in front of their nose so they have to acknowledge it. And then, hopefully, accept it.

Let’s look at how this plays out in a real-world movie example, this year’s The Farewell, written and directed by Lulu Wang.

SPOILERS AHEAD…

Here’s a quick description from IMDB: A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and they decide not to tell her, instead scheduling a wedding as an excuse to gather before she dies.

What lesson does The Farewell deliver?

If you’ve read the script or seen the movie, you may already know that the movie explores familial obligation and the things we do to protect or make our loved ones happy, including the lies we tell.

The screenplay crystallizes the point of its argument on page 69 (of 89) when her Uncle Haibin tells protagonist Billi:

“In America, you think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, your life is part of a whole. Family. Society.”

The movie isn’t really about East vs. West, though. It’s about Billi, and how this experience changes her. She starts the movie more concerned with her own needs than anyone else’s when she learns her grandmother is dying.

By the time we get to the heart of the screenplay, the lesson Billi’s finally just about ready to accept is one of putting her loved ones’ needs before her own.

How The Farewell builds its case

So how does the movie make the argument that considering the family’s needs is the way to a happier, healthier life?

Well, as mentioned, we start with a protagonist who needs this lesson. It’s worth noting here that Billi’s is not a big, 180-degree transformation. But “bigger” doesn’t necessarily equal “more meaningful” when it comes to character arc. A small transformation in your story might be just as powerful because we all know how hard it can be to change.

The plot then forces this character to challenge her old way of thinking. You always want a logical match between your protagonist and the plot, as we’ve discussed before. So this girl who is grieving the impending loss of her grandmother and has an instinct to express that grief and share her feelings for her, is challenged to keep it to herself – to lie, even, to her beloved grandmother in order to spend precious time with her.

Throughout Act 2, Billi navigates the “good lies” – those she tells to make her parents or grandmother happy and protect them from worry, the little performances everyone puts on for each other, the toll this can take, as well as some truths that come out and the hurt that can follow.

And as she encounters these plot events, she struggles to determine what she believes and which is the right way to handle things. Should we lie to each other, if the intentions are good — if we’re saving each other worry, or allowing each other to be happy? Is it our decision to make? Is honesty just a strategy to not bear responsibility for others?

The protagonist is convinced. Are you?

When we reach the heart of the screenplay, her uncle lays it on the table:

“In America, you think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, your life is part of a whole. Family. Society.”

Being part of a family means taking on some responsibility for each other. Maybe the lies aren’t the right way to go, but considering others is. We do what we can for our loved ones.

The argument has been made, and Billi must choose her path forward.

In Act 3 we see Billi act on this lesson. She has accepted its value and takes action to keep the lie going, giving her grandmother as happy of a final visit as she can.

Want to see the heart of The Farewell for yourself?

Download the script here and pay special attention to the argument the script builds. Check out the moment when Billi’s uncle spells it out for her — the heart of the screenplay. Watch how Billi acts on that lesson.

Then, flex those muscles! Test your skills on another script and see if you can identify what lesson the story is arguing for and how it’s crystallized at the heart of the screenplay.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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