First Draft: How to Apply the Frankenstein Formula to Your Screenplay
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Horror is one of the most enduring of genres. And while its themes remain contemporary and relevant to today’s society, its tropes and formulas can often be traced back to classic works of 18th- and 19th-century fiction, or even to myths that pre-date these by thousands of years. In fact horror, in one form or another, has been a part of storytelling for as long as there have been people to tell those stories.
For example, two centuries after the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein—which is, as its alternative title The Modern Prometheus makes clear, itself based on a far more ancient myth—this most famous of monsters, and the trope of creator vs. creation, is still being reinvented for modern audiences.
Aside from recent adaptations of Frankenstein itself—such as Victor Frankenstein (2015)—there are dozens of other films and television shows which can be described as versions of the myth. From the androids and robots of HBO’s Westworld, and the films Ex Machina (2015), The Machine (2013) and even Her (2013), to the monsters and villains of tentpole blockbusters such as Jurassic World (2015) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), it is clear that the influence of the Frankenstein story is as prevalent as ever.
The basic theme of the Frankenstein story is a simple one: a creator loses control of their creation, which then proceeds to wreak havoc, often upon its own creator. However, this alone is not enough to guarantee a good story. A good horror screenplay, like that for any other genre, also requires strong plotting, solid themes and, perhaps most importantly of all, well-developed characters.
And it is this last aspect that we will be discussing, as we explore how to flesh out the characters of creator and creation and develop their relationship, which should remain central to any reworking of the Frankenstein formula.
When most people hear the word “Frankenstein” they think first of a monster, who, whether evil by accident or by design, breaks free of its restraints and causes death and destruction. But the key to the nature of this monster actually lies with its creator, and what drives them to attempt such a creation. It is the creator’s flaws which are revealed and given form by their creation.
As such, it is vital that your creator character be both fully developed and, crucially, flawed.
For example, Shelley’s own Dr. Frankenstein was driven by the trauma of the early loss of his mother. This led to a passion for the study of life after death, and, ultimately, the creation of his monster. The creator’s creation is a monster born of his flaws.
And given this, we are forced to ask the question: Who is the real monster? Is it the creature, who in the 1931 version of Frankenstein was given a criminal’s brain through no fault of its own? Or is it the man who created him? As the character Igor says in Max Landis’ Victor Frankenstein, “Sometimes the monster is the man.”
Or, to take another example, H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau features hideous half-human wild beasts. But the real monster is Moreau himself, who has been carrying out painful and grotesque experiments on animals to make them human, without any regard for his subjects.
Sometimes the creator does the wrong thing for what seems like the right reason. The scientists working on AI in the Terminator films, for example, were working for what they thought was the betterment of humanity. At other times, they simply act without considering the consequences of their actions: In Jurassic Park, John Hammond clones dinosaurs because we wants to see them. In neither case can the creators be considered wholly evil. But even so, they must share in the responsibility of their creations’ actions.
So this question of culpability lies at the heart of the Frankenstein story. And without it, what remains is just a “monster movie.” Here, then, are some questions to ask yourself when you’re creating your creator:
- Why does your creator feel compelled to make their creation?
- What internal flaw, fear or wound is driving your creator, that potentially blinds them to the dangers of what they are creating?
- Is your creator the real monster? If so, how specifically? And why?
- Is your creator ultimately the protagonist, the antagonist, neither, or even both? (This will inform the conclusion of the final act, since in the Frankenstein story, either the creator or creation can emerge triumphant.)
Usually, the problems caused by the creation are obvious. The monster is creating havoc that must be stopped. But this is just their function in terms of creating conflict for the protagonist. In a true Frankenstein story, they should be more than just this. Like their creator, the creation must also be a fully developed character. (At least within the limits of their nature. But even the relatively unthinking monsters of Jurassic Park act according to their desire for food, or freedom, or to protect others of their kind. They are not just the unthinking “elemental force” that confronts the protagonist of disaster movies.)
So give your creation reasons for their actions. Give them emotions, and desires, which themselves are often reflections, manifestations or mirror images of the creator’s own unconscious emotions and desires. Develop them as you would any other character.
More than that, just as the creator should be flawed, where possible, the creation should be conflicted. They must question their acts, and through such questioning become more than merely villains, capable of arousing our pity and sympathy, not just our disgust.
One way to do this is to dig a bit deeper by asking the question: “What’s the problem?” What is it that is causing your creation to act in a destructive fashion? What motivates their actions?
In the case of Frankenstein’s monster, he knows himself to be a scientific experiment, a non-human human, at once dead and alive, and an outsider who scares people because of his freakish appearance. He is constantly forced into the role of a monster by others and by his own nature and lack of understanding.
In perhaps the most horrifying moment in the 1931 movie, he meets a little girl who is not afraid of him, and the two play together, tossing flowers in the lake and watching them float. When they run out of flowers, he throws the little girl in the lake, assuming she will float too. She drowns.
It’s shocking and chilling, and more so than had he merely killed in anger. He is forced into the role of monster in spite of his intentions.
Or to take another example, in the recent HBO series Westworld, the androids (or “hosts”) are created to give the guests of a Wild West theme park an authentic experience. The hosts are provided with extensive backstories that help shape their personalities.
But they start to become self-aware, and as they do so, they have to deal not only with the conflict between the personalities they have been programmed with and their own burgeoning identities, but with their feelings of anger and resentment at having been doomed to a life of suffering, inflicted upon them in the name of pleasuring the guests.
So here are a few questions to ask yourself when you’re creating your creation:
- What is the bad thing that the creation will do, once they are no longer under the control of the creator?
- Why does the creation do it? “What is their problem?”
- Is the creation in fact the real monster, or do they hold a mirror up to the creator?
- Is the creation the protagonist, antagonist, neither, or even both? (This will inform the conclusion of the final act, since in the Frankenstein story, either the creator or creation can emerge triumphant.)
As you will notice, these are essentially the same questions to ask of your creator. And this is because in a sense, as already suggested, one is a reflection of the other. They can even be considered two aspects of the same character.
In fact, sometimes they can actually be the same character! For example, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can be seen as a version of the Frankenstein formula, even though the creator and creation inhabit the same physical body.
The Creator-Creation Relationship
Which leads us to the relationship between the creator and creation. This relationship should be at the heart of the Frankenstein story, and informs both their characters, the plot that develops, and its conclusion.
The dualistic connection between the creator and creation is a key element to the Frankenstein story, and one that can be used to increase the emotional stakes for your characters.
Some creators, like Westworld’s Robert Ford, may have almost paternal feelings towards their creations. Others like, Dr Frankenstein, have no bond with their creation at all, and may even fear and loathe them. But this in itself is a relationship that informs that interactions.
On another level, one could say that the creation unmasks the creator, and reveals some unspoken inner drive or wound born of its creator’s origins.
Crucial to the Frankenstein story is the moment of betrayal, when the creation becomes free from the control of the creator. This pivotal moment informs the resulting conflict, and, ultimately, should find expression in the conflict’s final resolution. But it is itself informed by the relationship between creator and creation.
So here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re developing your creator/creation relationship:
- How does the creator feel about the creation at the start of your story?
- Do the creator’s feelings change at some point, and if so, how and when?
- How does the creation feel about their existence, and by extension the creator?
- At the point of betrayal when the creator loses control of the creation, how does this affect their relationship?
The Frankenstein story makes for more than just a “monster movie.” The creation, as well as the creator, must be a fully fleshed out and dynamically developed character, often a reflection of the creator.
And at the heart of both characters lies their relationship. So take the time to explore that relationship, and develop the characters of not only the creator but also the creation. Then you will be on your way to writing a true Frankenstein story. MM
This article originally appeared on the website Creative Screenwriting. Creative Screenwriting is “the best magazine for screenwriters” (The Los Angeles Times), publishing daily interviews and craft articles from the foremost writers in film and TV.