You've probably heard that every screenplay is allowed one big coincidence. You get one shot to make the audience buy into the story. So something random can happen.
Call it a coincidence, call it kismet, or call it an act of God.
But don't call it Deus Ex Machina.
Everything else that follows needs to be set up, paid off, and at times, punished.
You, as the writer, make the decisions in your script's world. You are, effectively, the God of that world. You can make it rain, you can make people suffer, you can pick your own, personal, Jesus...
But you also are in control of whether or not God exists in your screenplay.
And that decisions, while it might sound frivolous and subjective, really matter when it comes down to tone.
So let's ask the big question...
Does God exist in your screenplay's world?
Look, I went to 12 years of Catholic School so I'm always going to ask the tough questions. Most of the time it got me kicked out of class... which... I'll handle in my memoir. Here I want to talk about God in storytelling.
I was watching this video essay on Nightmare on Elm Street and these questions came to me.
The essay discusses the fast that because Freddy is not punished for his crimes that in the world of Nightmare, God is an illusion and only hell is real. This got me thinking if God was dead in that movie, how did it affect the tone of what we were about to see?
Dead kids are just dead.
Freddy, hell, and demons are the ultimate winners because you can't defeat the dark if there is no eternal good.
That really messes with the tone of the franchise.
But it also is a unique statement on nature. Evil is the one true emotion. There is no good, only survival.
That's fun for a horror movie...but not every horror movie.
In The Exorcist, God is very much alive.
We know that Satan has taken this girl and the struggle is that a mortal tries to use God to get her back. The way they win is through the same sacrifice Jesus worked out. Take me as payment for the sins of another.
God has to exist in this movie because he's the ultimate weapon against Satan.
This balance of good and evil is the theme of the movie. Ultimate faith receives the ultimate reward.
This makes sense in any horror movie, but let's deviate from God in the obvious genre.
God in movies
In films like Dogma, Bruce Almighty, and Indiana Jones, God takes top billing. These are films built around the existent of God. And they show God in several different tones.
In Dogma, heaven and hell are givens. It's a movie about fallen angels that tracks their journey returning to heaven. There's no muss and fuss about the existence of a creator and the laws that go deeper into how that creator treats and love humans.
The same goes for Bruce Almighty, whose entire thesis is "What if you got to be God?"
But things get wonky with Indy...
For Indiana Jones, the world is a much more complicated place. And God is a very complicated thing.
In Raiders, Indy sees God first hand when the ark is opened. It's wild, but God 100% exists in that universe. And not just the God of Israel... because by movie three we see that Jesus is real as well and that his chalice holds healing powers.
While both these movies are about the Nazi perversion of trying to use God to annihilate humanity, I want to talk about the even-numbered Indiana Jones movies.
The question of whether or not God exists is one many people ask every day. I imagine that Indiana Jones wakes up knowing he should be a good person because of what he's seen. I mean, he has proof of an afterlife and of God.
But then I realized that this might have fucked Indiana Jones up.
Because he not only has proof of that, but he also has proof of interdimensional travel and voodoo being real as well.
If voodoo is real and calling out to the Gods of the Indian faith works...
Does that mean every God from every religion exists too?
Here where my reading into a movie might destroy the movie for you. And I get that. Raiders is my favorite film of all time. My friends and family know I worship at the altar of Spielberg (not here to discuss my other religious affiliations).
But the hard thing about the world of Indiana Jones is that when all mystical things are possible, it starts getting hard to rein the story in.
Now that God has been established as a driving force in these worlds, it's hard not to wonder why or how Indy reconciles with his daily existence. And it's even harder to write in that universe because for Indiana Jones to have more adventures, he needs to reconcile the ones he's already had.
Still, the major choice to have God exist in Indiana Jones' world is a drastic one that allows these other magical realism elements to flourish in a movie about a guy collecting artifacts that usually have to do with the deity prescribed to them.
But what about god in movies that have nothing to do with him (or her)?
God is everywhere (in movies)
Let's start with an easy entryway into the God question, Signs.
Look, I'm, from Philadelphia, I stan for Shyamalan. Every year when my manager sets goals for me I add "get a general meeting with Shyamalan." So far... 0 for 6. But I intend to live long enough to make that a reality. And I pray for the outcome.
I have FAITH...
Which happens to be the theme of Signs...
Which is an alien invasion movie.
What I find to be so interesting about Signs is that if aliens exist, which is PROVEN in the world of the movie, then it would seem to negate the idea of God making us in his image and likeness, which is the central belief for the Pastor played by Mel Gibson in the movie.
Still, the character struggle here is about an act of faith.
We have no idea whether or no God exists in Signs. The movie makes no statement either way.
But we DO KNOW that what happens in that movie strengthens the character's faith in God. Which allows him to arc.
What about a movie that has almost NOTHING to do with religion at all, like Deja Vu?
This is a crime movie where Denzel and Val Kilmer try to stop a domestic terrorist by traveling back in time. It's wild, underrated, and uses physics to explain everything. ALMOST everything.
Except when it's time to send Denzel back in time and the physics says it's impossible... he calls on his creator.
Denzel needs a miracle...and...SPOILER ALERT...
He gets one.
God exists in the world of Deja Vu.
He (or she) exists without an actual label or proof, but as a plot device to explain how things work out when the laws of science say they should not. This is also called Deus Ex Machina.
This is all a fun exercise, but let's get back to the original question...
Well, does God exist in your story?
I am not saying God has to exist in your story, or your story is better if God exists.
What I want you to do is think about how the God question factors into the themes and world you're trying to satisfy.
While you might only get one coincidence, if God exists in your script, you can always rely on divine intervention...=. Sure, it can be a story cheat, but it's something that a lot of people believe in, and something that can help your characters out of situations.
As screenwriters, sometimes we get so caught up controlling the world we forget that we can layer in someone else pulling the strings too.
So the next time you sit down to write, ask yourself if God exists in your character's world.
Set the rules and see if the pages flow.
If not, stare at the keys and yell "Goddamnit!"
Works for me every time.
What's next? Start your feature screenplay!
Screenwriting is hard. But to become a filmmaker, you need to learn scriptwriting to master storytelling. We'll give you free lessons.