Book Review of William Indick’s Psychology for Screenwriters: Building Conflict in Your Script

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D.

William Indick has written a book that would be well placed on the shelves of novice and seasoned screenwriters alike.  It would also be at home in the hands of media-savvy, media-using personality theory instructors.


Indick has taken upon himself the not inconsiderable task of reframing stripped-down psychodynamic theories of personality and presenting their high concepts as guidelines and blueprints for film plots and character development.


Indick vivisects both classic and modern films and, in the process, illustrates the working relationships between theories of personality and theories, concepts, and structure of character and story development.  He draws from a wide variety of theorists and concepts.  Included in this sweep are the Oedipal theories of Freud, the principles of archetypal motives and universal symbols as articulated by both Jung and Joseph Campbell, Alfred Adler’s concepts of inferiority, compensation and overcompensation birth order and life style, Erik Erikson’s stages of development and identity crises and Rollo May’s Existential theories of conflict in the age of narcissism.


As each theory is dissected, Indick advises the screenwriter on how to survey his developing script for the presence of story-advancing conflict and, as Syd Field might describe it, story-advancing plot point, all related to the personality theory under scrutiny.  At the end of each chapter, Indick engages the reader in a series of active-learning exercises to assure s/he fully grasps the concepts presented and their relevance to his script elements of character, story, conflict, and conflict resolution.  And he asks the reader to assess whether s/he has incorporated some or most of the theory-related concepts into a storyline.


Beyond this creative self-assessment, Indick also asks the reader to cite films that illustrate or embody the concepts and dynamics of the theory just highlighted in the chapter.  This is a very useful device to help the reader understand whether or not s/he grasps the concepts and recognizes their function in the works of others.  In other words, Indick makes as much effort to engage the reader in active rather than passive seeker of psychological and narrative wisdom and truth, the wisdom of the truth about conflict and drama.


Indick seeks to draw upon the wisdom of personality theorists and the artistry of the writer’s creative mind and skills at cinematic storytelling to inspire the screenwriter to a deeper and more accurate understanding of human drives and motivations and related action in the panoply of human conflicts between self and self and self and other.


Of particular interest to Indick is the use of the hero archetype in films.  This is probably a very practical interest for it is likely to interest young screenwriters as well for the simple fact that so many films produced by Hollywood are action adventure, mythic, comic book derivatives, geared principally to young males and, increasingly, young females who want a piece of the hero pie in their fantasy life at the movies.

Heroes are motivated and heroes have obstacles to overcome (or else they wouldn’t be heroes).  How they overcome them, how they stumble, what they do with success or failure is the stuff of personality.  Indick acquaints the reader with the ways in which character and personality provide the dramatic brick and mortar for plot construction and, agonistics, agonies and ascendencies.  Whether the road traveled mimics Joseph Campbell’s “call to adventure” (Mel Gibson’s William Wallace in Braveheart) or a journey is into the inners pace of one’s DNA (William Hurt in Altered States), what one does, and how one does it all express who one is as a person and a personality.  The journey is ultimately to heroism or something less noble of spirit and accomplishment.  A hero must face fear and overcome it.  It is in these moments that reflectiveness, instinctiveness, greed or compassion, optimism or dark chords of prediction describe the character and the moral lessons, the parables of a story that either speaks to an incident or to a universal principle.



Indick’s cataloging of defense mechanisms and how their use in a script can deepen character understanding and complexity and bring one-dimensional villains into three-dimensional palpability is extremely useful.  As he notes for the reader, when writers deploy defense mechanisms for their characters, the characters must be completely unaware of them in their behavioral repertoires; but the audience should discern them with little prolonged intellectual effort and experience the frustration of goal-directed behavior which besets either an antagonist or protagonist.  Conquering the quagmiring, defensive behavior or being finally impaled on it, is a major plot point in a film that utilizes the psychological device.  The struggle adds psychological depth to character and tension to the story line.  Failure to do so, to overcome one’s neurotic style or defensive style can bring small yet poignant tragedy to a character arc.  Indick’s use of repressed lust in the relationship of Anthony Hopkin’s stodgy British butler, Stevens, to Emma Thompson’s Miss Kenton in the excellent Merchant-Ivory film, Remains of the Day, illustrates the accumulation of a lifetime of repressed tension expressed in a simple gesture of withholding the title and subject matter of a piece of reading material.  And the fate-destined failure to finally conquer the fear of intimacy when Hopkins meets Thompson, decades later, for one chance of breathing life into a fusty existence, pulls at the viewer’s heart as it does the heart of Emma Thompson’s Miss Kenton.


Less subtly and less characterologically, Michael Douglas in Falling Down, is filled with rage from being divorced, estranged from his daughter and fired from his job.  With no where to vent his rage and no one to stand still long enough in his personal life to claim the honor, he finds a substitute outlet in a safe, available target, minority groups, displacing his fury on all he meets rather than on the principle sources of his anger and frustration.  Racism as a displacement away from oppressive, pain inflicting powers  on to the less powerful who provide a soupcon of provocation for a Vesuvial explosion of a lifetime of anger is nothing new in literature but in Falling Down it is so clearly articulated in the increasingly diverse streets of LA where white men have lost their way and their privilege and don’t know where or how to retrieve it.

While Indick may be a bit paint by numbers in advice like “Does your hero have a mentor or role model?  If not, consider writing one in,” the advice does remind the reader that there are discernible formulae in “successful” scripts and, ultimately, successful movies.  Recognizing some aspects of these formulae may, in fact, add texture and color and nuance to a script which has motivational goals or inspirational characters that allow the protagonist or hero not to ever be “the loner,” or “the man with no name” when that is, in fact, not the writer’s intention to follow such a Sergio Leone heroic image.  In fact, as Indick notes most expansively, heroes are rarely out of the box, just add water and a little bit of revenge motivation and you’ve got a heroic franchise ala Rambo or Harry Callahan.  Even Quentin Tarantino’s duet of Kill Bill films offers the vengeful heroine, played by Uma Thurman, a suitable martial arts cum Zen mentor who, in the end, by dint of her “ordealized” period of training with him, acquires the knowledge which both saves her life and brings to a close the life of her lover-turned-nemesis, Bill.  While this is not your father’s Karate Kid, such films do, as Indick aptly notes, follow a successful formulaic path trod by such heroes as Rocky Balboa, Luke Skywalker, and, from the distaff side of heroism, even Erin Brokovich.


“The fruitful world of psychoanalytic and mythological theory provides a boundless supply of ideas for character and plot.  Merely following Erik Erikson’s lifespan development and concomitant stage conflicts can provide a road map for marvelous drama.  One thoughtful look at About Schmidt from Erikson’s eighth and final stage of development adumbrating the fork in the existential road leading to integrity or despair, reveals the plot of the remainder of the movie once Schmidt is both retired and widowed.  The formula is laid out, ether for a happy ending, as in About Schmidt, or a tragedy, as in Jason Robards’ role of the incestuous father in A Thousand Acres or James Coburn’s alcoholic and abusive father in Affliction.  For one, the life passage is to alter a trajectory, for the others it is a realization of both a meaningless, regret-filled existence with the awareness that “it is too late to do anything about it,” leaving one with no option but to die as one lived.  The success of a film is always in its execution.  The execution is what this valuable book cannot supply.  But outlines, guidelines and formulae are its laudable contribution to the collaborative, creative process of scriptwriting and filmmaking. 


It would have been helpful if the author had written with the working assumption that many personality theories, especially those of the psychoanalytic school are just that, theories of personality development and personality dynamics, not facts.  All film stories of spring-autumn romances do not necessarily have to be framed as Oedipally-or Electrica-driven, either as rivalries or as literal versions of the “complex.”  La Luna or Spanking the Monkey may be incestuous mother-son seductions but is that really the theme of The Graduate with Mrs. Robinson and her seductee, Ben?  There is a time-honored fascination with older women by younger men, even if it is laced with anxiety. Performance anxiety is not the same as incestuous anxiety. All adventures of the flesh are not primal surrogates.  As Freud is quoted as saying, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”


Indick closes his journey through personality theory rather fittingly with the most modern take on the subject, that of the Existential theorist-practitioner, Rollo May.  It explores the drama and conflict of people coming to a point in the road, not at Erikson’s eighth and final stage, but anywhere in life where life loses its meaning and the hero or protagonist is anxious or depressed or angry because he feels that life is useless, pointless, or meaningless.  It is the point in a life story where the roadmap to life has reached a dead end and one doesn’t know where to go. In Adlerian terms, the construction of reality, the fictions by which we all must live to give coherent life narratives a beginning, a middle and an end, has come unraveled and one is left with fragments, shards, pieces of rope, all which at one stagewere part of tangibles which pointed the way and suddenly are mere scraps with no guidance to offer. 


Indick explores such films as Star Wars, and John Wayne’s and Charles Bronson’s vengeful heroes in The Searchers to look at separate streams of existential conflict, the death of innocence in Luke’s story, and daemonic quest, the singular obsession. In the instances of Bronson and Wayne’s roles.  He also shows how the loss of memory and the horrific and consequent loss of personal identity can provide the true quest for identity as a film storyline.  Films such as those cited by Indick, such as The Bourne Identity, Spellbound, and Memento and others like Random Harvest, show how this quest is all-powerful and a timeless piece of business for audience fascination.  He might have also discussed the existential emptiness of people such as Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in Casablanca or his Charlie Allnut in African Queen.  In both of these films Bogart portrays existentially lost men who find meaning again in life by sacrificing self-interest for a greater cause, providing the transcendent function that is so quintessentially important a concept in Existential psychology, one, as a plot device, providing of such a timeless appeal to audiences.

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