Writing for Social Justice & Ethical Screenwriting

Have you ever asked yourself why did you decide to tell stories in the first place? 

There could be multiple reasons ranging from making wealth and being famous to satisfying an artistic exigency. Or are you trying to prove something to yourself? Your family? Maybe it is an unexplainable internal urge within you that just needs to manifest itself?

While all the above-mentioned reasons are incredibly valid, it tends to be that most often storytellers want their voices to be heard and their stories to be remembered. People who find interest in writing stories, often want to make a real change in the world, influence people, and leave a significant footprint in culture. 

We believe that the most powerful stories are the ones that tackle relevant social issues and expose the injustices that we face as humanity. These stories tend to have a lasting impact on the viewer and often promote the ideals of social justice. They often provide solutions to the issue, spread awareness, and cultivate a sense of hope. 

Yet writing for social justice is not a simple endeavor. There comes a certain level of responsibility with it, and it is important to understand ethical foundations when writing for social justice. As a screenwriter, you bear responsibility for how your stories might affect your viewers. 

In this article, we will introduce concepts related to writing for social justice and ethical screenwriting, giving you the tools and food for thought you’ll need.

Storytelling can Change the World

What is a more impactful way to make a change in the world? Art seems like the best medium to communicate ideas through visual symbolism, form, and content. 

Think about art for a second, and how it has been used throughout the centuries to convey meaning.

Throughout the Roman Empire, artists were commissioned to craft portraits of Emperors and nobles to convey their potency and power. Some of those portraits were meant to instill respect or even fear amongst citizens, integrating the power of the rulers. 

During the time of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda machine had effectively used art and movies as means of indoctrination. Films like Triumph of the Will (1935)  or Refugees (1933) were meant to unite Germans under a common national identity, instill extreme patriotism, and show the impeccable power of Hitler. 

Throughout history, art has been often used as a tool to consolidate power, and sometimes even instill fear in people. But what if this can be reversed and art is used to promote ideas of social justice and helping others?

Writing for Social Justice

With the rise of Social Justice Movements towards the end of the 20th century, a variety of artistic factions started emerging to promote the ideals of social equality. With the technological advancements and expansion of the entertainment industry, filmmaking became a platform that has given voice to artists of underrepresented communities and their allies. And more and more screenwriters started writing for social justice.

People, who have previously been silenced, have finally received an opportunity to publicly talk about oppression, inequality, or simply their day-to-day life using both documentary and fiction filmmaking. 

Storytelling in the digital age amplified the success and influence of rising social justice movements. Since more and more people started watching films and consuming digital content, storytellers became more liable than ever for the ideas that they share with the public. 

Think about it for a second. Films can influence people in many ways. They can inspire a person to do something positive, but also as you saw in the case with Nazi Germany, can influence people to do unthinkable deeds. 

Before starting to work on a story, it is essentially important to be transparent with yourself. How are you writing this film in the context of social justice? Be honest when you make a decision, and most significantly know WHY are you set to tell this particular story?

Knowing your WHY

So what is the deal about knowing your WHY?

This goes back to being honest and authentic with yourself. One needs to understand the reason for making the film / writing a particular screenplay in the first place. 

What is your reason for telling this particular story? Once you will answer this question, you will know your WHY. Essentially, WHY is your artistic purpose, the reason why you set out for the writer’s journey. Understanding your purpose and behind a particular project will assist you with decision-making when it comes to liability and responsibility. 

Knowing you’re WHY won’t only make you a better filmmaker, but will also provide a deeper insight into yourself. 

Here are some other questions that are useful to ask yourself before starting a particular project, to understand your WHY: 

  • What is there that has attracted you to tell this story? What are you going to accomplish if you tell this story? 
  • Why are you the one to tell this story? What is so unique about you, and how will telling this story affect your life? Think about whose story you are telling. Do you have a right and proper understanding of this story? Ethical decision-making is incredibly important as you need to acknowledge whether you are in the position to tell this story. 

Choosing your Theme

Knowing WHY you are set to tell a particular story, will help you identify themes you want to explore in your film better. 

At the core of each film, lays a strong and overarching THEME. 

Take 2020’s Oscar-Winning Parasite. While the film had a variety of subthemes and genres intertwined together, the film first and foremost was about class. This theme was so well-pronounced and elaborated in the film, which is why it has resulted in such powerful storytelling and effective critical acclaim.

Having a strong theme would aid in creating a compelling story. Ask yourself, what is it that matters to you? What themes resonate with your being? What is it you really care about that you want to share with others?

Here is a shortlist of global universal themes, that resonate practically with all kinds of audiences. There is something universal and primal about them, as these concepts are intrinsic to each and every one of us. As an exercise for your next project choose one of the listed themes and see into which one of those thematic categories, does your story fall. 

  • Life and Death. 
  • Family. 
  • Survival and Revenge. 
  • Love and Sex.
  • War. 
  • Society and Class. 
  • Change and rites of passage. 
  • Success and failure. 
  • Dreams. 

Now that you have your why, and understand what themes speak to you, you can proceed with applying those insights to characters, plot, and dialogue when writing for social justice.

Working with Characters, Plot, and Dialogue

Characters

Your characters are your best tools when it comes to exploring a particular theme. They could be an embodiment of a particular theme. Or in contrast, the character can be an antithesis, to an idea that you are trying to promote. 

Having contrasting characters, with clashing ideologies is a great way to challenge your theme and present various points of view. Treat your characters as actual human beings, with very elaborate psychology, and humane flaws. Do not waste your characters, by making them primitive and not multi-dimensional. 

If you are working with a period piece or a biopic, make sure you well-research characters based on real people. You will need to make some ethical decision-making on how you want to portray your character. Are they more of an antagonist or a protagonist? Is your portrayal of the character reflective of the actual events? 

Take those issues into consideration, as you don’t want to acquire a bad reputation for presenting real people in a bad light; neither you want a lawsuit.


Plot

The plot is a narrative sequence of events connected by the principle of cause-and-effect. 

Always be authentic to your story. For instance, let’s imagine you are writing a biopic about a particular civil rights movement. Now, you are responsible to make sure that the story is authentic and as true to the real events as possible. 

If you are working on a fiction film based on real events, it happens that some elements of the plot can be dramatized and some things get to change. However, you always need to be prepared by doing your research, knowing the story well, and understanding your agenda. 

Everybody has their agenda when it comes to writing your film, largely because we are all individuals with subjective mindsets and points of view. Acknowledging your agenda, make sure it corresponds with your WHY, and your code of ethics. 


Dialogue

Writing dialogue and establishing characters, are principally interrelated. It is with the dialogue that your characters come to life. 

For a more effective characterization, make sure that your character has a strong and unique voice, and that each character sounds different from one another.

When it comes to the intersection of ethics and dialogue writing, chose the words of your characters as carefully as you chose your own. Establish a set of values and morals for each of your characters. This will truly make them come alive. 

Think about whether your character will be using derogatory words or swearing. If you do end up using those, make sure they fit the psychological portrait of the character, and they are not just there because you felt so. 

Once again, see if written lines for each character fit the overall verisimilitude of the world and if their spoken words are appropriate for your world/period/genre/target audience. 

Ethics of Violence and Nudity in Films

When it comes to ethics and screenwriting, there is an imperative subject matter waiting to be discussed: violence. 

Violence

Violence in films has always been a controversial topic. On one hand, it can mentally traumatize the viewer, especially when it comes to a younger audience. You never know the emotional maturity of your viewer, therefore there is a risk that it can affect them negatively. 

In addition, violence in film can evoke racial, ethical, cultural, or personal trauma.  

On the other hand, for a certain type of audience, violence (in particular in genre films like action or horror) entertains, and sometimes even possesses a therapeutic quality. Scientific research has proven that with the release of adrenaline, certain horror viewers have felt relief and a state of emotional catharsis

Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino or Wes Craven, are well-known for an exaggerated amount of violence in their films. However, those are genre movies, and a viewer knows exactly what to expect when watching one of their flicks. If you are a first-time filmmaker, I would not suggest you gruesomely killing characters or have an unreasonable amount of violence without a necessity. 

Indeed, the depiction of graphic violence is a controversial topic. Make sure you consider the following points before introducing violent scenes in your film. 

  • Is this depiction of graphic violence necessary? What does it bring to the story? Maybe there is a less gruesome way to kill somebody or perhaps it fits your story better if you show no violence at all? When you think about these questions, always refer back to your WHY. Your artistic purpose will help you with making those challenging decisions. 
  • Does violence have to be graphic? Or perhaps it is better to leave it off-screen? Sometimes implied violence has a more profound effect on the viewer, in contrast to the one shown on-screen. Think about building suspense, and playing with the audience’s anticipation, with implying rather than directly showing. The images created in one’s hand can sometimes be way more graphic and horrific than the ones virtually depicted. 

Nudity

The same mindset applies when it comes to the depiction of sexual content and nudity. Body image and the depiction of nudity remain controversial issues. Some consider the explicit demonstration of nude body parts to be pornographic content. 

In certain regions due to ethical, religious, or social charter, demonstration of the nude body remains a taboo. In others, the depiction of the nude body incarnates a progressive mindset and stride towards open minded-values. 

But once again, before incorporating sexual imagery and nudity into your story, consider the following points:

  • Is the sex scene/depiction of nudity necessary? Does visually demonstrating a nude body have a certain artistic value or is it just for the sake of sexual stimulation?
  • Is the demonstrated nudity derogatory? Does it objectify a particular character or gender? In particular, when you are dealing with heavy topics such as domestic abuse, sexual assault, or human trafficking, make sure you know enough about the topic, and your imagery won’t provoke a traumatic response. 

In Conclusion 

Moving images are complicated and purposefully arranged pieces of artwork. They can influence the audience in incredibly elaborate ways. And if it is something you are considering as a life-long career, make sure you comprehend the ethical aspects of it. 

Don’t forget that your film can inspire the audience for something great, but by the same token it can provoke or traumatize. Be responsible when you are making storytelling decisions, know your moral code, and make sure you are listening to your conscience. 

At the end of the day, the greatest value of any story is to spark change and cultivate hope. This why its so important to understand ethical screenwriting and writing for social justice.


Further Reading List: 

  • Screenwriting with a Conscience by Marilyn Beker
  • Ethics in Screenwriting: New Perspectives by Steven Maras
  • Storytelling and Ethics: Literature, Visual Arts, and the Power of Narrative by Hanna Meretoja and Colin Davis

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