Writing: Scripting Tradition, Or Show And (William) Tell

May 14, 2015



What really fascinates me as a writer is the question why some stories enter tradition and others don’t. There is plenty of good stuff out there that nobody reads anymore. Material that is totally forgotten but once was really en vogue, like the stories about Phantomas. Then there are stories that somehow made it into the canon even though they are dull as hell. Generations of students have suffered here and nobody, e.g. knows why on earth we still read James Joyce when there is Flann O’Brien.

Then there is a third kind of literature – good stories that are badly written. Badly, that is, by modern standards, and the myth of William Tell is one of them. Friedrich Schiller can’t be blamed for the fact that he lived a long time before HBO and that he never had a chance to watch Star Wars or to read Robert McKee. It is the story of the man who shot an apple from his son’s head to save their lives. This is one of the great dramas of world literature. Strangely, nobody ever made a decent film of it. Why is this?

I believe, the answer is that Friedrich Schiller’s play got it all wrong – dramatically not in substance – which resulted in a very poor model for a screenplay and screen writers, directors and producers are notoriously lazy. So I took this old story and made it new.

In The Stronghold, I follow the traditional three-act-structure which means that the first part is about a world which is threatened, like The Shire in the Lord of the Rings. Somebody’s life will change. The second act is about the conflict between those who want the world to change and those who do not, like when Harry Potter needs to save Sirius Black. The third act features the violent solution of the conflict and offers the best of two worlds (of acts one and two) to those who survive the struggle, this is when you return from Narnia. Yes, it is as simple as that. Poor old Friedrich Schiller used a five act structure and – big surprise! – Hollywood ignored his masterpiece. But there is more: a good thriller needs a strong bad guy.

The antagonists or villains are usually simply people who try to shape the world and create something new whereas heroes tend to be reactionaries. Heroes in general hate change and bad guys love to trigger developments which is why, in some genres, bad guys are often depicted as entrepreneurs, scientists or visionaries while heroes are – in most cases – of the type average Joe, especially when portrayed by Bruce Willis. I admit that I love bad guys in stories. So much in fact that I am working on an encyclopaedia of film antagonists with some 850 entries which will be available later this year. In The Stronghold, the bad guy is Arminius Guessler, a governor of Switzerland who tries to prevent civil war but in doing so triggers a rebellion.


Albrecht Behmel is the author of the historical fiction novel The Stronghold.