the screenwriter vs. FEAR

Written by J.R. Jarrod on May 25th, 2023

J.R. Jarrod is a genre screenwriter whose scripts have ranked highly in numerous prestigious competitions. He was the writer-director and star of the independent feature film Divided We Stand. J.R. has a BFA in film, minor in drama, from Syracuse University and an MFA in directing from Columbia University.

"Worldview." Simply put: a fundamental perception. Not a new concept by any means, yet when applied to the art of screenwriting it can lead to a previously untapped mastery of theme and subtext in the tales we writers craft. To undertake this journey, first we are tasked with harnessing the most primal potentially debilitating emotion there is: Fear. Yes: capital 'f.'

We draw subconsciously from certain elements of worldview when we craft our characters' journeys in a screenplay. We chart their course, drawing from our life's own treasured belief systems. The worst examples of this type of writing can often elicit dreaded phrases like: "it was a little too on the nose." When we dare to dig deeper into the themes that reappear in our work, Fear begins stalking us — dissuading us from pressing on, keeping the necessary thematic breakthroughs perpetually out of focus.

If we take a step back we can discern that worldview is evident in the writer's everyday life, in ubiquitous phrases like: "why don't you just...?"; "you really should..."; "all you have to do is..."; "it wasn't supposed to happen this way." Such statements are all about the same thing: core assumptions about the way we believe the universe is designed to work. We perpetually dip our proverbial pens into the deep inkwells of those thematic premises — those worldviews — to draft our cinematic tales.

We're often unwilling to venture into that inmost cave to do the grueling work of examining what we truly believe. Razzies and Rotten Tomatoes are reserved for works with stagnant characters, meandering plots, setups bereft of payoffs, and dialogue pontifications that spurn page count. The annals of cinema are replete with passion projects that flopped critically and financially (some even after decades in development) because no one challenged those writers' worldviews, and the writers most likely remained ignorant of the same.

How many of us have rewritten our scripts and been pleasantly surprised (in the best scenario) or grimly embarrassed (in the worst) to discover we've changed in imperceptible ways and our screenplay had to change to reflect our new reality...our new 'truth?' Each time we refine one of these rare nuggets of self-knowledge, Fear cringes, bereft of its power of obfuscation. In doing so we have courageously mounted a "mining" operation to unearth rich thematic ore — the raw material for our worldview. This work spans the years of our evolution from novitiate writer to virtuoso.

As our diligent excavation into this unexplored mental labyrinth continues, we're besieged by our frailties — the terrors, anxieties, biases and, let's be real, the artistic or technical deficiencies we must transcend in order not only to succeed at our craft but to grow personally in the process. Whenever we gain traction Fear tempts us to cower under its lies: 'you're not witty enough'; 'you'll never sell this drivel'; 'people like you don't write stories like this'; and the crippling 'who do you think you are?'

Under this assault, the fast-burning matchstick of our initial story inspiration flickers to a pinpoint. We panic. The surge of clarity that provided the gumption to craft another script has waned. Beat sheets, outlines, digital index cards, post-its and/or whiteboards appear stagnant, demotivating, even presumptuous. The haunting echoes begin anew: 'there's already a movie like this from a repped writer.'; 'you actually went to school for this?'; 'even if this does get made the critics will have you for second breakfast!'

Every play in our playbook has been run. All snacks, distractions, excuses, ruminations: depleted and worn thin. Real-world obligations mount and persist. Vital relationships threaten to evaporate or remain forever shallow without earnest reciprocation from us. Too far along to turn back, paralyzed by not knowing the path ahead (if there even is one), we stall. Those who care about us wonder if they're truly helping us by still encouraging us to pursue this...(they mutter the 'H' word)...(no, not manure...the other 'H' word...the one that rhymes with 'lobby'). All the while Fear enjoys the show from an outcropping, munching popcorn and appreciating the irony.

In an age of 'participation trophies' where the 'also ran' presumptively demands equal recognition, we ask ourselves what is the impetus to succeed if success has been redefined as merely 'kind of trying?' Why push ourselves to be extraordinary? Who cares what we really believe? We try to bolster ourselves by considering that we writers are among the bravest of sojourners, persisting despite shadows cast by the obstacles of life. We are encouraged (and at other times stung) by the same delights and daggers as our colleagues, friends, lovers and families. Those selfsame fears we proclaim that we, by our own peculiar brand of alchemy, can transform into narrative catharsis. We persist because inherently we believe we have something of societal value to express: a construct to induce emotional healing, stimulate thought, or engender rapture.


Newly invigorated we trudge further into the abyss of Fear. It curses, escalating its attack. Disembodied voices feverishly call us insane. Unwavering though still engulfed in darkness, we feel ourselves marginally ascending the rocky slopes of our inspirational breakthrough.

By a glimmer of light we see the etchings of previous cave dwellers who battled Fear. Their primordial constructs — genre base-pairs — scrawled along the walls to forever inspire 'ye who enter here' not to abandon all hope. Their rudimentary scribble strikes us elementally like lightning. Narrative equations of Fear...clearly deciphered...

...drama: the protagonist vs. the status quo...musical: the protagonist vs. the banal...horror: the protagonist vs. mortality...rom-com: the protagonists vs. the hand of fate...sports: the protagonist vs. the champion...superhero: the protagonist vs. ultimate evil...comedy: the protagonist vs. absurdity...noir: the protagonist vs. base instinct...

Fear has been unmasked. Its DNA laid bare. With this epiphany we are no more prey, but hunter. Armed with this discovery we grasp the key to narrative success; we must mine our protagonist's most fundamental motivation: 'I want.' And we relate to that why? Because as writers we continue to persevere because we want.

We can accomplish this with one simple worldview gut check. We must gauge our own reaction to the most basic of human assumptions: 'bad things shouldn't happen to good people.' Sit with it. Ponder it. Agree with it or rage against it. Perhaps then you may finally see the irony that we create tales in which bad things do indeed happen to 'good' order to transform them. So why do we cringe at being transformed through pain and disquietude ourselves? Why do we think our writing should come easily? Why do we instinctively reach for that luscious latte of procrastination when we instead should be embracing the no-frills frustration of breaking a new story? Are we worldview hypocrites? That deeper level of self-examination creates a temblor that rattles Fear off its precipice and makes it scramble to regain the high ground.

With Einsteinian precision we redraft the protagonist's journey in transcending their own philosophical limitations. The protagonist must encounter the unstoppable force embodied in one entity: the antagonist. Namely, the 'other.' As in our own lives, they're the person who defiantly or graciously tells us we're wrong; who has everything we want or embodies what we despise. They are those who contradict us; who don't eat at our table; who live in 'that' neighborhood; who don't look or speak or think like us. And as that revelatory twist in Alejandro Amenábar's 2001 film reveals, once we become truly attuned to the power of worldview, we realize that to them we are THE OTHERS.

This realization equips us to humanize the depiction of our protagonists and antagonists alike...even as the process of doing so further humanizes us. It's not easy. It involves compassionately (or at least objectively) illustrating that which we may fundamentally disagree with, for the sake of story. We must unobtrusively layer the screenplay with a chorus of 'incidental' characters spanning the spectral range of those ideals.

Fear rages, knowing we're onto the true work of writing: willingly challenging our own beliefs. Worldview is not merely intellectual; it must be imbibed, examined and perpetually recalibrated. Thus the dance begins, superintended by the writer, along the knife-edge separating neurosis from transfiguration.

Ready to run the gauntlet with renewed vigor, through more editing, streamlining, persistence, we finish the draft and distribute it to trusted personal and professional allies. The readers experience the journey and enjoy our delicately-engineered catharsis. Praised on tongue tips, disseminated by fingertips, through texts, emails and packets, the script soars.

Emaciated, Fear skulks back into the nether and resets its snare, equally content to trap either the neophyte writer or the insufferably self-assured.

As the sun sets and crowns again, we who have successfully used the compass of worldview to defeat Fear now know it's within our power to deftly plot the greatest shapeshifting trickster reversal of all. We can indeed harness the internal, raging, esoteric, portentous dread that arises upon conceiving each new screenplay, and we can transform those emotions into the robust living engine that propels us toward the light, enabling us to triumphantly brandish the glistening, well-forged, two-edged blade of narrative adventure.