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Arena, Part 1

Many thanks to David, who asked I blog about Arena. Arena is a term I use with abandon, since until quite recently, I thought it was universal in that “everyone” knew what it was. I learnt it first at university and it was then reinforced for me through working for both literary agents and writing initiatives, where it often comes as part of the actual report templates: How does the writer reveal/use arena in this script? etc etc.

So Arena is important. People are looking for how you use it in your script. But what is it? Well, the dictionary defines the noun “arena” as:

1. An enclosed area for the presentation of sports events and spectacles.
2. A building housing such an area.
3. A place or scene where forces contend or events unfold: withdrew from the political arena; the world as an arena of moral conflict.
4. The area in the centre of an ancient Roman amphitheater where contests and other spectacles were held.

So not much use, then.

Or is it?

Let’s look again: presentation… events… spectacles… building… forces… contend… unfold… political…moral… conflict… centre… contests.

A good Arena presents not only a series of events for an audience or Reader, but makes it a spectacle, a visual feast. This does not mean Arena is *just* explosions, car wrecks and all those “big” things: even the smallest budget script should have an Arena. Arena does not just refer to location either. I talked of your script being a house the other day: Arena then is the bricks and mortar that help it stand up, along with structure, just like that building in the definition. The characters and story is the imagination that conceived that building: if those are the architect, then the Arena is the builder (though preferably without its arse crack hanging over the top of its jeans).

A good Arena presents forces of good/evil, right/wrong, black/white, male/female and so on – all these juxtapositions are revealed not just in the story or its characters, but in the Arena too. They contend with each other not only overtly through characters, dialogue, plot etc but covertly too and that’s via the Arena. The world they live in says a lot about them, without the need to explore it in every minute detail – this would be “on the nose”. In YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, Laura Linney’s brother moves all the way to Alaska, then returns out of the blue. He’s a fish out of water, an Outsider, connected only to the small town he and his sister grew up in by his shared history with her. Nothing else. And there are reminders of this everywhere he goes. The fact too he moved to Alaska – what we might imagine is a cold, unforgiving place – says a lot about his reasons for leaving the supposed idyll of his home town, too. Drama is conflict: they should contend with these events and problems, whether political, moral, major, minor – but the Arena, though secondary to character, storyline etc, should be central in how they do this. Scripts are, in essence, contests. Someone needs to win, someone needs to lose – if only symbolically rather than literally.

I read a lot of scripts that feel like they’re “floating in space”: the dialogue might be good, the characters interesting, yet I get no sense where they are in the world. Do they live in a towerblock or palace? Are they from deprived backgrounds, do they have dysfunctional families, idyllic childhoods? Are they moral people or seedy as hell? Do they know where they’re going in the world, or are they crashing from one disaster to the next?

Arena helps a writer with these types of question. It’s often said in “real life” that people are products of their environment. This may be true or untrue in reality – that’s a philosophical debate for another time – but in films, environments are a product of the character. You don’t write a detective story set in a sunny field, unless you want to make some kind of statement – like Kevin Andrew Walker does in SEVEN in that toe-curling finale when Brad Pitt discovers his wife’s head is in that cardboard box. Up until that moment, the city was alive, almost a character in its own right, a threat to the protagonist – which was ultimately carried out – and friend to the antagonist, who ultimately won. Yet John Doe wanted death not in the dark city that had sheltered his grim activities: rather he wanted it out in the open, before the eyes of Nature or God, in bright sunshine. A fitting comment on that character’s complex state of mind – and his need for revenge on Brad Pitt who had made John Doe envious, breaking one of those Seven Deadly Sins he had previously put so much stock in.

So Arena is the “feel of the piece”: it’s not just location, it’s the philosophy, the feelings, the places, the “what” and “why” of your script, if you will. Just like the Romans stuck Gladiators in an arena and made them fight to the death, in a way we do the same with our characters – and not just in thrillers or horrors either, where the stakes are their lives. Drama is conflict. Our characters should be fighting – maybe not literally: perhaps they’re striving for acceptance like Jess in BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM; or understanding, like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in FLAWLESS or identity, like Hortense in SECRETS AND LIES.

Tomorrow: Part 2, The Nature of Metaphor and Arena…

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16 thoughts on “Arena, Part 1”

  1. Thanks for that. I think I understand. It’s the physical world the characters inhabit, but it’s also the context of that world – yes?

  2. Welcome David, as always.

    Yes, context is a good way of describing it. An arena in a sense becomes a reflection of what the characters are going through: in BEND IT, a film about a girl football player would be all well and good, it’s harder to be a female player than a male one it seems – but what introduces even MORE conflict? Her background – her parents want her to get married to a nice indian boy, not do unladylike things like play football. It feeds into character and plot, but retains its own function too – the function of Arena, that idea of “fighting to the death”, metaphorically or literally.

  3. The simple answer is:

    Arena is the world in which your story operates.

    Keep It Simple

    Please….before my head explodes!



  4. Keeping it simple IS a struggle Shell but I completely disagree – Arena is not *just* the world in which your story operates, as outlined in the article. If it was, the we wouldn’t have those movies with strong Arenas that reflect not only the story, but the characters and their mindsets as well. Sometimes, in the case of the best writing, the Arena is a character in its own right too. The purpose of the article was to outline the separation of Arena from mere location and also propose that idea of “reflection”, which can be really effective IMO.

  5. I think a good Arena ADDS to the story as well as operates within it, like that one with Richard Gere in where he’s a Quaker or something and the one with Harrison Ford… Gonna annoy me now, what are they called!!!!

  6. Yes I do! Thanks, that would have annoyed me all day.

    I loved the Arena in that because to borrow your phrase it “reflected” the innocence of those people – they hid away, then the moment they come out into the world they’re exposed to the evils of it. And not just the adults either, but a child. It was like an invasion, a violation. It went beyond just the story – kid sees murder and needs to be protected by big American hero – but fed into the idea of an innocence lost that can never be regained.

  7. Anya, I think the Richard Gere one you mean is Days of Heaven, but I don’t think he was a Quaker. He hung out in fields a lot though ‘cos he was a farm labourer, which is where the confusion might lie ‘cos wasn’t Kelly McGillis a Quaker in Witness and also hung around fields?

    Interesting fact for the day: Richard Gere’s middle name is TIFFANY according to imdb. Never knew that was a bisexual name.

  8. Lucy Lucy Lucy, I’m going to have to insist that you give us an example of how Arena can “be a character in its own right”. Sheesh, just when I thought I’d wrapped my brain around the concept…

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