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…