Same Story, Different Tone

Watch “Dr. Strangelove” and you’ll see a darkly humorous satire on the Pentagon and nuclear war planning. Yet if you read the book that “Dr. Strangelove” was based on, you’ll notice something odd.

The book, called “Red Alert”, tells the story about a B-52 commander who’s convinced that the best way to defeat the Russians is to launch a first strike nuclear attack. His plan is to attack Russia by fooling his B-52 bomber crews that a war has been declared. Then after his B-52 bombers strike Russia, the United States will see their advantage and launch a full nuclear attack.

“Red Alert” treats the story as a serious drama. In fact, when Hollywood purchased the rights to t he book, they also titled the movie “Red Alert.” Then director Stanley Kubrick kept editing scenes to avoid making them comical and satirical. Finally he gave up and decided to make the movie as a dark comedy.

If you read the book “Red Alert” and watch the movie “Dr. Strangelove,” you’ll notice something ironic. The movie “Dr. Strangelove” follows the book “Red Alert” very closely except for the ending and the character of Dr. Strangelove.

Yet if “Red Alert” treats nuclear war seriously while “Dr. Strangelove” treats it as comical, how can they be based on the same plot and characters?

The secret is that it’s never the plot that tells a story but how the writer defines that story. One of the biggest problems screenwriters face is plotting. They may start with a great idea but have no idea how to develop it.

The simple solution is to look for a similar story and use that same plot. Then craft your story around this same plot.

This is the reason why “Romeo and Juliet” translated into “West Side Story”. It’s the same story but with different settings and characters. Because the setting and characters are different, the story is different even if the plot is largely the same.

So don’t bang your head against a wall trying to re-invent the wheel by creating a brand new plot. Simply borrow the plot of a similar story and twist it around. As “Red Alert” and “Dr. Strangelove” proves, you can tell the exact same story in wildly different ways to the point where few people would even recognize “Red Alert” as the basis for “Dr. Strangelove.”

Remember, the plot is never as important as the story and the story is based on the characters. Change the characters and you literally change the story even if the plot is the same. “Red Alert” and “Dr. Strangelove” prove that.

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