Dances With Wolves
Script-O-Meter rating: 8
Running time: 181 minutes
Genres: Drama/Historical Epic/Adventure
A Premise Line is the key for the writer to craft a great story. Dances With Wolves, an iconic historical epic, produced in 1990, has a problem with the Premise Line, which therefore transferred to Act 1 of the script. A powerful Designing Principle saved this script from becoming a mess.
The Premise posted to imdb.com: Lieutenant John Dunbar, assigned to a remote western Civil War outpost, befriends wolves and Indians, making him an intolerable aberration in the military.
The Premise consists of: The Hero; the Inciting Incident/Event, and the Desire/Goal of the Hero. Therefore, “making him an intolerable aberration in the military” is not a Desire/Goal of the Hero. It’s the motivation behind why the army tracks him and wants to accuse him of treason. But it confuses the audience because it lacks the Hero’s Desire/Goal which carries the Hero through the entire story, all the way to the finish line, the Climax/Battle.
Also, the imdb.com Premise Line tells us nothing about the Hero – He is suicidal in the beginning of the story, yet ironically, he ends up engaged with his supposed enemy by the end of the story. This is the spine of Dances With Wolves. This one sentence tells the 181- page story in a nutshell.
Premise Reconstructed: When a suicidal Civil War hero is ironically offered a remote western outpost to honor his bravery, he engages with wolves and Indians in the frontier to save his adopted people.
Dances With Wolves is a powerful and poignant portrayal of the culture and vast civilization of the Native American Indian. It is also a look at the unraveling and systematic destruction of this native people from their lands, which they inhabited for thousands of years. Add to this a love story, a Hero’s journey to self-discovery, and a cross-cultural melding of friendship and trust.
The problems with the script mostly occur in Act 1. A writer, whether it’s a screenplay, a novel, a stage play, or a t.v. pilot has to decide up front how to open the story. If the story is to have a Narrator, then the storyteller should inform the audience immediately. The audience needs to trust the Narrator or they won’t engage in the story. The Narrator becomes a type of middle man between the characters in the story and the audience, so trust is important. The narrator can be the Hero or the point of view character or an unrelated narrator, similar to documentary style.
The Hero as storyteller/Narrator comes in Sequence 1, page 11, after the Hero is declared a soldier of the highest order. He explains as storyteller/narrator his elevation to the status of a living hero, even though his goal was suicide. He’s awarded his horse, Cisco. But the narration is thrust upon the audience, and it seems an unnatural intrusion, an annoying plot device.
The next problem with the script: When to show the Hero crossing a type of threshold to journey to the Story World where the plot will unfold and eventually unravel into deep and poignant drama/adventure. On page 17, the Hero’s journey to the plains begins. This is muddled and lacks focus because there is very little motivation or set up for the journey. The suicide attempt is not enough for the audience to buy into the Hero’s announcing his Desire/Goal of wanting to journey to the West before it is gone. And again, the Hero’s Desire/Goal in the script is not the Premise Line of the story.
As the Hero gets his crumpled up paper of useless orders to an outpost in the middle of the Civil War, which is depicted as equally useless, he sets out on his journey with a “foul smelling” wagon driver.
There is a crosscut to the intake officer, who puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. We do not know why he has committed suicide, but we guess it’s because he sees the uselessness of war.
What’s wrong with Act 1 is that it does not deal with the Hero’s psychological/moral weaknesses from page one. The opening scene is where he is about to have his leg cut off in the Civil War. Then he runs through an open contested field with the North and the South on either side. He wants no part of this and wants to commit suicide. But why? Other soldiers don’t want a part of this either. So, why are we learning about this particular soldier. How is he vested in the senseless killing? Is it because he wants to see the West before it is gone that he leaves the killing fields? Considering the Story World of 1863, the Hero’s motivation is more of the writer’s motivation thrust upon the Hero. It’s 1990 motivation in retrospect. And that’s why it seems thrust upon the audience and hackneyed.
The Designing Principle of Dances With Wolves is that not only is the West gone, but an entire culture and civilization of the Native American Indian are gone due to the lies and corruption of mankind.
The Hero, whose desire is to see the West before it is gone, goes through a powerful Self-Revelation at the end of the story, due to a well-constructed Designing Principle. As mentioned, where the story is weak is in the Premise or spine of the story. Dealing with the Hero’s Weakness/Need means that we see the Hero’s flaws and misperceptions. The choice of Narrator is good in order to tell an historical epic, but the writer needs to avoid the chronological telling of the story or it gets the audience off the Narrative Drive. The use of time jumps is acceptable because that is what storytellers do. Act 1 seems slow and unfocused because the time jump was not employed.
If the Inciting Incident on page 11 is that the Hero is declared a soldier of the highest order, we do not need the Narrator to tell us the irony here because the Hero was trying to commit suicide. This seems preachy and unnecessary. The audience gets the irony. The journal for time jumps is a better use of Storyteller and is seamless for the audience acceptance of a Narrator.
A possible fix to the problems with Act 1:
With a narrator from the first page, a battle ensues where the plains Pawnee Indians fight against the Sioux, the Hero’s eventual adopted people. At the point of determining who the winner is, the time jump occurs to, “One year earlier.” Then we see the Hero almost getting his leg cut off in the throes of the Civil War. Then the Hero has an altercation with other soldiers which shows us his flaws. The “Indians, nothing but thieves and beggars” line should come in here. Then comes the Inciting Incident, which should be the Hero being told he can choose any army base he wants. We would know the irony here because this is a “Hero” who is given an honor based on a lie- His Desire to commit suicide in an open field of a useless battle.
At the 20- minute mark, or the beginning of Sequence 3, the Hero on his journey to a questionable destination with a mule skinner, finds a foreboding skeleton plus an arrow in the plains.
20:07- Instead of the journal entry narration about the mule skinner, “He is the foulest man I’ve ever met,” an entry could be about the mysteries that lie ahead, as the
Hero bonds with Cisco, his horse. Cisco plays a role in this story – He’s a horse with tremendous courage and loyalty. It should be: Horse and man on the Great Plains. Wide vista.
Then the new information Reveal: an abandoned outpost. Who lived and died here? The Hero carries his equipment and cut to the mule skinner in the distance.
The Indians murder the “foul smelling” white man, whose only concern is that the Indians won’t kill his donkeys. With his last breath, the white man is not concerned for himself. Is he a morally corrupt person if he only cares about the well being of his animals? This is a rather noble way to die. We are shown that the Indians are brutal in their merciless killings of white men, even those who are “foul smelling.” At this point, we think the Opponents are the Indians. The Hero sets up his outpost and Two Socks, the wolf shows up. Cisco and the wolf are his only companions.
At the close of Act 1, the Hero discovers the remnants of an attack on settlers, and then the Hero sees a dead moose in the water.
At the 30-minute mark, or the Story Beat called The Plan, the Hero uses Cisco to cart off the dead moose. There’s a big fire. The Hero prepares for battle with the Indians.
Into Act 2, the Hero still sees the Indians as the Opponents, as does the audience. His interaction with Two Socks and Cisco; his journal of observations all show the audience his flaws and what he really needs, even though he thinks he needs to wait for help to come to his post, which nobody knows about. All the while, he is being watched by the Sioux. They have a parley to decide what to do about him. He discovers caves and writes about it. Men have been living in these caves.
The Wolf sits and watches.
Narrator: It’s been over 30 days. I will name him 2 Socks.
An Indian tracks the Hero and watches him. Gunfire.
An Indian tries to steal Cisco and runs off. The Hero makes no move to kill the Indian. Cisco breaks loose and returns. We see the bond between horse and man.
And the Narrator says: Made first contact with Indians.
The plot should then move forward to show the evolution of the Hero’s Character Arc. It should not be a chronological progression. The Hero, who yearns to see the West before it is gone, is really a lonely and disconnected man. We need to know why. This is part of the Hero’s Ghost, which should come out as the Hero keeps getting more Reveals about what these plains are really about and who these Indians really are.
There are Mythological elements to the Hero as well: He goes on a journey and fights unknown elements and opponents. He is reborn in a cosmic sense, in front of his adopted people. He has an elderly mentor. He is chained and beaten like a slave, but breaks free. His Story World is a moving Arcadian village, an adventure and American myth story of the West that has vanished.
The Hero comes upon a female Indian who is bleeding. Later we will learn these are self-inflicted wounds because she is grieving her husband’s death. We also see that with blue eyes, she is a white woman. The Hero picks her up and carries her to the Indians and they are shocked and angered about having anything to do with a white man. All of the preceding events are obvious plot devices to get the Hero together with his love interest. But done correctly, with the Hero’s character arc in mind, it is a natural evolution.
The Hero is wrong about the Indians; the love interest, whose parents were murdered by the Pawnee, is wrong about the white man, as she now thinks like an Indian; and the Sioux are wrong about this white man. Although, tragically speaking, the Sioux are right about the other white man who lies to them; signs a treaty they break; commits genocide against their people; steals their lands; eradicates their food source, the buffalo.
When we come to 54:00 minutes/pages in the script – This is Arcadia. Teepees, horses. Children. This is a true evolution of Story World: From the bloody battlefields of the Civil War to the army outposts, to the vast, uninhabited plains, to the Arcadian village of the Sioux- all ushered in by Two Socks the wild wolf and Cisco the beloved horse. Land, people, tools, the plains, the village- Everything inside the village is safe and pure. Outside the village is danger.
This is the point in the Hero’s arc where the Opponents are not all the conflagration of lies he’s been told in white society. And for the “Opponents,” the Hero is the first white man they have ever known. The Hero is the opposite of everything they have been told about how a white man behaves. This is their character arc.
As Act 2 progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that this Arcadian vision and way of life are going to be stomped out. The scenes with buffalo herds stampeding in the night and the Hero’s jubilation in informing the Sioux are juxtaposed with the scene of massive slaughter of the buffalo. This said it all. Greed and corruption and genocide. The extermination of 60 million buffalo and the ultimate destruction of a culture and civilization. No words are necessary. It’s show, don’t tell at its salient best.
To continue with the fix for the problems in Act 1, the Act 2 battle with Sioux vs. Pawnee, with the Hero fighting with the Sioux- This connects back to the beginning of the script and the Sioux/Pawnee battle. The story then moves with forward Narrative Drive to its poignant Climax/Battle in Act 3, heart wrenching as it is.
The Hero suicidal in the beginning, but having found his purpose in life with his wife and his adopted people, the Sioux and the beauty of their culture- this is his Self-Revelation. He knows he must go with his wife and he must separate himself so that the white man, who are tracking him for treason, will not slaughter his people, his beloved people.
Through the eyes of the Hero, we see the symbolic murder: Two Socks; Cisco; the extermination of a valuable food and survival source, the buffalo and then the civilization of the Native American Indian; the respect for land and environment; all living things as part of their religion.
We get the overlay at the end:
Thirteen years later, their homes destroyed, their buffalo gone, the last band of free Sioux submitted to white authority at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The great horse culture of the plains was gone and the American frontier was soon to pass into history.