On Free Will, and Screenwriting

So, philosophical question: Do we have free will?

(Actually, why worry? – If we have; great; and – if not – it’s not like we can do anything about it-?)

Yes – but – Can we write, whatever we like, in a screenplay?

(And – if we do, how does it affect the odds – the statistical probability – of that movie actually getting made?)


Bearing in mind that 98% of screenplays written are never produced:

Only 2% of screen ideas/screenplays are produced

Only 2% of screen ideas/screenplays are produced

See also:

StoryAlity #115The `Less-Than-1%’ Problem in the Domain of Film

Here is a list of some Philosophers who have written on the Philosophical Problem of Free Will – and, specifically: whether we all have it, or not. (In my view, Hume is certainly worth reading, on this topic.)

Philosophers on Free Will: http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/problem/

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) deliver pizzas to the School of Athens

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) use their Free Will to deliver pizzas to the School of Athens. (Or: are the pizzas delivering them…?)

And: I agree with other commentators, it is perhaps a scandal that since Plato’s time – we have not yet found an empirical answer to this.

(…Do we have free will? – Or, are our lives pre-determined?)

But – the problem with Free Will vs Determinism is, apparently quantum mechanics gets involved. And: we are still figuring all that stuff out. (i.e. `charmed’ quarks and the like.)


This is not a quark. It is an atom. But it is probably made of quarks, and probably so are you.

The big problem with quantum particles is, they’re mercurial and chameleonic – as soon as you look at them, they change into something else.

Do not adjust your set

These guys are having a staring competition

Anyway for now – my position on the Free Will vs Determinism question is: It is 50/50.

There is both free will and determinism.

We have both: agency and structure.

Like `love and marriage’, (or `hate and divorce’), you can’t have one without the other.

Love and Marriage

The Venn/Euler diagram of this doctoral research study (see below) reveals how “Free Will” is the over-arcing/all-encompassing Philosophical Question of enquiry.

Within that, is the Philosophical Answer: `Agency and Structure’: (Which I assert we have, 50/50, as screenwriters).

Thesis Overview

Thesis Overview

But if you want to read some great stuff on free will, see Daniel C Dennett’s Elbow Room (1984) and Freedom Evolves (2003).

And also, Koestler’s Janus: A Summing Up (1978). Here is an excerpt.

`We have seen that all our bodily and mental skills are governed by fixed rules and more or less flexible strategies. The rules of chess define the permissible moves, strategy determines the choice of the actual move.

The problem of free will then boils down to the question how such choices are made.

The chess player’s move may be call `free’ in the sense that it is not determined by the rules. But though his choice is free in the above sense, it is certainly not random. On the contrary, it is guided by considerations of a much higher complexity – involving a higher level of the hierarchy – than the simple rules of the game.

Compare the game of noughts and crosses with the game of chess. In both cases my strategic choice of the next move is `free’ in the sense of not being determined by the rules. But noughts and crosses offer only a few alternative choices guided by relatively simple strategies, whereas the chess player is guided by considerations on a much higher level of complexity with an incomparably larger variety of choices – that is, more degrees of freedom [The term `degrees of freedom’ is used in physics to denote the number of independent variables defining the state of a system.].

Moreover, the strategic considerations which guide his choice again form an ascending hierarchy… To repeat: the degrees of freedom in the hierarchy increase with ascending order, and each upward shift of attention to higher levels, each handing over of a decision to higher echelons, is accompanied by the experience of free choice.

But is it merely a subjective experience fraught with illusion? I do not think this is the case. After all, freedom cannot be defined in absolute, only in relative terms, as freedom from some specific constraint. The ordinary prisoner has more freedom than one in solitary confinement; democracy allows more freedom than tyranny; and so on.’

(Koestler 1979, pp. 236-7)

With film, the person always has the choice: whether or not to play the game (make a film) at all. By accepting the challenge, they accept certain `rules’ of certain games.

Then the question becomes: What is the best strategy? And what will deliver the best artistic `cost-benefit’ ratio?

For one (possible) strategy, see StoryAlity Theory.

– Thoughts? Feedback? Comments? All welcome.


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/


4 thoughts on “StoryAlity #42 – On Free Will, and Screenwriting

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