The Bag Means Your Mind

A delightful mix of insightful comments and ignorant assumptions about screenwriting... and such.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

3. Keep It Interesting

Interesting is the spackle of the creative world. Interesting is a get out of jail free card. Interesting let's you break the rules.

But most of all, Interesting keeps people watching.

There are many rules floating around about story structure. Some good. Some completely arbitrary. As far as I'm concerned Keep It Interesting is the final arbiter in all matters. If the audience wants to know (preferably has to know) what happens next you've done your job. No caveats are needed here.

In the original Star Wars, Luke isn't even introduced until about twenty minutes into the film. Even then, he's not an especially strong character. We don't mind because we are interested in this alien world that we've been introduced into, and this Darth Vader guy, he's a badass. If not for the strong and interesting characters that surround Luke we might lose interest before they even get off of the planet Tatooine.

In Patton there is a scene where Patton visits some ruins and talks about his belief in reincarnation. Completely unnecessary from a story standpoint yet one of the things that really standout as exceptional to me.

The story of Avatar is serviceable but ultimately lackluster compared to everything else the movie has to offer, but I'd watch it again (in 3-D) in an instant because the world Cameron creates is extremely interesting and detailed and well thoughtout. Did I mention the 3-D is mind-blowing? People say the story needs to stand on its own. I think that if you are interested and entertained and your not looking forward to leaving that world then the filmmaker has done his or her job. Avatar seems to end and then start up again. With a runtime of just under 3 hours you'd think that a bad thing, but I was happy it lasted that long so I could spend more time in the world.

2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps the best example of this though. This film is propelled almost solely on interest. If you are not engaged on an intellectual level, you will be bored to tears. There isn't really much of a story or a character to be found. It's as emotionally void as space is empty. And yet to me it is perhaps the finest and most perfect film I have ever seen.

The trick of it all is that these deficiencies are noticed only during post-mortem evaluation. If you are sufficiently interested, none of the things I mentioned will occur to you in the least, because you are being thoroughly entertained and under the trance of the storyteller and that is, in the end, what matters most.

Academics will deconstruct and analyze the merits of films and declare one more technically sound and therefore superior to another. And they will argue the finer points and that's all fine, but it doesn't really mean much. It's an attempt to objectify the subjective, to make the formless concrete. There might be some use there, but to me it's mostly people trying to appear smart.

I feel that I must offer at least one qualifier. I'm not saying that if you string together 50 interesting moments that you have an interesting movie. The story, above all, must be interesting and if you just start throwing randomly cool things around the story stops being interesting and the audience starts to wonder why they shouldn't leave and start clicking on random YouTube links.

So the next time you are writing and you find yourself wanting to violate point of view or leaving in an unnecessary scene ask yourself how interesting it is and then determine if it will jar the audience out of the world you've put them in. If the answer is no and it's interesting enough* then leave it in.

* That's the key isn't it. Trust your gut. If you know your audience and are trying to honor your duties as a storyteller it should be apparent whether you should kill this particular baby.

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

2. Be A Storyteller

Too many times I see it. Young screenwriters fretting about their story not fitting into some predefined template. I'm guilty of it at times. I mean who can resist the siren call of act one finishing near page thirty? When you hit it, you feel like a screenwriter. You feel like you have a handle on things. Maybe even like you belong.

The fact is that in movies you are a storyteller first and a writer second. You have to be able to tell a story without looking over your shoulder at what beats you are or aren't hitting. You need to feel the pulse of the story and instinctively know where the peaks and valleys are. You can't rely on some book or some system as a yardstick any more than you can type jokes into a computer program to determine if they are funny.

Throw away the books and the scholars and write. Write your story. If you truly understand the nature of movies. If you understand why they work and how they work and your intention is to make a movie then the story that comes forth will be a movie. It's really not that hard.

Except that it is hard. It's exceptionally hard. Thus the reason for all the books and the teachers and the beat sheets. They have their function, and that function is in learning about story and analyzing your work trying to figure out why something doesn't work. Like a lot of creative professions, you have to learn the rules, understand the rules and why they are there, and then ignore the rules trusting they will surface naturally.

I write a lot of sentence fragments. A lot. More than maybe I should. It's not that I don't know the rules of grammar (I know most of them, I swear), I just choose to ignore them on occasion because I think it promotes the ideas I'm trying to get across in an informal and entertaining way. Maybe you think it makes me look like an uneducated, talentless hack. While my mom has a right to her opinion* I have to hope against hope that at least 51% of the remaining people feel otherwise.

Here's the main problem with all of this. The problem that pretty much cocks everything up. The people with the money to make your movie aren't storytellers. They are gambling their reputation on the voodoo that you do, and that gives them ulcers. So what do they do? They read all those books and listen to all the teachers. That makes them feel like they know what you *should* be doing. And when your inciting incident doesn't happen on page 12, they demand that it be there. And unless you can convince them otherwise, hello Cookie Cutter Action Movie 12: The Sequel. Or so I've heard.

But you can't worry about that. You have your imagination and a blank page. For now it's the movie you want it to be. Be a storyteller. Be arrogant enough to know what's interesting, what the audience wants but doesn't know it yet. When you are finished writing, go back and read your work. Use the books,beat sheets, and teachers to analyze the parts that are broken and fix them.

When in doubt, be interesting. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Stay tuned for part three: Keep It Interesting.

* My mother doesn't actually think that, but it was a joke I couldn't pass up. Sorry Mom.


Saturday, January 02, 2010

1. Know Your Audience

I've been away a long time. Too long. In my attempt to come back and do some regular posting I thought I'd just jump right into the heavy stuff and start writing about my grand theories of screenwriting and storytelling. Every writer has their own (I hope) and these are mine. These posts are more for my personal posterity than to zealously scream my thoughts as the truth and the way. Since the line that divides my private/public life has all but worn away I figured I'd share and maybe drum up some discussion in the mean time.

1. Know your audience

I've struggled with whether to put this one first, but in the end I think it belongs here. More than just about any other medium, the audience is why we write. Screenplays are written to be produced. Movies get produced with money as an investment and a gamble that the investment will be recouped with ample dividends. It's the stark reality of the situation. We write so that others can see and enjoy our work. For my taste, the more the better.

And size is where we start because need to know the size of your audience. You shouldn't write a 300 million dollar fantasy film that appeals only the the art house crowd. This seems fairly obvious, so I won't waste any more space on the matter.

Moving on. The audience makes all the rules. Those rules spouted by charlatans like McKee and more honorable people like Aristotle are observations about what audiences find pleasing. We are playing their game and if they don't like what we are doing, they will take their ball and go home. What are the rules? That's another post, but I will say that there are a sparce few that feel concrete, the rest are up to a fickle audience who are free to change them without filing an amendment with The Guild.

Now you must write to your audience. What does the audience want? They want it the same, but different. This is a round about way of saying, know your genre and its conventions and create something fresh. Why didn't I just say that? Because I think it's important to acknowledge the base from which everything springs. And in the end they are the final arbiter. You write to please the audience. End of story.

DO NOT PANDER TO THE AUDIENCE! But Tom, that's exactly what you've been advocating. No it isn't. It really isn't. Just like in interpersonal relationships, the audience can tell when they are being sucked-up to, coddled, or patronized. It's kinda like. No, it's exactly like talking to the most beautiful woman in the room. You've got to be confident that what you have she wants and you have to show her that you're different than the gaggle of other guys vying for her attention. Do that and you might have a chance to get divorced somewhere down the road. But I digress.

I know some of you (maybe all of you) are saying that you have to write for yourself, that you can't write to the audience, that you shouldn't write to the market. And believe it or not I agree. First off you can't write to the market, because the market is today and not tomorrow. You've got to write what you feel is interesting and relevant to your audience.

So how can you write for yourself and the audience at the same time? That's the key isn't it. I think that if you are a writer and storyteller (two distinctly different things) then your ego says that you know what the audience wants because YOU are the audience and what you like many others will also like. That's not a license to write anything you want. Well, depending on the size of your ego, perhaps it is. I'd like to think that the good screenwriters understand where the lines are drawn and use their knowledge of themselves and the audience to weave a story the thoroughly satisfies both. I write stories that I want to see and specifically stories that I feel haven't been expressed properly on the big screen to date (as remembered by the collective conscience). Am I a good screenwriter? Ask me in twenty years.

Now all of this isn't really something you think about consciously. It's something you acknowledge and move on. I think it comes into focus more during the editing phase, when you are trying to make a sequence work or taking a calculated risk when straying from the path.

At any rate just respect the audience. It keeps you grounded and honest. Think about pro sports. The athletes that get it have a slight humility about them and know that without an audience they cannot play a game for a living and be paid handsomely at the same time.

The ones who don't are arrogant jerks.