Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Symmetry and Contrast, Unity and Conflict

Ask a prose writer what they think about screenwriters, and they're liable to respond with a harumph, a scoff, or a snort. Perhaps even a chortle. Whence this skepticism?

Many prose writers have dabbled in screenwriting, and it left them cold. There's very little room for their internal monologues. They're suddenly constrained by things like budget and audience and feasibility. Many prose writers, myself included, are infatuated with a stream of words, and how it can build up references and resonances and unique meaning. What starts out as something linear can spontaneously arrange itself into a cathedral of meaning somehow independent of time or space. There's just a beautiful new structure slowly turning in the mind of the reader. But you can't do that in a script, at least in the same way. You can't derive all from a stream of words. Naturally that bugs the shit out of prose writers.

Jeanette Winterson is the latest in that vein, upsetting British screenwriters with a recent comment about In the Valley of Elah: “Script?! There IS no script! It’s just more of that dreadful VISUAL WRITING which is gradually taking over from real writing.”

"Real" writing is, of course, prose. "That dreadful visual writing" is, well, drama. It's hard to underline just how different these two spheres are. Back in ancient Greece we each had our own god. No longer. Now we have Ms. Winterson, a very emphatically smart person, confusing the two, and finding screenwriting coming up short.

So today I want to talk about some aesthetic principles that go back to the Greeks -- some basics of visual aesthetics that are too often overlooked by ALL writers.

SYMMETRY is the quality of balance in an artwork. It's the relationship of an object to itself. Something is symmetrical if you can fold it down a line that passes through its middle, and have both sides line up with each other.

It's an essential element of unity. It tells a viewer if a piece is whole and complete. It allows a viewer to make judgments about the work. And, of course, it lets them know where they are in it.

How does this intersect with the plot structure of a script. At the center of the work we find, of course, the midpoint. Usually this is where the main character finds him or herself thrown from the frying pan into the fire. This is where a whole new level of danger and risk comes into the plot.

On the far ends of the script, we have the introduction and the resolution. In a very standard view of script structure, you'll find just inside those book ends, the inciting event and the battle scene, respectively.

What does symmetry tell us here? There can and should be parallels drawn between these stages of the script. Take the opening and the resolution: they are both equilibriums. They are relatively static states. They correspond. A writer can *build up* those correspondences as a way of underlining the contrasts between them. This is why a character breaks down in a shitty car all alone on a pre-dawn stretch of freeway in the opening, and ends up driving into the sunset with the mechanic/love object in the same car, now souped up and running smooooth.

Similarly, you've can look for symmetries between your battle scene and your inciting incident to enhance your dreadful visual writing. Often we know what the battle scene looks like better than how we get our character out of balance and into the plot. A battle scene can tell you how the inciting incident might look. Some elements will be parallel, while others will mark the dramatic distance by contrasting each other.

To make this useful, break your scenes down. Know what's actually there, on screen. If your battle scene takes place on the city square, then your inciting incident may well take place there too. Or maybe it takes place in the opposite of the city square -- say, just outside the city walls, with the other freaks. If your battle scene is all about singing until the girl falls in love with you, then maybe your inciting incident has to do with singing your way out of the heart of the same girl, or singing yourself into meeting her. Or whatever. If your battle scene is an actual battle as intricate as a chess game, then maybe your inciting incident is a chess game.

There's no science here. This is a heuristic -- something to try out to see if it's productive. There's no right answer -- just a good place to look.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Would there be a script without misbehavior? Of course not. But we're talking about something a little more precise today. Misbehavior, like a lot of good words, has an almost too particular meaning in a screenwriting context.

It's what used to be called a character flaw. Or a character's 'mode'. Or any number of different things. Most books on screenwriting talk about the central trait of the main character, and how it works best when deliberately set up in opposition to the character's goal at the end of the script. In a typical Hollywood movie, you can define virtually every beat of a main character in terms of the conflict between the defining trait and the overall goal. Work up escalating conflicts built around this dichotomy through the 12 beats of the three-act structure and you've got yourself a movie. There. I just summarized most major screenwriting gurus on plot structure. That was easy.

But why, exactly, does misbehavior work? Does misbehavior exist in real life? I think it does, in a way. We all have traits that define how we relate to the world and how it relates to us. If you're an angry person, then it probably trips you up repeatedly on your universal goal of human understanding. And no doubt there's a climax coming in which you'll need to rise above anger if you have any hope of surviving. Don't worry about it: you'll rise above it, and have a beautiful resolution, not to mention all kinds of realizations about anger. If you're a drunk, then yes, drinking will drive you through an inciting incident, plenty of second-act complications, high points, low points, and so on, before you get off the sauce just when you need it most, and manage to salvage your relationship, or graduate from college, or land your dream job.

Of course, our real life misbehaviors rarely play out as dramatically as they do in Spiderman 3. Okay, maybe that's a bad example. As in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Perhaps that is why misbehavior works. We want to see a trait we can identify (and identify with) play out through a series of conflicts. We want all the rote behavior and recurring cycles and humdrum realities of our lives to play out in some way we can vicariously enjoy. This may or may not be true.

I think that answer is just a little too simplistic, because it rests on an unexamined paradox: the best route to universal appeal is through particularity. A character must be distinct to function. He must feel 'real', even though that's the one thing he or she is not. The character must be an individual -- even though what makes her an individual is precisely what makes her universal.

Most films, in one way or another, are about people becoming more human, more evolved. It's about stepping out of a role. And THAT is where the universal appeal comes in. The filmmaker knows some basic truths about society. The average audience member spent his day fitting into an exchangeable role. We're educated for a work force. We're identified as consumers. We're groomed for interoperability, because it's much easier to sell to such a population. We're made interchangeable, because that's how you glean the most productivity from a population. We go to the gym to meet a single ideal of beauty. We dress to look more alike -- to assume a role.

Most of use, knowingly or not, identify ourselves by traits that are completely independent of us. The make of car you drive does not depend on you, but everyone knows what it means when you drive a Lexus. I am a devoted Mac person. Yes, they're better computers. But they also place me in a context. I consider myself far too smart to fall for that consciously. But I do fall for it.

I could go on. The food we eat. The religions we believe in. Our political parties.
They all function without us. They don't need or want our particularity, no matter how much they say they do. I'm not saying they're good or bad. I'm saying that their reliance on you is limited to what is general, and not what is particular.

Stories do want your particularity. They require it. It defines them. This is why writers write. And suddenly I'm a lot less jaded about how easy it is to sum up a couple decades of screenwriting books.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Forests and Trees

"But everything is like we think it is, don't you get it? Out of the million little things happening on this beach, you can only be aware of seven things at once, seven things at any given time... We never really get the whole picture. Not even a microscopic part of it... Our delusions are just as likely to be real as our most careful scientific observations."

-- Denis Johnson, quoted from Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith by David L. Ulin.

I love this quote. It explains why stories are so important. In a world of infinite complexity, we select the elements that stand out. We create our own narrative.

We tune out noises and smells that aren't relevant. We tell stories without details that don't apply. We go through life looking at the same things over and over again. The mail on the table by the door. The same television channel. The same spouse.

It's not a bad thing. It's how our brains work. We must limit the complexity that we perceive if we're going to function.

The same is true in a story. The storyteller must limit the details and define the context. The story has to have a certain unity that allows the audience to gauge the dramatic distance traveled.

Managing complexity is more or less the definition of filmmaking. If you've ever been involved in a production, you know well how one fallow assumption can explode into an incredible number of choices at the hands of a lot of different people -- the director, of course, but also the actors and the DP and the gaffer and the editor and wardrobe.

If a script is strong, everyone involved will be on the same page. The story is shared. Things move forward. If a script lacks that cohesion, then it shows itself in a million ways. The actor has one idea for the scene, but the gaffer lights for another mood. The discussions between DP and director get longer. The editor can't quite cut it all together, because he's cutting together a different idea of the movie from the one shot.

So how does a screenwriter handle this issue?


Conceit is the 'thingness' of a thing. It's the correspondence between the moment and the overall concept about the thing. Say you take a trip to sunny Hollywood, expecting to see stars sharing their chihuahuas with paparazzi beneath palms swaying slowly on a summer day. But when you arrive all you see are endless strip malls and run-down bungalows inhabited by speed freaks. That dissonance is a failure of conceit.

In a story, a writer needs to create that thingness. Usually that thingness is encapsulated in the logline. It tells the reader what to expect. It tells them if it's stars with chihuahuas or rows of nail salons. It sets up expectations.

I won't amaze anyone with my perspicacity underlining the importance of a logline. But it is an underreported fact that you must actually bring your logline into your script. It's a tool for you. It can help you solve your script problems.

Take a look at your script. How many beats *actually* sound like they come from a script with your logline? Now look at what beats you're actually happy with. See any correspondence?

No, the correspondence is not 100%. For some, there are bigger issues -- a lack of conflict, inconsistent characters, and so on. But not infrequently the solution to the problem with the beat is all about a lack of conceit. Why?

Because if you've worked your conceit out carefully, then it perfectly expresses your main characters in the main conflict and how that resolves into your message. Everything you need to move your story forward can usually be inferred from a truly good logline.

Your conceit suggests solutions. But it's also a great leveler. It tells you what works -- and usually why.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Quote of the Day

Found on the back of Tennessee Williams' Collected Stories.

"The best of my work, as well as the impulse to work, was a gift from the man in the overstuffed chair, and now I feel a very deep kinship to him. I almost feel as if I am sitting in the overstuffed chair where he sat, exiled from those I should love and those that ought to love me. For love I make characters in plays. To the world I give suspicion and resentment, mostly. I am not cold. I am never deliberately cruel. But after my morning's work, I have little to give but indifference to people. I try to excuse myself with the pretense that my work justifies this lack of caring much for anything else. Sometimes I crack through the emotional block. I touch, I embrace, I hold tight to a necessary companion. But the breakthrough is not long lasting. Morning returns and only work matters again."

-- Tennessee Williams, "The Man in the Overstuffed Chair"

DGA to Sign Deal?

Rumors are afoot that the Director's Guild (DGA) is on the verge of signing a deal with the AMPTP. This could be very good news or very bad news. Or just a rumor. For the latest check out United Hollywood.

Still more strike news: the congloms have canceled contracts on many of their top TV writing teams. This move essentially sinks the fall pilot season. It also impacts the 'upper tier' writers. So it'll be interesting to see how it all pans out.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

WGA strike

Coverage of the strike has tended toward the hackneyed lately -- journalists aren't really sure what's left to say. Dave Letterman's back with a contract. Leno's back with his producer's pushing him out onto the stage sans writers. After that it starts to drift into minutiae that just don't grab the public's attention. And so everything seems to be at a deadlock.

The truth is a lot less static, and it tells us a lot about this new world we're writing in.

First, production companies ARE in fact negotiating with the WGA, and signing agreements that by and large meet the WGA's fair and reasonable demands. "But I thought the AMPTP left the negotiating table over a month ago," you say? This is true. "Aren't the producers and AMPTP the same?" Nope.

The AMPTP is essentially a law firm hired by the major producers to deal with their labor problems. The AMPTP justifies its existence to the producers by promising to make the best deal possible -- to save the producers more money than they are paid. They have ZERO reason to negotiate with the writers.

But individual production companies DO have a reason to. They want to make movies. And so in the last few weeks, United Artists and the Weinstein Company, have signed agreements, and are getting back to work. They've essentially sidestepped their own counsel, and gone straight to the writers. It's a positive development.

But it's not probably not the biggest development happening right now. What is remarkable is that the strike is spawning a rafter of new companies focused on new media distribution. Many of these are the brainchilds (brainchildren?) of striking writers. They're betting that they can move faster and more aggressively into this Wild West than the majors can. And it's not a bad bet.

If you've worked in independent film, you know exactly how fluid the whole distribution market can be. Few filmmakers have any control over it, and it's more or less a movie killer. Why? Because without distribution you won't make a penny. Most independent filmmakers have to invest 100% of their time and energy with all the return to be determined *after* you've completed the film, and built up buzz, and all that stuff. We've been waiting for the next thing for a long time now. And who knows. Maybe the writers' strike will show us the way.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Writing Quickly

I've had two very different jobs in the last month. One was very intense -- working with a writer who agonized over every line, writing up synopses and plans of attack and random thoughts, and following that with afternoon-long consultations where we would reach consensus on how to approach every little issue. The client had very specific ideas about how every scene should go. That job felt like gem cutting -- a real precision job.

Now I'm working on the quickest, dirtiest script job I've ever had. We're changing some characters, a location, and adding some themes. The director basically wants to get an idea of what it will look like. The precision work happens later.

What's remarkable is how similar both jobs are. I've got piles of notes and some raw script. I've got all my basic screenwriting tools laid out fairly neatly (well, one more neatly than the other). While one job felt like brain surgery and the other is more like dressing a deer, both move forward most effectively when I adopt one particular perspective: the interplay between a character's intention in each scene moment, and the overall audience question of what happens next.

You can work through all the elements of your plot, character, etc. with any number of terminologies. You can pin and mount it like a butterfly until it looks exactly like the hero's journey or whatever other model you choose. It still won't write the script for you. You have to find something which a lot of otherwise smart writers somehow think they're above worrying about.

Where is my character at the beginning of the scene? What is his or her state of mind? What's in front of them? What would they do?

Often it's not actually what you want them to do. This is why a number of writers try not to look at this stuff.

But it's exactly WHY you should look at this stuff. Nine times out of ten there's a far more interesting way to let your character's internal misbehavior play out against their universal desire (or whatever terms you choose) than you'll ever map out in a synopsis. How do you find it? Character intention.

I've always found it remarkable that working from character intention always somehow leads you back to the question in your audience's head. It seems somehow obvious -- after all, the audience reads the plot through the characters. But it's fascinating to watch that interplay in action as you write.

If I don't find the character's intention leading me to the audience question by the end of the scene, I've usually done something wrong. I go back and look at my conflict, and whether I'm really listening. And sometimes I find it in my pages and pages of notes full of screenwriting mumbo jumbo. But usually I find it right there on the page in front of me, in a joke waiting to be told, or a prop sitting on a table, or in the perfect expression of that next level of meaning you dared not approach in your fancy notes.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Meeting Stories Where They Are

My apologies for the lack of posts lately. I've been serving on a jury while dealing with a pile of work. But the trial is over and the work is moving forward. I've missed blogging.

I was really depressed when I was chosen, frankly. It's no fun serving on a jury when you're self-employed. Beyond that -- I'm a pretty typical writer personality. I don't like crowded settings. I don't like institutional settings. I'm pretty much going to have a bad day if I don't get several hours to myself and my writing. So spending a week or more at San Francisco's Hall of Justice was not how I wanted to start my year.

The Hall of Justice is a true purgatory -- a gigantic complex holding everything from the county jail to the sheriff and police departments, the criminal courts, and a number of other bureaucratic offices. There's usually a line outside stretching down the block leading to an airport-style security checkpoint. All of San Francisco is in this line -- Chinese cooks to young gangbangers to mousy bureaucrats to arrogant lawyers. And of course there are cops everywhere.

I was pissed off for the first several days. My general state was dictated by bureaucrats straight out of Brazil. Gangs of teenagers roamed the halls being vaguely threatening. Arrogant lawyers traveled the halls six inches above the floor. And crowds of potential jurors stood around, shut down, sending text messages or reading romance novels. It's a very depressing place.

After a day or two I knew I was stuck there, and remembered one of those really annoying truths that follow you everywhere: Meet people where they are.

Meeting people where they are is hard when you're pissed off or don't want to be where they are yourself. It seems like it's the opposite of self-interest. The "civilized" part of your brain is often screaming no. It's much easier to keep your head down and do what you can to expedite the process.

But meeting people where they are inevitably pays off. Meeting eyes with a stranger brings that character out of their label -- Chinese immigrant cook, sh**head lawyer, stupid gangbanger, faceless bueaucrat -- and suddenly this person is telling you a story, or sharing something important, or otherwise brightening your day or changing your perspective. You ask pretty much anyone a question about where they are at that moment, and you've made a friend, at least for the day.

It struck me that this is a very good thing to remember when writing as well. Usually when I'm not working well, it feels almost like I'm looking down on my characters, like rats in a maze. I know where they're supposed to go, and I can't quite figure out why they don't go. I spend a lot of time nudging them in one direction or another. I think about my training, and I get there sooner or later. But it never feels good.

Then there are the times that I try to meet my characters where they are. I see my characters where they are in a scene, and let them open up and tell me where they're going. I let them tell me why. I listen. I meet them eye to eye. That's when writing feels powerful. That's when I write well.

There's usually a voice telling me to stick to my notes -- to stick to the plan. Not infrequently I'm writing for someone else, and it seems to make sense to treat the characters and the plot like rats moving through a maze. But it never does make sense.

Meeting people where they are brings you into the world. It wakes all you are, and makes you part of something that is both good and bad, pleasant and painful. It lets you be in your own skin.

If you write, you need to remember this. Meeting your characters where they are is the only way to know them. It's not a neat process. It's not an entirely predictable process. But you'll thank yourself when you write well.