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.

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