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.

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