No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Monday, February 20, 2006

STOP! Hammer time...

Seriously, right now, stop work on that screenplay until you answer this question:

Why are you writing this?

Money? That better be your Number Two reason, buckeroo. I'll give you a pass if your Numero Uno reason is in order. Is it? (Return to the top of this post and start again.)

New Year's Resolution? It's February already. Let it go. Everybody else already did. Nobody cares if you stick to your promise to finally finish your killer screenplay. I'm one of those people. There are a lot of us. So slide your twenty pages back into the bottom drawer. You can dust it off again next January 1.

To win back your girl? Move along. This one's taken. Ahem.

Guilt? Yeah, funny how that 'paint yourself into a corner' philosophy thing works. You know, you go around telling everybody you'll write a screenplay and make it big time. That way you set up a tangible motivation to achieve your goal. There is real risk and real reward. You've already told everybody and their dog about it, so now you have to do it. If you fail, everyone will know you're a loser for real, they won't just suspect it. There are a million easier ways to prove to the people you hold dear that you're not a loser. Spending every spare minute of your time alone at your keyboard writing is not one of them. Think about it. Then switch off your computer. Go invent a cup of tea that whitens teeth as you drink. Something useful. Anything. Just stop pretending everything will be better as soon as page 120 scrolls past your screen. Just stop writing that god-awful screenplay. Just stop.

Because you can write stories! Whoop-dee-diddly-doo. Yes, I know your Uncle Bob and Aunt Wendy ooh-ed and ahh-ed after reading your short story Tick-Tock Will Clean Your Clock. "Timepieces come alive in Victorian England! Nobody's done that! Where do you get your ideas?" I bet Bob exclaimed. Wendy went on to say something like, "It's so... so visual! You should make it into a film!" And that was the point you should have thumbed the detonator button Battle Royale style, triggering the explosive collars clamped around the necks of dear Uncle Bob and Aunt Wendy. But you didn't. Dear Lord, you didn't. Instead, you took their advice and started working on a screenplay. I'm telling you now, Bob and Wendy will be triggering their own collars after reading your finished screenplay, because it will be too painful for mortal eyes to experience. Good writers do not necessarily make good screenwriters. Case on point: Stephen King. Don't get me wrong -- love the guy's novel writing. In that medium he is a god. But merciful Heaven above, let there be one spare explosive collar left for Mr King the next time he decides to pen a screenplay.

Because you can tell stories! Ah yes, the deformed twin of the equally deformed Because I can write stories! Another case on point: Clive Barker. Ye gods, Clive Barker. What an imagination. What stories! What a festering dung heap on screen! Yes, Clive Barker can tell stories -- big stories. But Clive Barker hasn't a clue how to make movies from his stories. Sure, Hellraiser was fun, and boy did it promise a glorious franchise -- until the sequel reminded us, even freakshows need to be paired with an entertaining story if you want to pull in the marks. Just because you can built elaborate, entertaining stories does not mean you'll manage to shoehorn all that into a screenplay. Screenplays are a ruthless exercise in brevity and connectivity. Nothing is wasted. Look at Who Framed Roger Rabbit if you want to learn about story connectivity in screenplay format. Almost every line of dialogue, every character action or reaction connects to something previous or something to come. Every line earns its place on the page. Can you be that ruthless? No, I thought not. Stick to novels. Bye bye, now.

To prove something to yourself? Hmmm. Is this a good motivation to drive you toward success? Um... NO! Do you think the company that buys your screenplay gives a squirrel's left nut (pistachio) whether or not you liberated yourself from some longtime inner anguish during the writing of your script? Um... NO! Do you think they care it took you three years, two ex-wives, and one collapsed lung to crank out this piece of personal salvation? Um... N--oh, forget it. Congratulations on your self-satisfaction. Welcome to the unemployment line.

Why are you writing this?

I've stripped you bare of all those excuses. Now I can remind you why you are writing this screenplay. Bogged down in words, zoomed in to extreme focus for days, weeks, months -- it's too easy to forget. Don't forget. I won't let you.

Why are you writing this?
You're writing this to make an audience suffer (gratefully).

No, bad movies don't make you suffer. Bad movies make you want to be somewhere else. Only good movies can pin an audience to their seats and make them suffer... suffer and be thankful for the experience!

Part of your job as a screenwriter is to create emotional highs and lows in your audience. How? Make the audience suffer along with the hero. Without that connection there can be no empathy. At some point in the story, the audience should cross an invisible threshold, a point where they merge in some way with the protagonist. A subconscious slipping into the protagonist's shoes. What happens to the Hero affects you, the watcher. Suffering is a great way to learn and change. Certainly evolution thinks so. With cinema, it's a safe kind of suffering. Unlike the hero, you can close your eyes at any time and avoid any oncoming unpleasantness. But with a good story you wouldn't dare skip a moment of the ride.

Emotional highs need emotional lows for contrast and reference. Suffering immediately creates emotional lows for your characters, and this in turn sets up powerful emotional highs to follow. Have you noticed in a story that affected you strongly how highs follow hot on the heels of lows and vice versa? How the Hero is celebrating victory and suddenly gets a call about a tragic accident that instantly swings the situation into an emotional low? How the Hero instinctively deviates from the Plan at the last second, and all seems lost, only to discover that the Hero's new approach was in fact the right solution -- the only solution -- to the problem. Emotional highs and lows -- suffering is the thing that enables them both.

Oh, you think comedies are the exception to this rule? Go watch Dodgeball again. When the coach is shooting balls at the players, did not your eyes squint and tear up a little bit when Justin gets it in the goolies? Or the sack of wrenches... yeeow. Suffering at its most superficial, yes, but suffering nonetheless. Next time you watch a comedy, count how many times the main character undergoes physical suffering. It's a bit of a two-edged sword for comedies: the overt physical suffering, funny as it is, primes the audience for the protagonists emotional suffering to come, but on the other hand it runs the risk of diluting the impact of any serious emotional suffering. Hey, comedy is a tough balancing act, no doubt about it.

Here's something I guarantee most of you have experienced at some time watching movies: something happens on screen and it triggers a cold electric tingle up and down your spine. (Sadly, I don't get that so much as when I was younger, but I remember the feeling vividly.) While that isn't fully fledged suffering on the audience's part, it's a darn good start. It means you, the screenwriter, momentarily tapped directly into the audience's nervous system and made them react involuntarily. You affected them. I can think of no more supreme compliment than that.

At the heart of it, screenwriters are the puppetmasters of the audience. Screenwriters manipulate the audience through the story's characters. That is a deep reach, my friends: you -> characters -> audience (millions of individuals). You do NOT want to squander that kind of opportunity.

Why are you writing this? Not for yourself, not for your girlfriend, not for your shiny new BMW.

You're writing this to make an audience suffer (gratefully).

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