Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Practice Safe Storytelling

The truth is, the tragic note that should be given about many scripts that are on the floors, desks, chairs and trunks in Hollywood is, “This script should never have been written.” Scripts get written that shouldn’t, in the same way unplanned pregnancies happen. People who may or may not be writers have a one night stand with a cheap idea and then, a few weeks or months later, push out a draft. What should have happened is a hard conversation between the person and their story idea before they jumped into Final Draft together. “Are you really the one for me?” “Are you going to be able to support a whole screenplay?” “Is there any theme underneath your spectacle?” “Is it really you I love, or is it because you remind me of somebody else?” “Is this going to be something we both get sick of in a few months?” The only good news is, you never really get naked with a bad story, but you are rarely better for having let yourself get seduced by a sexy pitch.
Once the script exists, very few people have the obnoxiousness and intestinal fortitude to say to the hapless and half-had creator, “You made a big mistake in starting this.” I wish I had the courage to say it more often, because, if you don’t say it, then you end up spending a tremendous amount of time doing what I think of as, “Tweaking Crap Around the Edges.” It always reminds me of when I was a little girl and how I hated eating liver. My cousin told me to cut it up in really really small pieces and get it down that way. But I remember trying the experiment and concluding at about age six, that you could cut up and cover up crap, but it’s still gonna taste like crap.
Not long ago, I gave notes on a script that is, for reasons known only to the movie gods – whom I’m convinced more and more are dark, dark spirits – going ahead at a production company. Basically the company knows the project is in trouble but they have already spent too much money on it to abandon it so they are going to plunge ahead hoping against all probability that a wonder of a movie will come out of a script of chopped liver.
Still, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good, and so I thought I could share some of the reasons why the project is failing for folks out there struggling with their own difficult screenplay relationships. Here are notes to help you not get used.
A) First Note: This Script Was Not Written By a Writer 
Writing is a talent. Talent means you are naturally, weirdly good at something that other people can not do. You know you have writing talent if your writing elicits an emotional response from people. You know you have talent if you know what you write is good. You KNOW it.
And then, even natural born writers need some degree of training. You can no more sit down and spew out a screenplay without having studied the craft, than a brain surgeon could just crack open a skull and start scalping. Training gives a writer appreciation for the complexity of good writing. As Thomas Mann so wonderfully noted, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
This is the kind of note that gets written on scripts that are not written by people with writing talent or training (examples are all from real scripts):
– The language in this script is clunky and the word choices awkward. (i.e. “Mary straddled a phone on her shoulder.”
– The scenes are over-written (ie. John stands nervously looking at his face in the bathroom mirror over the sink near the shower two feet from the window.”).
– There doesn’t seem to be any theme or subtext underlying this piece. The writer doesn’t seem to have any burning thing she wants to say. She has done a job, but never taken ownership.
– There is no charm here. No fun. No magic. Nothing that feels fresh or creative.
– There is nothing to learn here. The writer has nothing to teach or share.
B) Second Note: Not a Story but Lots of Chit-Chat in Different Places
Aristotle says that human beings are driven to story by two powerful instincts: for imitation and for beauty. It’s the imitation thing we are interested in here. The kind of imitation that we are driven to stare at in stories is what Aristotle calls, “Men in action.” Movement. Choices. Change. And real change that can’t just be reversed or taken back. We say “Show don’t tell,” when we are working with writers but, it’s amazing how so few people can apply this when it comes to their own work. So, I’m not going to just tell you, show don’t tell. Here’s me showing you the notes you get when a story is all talky no chantey.
– Time and time again, the writers fail dramatically in that they have characters say who they are, what they want, what the problems are and what the point of everything is, instead of showing it through visual, high stakes choices.
– Because so much of this comes down to conversations, most of the story feels unmotivated. It lacks the compelling quality that comes from “seeing is believing.”
– No one is building anything in this script. No one is climbing a mountain or slaying a dragon or doing anything enviable or, frankly, anything filmic.
– Apparently, the writer wants us to believe that these characters resolved their huge problems offscreen and without losing any limbs or jobs or jobs or even just a smashed brandy glass.
C) Third Note: Not Cross-Genre, Really Just a Mess
When I talk about genre with my students, it always turns into a discussion of their First Amendment freedoms. Many wannabe writers feel constrained by the idea of genre as if it is something outside being imposed on them. But genre isn’t something that you fit your story into. Genre is the essence that flows out of your stuff. It’s the soul in your project that pushes it to fulfillment the way Aristotle says the soul of a zebra pushes it to have black and white stripes and so that the zebra never wakes up one day with the mane of a lion. Signs you are unclear in the soul of your story are notes like this:
– What kind of movie is this? Is it a family film? Is it a comedy? A romantic comedy? A drama? A drama with romantic comedy elements? A murder mystery? This script is trying to be all things to all but isn’t attaining to any of them.
– The story never really gets us to tears, and it never really gets us to laughs. It never gets us to fear and suspense, and it never gets us to inspiration.
– This script feels like two different movies. It started feeling like “The Insider,” but then devolved into “Hang Over.”
– The writer seems to be going for black comedy here. But the thing about comedy is, it’s funny. Even when it’s black.
– This movie has a twelve year old protagonist, but then there are scenes full of R-rated language. Who is the audience for this piece?

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