Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Why You Can’t Force Yourself To Be Spontaneous But Should Anyway


As a screenwriter, knowing how to allow yourself to be genuinely spontaneous in your writing is an important skill, but it’s easier said than done in a culture that glorifies deadlines and a 24-7 work ethic.

As Edward Slingerland writes in his intriguing tome Trying Not To Try, the Chinese have been wrestling for thousands of years with concept of spontaneity. Moral behaviour has to be spontaneous to be genuine and authentic, and yet you have to learn good manners. As Slingerland explains, Chinese schools of thought varied from the Confucian ideal of training yourself endlessly in etiquette and virtuous behaviour until these become second nature, to the Daoist ideal of not trying at all to master anything and living entirely spontaneously.

The jury is still out on which approach is most desirable, but the question still remains: Why  is increased mental effort not a guarantee for better results? Indeed, why is the opposite often true: great athletes and performers are famous for ‘choking’ and being unable to perform at crucial moments because they are thinking too consciously about what they are doing. And trying too hard to impress a potential date just makes you seem desperate. On the other hand, making no effort at all is not particularly productive either. Why do people get in their own way so much?

Is Your Nose Ironic?
Psychologist Daniel Wegner has done some fascinating research about what is known as Ironic Process Theory. This basically refers to the paradoxical effect of trying to control your own thoughts. If you try not to think of a purple car, that’s what you will think of, and if you to try to focus solely on a purple car, that will be the only thing you can’t think of. Here’s an example from my own personal experience: I have a large nose. I love my nose, but I live in a country (the Netherlands) where most people don’t have large noses, and I regularly encounter people who struggle unsuccessfully not to glance at my nose, and whose efforts to avoid any olfactory references in their speech lead to precisely the opposite effect. They use phrases that contain nasal metaphors and then squirm in embarrassment as they hear themselves saying what they had resolved not to. I’m sure you have your own examples of unsuccessful thought repression.
Look at my nose,
my nose is amazing...

The point of mentioning this is: Making an effort to be spontaneous is a self-defeating paradox. However, creating circumstances in which you are most likely to be spontaneous is an achievable, practical task. It requires you to become aware of what type of circumstances or tasks trigger your own spontaneity. What type of writing (outlining, writing dialogue, writing prose, longhand, etc.), at what time of the day, in which locations, with or without music, standing on your head, and so on. It also requires you to acknowledge that this is not a set of ‘rules’ you need to make, but rather an ongoing awareness of how you function. Armed with this knowledge you can adjust your writing process to minimize situations in which you have to make that (counterproductive) effort to be spontaneous.

Of course, not all stages of the writing process require the same degree of spontaneity. For example, when you’re editing or rewriting your own work, you need to look more critically and analytically at what you’ve written. In these circumstances, spontaneity is less of a priority. Which, ironically, can sometimes lead to very spontaneous creativity, so keep your notebook handy. As can going for a walk or doing the ironing. If you have any experience at all as a writer, you will know that great ideas often ‘come to you’ while you are doing something completely different. It can sometimes be very inconvenient, too. Have you ever stood up from the table in the middle of a conversation, to surprised looks from everyone, and quickly scribbled down a thought on the back of the first scrap of paper you could find?

Pull Over, Will You?
What I’ve learned from reading about trying not to try and the ironic process effect, is that there comes a point in every writing session when I need to stop, even though I could carry on. Like when you’ve been driving a long distance and you know you need to pull over and stop to stretch your legs, even though the road ahead is straight and empty. I know I can push on, and in the past I’ve done that too often. But I’m more aware now that stopping at the right moment is paradoxically more productive than continuing. At that moment I’ve done all the good writing I can do for a while—maybe I just need a break, maybe that’s all there is for that particular day—and stopping means I avoid regressing into a kind of self-recriminatory slave-driver mode, which is antithetical to spontaneity and creativity. 


This still leaves the issue of how and when to make the effort to start writing in the first place. Isn’t that in itself counterproductive? Well, no it isn’t. There are lots of different ways to start a writing session. I don’t think it matters one bit how you do it, as long as you start putting one word after another at some point. I sometimes like to formulate a very specific task: Today I’m going to describe character A’s emotional reaction to character B’s revelation in the sauna scene, or: This morning I’m going to imagine five ways for character X to further endanger his marriage. It doesn’t matter what it is, and nine times out of ten I’ll end up writing something very different and completely unexpected anyway. As long as I give myself something to start on, and as long as I’ve stopped my previous writing session on time (see above), my brain will be eager to get stuck back into the story.


As for deadlines, the main point is to achieve productivity rather than to be busy all the time, and paradoxically, trying hard to be productive often has the opposite effect. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Mindset: Five Misconceptions That Can Hamper A Screenwriter

The belief that people have fixed, inherent abilities rather than being capable of learning from experience, is responsible for much misery among screenwriters. So it’s worth debunking.

We screenwriters face specific challenges at various stages of our work, both in the creative and business realms. But often the biggest challenge we face are our own debilitating assumptions about talent or potential. I recently came across a book called Mindset by psychologist Dr. Carol S. Dweck which threw some very welcome light on this problem. 
Do I really have to?
In my own case, for example, rewriting is a problem. I hate diving back into a feature screenplay once I’ve ‘finished’ it. I want to leave it the way it is and move swiftly on to the next project. The result is a growing pile of well-written but unmarketable first drafts.

Mindset has helped me understand the reasons for my reluctance to embrace the rewriting process, and the insights are shockingly simple. Dweck distinguishes what she calls a fixed mindset, ie the conviction that things like intelligence and artistic ability are fixed quotas you get at birth, and a growth mindset, which says you can develop abilities by learning from experience. Her book covers many different areas of activity, but I find it resonates powerfully with some significant and limiting misconceptions I often wrestle with as a screenwriter. Here are five of them:

Misconception #1: Effort Equals Failure
The thing I hate hearing most in interviews with successful screenwriters is that they wrote their first draft in one marathon writing session. The thing just rolled out onto the page in five days, seemingly effortlessly. The reason that's annoying is because it reinforces the idea that speed and lack of exertion are evidence of great ability. After all, if you’re really good at something you obviously don’t need to make an effort to produce great work. Conversely, the blood, sweat and tears (not to mention time) needed by mere mortals like me just to come up with a good idea or two, is proof of our inferior abilities. But as author Malcolm Gladwell has explained in his best-seller Outliers, successful people in all kinds of fields invest huge amounts of time and energy in perfecting their skills.
Just press for finished screenplay.


I love the example of Thomas Edison in this context. There’s a popular mythology surrounding the inventor of the light bulb that he was a natural genius who suddenly came up with this brilliant idea and it worked. But in reality his invention was anything but effortless. He worked tirelessly for years, employed a team of scientists to assist him, tried and failed many times before finally hitting on the right technology. He worked systematically and learned from his mistakes.

Misconception #2: Talent. You Either Got It Or You Don’t
This is an insipid and highly demotivating trope that you find in all areas of human endeavour, from the creative professions to business and academic work, but also in sports and entertainment. The plethora of talent shows on TV bears witness to this idea that talent is a trait you either have or don’t. But the reality of so many great athletes, artists, musicians, business people, etc., is that they spent many long years developing and honing their skills before they became successful, and continued to do so afterwards too.

Look, I can even play the guitar.
There’s a famous anecdote about legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who was once confronted by someone who said something like: “Yes, but you’re black, it’s in your genes.” To which Davis replied that he had studied hard every day since he was a young boy, made a superhuman effort to get into Julliard School of Music, and spent four years there learning from the best possible teachers, while gigging in clubs at night. In other words: He developed and nurtured his talent. It wasn’t a god-given, pre-fabricated gift.

In fact, the metaphor inherent in the use of the word ‘gifted’ in this context is telling: Being gifted suggests you have been given something, an ability that has little to do with you. It’s just something you have.

Misconception #3: Failure Proves You’re Worthless
What is failure? For example, a script you’ve written is rejected by agents and production companies. Or: You get stuck on a script and abandon it. Or: Your screenplay doesn’t place in a competition you’ve entered. Or perhaps your script is produced and the resulting film is a flop and you’re blamed. Unfortunately, this kind of failure is par for the screenwriting course. It’s unpleasant to experience rejection, or be judged unfairly, but it only becomes a debilitating problem if you believe rejection is evidence that you suck. A sure sign of this is when you start apportioning blame and fantasizing about violent retribution (hey, write a story about it instead). Whereas, if you believe that people can learn and improve from experience, then every failure can be an important lesson too. It can point to specific aspects of your writing or pitching skills that need improvement, enabling you to focus your efforts more effectively next time.
You talkin' to me?


I have to admit it’s quite unnerving to realize this about myself, because I like to think of myself as a reasonable, fairly rational individual. Whereas this kind of thinking is just so unhelpful, especially in a profession like screenwriting where you are constantly confronted with rejection. It’s all very well learning to “manage” rejection, but if deep-down you actually believe every rejection proves your lack of ability, or conversely, that it demonstrates the subnormal cognitive capacities of the rejecter, then you will never learn or improve.

Misconception #4: You Consist Of A Fixed Set Of Traits
We’ve all heard people say things like: Even as a toddler she was very musical. I’m just not a maths person. He’s a born leader. I’m just not the creative type. And so on. It’s a very common way of thinking about other people and about yourself, but in reality people learn new skills, change jobs, emigrate, and learn from their mistakes all the time. In her book, Dr. Dweck quotes numerous examples of educational initiatives, projects with convicted criminals, different styles of sports training, and much more, to demonstrate that often all it takes is a shift in attitude away from this idea of fixed traits, to achieve significant progress.

I sometimes wonder if the phrase “I am a screenwriter” itself expresses this kind of belief. Most people who are paid to write screenplays, do various other things too. Especially considering that only a tiny minority of people who write screenplays can live on doing only that. Most of us also have day jobs, earning money with other forms writing such as copywriting, writing prose, playwriting, journalism, and so on. I recently heard a published poet say she only considers herself “a poet” while she’s writing a poem. I like that attitude.

Misconception #5: Success Proves You’re Special
Even though it feels a lot better than failure, success is just another great opportunity to learn. Success can mean different things depending on where you are in your screenwriting career (if there even is such a linear thing). It could be something as simple as getting good feedback on a script, placing in a screenwriting competition, or it might be landing a paid assignment, selling a script, obtaining funding for your own production, etc. If you believe that success is a sign of some special innate ability rather than of the effort you put into a project, you make yourself vulnerable to inevitable subsequent disappointments. Because the question then becomes: Where did my 'gift,' my ability go?

It’s like when a child gets a good grade at school. The worst thing you can do as a parent is suggest the success is evidence of some innate gift. You’re so clever. You’re so musical. It’s much better to praise the kid for having worked hard. The same goes for your own screenwriting success: Being aware of what you did to achieve the success, helps you replicate it and improve on it in your next project.

All written with just my thumbs
For example, last year my short script Happy New Year was awarded production funding by the Pears Foundation Short Film Fund and although I’ve written quite a few short scripts, this one has received the best results so far. I’ve already taken away plenty lessons from the experience, but one major one is: My writing is at its best when I feel a strong emotional connection with the characters’ dilemmas, because that’s the fuel that helps me keep going back to script to make it better and better. It moves my attention away from the idea that I have to rewrite because my writing isn’t good, and channels it into the urge to express what I set out to write as clearly as possible because it’s important to me.

I can’t possibly do justice to Carol Dweck’s work here, so I would highly recommend reading her book yourself. I’ve certainly learned a great deal from her, not just as a screenwriter but also as a parent, a husband, a musician, and all the other roles a person has.

Of course, now I have to go and rewrite a feature screenplay or two…


Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Paradox Of The Hero’s Journey As A Screenwriting Paradigm


Has the mythical Hero’s Journey story form run its course, or is it perhaps truly a timeless expression of Human Nature?

So you want to write a screenplay?
Today I saw that Christopher Vogler is coming to Paris with his three-day seminar on The Writer’s Journey His method is based on Joseph Campbell’s seminal book on comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, which in turn is heavily indebted to Jungian analytical psychology. The announcement made me stop and think once again, seriously, about the value for screenwriters of trawling the history of storytelling for recurring story forms, character types, themes, etc.

Because It's Old Doesn't Mean It's True
Many great movies follow the mythical structure, either deliberately or accidentally, but I actually find it a bit worrying how this particular model is venerated, for the following reason:

As an abstract story form, the Hero’s Journey claims validity on the basis of a very specific and flimsy assumption: Because this type of story has been told for thousands of years, there must be some fundamental truth to it. However, I think ideas about what it means to be human (and ultimately, this is what films try to illuminate) are changing dramatically. The advent of neuroscience, quantum physics and other “new” branches of science are radically challenging many longstanding ideas about concepts such as free will, intuition, decision-making, and so on.

The Hero’s Journey celebrates and glorifies the past, rather than questioning the underlying assumptions about human nature and how we give meaning to our lives. It gives the filmmaker a false sense of comfort and reassurance, nurturing the illusion that they are part of a long, noble tradition of truth-tellers, when in fact what they are doing is uncritically confirming age-old biases.

It's All In The Willpower
Yes, but my willpower is huge.
Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the Hero’s Journey is always ultimately an argument for individual willpower as the final resort. The hero manages to achieve the goal against all odds because of his or her willpower, or the hero fails because of lack of willpower. But this is an outdated, romantic view of human nature that bears little resemblance to the banality of real life.

Since Campbell did his initial studies, a lot has changed. Scientific research has clearly shown that people’s actions are largely determined by situational, genetic and neurological factors. Our decision-making is mostly unconscious. Not in the literary, Freudian sense of an unconscious full of mysteriously repressed forbidden desires, but unconscious in the sense of not being accessible to conscious awareness. You don’t know why you chose the Toyota for the same reason you don’t know how you secrete hormones: It would be completely impractical to be consciously aware of all these processes. The difference is that you think you do know why you chose the Toyota.

Plus, we have far less agency as individual humans than we like to admit. Both in terms of making choices and in terms of acting independently in general. We are much, much less “in charge” of how we behave than we would like to believe. And yet the Hero’s Journey is predicated on this notion that adversity can be overcome by asserting your willpower.

Willpower, if such a things exists, is a very minor factor in real life. Just think about how hard it is to stick to a diet or go to the gym regularly. This is not because of an archetype you are battling with, or because of unconscious desires you’re suppressing. These are just metaphors that psychologists have used in an attempt to describe the very real experience of not being consciously in charge of one’s actions. Sticking to a diet is difficult because of the kind of animal we are, living as we do in extremely new and unfamiliar circumstances on an evolutionary time scale. You’re more likely to stick to a diet by using cognitive tricks and social frameworks to keep you away from temptation, than by telling yourself to man up.

The Screenwriter As Hero
I’m not saying it’s wrong to make movies that reflect and revel in an ancient intuition about individual willpower and agency, but I do think it’s problematic that this model for telling romantic morality tales has become the litmus test for “good screenwriting.”

Lucy, leaving her Ordinary World.
I hear you protesting: You have to know the rules to break them. Or: There simply aren’t any new stories to be told. And so on. But that’s precisely what a paradigm does. It engenders loyalty and the accompanying rationalizations. Once you are committed to a paradigm, it’s almost impossible to get your mind out of it. The problem is, essentially, that familiarity feels like evidence of truth, but it isn’t necessarily.

It’s a peculiar paradox, when you think about it: Designing your screenplay so that it follows the familiar steps of the Hero’s Journey, might actually be a bit cowardly. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe there is such an unchanging thing as Human Nature, which was the same 3.2 million years ago for our ancestor Lucy as it will be for our descendants in 3 million years from now. I’m sceptical, though.

On the other hand, there are very practical reasons for using the Hero’s Journey, like: It will make a screenplay easier to pitch, more accessible to a larger audience, and so on. Which as far as I’m concerned are absolutely legitimate, pragmatic, business reasons. But don’t get carried away and then claim that it’s the only legitimate choice.

So, Christopher Vogler in Paris… I’m still undecided. Maybe I’ll see you there. If I do, I’ll be the one in the cafeteria trying to muster the willpower to resist yet another croissant.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why Scripts Notes Are Like Fantasies


Mistaking a fantasy for a goal in life can lead to terrible choices. The same applies for taking script notes literally.

I’ve recently been fortunate enough to have short script of mine read and critiqued by a serious production company who is interested in producing it. As is always the case, the notes I’ve received are accompanied by some very creative suggestions for “fixing” aspects of the script they think need improving. Here’s the thing: since having attended SimonPhillips session at the 2012 London Screenwriters Festival, I feel so much better equipped to deal with these suggestions effectively. But first a digression into fantasy land.

Fantasy As A Signpost
Man fantasizing about cross-dressing
When someone asks you what you would do if you won the lottery, or what you would do differently if you could have the last five years again, your fantasy automatically shifts into gear. You might imagine the most outrageous alternative existence, or you might imagine something minuscule like having accepted rather than rejected that invitation from the guy at work. But whatever the fantasy, the fantasy itself isn’t literally the thing you want, it’s just a pointer in the direction of what you want.

The fantasy of a totally different lifestyle might be an indication that you need to seriously deal with a professional or relationship problem you’ve been avoiding. The fantasy about accepting the invitation might be a prompt to take some steps to improve your social life. The point is, the fantasy itself is not the goal. And often, if you chase a fantasy as if it is literally what you want, you end up disappointed. Unfortunately, this is why a lot of so-called self-help methods end up making you feel worse about yourself.

Follow your dream!

Um… in a sense, perhaps. Taking fantasies and daydreams seriously is a great way of distilling concrete, attainable goals, or for simply articulating more clearly what you’re unsatisfied about and want to change. But taking fantasies and daydreams literally, is a recipe for disappointment or even disaster.

Simon Phillips
A one-hour session with a huge audience during the London Screenwriters Festival can never do justice to the kind of profound techniques Simon Phillips teaches. But as with all great insights, his approach is based on some really very simple principles. They are simple to understand, but take a lot or hard graft to genuinely internalize.

His point about notes, whether from producers, directors or actors, is this: When they offer suggestions for improving the script which seem absurd or inappropriate to you, you need to take the suggestions seriously, but not necessarily literally. A suggested change to the script is a manifestation of that person’s intuition that something isn’t right, and it’s your job to find out what they’re intuiting. So Simon Phillips has a method he calls Creative Reading, which helps you identify contradictory or missing information in your script. Here’s what you do…

Creative Reading
Firstly, take a scene and read it as if it’s a real-life event. Make a note of every concrete thing each character perceives for the first time. This can include things a character sees, hears, smells, and so on, things that happened before the scene started, things that are not included in the scene description, things that are implied in the lay-out of the location, etc. But only list specific, concrete perceptions, what Simon Phillips calls “change points.” Not subsequent actions, dialogue, feelings, or anything of that nature.

Secondly, still assuming this is a real-life situation, make a note of each decision a character takes as a result of the perceptions you’ve listed. Each time they perceive something they decide to act or respond in a certain way. These are what Simon Phillips calls “phenomena” and these are the specific actions a character takes, or the words they speak.

Just doing this is often more than enough to expose things about the characters you may not have considered, or inadvertently left unmentioned. Equally, it can show you where you’re giving away too much information too soon, or repeating yourself, or leaving too much information out, etc. It gives you conscious control over what information to reveal or deliberately hide in a scene.

Script Notes As Fantasies
Does it have to be Nelson?
Armed with this kind of intimate knowledge of your script, you can identify far more directly what the creative suggestions you are receiving are indirectly flagging up. When the producer wonders out loud whether the main character should be a young man instead of an old lady, or whether the story might work better if set on a spaceship, these are their fantasies. And like your own fantasies about starting a new life in Mozambique or your fantasy about burying your spouse in your back yard, they are intuitive pointers to a specific but as yet unarticulated problem.

It’s worth practising this technique on a scene you have lying around. Identify all the “change points” and pretty quickly you’ll see how you can make the scene more dramatic or suspenseful, or what you can cut. I’ve actually been quite amazed by how effective and radical this seemingly simple method can be.

If you don’t identify and remedy confusing elements of the script, directors and actors will intuitively look for ways to fill in the gaps themselves, which may not improve the resulting film. And guess who will get the blame if the film isn’t well-received?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Confessions Of A Draft Dodger


Everyone says it, and everyone knows it’s true: Screenwriting is rewriting. But why is the rewrite such a pain?

A budding screenwriter on hearing
his first draft isn't Oscar material
I recently entered a new script of mine into Phil Gladwin's Screenwriting Goldmine competition and it didn’t get anywhere. I knew this would happen when I submitted it. Not because I have such a low opinion of my own writing. Precisely the opposite, probably. Hubris. It was only a first draft, and I knew as much. Not a totally incoherent vomit draft, but a first draft as in: Meticulous outlining, reams of notes, a wall full of index cards, a detailed treatment, a rough first draft, an edited first draft, an edited-again-after-getting-professional-feedback (from the likes of Danny Stack) first draft. In other words, a first draft as in: This is a good starting point rather than a script that is as good as I can ever get it and ready to show off to industry people.

It’s Not Ready. Get Over Yourself.
The thrill of typing Fade Out after all the hard work that gets you there, can be blinding. I don’t know how it works in terms of neuroscience, but I’m guessing it’s a bit like fashion. You see old pictures of yourself and you wonder how you could ever have seriously liked flared jeans, padded shoulders or spiky hair. I mean, come on, anyone can see how ridiculous that looks… now. In terms of writing, it’s a similar process of mental adjustment, but the process is faster. When you finish writing the draft, everything in it seems cool and just right. Leave it alone for a while, write something else, forget about it and then reread it and then it will hit you… wow, did I seriously think that line was funny, or that scene was full of suspense? That’s a critical moment, when you can go one of two ways: admit the script isn’t ready and get over yourself, or go into denial and pretend/hope/pray no one will notice. Guess which is more sensible.

Listen To The Voice You Most Want Ignore
If you’re seriously mentally ill, skip this bit. If, like me, you’re only moderately insane, then you probably also have this very, very quiet voice in your head that is always annoyingly correct in retrospect. It whispers barely audible script notes which you really do not want to hear (because they demand additional work) and which are remarkably easy to pretend you didn’t hear. Or perhaps you find yourself imagining an encounter with an imaginary movie executive in an imaginary world where you’re invited in to discuss your imaginarily polished script which in reality is still a first draft. And the imaginary executive has a shitload of really tough notes and questions about the script. News flash: The imaginary exec is the part of your mind that knows what’s still wrong with the script. Don’t ignore it, because it has your best interests at heart: Trying to market a half-baked script reflects badly on you the writer. It closes rather than opens doors. Better to spend more time fixing stuff first.

Dogs Don’t Fool Themselves, Humans Do
It’s not a pretty thing to own up to, but if this experience has taught me one thing, it’s that I’m (still) really good at fooling myself. If I were a dog (in the taxonomical sense), I would not try to pretend, say, that I had sniffed a lamppost long enough if I still weren’t genuinely 100% sure the neighbour’s bitch had been there five minutes ago. I might feign hunger if I thought I’d get an extra bowlful of Bonzo, but I wouldn’t try and convince myself I didn’t want to eat if my stomach told me otherwise. I’m guessing a dog wouldn’t know how to do that even if it wanted to. It’s a peculiarly human trait to be able to override one’s instinctive drives or intuitive insights by envisaging the consequences of an action. In many situations this is an excellent thing, and it keeps millions of people out of prison and mental institutions every day. But sometimes an instinct or intuition can be a life-saver too. However, you won’t know which it is if you don’t acknowledge it in the first place.
If only I'd listened to my intuition...

In any case, from now on I’ll be paying more attention to my intuition, listening out more often for that little voice (but not in public places, I promise), and in general being less of a dog.

On a final note, my script involved a wedding band, and I was considering registering for the upcoming London Screenwriting Festival's Comedy ScriptLab with this script as a possible starting point for a TV comedy show. So I thought I’d just do a bit of research and discovered to my horror (just in time) that Turner TV is about to launch a new TV sitcom called, wait for it… The Wedding Band, featuring some very similar characters to the ones in my script. Feeling suitably pissed off that someone had stolen my premise (see, still fooling myself), I thought for a while I’d just use the script for toilet paper. Then the answer hit me: Drop the wedding band and rewrite the script from page one. It will make the premise, the lead character and the entire story much leaner and more like the father-and-son adventure I originally intended it to be. Now suddenly I feel all Zen about rewriting. 

I swear I will never understand this screenwriting thing.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How Authentic Are You Prepared To Be As A Screenwriter?


Whether you’re writing a superhero blockbuster or a DIY lo-budget indie film, your writing will be best when there’s something uniquely yours on the page. But that’s terrifying.

What everyone in the film business is looking for in a script, is an original voice. Something about the subject matter and the writing style that sets it apart from the mass of generic, derivative scripts trying to jump on the bandwagon of recent box office or cult hits. For the screenwriter this is good and bad news. The good news is: There’s only one of you, so your unique experiences and point of view are inherently original. The bad news is: Writing from your own embarrassing, shameful or even traumatic experience, exposes you to criticism that can be extremely painful and inhibitive.

Embracing Rather Than Overcoming Your Demons
Terrified screenwriter embracing his demon
In his wonderful book Writing From The Inside Out, screenwriter turned psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo talks about how writers often become frustrated because they try to circumvent their embarrassing hang-ups or painful memories rather than embracing them for what they are: their own personal archive of raw material. Plus, what’s unique about a writer’s experience, however disturbing, is part of being human and so something to which other human beings will be able to relate. Which isn’t an encouragement to refuse to write anything other than a verbatim transcription of a highly emotional real life event (‘No, but it really happened that way!’), because that’s always less interesting to others than to you. But it does mean that your awful first kiss, your liberating divorce, your shameful experience as a son or a daughter or as a father or mother—all these unprocessed experiences are chock full of authentic details, characters and emotions just begging to be mined rather than avoided.

Exposing Yourself Emotionally Is Risky
Cut that scene, it turns my stomach.
The truth is, it is a terrifying prospect to let strangers have a peek at your dark side, however authentic it may be. They might laugh, be disgusted or simply disbelieving. Believe me, I’ve received notes from readers disapproving of actions or traits of characters in my writing which were direct representations of my own life. It doesn’t make you feel good when a reader exclaims: “What kind of a shmuck would ever do that?!” But what’s also true, as Dennis Palumbo writes, is that all screenwriting is autobiographical. Not literally, but whatever you write is informed by and infused with the way you experience the world, your past experiences and the values you believe in. Even if you try and hide it (that’s part of you in action, too…). So it hurts when someone dismisses or disapproves of your material, because you’re so invested in it and it feels like they’re rejecting you personally. But it’s par for the course and the risk is worth taking, because at the very least you come out the other end wiser and better equipped for your next writing challenge. And if you don’t stick your neck out, chances are your writing will feel inhibited or generic, which will certainly and justifiably lead to rejection anyway.

Why Authenticity Matters
I'm sorry, this suit just isn't me.
Lying, denying, avoiding, pretending, and so on, are all very stressful occupations. And in terms of writing, they cause you to (unwittingly perhaps) try and spare your characters the confrontations and conflicts you yourself are avoiding in real life. Whereas these are the very conflicts that you know most intimately! Again, being authentic doesn't mean getting rid of these conflicts. On the contrary, it means acknowledging and embracing them as a real part of who you are. Tapping into them for their emotional power. But besides being essential for being able to fully identify with and inhabit your characters, for being able to write honestly and truthfully (and therefore more engagingly), being authentic is basically just a lot better for you than being stuck in denial. Here’s an article from Psychology Today which explains the benefits of authenticity nicely. So, basically: Lie, deny, avoid, pretend and so on, but write truthfully about what that’s like…

Lastly, a huge thank you to the amazing Corey Mandell, who recommended Dennis Palumbo’s book to me. But more about Corey and his mind-boggling screenwriting insights in my next post. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

What Is Your Character’s Theory Of Mind?


Getting a handle on how your characters think about how other characters think, can give their decisions and actions more unity and credibility.

I know exactly what you think I'm thinking.
And it's true.
The fact that we can think about how other people think, is known in the world of psychology as having a theory of mind. We formulate expectations based on what we know (consciously or unconsciously) about other people, and so we anticipate their responses to events, including our own decisions and actions. In a recent episode of one of my current favourite podcasts, Arming the Donkeys, behavioural economist Dan Ariely interviews psychologist Laurie Santos about her research into cheating among monkeys. She and her team were surprised to discover how cleverly the monkeys managed to deceive the researchers. Especially because the way they cheat suggests that they must have some theory of mind, informing their expectations of human behaviour. However, one big difference between monkeys and humans, is that we’re much better at letting our desires fool us into misinterpreting other people’s behaviours.

What Do You Think I Think?
Consider for a moment what you think you know about someone close to you. A parent, a partner, a child, a friend, a colleague, etc. Based on your experiences with them, your knowledge of other people’s experience with them, their own reports, and so on, you probably have quite a specific, albeit implicit theory about how they view the world. You have a clear expectation of how they would respond, say, if you told them you’d been fired, won the lottery, been diagnosed with a serious illness, etc. You might be less sure of how they would respond if they found out you’d been gossiping about them, cheated on them, defrauded them, ratted on them, etc. Less certain, but still.. you have some expectation, based on your theory of their mind. But also, of course, based on what you would like to be true, or what you fear might be true. And you become most painfully aware of your theory about someone else, when it turns out to be wrong.

What Do Your Characters Think Other Characters Think?
Similarly, characters in a screenplay have theories about each other’s minds. Of course, these are made up by the screenwriter, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to be coherent. When you put a character in a situation in which, for instance, they have to choose between being truthful or lying, their choice is going to be informed by how they expect other characters to behave. And, just as in real life, a scene in a screenplay becomes dramatic or funny, or both, when one character believes something about another character and this turns out to be wrong.

When One Character’s Theory About Another Is Wrong
I could have sworn he was hot for me.
I recently got around to viewing Mike Leigh’s Another Year which includes a wonderful example of how one character’s theory about another character turns out to be wrong, creating a great tragicomic beat. Mary (played by Lesley Manville) a nervous, lonely woman approaching middle-age, flirts with Joe, the 30-year old son of her friends Tom and Gerri, whom she’s known since he was a boy. She mistakes Joe’s friendliness as a hopeful sign that he’s attracted to her, and so later she’s devastated when he enthusiastically introduces her to his new girlfriend. The scene is filled with such painful embarrassment because Mary’s reaction makes plain to the other characters and to the audience, just how desperate she is, and how misguided her perception of Joe was.

I know I’ve been in situations where my theory about someone else’s mind has been upturned. And I’m not just talking about that girl I was convinced was in love with me when I was thirteen, but who turned out to have a crush on my best friend. I’m talking about any time someone’s reaction doesn’t match your expectations, when you realize you had the wrong idea about them. You thought they were better, worse, more clever, stupid, compassionate or cruel than they really are. These are the kinds of moments that great scenes turn on. In terms of screenwriting, understanding and showing how your characters think about each other helps to set up these moments convincingly and effectively.