Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Get Distance From Your Work Now Without Leaving The Room

I’m busy expanding my animated feature outline into a treatment. Adding detail, discovering plot holes and filling them, inventing twists, scrapping and merging scenes, squashing and stretching characters, etc. Always a fascinating ride and always one on which unexpected obstacles crop up. Things that seem obvious in the larger perspective of the outline, don’t work in the detail of the treatment. And ideas emerge from details of a scene at the treatment level which wouldn’t have occurred to me in the outline stage.

But of course, there are those moments when I just stare out the window and wonder what the hell to write next … These are ideal opportunities for what I like to call a cognitive break (read: displacement activity). During one such interval I came across an article in the July 2009 issue of Scientific American, called An Easy Way To Increase Creativity, which seems like it could be helpful in the screenwriting process.

The article refers to a psychological theory called construal level theory. The theory postulates that creativity can be enhanced by establishing a sense of distance between the creator and the task at hand. The distance can be literally geographical, but also temporal or a distance in terms of probability (i.e., how likely something is to occur) or familiarity. Or as the article sums it up:

“ … scientists have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity.”

The greater the perceived distance, the more you focus on the central, abstract, general features of the task at hand and the more likely you are to come up with creative solutions. So goes the theory.

Of course, the best way to create the feeling of distance from your screenplay is to put it in a drawer for a year, or travel to some solitary or novel location to write in peace. We all know that, right? But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you can’t afford that luxury. Would it help to imagine yourself writing the script a year from now? Or perhaps envisage yourself writing in a log cabin in the Andes or on the space shuttle? According to the logic of construal level theory it should.

It’s just a theory … but I’m going try it out and let you know what happens.


Anonymous said...

“ … scientists have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity.”

Hey Dave, love this comment.
Robert DeNeiro said the same thing.
Can't remember the movie's name?
Do you know of it? Came out 10 years ago.
In real life for example -- detectives, writers, painters etc. agree, put a case or project away for a while and come back at it later. Or the project or case will bring you back into it.

Raving Dave Herman said...

The movie quote doesn't ring a bell. But I can certainly see how the same phenomenon would work for police investigations and any other activity which requires making new mental connections.