One of the many inspirational reminders I have pinned on the wall in my work space, is a simple little sentence: Film Is Entertainment. I originally put it there because I wanted to prevent myself from taking my material too seriously. I might also have pinned up a picture of a bucket of popcorn (in fact I might still do that). However, the sad truth is, that even an index card on the wall becomes invisible after a while.
Fortunately, I was recently prompted to become mindful of this seemingly trivial little aphorism again, by Erik Bork over at Flying Wrestler. Erik has compiled his own set of screenwriting principles, one of which is that a screenplay has to be entertaining. In his words:
… that which makes us feel more alive in some way – fascinated, amused, scared, passionate, moved, inspired, etc.
Duh-uh… you may say. To which I would retort: Easier said than done. Witness the hundreds of thousands of screenplays that end up on the slush pile every year all around the world. And if I’m honest, until Mr. Bork invited me to think again about what “entertaining” really means, I kind of automatically associated it with lo-brow, superficial and essentially not worth the effort. Or, more specifically, not worth the effort of an über-intellectual like me.
Whaddya mean, snobbery?!
But here’s the rub: A movie can be entertaining and meaningful. Or perhaps… should be? If I reflect for a moment on what entertains me, it almost always has to with suspense and tension. Regardless of genre. Anything from Laurel and Hardy to Woody Allen, what draws me into a film is being emotionally invested in what’s going to happen next.
It’s not the philosophical or moral theme running through the story that keeps me watching. That’s what sets me thinking, after I’ve seen the film.
What distracts me most while watching a movie, is boredom. Which is perhaps the opposite of entertainment. I get bored when I’ve seen it all before, or when there’s no real mystery or surprise in what I’m watching, when it’s too predictable. In other words, when my mind is not actively engaged by what’s going on onscreen.
The same goes for screenplays. Perhaps entertaining screenwriting requires a delicate balance between spelling it out and leaving enough up to the audience to fill in by themselves. Because as long as your mind is actively trying to figure out what’s going to happen next, you’re entertained, right?
In fact, until further notice, that’s going to be my working definition of entertaining screenwriting: Writing that creates an emotional investment in what’s going to happen next by suggesting enough but also leaving enough to the audience’s imagination.
Not much operational value there, I admit. But it’s a start.
Anyway, I’m off with the kids to see Alvin and the Chipmunks 2. Followed tomorrow evening by Avatar, 3D Imax. See if I can’t glean some important lessons on entertainment while munching some popcorn…