Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Screenwriting is like riding a bike

I recently realized that learning the craft of screenwriting is much like learning to ride a bicycle, in two very specific ways: Firstly, it looks deceptively easy, and secondly, once you’ve got the hang of it you can never forget how to do it.

Why would you ever want to learn to ride a bike in the first place? Simple. You watch other kids gliding around, manoeuvring with great skill, having the time of their lives apparently without giving a second though to what they’re doing. And you think, “Hey, I want that too!”

Which is when your parents (hopefully) begin to tone down your expectations: “It’s not as easy as it looks. It takes a while to learn. You’ll need to start with side wheels. And a helmet.”

That’s the cue for the following inner monologue: “Not in my case. I’m special. I’m one of a kind. I know I can get up on that thing and just do it right away.” Which is admirably positive and enthusiastic, but a little unrealistic. As you discover fairly rapidly when you first mount the vehicle and suddenly feel completely vulnerable and utterly unable to move or keep your balance.

And so begins a learning process punctuated by milestones such as your first painful fall, your first encounter with a brick wall, your first head-on crash with another cyclist, and so on. All of which are experiences that teach you some important aspect of riding a bicycle which you will never again forget. Basic things like using the brakes, for example, or steering.

Then comes that wonderful day when, after having grown from hapless novice with side wheels to ambitious and eager candidate for the next Tour de France, you finally experience the exhilaration of the centrifugal force of the wheels keeping you upright and allowing you to really work up some serious speed! You’re flying! It’s real! It’s this sensation you’ve been after all along, and you’ve finally achieved it. What a victory!

This experience is soon followed by the realization that this is just the beginning. You now know how to ride a bike. Big deal. You begin to look around and see just how many different kinds and classes of bikes there are. A bike can take you to the sweetshop and back, but it can also take you up and down a mountain. Now you start dreaming all over again. Only this time you know what it takes.

Of course there is another similarity between screenwriting and riding a bicycle: Anyone can learn to ride a bicycle, but only a few cyclists have what it takes to become professionals: Talent. But that’s a whole different topic.

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