Monday, September 22, 2008

Why Moral Ambiguity Is Essential For A Great Screenplay

In a fascinating and very entertaining lecture for TED, writer Amy Tan discusses how her creative process works. Among the many wonderful insights she gives, I find this one in particular relevant to screenwriters:

We all hate moral ambiguity, but it’s absolutely necessary in writing a story.

As human beings we are constantly confronted with events to which we need to respond. So we ask ourselves: What is the morally right thing to do?

In fiction, which is a deliberately condensed reflection on reality, it’s no different. A story explores a particular moral ambiguity, it asks a specific question. An essential part of the process of writing, is to discover what question you are asking.

But beware! According to Ms. Tan, laying too much emphasis on articulating what the story is “about” (= the answer) can distract the writer’s attention from what is more important, namely finding the question.

To my mind, this is what all the great screenplays have in common. Whether they are relatively small, personal dramas (e.g., In The Bedroom) or huge blockbuster spectacles (e.g., The Dark Knight), they all ask a question about characters facing morally ambiguous choices.

Ms. Tan describes the serendipity that comes into play once she discovers what question her story is asking. Once she has that focus, she sees the question addressed all around her. She constantly receives “hints from the universe.” All the previously random and seemingly irrelevant events of daily life now flow through that one question, and the question becomes the point of reference for all the elements in her story.

I’d say that sounds like the perfect state of mind to be in while writing a screenplay. Thanks Amy Tan!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Screenwriting: The More You Notice, The More You Notice.

In a recent review, Frank Kermode discusses a book called How Fiction Works by James Wood. Here’s a quote from the book which caught my imagination:

Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on.

I really like this image of literature as a kind of ongoing university of life. And when I transpose it to the realm of screenwriting, it makes perfect sense too:

Screenwriting makes us better noticers of life, we get to practice on life itself, which in turn makes us better readers of detail in screenplays and films, which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on.

The more you notice about people and the world around you, the more you’re able to layer your screenplays with meaningful and original detail.

Indeed, the difference between good screenwriting and great screenwriting, is attention to detail. Details such as the subtle nuances of language, which make the difference between a generic description and an intriguing, captivating image.

The screenwriter must never agree to settle for “good enough.” I’m not talking here about getting an idea down on paper, beating out a story, or even writing a first draft. I’m talking about the end result. The document you want influential people in the industry to read. Your calling card.

The annoying little voice in the back of your head telling you that some beat or line of dialogue might still be a little bit of a cliché, even after seventeen rewrites, is actually you noticing. Isn’t it weird how the human mind can ignore its own sound advice when heeding it means more work?

It’s very tempting, especially under pressure, to overrule your intuition and hope no one else notices. Of course, they will.

So the thing to do is allow yourself to notice. More and more. Notice what goes on around you, notice what your intuition is telling you, notice what you’ve written.

What transpires is, pleasantly enough, this: The more you notice, the more you notice. And being a good noticer of life is one hell of a valuable asset for a screenwriter.

I’ve just noticed the time ….

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Writing Treatments: Why Silence Is Golden

I’ve just recently finished a first draft of a (so far) thirty-page treatment. It’s taken ages and bucket-loads of blood, sweat and tears to reach this point.

Why are treatments such a big deal? Everyone talks about them, screenwriters are often asked to write them, and yet I’ve never met anyone who actually enjoys writing or even reading them.

Treatments are a big deal because they’re so damned hard to write well. There are various reasons that it takes so much effort to write a good treatment, but for me at least, the main one is because you need to leave the dialogue out.

There are numerous definitions of what a treatment is in terms of format (to slugline or not to slugline) length (three pages to three hundred), style (screenplay idiom, short story style, whatever you please style), and so on, but the absence of dialogue seems to be a standard requirement in all of these variations.

Now, so much of the fun of writing a screenplay is putting your characters in unpleasant, embarrassing, threatening and tempting situations and then seeing how they respond. You let them ramble on aimlessly in order to generate those few lines of dialogue that end up in the final draft.

But at the treatment stage the characters have to behave as if it’s still the age of silent movies. No talking!!

Limiting yourself to what can be seen is precisely the reason the treatment so mercilessly exposes weaknesses and blind spots in a story.

By not allowing the characters to speak, you force yourself to think through very precisely what each scene is about. You have to ask yourself specifically what the characters do (to each other), what they want and why, what the relationship is between their actions and the overall theme of the story and so on. It also allows you to look at the relationship between scenes, between set-ups and pay-offs, and other structural aspects of the screenplay as a whole.

Once you’re clear on these issues, it becomes a lot easier to write good dialogue, be that dramatic, romantic or comedic. Because if you know what you want your characters to communicate by means of their actions, it’s easy to have them talk about something else (i.e., create subtext).

In fact, getting to the end of a treatment is almost as big a kick as getting to the end of a first draft. Because once you’ve cracked the treatment, you know you’ve done most of the hard work. Your structure is pretty well sorted, your characters are fleshed out, your scenes are well balanced, and so on.

All that remains is the fun part: Peeling the duct tape off your characters mouths and letting them verbally express themselves at last.

Ah, can’t wait!!