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!

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