Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How Does Your Character Decide?

More and more neuroscientific research is pointing to the fallacy of believing that morality is based in rationality. Jonah Lehrer looks at this subject in detail in his new book How We Decide.

In previous centuries the common assumption has been that we reach moral decisions by thinking as logically as possible about our options and choosing what we consider to be right according to set of abstract ethical rules. Scientific, empirical evidence is making it increasingly clear this is not how it works.

Instead, we decide on a course of action within milliseconds of perceiving the options. The rest is rationalization of a choice we’ve essentially taken unconsciously, on the basis of what we desire most. Which is not to say there’s no merit in overriding one’s impulses, it’s just that often we follow our impulses and pretend (to ourselves as well as to others) that we chose rationally and morally.

Think about your main character for a moment. Are you crediting him or her with too much rational executive power over their decisions? Does your character even really know why they have taken a particular course of action? And more interestingly perhaps, how does your character rationalize and justify their actions? What moral story do they tell, which might not have anything at all to do with the real reasons for their action?

To understand how difficult it is to know how your character decides, try understanding how you yourself decide.

Think about a major(ish) decision you’ve taken recently that involved some kind of moral ambiguity. A secret you kept to yourself or divulged, something of value you found and kept or returned, a malicious rumour you spread or dispelled, and so on. Be honest about how instantaneous your decision was in comparison to the amount of time you spent rationalizing and justifying your actions in retrospect.

It’s quite shocking, if you’re honest about it.

Generally speaking, we don’t really have much conscious insight at all into our moral decisions. The only thing we’re conscious of, is the narrative we construct after the fact, in order to make our actions seem logical and acceptable.

To my mind this distinction between a more or less instinctive, emotion-driven decision and the retroactive illusion of rationality, can be a valuable addition to the screenwriter’s toolkit. It’s a powerful way of thinking about conflict in scenes, but also internal conflict.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why Your Screenplay’s Future Is More Important Than Its Past

It’s sometimes difficult to accept that no one besides you (and your accountant) cares whether you spent two years writing a screenplay or two weeks. The only relevant considerations are whether the writing is any good and whether the script is right for the current market.

It would be nice if your history with the screenplay mattered, but it doesn’t.

Seth Godin posts on his blog today about ignoring what he calls sunk costs. His take is useful in the context of screenwriting:

When making a choice between two options, only consider what's going to happen in the future, not which investments you've made in the past. The past investments are over, lost, gone forever. They are irrelevant to the future.

So let’s say you have two screenplays, one you’ve spent two years perfecting and one you’ve hammered together in two weeks. Which one should you run with? Emotionally, you probably have vastly more invested in the one you’ve worked on for longer. Not to mention the fact that you’ve invested so much time (i.e., your own money) in it.

However, if your aim is to earn a living writing movies, then the more relevant consideration is: Which of the two scripts stands a better chance of being optioned or produced? To decide this, you need to determine which producers you can realistically pitch to, what the potential budgets might be, what the target audiences are, and so on.

Several years ago I wrote a very detailed scriptment based on a biblical story. I did a huge amount of research, and toiled diligently until one day I saw an announcement that the very same story was being produced by a big production company, with some a-list actors attached. I very reluctantly put that scriptment away and turned my attention to other work. The fact that I had worked on it for ages, didn’t stop it’s market value from dropping to zero. Of course the scriptment is still there in my drawer. Who knows, maybe one day the market will be right for it again.

It’s just an unfortunate but understandable fact of the screenwriter’s life, that the value of a screenplay is not determined by the screenwriter’s “sunk costs” (i.e., it’s past), but rather by it’s quality and potential (i.e., it’s future).