Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why Screenwriters Need To Train Their Dopamine Neurons

At the moment I’m busy reading Jonah Lehrer’s recent book The Decisive Moment (also published as How We Decide), a fascinating summary of current scientific thinking on how humans make decisions. Which turns out to be based on emotions, rather than abstract rational considerations, and more or less unconscious. Very different from the way we think we make decisions.

Rather than get into the details of Lehrer’s book, I want to highlight one aspect of decision-making which seems particularly relevant for screenwriters: Learning from your mistakes.

As Lehrer explains, your brain is constantly predicting outcomes based on previous experiences. When your predictions are correct you feel good, but, more importantly, you feel bad when they’re not.

The dopamine neurons in your brain constantly learn from experience and provide this emotional sense that something is correct or wrong. That gut feeling which you find so hard to explain but which you can’t ignore. Your intuition, in other words. One of the best ways to hone this intuition is to examine bad decisions. The neuroscientific reason for this is, as Lehrer puts it on page 57 of his book:

Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process.

In other words, the negative emotions you feel when, say, weaknesses in your writing are pointed out, are a vital part of learning how improve your writing. Especially when you put them in the appropriate context: These negative emotions are not a sign of your stupidity or incompetence, they are flags, held up by your dopamine neurons, showing you where your predictions were wrong.

The more you examine your mistakes, the more you train your intuition to recognize what works and what doesn’t, and the quicker your “gut feeling” will flag up bad writing.

So take solace in the efficacy, time-consuming though it may be, of the learning process. Search out, acknowledge and examine your mistakes. Have your work critiqued, get feedback and take it seriously. Allow your brain to integrate each new insight. Hone your intuition and learn to trust it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Film Is Entertainment

My writing partner and I recently gave the first draft of our multi-strand feature to a number of readers for feedback. After receiving more or less unanimously scathing notes from all of them, I realized this: The reason the script isn’t working is not a faulty premise or uninteresting characters, it’s not even bad writing. The screenplay simply doesn’t promise an entertaining enough movie.

So what makes a screenplay (and the resulting film) entertaining enough? Depending on the genre, and therefore the expectations of the audience, it could be humour, suspense, mystery, disgust, despair … in other words, emotions. People watch movies because they want to access and release emotion. They want to laugh, cry, get angry, feel terror, and so on.

By far the most fundamental way a movie achieves this effect is by creating uncertainty as to what will happen next. Even in genres where the outcome is more or less a given (e.g., romantic comedies, or historical drama based on a true story), the audience wants to engage in that conscious and unconscious struggle to second guess events.

The last thing movie-goers want to pay for, is to listen to the screenwriter pontificate through the mouths of his characters. Yup, that’s what readers have said about this screenplay. Too much message, too little movie. Ouch.

Reminds me of the famous quote, usually attributed to Sam Goldwyn, but also to others such as Jack Warner, Harry Cohn and even George Bernard Shaw: If you want to send a message, call Western Union.

Which doesn’t mean the opinions of the screenwriter don’t drive the writing to some extent. You can’t put in months, sometimes years of work on a screenplay, if you’re not writing about something close to your heart. But if your opinion isn’t adequately wrapped in story, made consciously imperceptible, as it were, by means of plot … then you won’t be able to get in under the audience’s radar.

This experience has once again reminded me of the importance of having your screenplay critiqued. After a certain amount of time immersed in a screenplay, it’s often difficult to judge objectively whether what you’ve written is, realistically, a solid blueprint for a movie.

Above all, it’s easy to lose sight of the most important criterion of all: Is this going to be an entertaining movie? A movie I myself would pay to go and see?

So I’ve pinned up a new screenwriter’s axiom next to my desk. Besides the various quotes I’ve gathered along the way, such as: In life one thing happens after another, but in drama one thing happens because of another, and Don’t describe things, describe things happening, my wall of inspiration now prominently features an additional card, saying in large print:


Time will tell if I’ve really learned my lesson …

Monday, June 1, 2009

How Much Do You Leave Up To The Audience?

I recently heard Dutch director Jean van de Velde explaining from Cannes why he had to make a completely new cut of his recent film Silent Army for the international marketplace. Although the film was marketed as a mainstream, multiplex movie in Holland (partly because its star is a local celebrity), a subtitled Dutch movie released internationally is almost certainly only going to be shown on the art house and festival circuit, whatever its subject matter.

Van De Velde says his first priority was to get rid of the subtitles. Reading is too cerebral an experience for this kind of film, it detracts from the visual impact. So the dialogue was adapted. In addition, the soundtrack had to be rewritten in order to make the film more emotionally obvious.

Now here’s the interesting distinction Van De Velde makes in passing (and I paraphrase):

Art house films like to leave as much as possible up to the audience to fill in, whereas mainstream movies work by spelling out the emotional journey of the main characters in big bold letters.

I think it’s essential to understand this distinction when it comes to screenwriting. If you’re not consistent in this regard, the tone of script can be confusing.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s room for emotional ambivalence in any script, in fact it can be a powerful tool. It can create suspense and tension (i.e., the right kind of confusion). The choice is more about whether to resolve this ambivalence for the audience or leave them to make up their own minds.

It may seem obvious to you which approach is preferable, but the truth is that both options have advantages and drawbacks.

Spelling out the character’s emotions too explicitly can feel stereotypical, clich├ęd, but it’s also a tried and proven way of sweeping the audience along emotionally. It’s just a fact of human nature that we tend to feel what we see characters on the screen feeling, whether that‘s fear, lust, anger, grief, etc. The more intense and unequivocal their emotions, the more we feel too.

At the same time, leaving emotional ambivalence unresolved can feel like a cop-out, a way of avoiding taking a clear stand. However, this kind of openness makes for an extremely personal viewing experience, with different members of the audience interpreting events on the screen in different ways. It creates a strong sense of the film speaking to you as an individual, rather than as a generic human being.

Neither choice is intrinsically better, but you do have to choose. You have to be candid about what kind of creature your script is, what your plans are with it. This choice depends on your own taste, on the realities of marketing and distribution, but also on the degree to which your own position on the subject matter of the film is unequivocal or not. Above all it depends on the simple fact that mainstream movie-going audiences generally want to experience big emotions, and art house audiences generally want a more aesthetic, even intellectual experience.

So how much does your script leave up to the audience?