Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Difference Between Fun To Read And Fun To Watch

If there’s one thing you learn from writing animation, it’s to stick with what you can see and hear on the screen. In the buzz of writing a wacky animation sequence, it’s easy to get carried away with descriptions that are fun to read, but don’t actually tell anyone enough about what they’re going to see. Not that the flavour and pace of a scene can’t benefit from a few snappy similes or the occasional well-placed adverb, but in moderation.

In live action, description sometimes needs to leave a certain ambivalence for the actors and director to play with on set. In animation there is no room for that kind of ambivalence, but equally, it’s impossible express the kind of detail that is subsequently created in the storyboarding and animation phases.

So the trick is to find a balance between describing as much of the action as possible without going into superfluous detail and without the writing becoming boring and technical.

Here’s a brilliant little quote from the screenplay of Ratatouille, by Brad Bird. It’s from the scene on page 40 where Remy the rat accidentally discovers he can control Linguini’s movements by tugging his hair:

Remy is yanking tufts of Linguini’s hair like a kid with a new toy. Linguini jerks around like a helpless puppet.

In this one little paragraph there are two concrete actions, “yanking hair” and “jerking around” plus two accompanying similes: “like a kid with a new toy” and “like a helpless puppet.” This combination of specific description and general flavour expresses quite precisely what the beat will look like, without trying to depict every little movement.

Entertaining though it may be to read, superfluous flowery verbiage (= wordiness) in a screenplay risks diverting attention from the action to the author. Ideally your screenplay has to be fun to read and fun to watch, but given the choice, it’s more important to focus on the “fun to watch” aspect. Everyone else involved in the production needs to be able to understand as clearly as possible what’s going to be seen and heard.

Of course, if it’s fun to watch, it’s probably going to be fun to read too…

Sunday, September 6, 2009

My Two Cents On Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art

In a recent a post on her The New York Screenwriting Life blog, Janet describes getting a well-needed “kick in the tush” from Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art. Having just read the book myself, and having had a decidedly different response to it, I just have to get this off my chest.

I ordered the book after reading how warmly Robert McKee recommended it to screenwriters. Not that I take McKee’s word as gospel by any means, but he knows a thing or two about writing. So I was hoping to find some new and practical insights into dealing with procrastination, lack of focus and all the other annoying obstacles that a screenwriter has to deal with on a daily basis.

Instead, what I was treated to was a collection of wild and inaccurate generalizations, formulated in bombastic, pretentious language, peppered with the kind of absolutist Christian theology that would even make the Pope blush.

I intensely dislike Pressfield’s use of a moral frame, in which writing is good and not-writing is evil. He has this unified theory of everything which blames anything unpleasant on Resistance (his caps). He constantly refers to Resistance as a pernicious, insidious and conniving force, with petty and narrow-minded Ego as its accomplice in sin. His use of overblown terms like "destiny," "fate," "forces in the universe," etc., is so pretentious it drives me nuts. He never once even attempts to give anything remotely resembling evidence for any of his claims and theories. It’s just what he thinks, take it or leave it.

And he uses that awful third person style. We always this, we never that … insinuating that he knows with absolute certainty that “we” are all the same. Speak for yourself, please.

Pressfield’s essential mistake, in my opinion, is the same one all proponents of this Rhonda Byrne type pseudo science make: He takes metaphors literally. He elevates concepts such as the Muse, or the Ego or Angels (yes) to the status of actual living entities, which I find ludicrous.

Don’t get me wrong, I can understand his evangelical enthusiasm. After all, once he managed to get a handle on what was holding him back as a writer and he was able to let rip and write freely, he wanted to give everyone else the same experience. Unfortunately, in his fervour he fails to distinguish between a metaphorical concept which helped him work more productively, and a silly, literal belief in (religious) symbols.

Not to mention the totally outrageous suggestion that Hitler wouldn’t have started World War Two if he had only known what Mr. Pressfield knows, and continued painting. That is so absurd and ill-informed it just defies any reasonable response. Or what about Pressfield’s claim that cancer can be caused by not following your creative urges. Even more revolting: the suggestion that terminal cancer can be cured by finally picking up that paintbrush or pencil during the course of your chemotherapy!

I find this entire way of thinking distasteful and counterproductive. Not only because of its preachy idiom and cadence, reminiscent of a minister admonishing his congregants and scaring them into submission with threats of fire and brimstone. Not just because of Pressfield’s arrogant way of stating absurdities as facts, for example , that “humans” have been around for fifty million years. But more than anything else because this type of thinking is the ultimate form of blaming the victim: If you’re not successful as a writer, it must be your own fault. That, in the end, as with all self-help methods based on positive thinking, is the source of much more sorrow than solace. Because most aspiring writers don’t possess the magical powers necessary to simply will themselves to success. As a result they will end up feeling more wretched for trying. The tough truth is, not everyone can be a Hemingway or even a Steven Pressfield.

Feh! I came away from reading this mercifully brief book, pleased to have been reminded of how wrong-headed this approach to the creative process is. At least for me. I don’t find it helpful to look at life in terms of judgemental absolutes and neat linguistic dichotomies. Life, certainly the life of a writer, is far more complex and fluid than that. Sometimes you gets your pages written, sometimes you doesn’t. Which doesn’t mean your Ego is in cahoots with the devil, it just means it’s not your day. You’ve got to be able to accept the rough with the smooth, because that’s what life as a writer is like. You can’t exorcise the rough, no matter how many capital letters and sweeping analogies you deploy.

If there’s anything positive I took away from the book, it’s a confirmation that the only constructive attitude for a screenwriter is to focus on the work. Which means different things for different people. Just listen to a few of the Q+A’s in Jeff Goldsmith’s invaluable series of podcasts to get an impression of how varied professional screenwriters’ writing habits and processes can be.

The key is to find the regime that suits you best. You might be a ten hours a day person, you might be someone who writes in fits and starts. You might be a meticulous outliner, you might be the more spontaneous type. Whatever works. However, the worst thing you can do, in my opinion, is add a moral dimension to the search for the method that fits you best.

Screenwriting has nothing to do with battling against demonic resistance to the good which is creativity. It’s a profession. It’s about writing. As much as you can. It’s about reading. As many screenplays as you can. It’s about learning. From whatever source suits you best (workshops, DVD lectures, how-to books , university courses, etc.).

Oh, and by the way, I understand why Robert McKee so warmly recommends the book. Apart from the fact that it fits perfectly with his paradigm which says that all stories are essentially mythical tales about the individual overcoming the worst possible obstacles and thereby discovering their “true self,” he’s also mentioned in the book and he has his name on the back cover. Of course that may be irrelevant …

P.S. Just for clarity’s sake, Janet at The New York Screenwriting Life, this diatribe is not directed in the least bit personally against you! You just happened to be the trigger that prompted me to respond.