Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Follow Your Gut, But Train It First

I’m a great fan of Jeff Goldsmith’s blog and podcast, which features Q+A sessions with screenwriters of movies currently in theatres. Sometimes it’s just reassuring to hear people describe familiar writing dilemma’s and creative issues; it helps to know it’s not just me. Other times it’s useful to hear how other writers find inspiration or deal with specific dramatic writing issues; a great tip can save much unnecessary sweat.

However, what I’ve always found most intriguing are the interviews with writers who don’t exhaustively prepare and outline their screenplays before they start writing a first draft. They write intuitively. Just a few of these writers I can think of off-hand: Guillermo Arriaga (Babel), Ronald Harwood (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), David Benioff (The Kite Runner).

What strikes me about these people, is that they all have a background in writing novels or stage plays, or both. They come from a world in which the writer is a far more highly respected and autonomous player. They appear to write from a very different starting point than screenwriters whose thinking is steeped Hollywood jargon that seems to serve more to reassure studio executives than to advance the creative process. You know, plot points, character arcs and all that stuff.

But there’s more to it than that, I fear.

I recently started work on a screenplay without doing the usual text book preparation, and it made me extremely nervous. Being the introspective type, I wanted to know what was going on, so I looked inside and realized: I feel like I’m losing my religion. Shame, guilt, accusatory voices in my head (don’t worry, only I can hear them), and all because I’m violating the edicts of all the how-to books and screenwriting tutors.

Or am I?

In fact, my conclusion is different. Learning to write good screenplays is like learning to paint or play a musical instrument, or any other creative endeavour. You first have to spend a long, long time imitating the people who’ve done it all before you. Learning their tricks, distilling principles, practising an array of techniques, and so on. Only once you’ve mastered the technique can you transcend it. That’s how you develop intuition, or gut feeling, and that’s when you discover if you have anything interesting and original to add.

Which is why learning to outline, knowing what an act break is, understanding what’s meant by a character arc, familiarizing yourself with genre conventions and so on, is essential. Only then can you go beyond the generic and create something truly original.

Like my current favourite Keith Johnstone says in his book Impro:

It’s easy to play the role of “artist,” but to actually create something means going against one’s education.

Which I don’t take to mean mindlessly rebelling against what you’ve learned. The point is to internalize what you’ve learned, so that it becomes a repertoire you have at your disposal, and then follow your instincts.

There’s a famous psychological experiment in which two groups of subjects are given a free poster to take home for keeps. They get to choose between two reproductions of impressionist paintings and some huge photos of cute little kittens. Group A simply chooses a poster and leaves, Group B is asked to first write down the reasons for their choice.

When the subjects are called a few weeks later and asked if they’re still happy with the choice they made, the vast majority of Group A, who mostly chose the impressionist painting, are still very happy with their posters. However, Group B, who mostly chose the kitten, absolutely hate their posters. The explanation, according to psychologists who study decision making, is that this type of aesthetic decision is best made instinctively rather than by means of conscious deliberation.

People in Group B had to write down the motivation for their choice. This conscious thinking removed them from their initial, unconscious preference, and instead prompted them to follow a more “rational” and in this case less authentic approach.

Something similar goes on in a screenwriter’s mind when there’s too much thinking and conscious reasoning, and not enough intuition involved.

Right now my intuition says it’s time for some tea.


Anonymous said...

Hey Dave,

Okay some say screenwriting is not a crart or an art etc.

How come I read about some painters, songwriters, novelists who never required training.

They just go it.

Raving Dave Herman said...

Screenwriting is not like brain surgery. There is no law that says you can't just start writing a screenplay.

However, because a screenplay is a plan for a film, rather than just a story, there are quite a few conventions that screenwriters tend to stick to. These have to do with genre, formatting, structure, production values, and so on.

I don't believe anyone is born with a "screenwriting instinct." Film is just one of many channels through which a creative person can choose to express themselves. As such it has its own set of conventions and limitations.

None of which means that if you have a great idea for a film you shouldn't just sit down and write the script!