Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pros And Cons Of Journaling For Screenwriters

Some screenwriters can’t write unless they keep a journal. For others journaling is a distraction or even a waste of creative energy. Some thoughts.

Opinions seem divided about the benefits or otherwise of screenwriters keeping a journal. In general, those in favour of journaling see it as a means of finding or keeping focus, putting problems and worries into perspective, or even overcoming writer’s block. On the other side, are those who believe journaling is a self-indulgent displacement activity, and even a waste of your creative resources. Here are some of the common claims about journaling for writers, make of them what you will.

Journaling Helps You Keep Focused
Describing what you think and feel about scenes or characters you’re planning to write, evaluating what you’ve already written, identifying specific story problems you’re wrestling with… these are the kinds of journaling activities that help you distinguish between important and marginal issues. Often, when you’re immersed in a project—especially if you work alone—it can be difficult to sense the relative importance of a scene or a beat. Journaling can help you step back, see the bigger picture and choose which battle to fight, as it were. It’s also a great way to explore your own emotional connection to the story, to check that the story is still exploring or portraying what you intend it to. Also, if you’re like me and you work on multiple projects at once, then journaling can help you decide what not to do on any given day, which can be an important part of formulating your writing and career goals.

Journaling Depletes Your Creative Juices
An often heard warning, which frames creative work as being driven by a kind of fuel that gets used up and needs to be replenished. There’s something to be said for this, as the act of sitting and formulating coherent sentences, requires focused attention and energy. I know from experience that if you love writing, then it really doesn’t matter what you’re writing, you just become immersed in the process of translating your thoughts into written text, and before you know it, it’s time to pick the kids up from school. So it can be useful to set yourself a limited time to journal, because once you’re warmed up (see below), you’ll be ready to get back to your story. Whereas, if you carry on too long, you’ll just be spent when you finally stop.

Journaling Helps You Overcome Distracting Thoughts and Fears
Sian Beilock documents this wonderfully in her book Choke, which describes the research she’s done into performance under pressure. One of the numerous conclusions she’s come to, is that people who are prone to freeze up or be distracted by intrusive thoughts during activities where they need to focus intensively, can benefit from writing about these intrusive thoughts before they start the activity in question. Sometimes, the mere act of articulating clearly what’s on your mind, without necessarily going into any deep analysis or speculation about the underlying causes, can reduce its impact on your performance. It’s as if writing about your concerns is a way of shrinking them and putting them to one side for a while.

Journaling Encourages Self-Obsession
Definitely the flipside of the above and a very real danger of journaling, especially if you’re struggling with self-doubt. It’s very easy to get carried away and wallow in self-pity. Much, much easier, in fact, than doing something about whatever’s wrong. At least, that’s how it can feel if you let yourself get carried away, penning reams and reams of reasons to be miserable. One of those famous and by now thoroughly debunked myths of popular psychology, is that punching a boxing ball gets rid of your aggression. On the contrary, it evokes aggression. The same is true for going on and on about how unfortunate you are. Rather than making you feel better, it usually makes you feel worse.

Journaling Gets The Writing Muscles Moving
This idea frames creative writing as a kind of sport, and views journaling as similar to warming up before engaging in sports. Just writing something, anything, even complaining about not knowing what to write, can get you into the zone, and help overcome writer’s block. But if you extend the sports analogy, at some point you do have to finish the warming up and actually get to the sport. Otherwise…

Journaling Wastes Valuable Writing Time
Here’s an obvious disadvantage, especially if you only have limited time to write besides a day job, kids and other time-consuming, non-writing responsibilities. There’s definitely something to be said for using small windows of writing time for short, intensive spurts of writing, whether that be brainstorming, outlining or even writing pages. Several people have written convincingly about this, including Adrian Mead and Pilar Alessandra. The knowledge that you only have, say, half an hour or even ten minutes, can sometimes really get your creative brain in gear, and it would be ironic, to say the least, to spend that time pondering what’s stopping you from writing.

Journaling Helps You Track Your Writing Progress
This can be pretty confronting if you’re not making good progress, but it’s a great confirmation when you are. I recently read back some early entries in a journal about a screenplay I’m writing, and I was horrified to realize I’d been going round in circles, wrestling with ideas I’d played with before and rejected! At the same time, it clarified some story problems and helped me leave certain ideas behind for good and move on. Plus, keeping a record of your progress is also a way of compiling a (digital) paper trail, especially if you regularly back up your files on a distant server. If nothing else, you have a dated record of when you first started working on a project.

So, those are just a few of the arguments for and against journaling that I’m aware of. I come down on the side of journaling as a generally positive thing. I find it helpful to keep different journals for different projects I’m working on. These tend to be mostly notes about issues that relate specifically to the story at hand, but they can also touch on more general methodological or personal issues that come up. I also keep a more general writing journal, which helps me keep an overview of all the projects I have going at any one time. It’s a good place to identify similar problems that crop up in different projects, and it’s a place to reflect on priorities too.

But the main point is to avoid using journaling as an excuse for not working on your project(s). Journaling is best when it helps you keep a healthy balance between reflecting on your writing and… writing.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why A Great Screenplay Is Like A Beautiful Woman

All the usual lists of requirements for a great screenplay can help screenwriters up to a point, but like a beautiful woman, a great screenplay is not reducible to a list of its formal characteristics.

I’ve spent a long time trying to understand why I’m grabbed by one film while another doesn’t really affect me. Sometimes it’s the subject matter, sometimes it’s the acting, sometimes it’s the dramatic tension or lack of it. But in the end, I always find that no amount of analysis really captures what makes a film work for me. In fact, the more I strive to improve my own writing by reading screenplays, by watching on screen how other people work their magic, by taking advice from people who know how great screenplays "should" be written, the more I realize there’s a limit to how useful all that analysis of existing material is. Even on an internet dating site, where you can describe your ideal partner, the proof of the pudding is in the first face-to-face encounter. The “chemistry”(or lack of it) is determined by a process than analysis and verbalization of past experiences.

What Does A Beautiful Woman Look Like?
There’s plenty of social psychological research into falling in love, into the link between physical appearance and social status, and into the ever-changing norms concerning what counts as beautiful in different eras and cultures. Nowadays, for example, it’s fashionable to point to colour-coded fMRI scans to show where in the brain people decide what’s beautiful. But in the end, if you try and describe what a beautiful woman (or man) looks like, the only truthful answer is: I know one when I see one. It’s not helpful to say she should have straight blond hair, this or that hip-to-breast ratio, a certain type of gait… all these things may be true, but only on average and in retrospect. When you’ve seen the beautiful woman, you can describe certain aspects that you think attracted you to her, but that’s obviously not what attracts you to her in the moment. Your description is just a crude attempt to verbalize an immensely complex process that happens unconsciously, in milliseconds.

What Does An Amazing Movie Look Like?
It’s a familiar exercise that screenwriting teachers and how-to books propagate: Imagine what people coming out of the cinema are saying to each other about your film. Or: Imagine the poster. These are just a couple of ways of trying to distil the essence of a screenplay into a few pithy statements, so that you can keep yourself on track during the writing, and to give yourself a catchy pitch. These, and many other tricks of the trade are absolutely helpful, but they don’t do the creative work for you. Because, think about it, what made the last movie you loved, so great? That question alone activates a plethora of unconscious, pre-existing notions about “aspects of a film.” So you might say something about the acting, the camera work, the dialogue, the emotional dilemmas, and so on. But that, too, is just a crude attempt to verbalize a complex, largely unconscious experience. What you loved about the movie was the experience, not a bullet list of cinematic criteria. And what you loved about it may not be what other people loved about it. They may even not have liked it at all.

Analysis Is Not The Same As Creativity
For me, then, the lesson is that you can’t turn it around and use a crude analysis of a film you loved as the basis for your own screenplay. You can adopt the same structure as an existing movie, you can keep the same actors in mind when writing your own characters, you can imitate pacing and transitions, you can even copy someone’s writing style. And because your screenplay is going to be read by a lot of people who have lists of “good screenwriting criteria” boxes to tick, you have to master all the formal aspects of screenwriting just to get attention. But in the end, what makes a screenplay stand out from the crowd (and hopefully the movie that’s based on it, too) is dependent on so many unpredictable factors, not least of all the personal taste of readers, that the only sensible thing to do is to be true to what you yourself want to write. Find your own personal, emotional connection with your story and follow that.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Just because your best friend’s beloved doesn’t attract you, you’re not going to try and convince them to stop loving that person, are you? But there are people who aren’t embarrassed to explain to you why you’re wrong, say, to enjoy the most popular movie of all time so far: James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s “actually” not a good story, they'll tell you. Go know. So I think that following your own preference is probably wise. Which is not the same as saying that professional craftsmanship is irrelevant, because that’s certainly not true. My philosophy is: Get the craft, then tell your own stories.

It only takes one person in the right place at the right time to find my screenplay beautiful.