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.


Anonymous said...

your blog is amazing! i just stumbled across it because i'm doing a master's program in creative writing for entertainment and was searching for tips on writing loglines. i have a feeling i'll be visiting your blog regularly, and perusing the archives! thank you for doing what you do. :]

Raving Dave Herman said...

Thanks, Julian! I'm glad you like the blog. Good luck with your writing! Dave