Storytelling for the screen

Storytelling is instinctive to the human condition, and screenwriting is storytelling.  At the core of storytelling, is a cerebral, emotional, social and psychological connection.  Every screenwriter has the responsibility of creating a story (even if comedic) that will connect with the audience.  What do the works of famed literary artists like: Shakespeare, Homer, Aesop, Chaucer, Euripides, Virgil, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Leo Tolstoy, and Dante all have in common?  They have been able to characterize simple life truths into stories – stories that are connected to the human condition.  This connection is experienced by the reader/audience as they identify with the characters.

Psychologist William Indick says, “Through the unconscious process of “identification,” the people in the audience [readers] actually become the characters that they identify with in the film, and they experience, vicariously, the same psychological development and catharsis that the characters on the screen [or in a book] experience.”

Catharsis is a term that was set into motion by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 -322 BCE).  Aristotle established the guidelines for literary tragedy that are very much in place today.  In his famous Poetics (350 BCE), Aristotle defines “catharsis” as follows:  “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude…in the form of action, not of narrative, through pity, and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions (section 1, part VI).”  Purgation is actually more literally translated “catharsis,” and comes from the word, “Greekkatharsis,” and means cleansing.

*More on Catharsis: http://www.bookkaholic.com/what-to-read-part-6-catharsis/

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

It is no mystery as to why the classics (movies, literature and theatrical plays) have stood the test of time.  How is it that an audience today can still relate to the heartbreak of two young lovers in Romeo and Juliet?  Why do we feel empathy for Topol in Fiddler on the Roof when her father Tevye disowns her for choosing to marry outside the Jewish faith?  It is because these stories represent real people with authentic issues, while illuminating simple truths about life.  In essence, we “feel” the characters pain.  When Willy Loman is cast aside at 60 years old in the play, The Death of a Salesman, we again are moved by his troubles and so many disappointments of his past.

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As screenwriters, we have a responsibility to create stories that are relatable.  No matter what the genre, every good story must have a protagonist who will be forced to make a choice.  The classic hero struggles with human flaws, psychological reactions to conflict from the beginning of the story all the way to the end, where we (the audience/reader) see the protagonist’s transformation.

Story is not to be confused with plot.  Screenwriter and author Kate Wright says, “Story and plot are intricately woven inside story events, and while the audience cannot tell them apart, each us distinct: Plot is self-evident, and we experience it objectively, scene by scene.  Story is the deeper meaning behind the plot, and we subjectively infer its moral truth—or absolute truth—sequentially, by identifying with the inner moral struggle of the main character.”

So, with the realization that “story” must connect to humanity, we (as writers) begin the journey of unfolding the premise, from FADE IN to FADE OUT.  It cannot just be about an idea, or bang-up and shoot-out events.  A screenplay (like fiction) has a beginning, middle and end, and it is a combination plate of unfolding events that will bring the hero to transformation.  Of course, it’s not just “any” event.  All events must play a part in defining the world of the story, addressing the theme or central idea (which needs to be addressed in the first 5 minutes, pushing the plot forward, revealing the journey/plight of the protagonist, and so on.

“A STORY EVENT creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a VALUE.” – Robert McKee, Story

The values that McKee speaks about are those universal qualities found within every human experience.  No matter what the characteristic, whether it be fear or confidence, joy, anger, hope, despair, wisdom, truth or lies, morality, and even death and life, these (and many more) are the catalyst for conflict.

According to McKee, “Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask:  What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment?”  Identify the value/emotion in the scene from the beginning to the ending. Looking objectively at every scene, and asking this question is a great way to identify the significance of the scene, and according to McKee, it will lead you to a second important question:  “Why is this scene in my script?”

A Great Rule: Enter late; exit early.

Go back to every scene (and every conversation) and find the latest possible point you can enter that conversation or scene.

a)     Begin your scene there. Cut everything that comes before it.

b)    Next, find the earliest place you can exit the scene, and end your scene there (cutting everything after it).

c)     Try to cut your scene before it resolves.  Leave something dangling, and end with a question—something unanswered, or as David Ball says, “End with a forwarding action.”

It really is all about the STORY.  Without a story, you don’t have characters.  Without a story, you don’t have a screenplay, and without a story you don’t have a movie.

There is a correlation between story and life, and it’s a connection that must not be missed.  McKee says, “Story is metaphor for life.”  So, it doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing in; what does matter is that your story must have a relationship with human experience.  Ask yourself the question, “Is your story life-like?”

It’s not about figuring out the marketplace, but mastering the craft of screenwriting, and that is no small quest.  David Ball, author of Backwards & Forwards recently said, “Screenwriting is a group art form.  It is largely technique, plus art and inspiration. If you want to play, you have to learn how the game is played.  Successful writers master a technique before they reject it.”

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Good writers are the ultimate eavesdroppers

In his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell says, “Modern literature is devoted, in great measure, to a courageous, open-eyed observation of the sickeningly broken figuration’s that abound before us, around us, and within.”  In other words, story telling is really about observing humanity.

Let me be perfectly candid: Screenwriters are not exempt from these important observations.

I truly believe that the best writers are not afraid to ask questions.  Maybe my work as a journalist is seeping through, but in order for us to create convincing characters, we need to have a real grasp on psychology.  We should be open-minded, and never write with an agenda, but write as an expression of what is within and about what is external.

I have never understood the writer who hides away from humanity.  Naturally, writing is solitary by nature, but when I am not writing, I am out and about—watching and listening to people.  Perhaps good writers are the ultimate eavesdroppers.

If you’ve never seen Norah Baumbach’s film, The Squid and the Whale, I’d like to recommend it. The story is about a family in crisis, and Baumbach successfully utilizes the themes of divorce, infidelity and relational dysfunction (sounds like Psychology 101), and we are drawn into the drama of a family as they all try to make sense of life.  You know, something that happens around us everyday.

Baumbach hits the audience with a scene-by-scene depiction of a family that is jaded by denial.  One of the greatest universal appeals in this screenplay is the author’s ability to write a brutally honest story about a family being forced to change in the midst of serious crisis.

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Whether the story is dramatic or comedic is not even the issue, because, according to Joseph Campbell, comedy and tragedy work parallel.  He says, “The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man.” Regardless of our station in life, we are all evolving.  Campbell’s hero never sits idle, but moves through time and space—changing from the inside out.  This is a reflection of life. Life, as we know it—a “call to adventure,” as Campbell puts it.

Good stories and well-drawn characters remind us of life.  In them we see reflections of history and unforgettable moments.  Moments comprised of birth and death, heartache and rapture, conflict in relationships, pain and suffering, love and war, happiness and sorrow, and justice and injustice.

Fellow writers…good writing is not something that just happens.  It’s not like picking up a journal, writing your thoughts down with utter abandonment while sipping a latte, and then suddenly getting published or produced.  There’s no magical formula, and no genie to wiggle her nose with the promise of a next best seller.  Like anything in life, if a writer wants to excel, he or she must surrender to the process, and it’s rigorous.  It means letting preconceived ideas go, and not holding onto writing that’s redundant just because you like a scene or a character.  It means to scrutinize your work and hold it against other works that have stood the test of time.  It means to be thoroughly honest while being captivatingly creative and transcendent.  “Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas…story is about mastering the art, not second-guessing the marketplace,” says Robert McKee.  The truth is…there are no shortcuts.

Having an open mind means to step outside of the box.  Writing is a journey that all of us creative minds must embrace, and like the characters we create, there is a moment in time where we “must” choose to drop all predetermined plans and welcome with open arms the challenge set before us.

Writing is a sacred place of both discovery and methodology.  It’s an amalgam of both worlds, and that process for me has been to find a balance between creative artistry and theory.  Part of that discovery is observing the way we humans respond to life. To not be afraid to let go of writing that doesn’t work (a couple of screenplays ago, I deleted 30 pages of script and laughed hysterically).  Letting go is a part of embracing the art of storytelling.  It’s not just about myth.  It’s about life.

So, are you (as a writer) ready to embrace the journey of storytelling?  Are you ready to be honest and transcendent?  Are you willing to learn what “really” makes a character tick?

“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” – Joseph Campbell

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