Friday, November 28, 2008

Convergence, Structure and New Energy

I'm not sure where to start this post.

I went to see The Sisters of Mercy in concert on Wednesday. They're a band you would have known about had not grunge music drop-kicked goth into a corner in the early 90's. Goth music's found a strange and peaceable immortality in that corner. My boyfriend, an otherwise respectable individual, can't quite free himself from the lure of the drum machine to this day. I try to stay tolerant.

Now, Goth came out of the same musical explosion/implosion that brought about a lot of good musicians. Think punk, post-punk, hardcore, art rock -- on and on. There was a huge upwelling of talent in and around Birmingham, UK, that made music what it is today. It was real, creative, new. Just watch this documentary about Joy Division. You don't have to like Joy Division to understand that something important happened when Ian Curtis got on stage.

None of this made me excited to see The Sisters of Mercy, of course. Nothing sadder than a bunch of people older than yourself singing along with a drum machine. But something amazing did happen before they came on.


What's a Hypernova. It's a star exploding, like a supernova. But larger.

It's also a rock band from Iran. And a damn good one. They played with a kind of excitement I haven't seen in a long time. Two guitars, a bass, drums and vocals. The lead singer, Raam, sounded like an Ian Curtis coming down off the lithium -- more and more excited, excitable, out of control. The band kept growing into the night. It was remarkable.

On stage you couldn't help but draw parallels to Joy Division. Their album sounds like a cross between The Strokes and Joy Division.

Now, neither of these groups demand a significant portion of my attention. But that's what made me think about screenwriting.

I'm doing more and more teaching these days. There's a great deal of screenwriting that needs to be taught -- how a character is constructed. How a plot works. How readers read. There are 32 rules that all point toward One Thing. I get tired sometimes. You can follow all 32 rules and come up with a passable story. But that's not something worth spending time with, is it?

Hypernova beat the pants off The Sisters of Mercy because they cared more. There's probably nothing as corrosive to The Islamic Republic as Joy Division. Nothing so liberating to hear than the voice of a few post-punk Birmingham artsy types singing for the right to live. It'd be wrong to speak for them, of course. But it's hard not to see them at 12 years of age caught up in something illicit, beautiful and alien as rock music. And understanding better than almost any poor American soul who grew up surrounded by it, with full access at record stores and friends' houses.

They studied it. They used the structure. They write good songs. Then they pour something meaningful into it to communicate to an audience in San Francisco, decades later.

This is why we write. This is what's worth caring about. But you can't get there without knowing how it's put together. You can't break the 32 rules until you've mastered them first.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Putting the Important Ahead of the Urgent

The holidays are upon us -- waiting just outside the door, leaving cloven hoofprints in the snow. The end of the semester looms -- with pages and pages of grief and anxiety before the final projects even hit. And then there's football. And way too much scotch, butter, and really bad music in the offing. Then, on December 24, there's the shopping.

It's a dreadful time. Each year I debate my approach -- whether to officially put the whole thing off, remove it from the calendar, or gamely smile and step in on the right foot. Of course it doesn't matter. The holidays will win. We will all be sodden with drink, sleep deprived, and weepy with family drama before long. It's been lovely knowing you all.

Needless to say, writing suffers. But does it have to to?

I try to follow a basic plan throughout the year. "Important comes before the urgent". This means writing for myself, going outside, breathing, and similar activities get a place in my life even when they don't seem fated to happen. Stopping to smell the roses is important because it works. It keeps you functional. The rose of the day might be dinner with your boyfriend, or going to see a play, or simply a day at the desk with the wifi turned off and your screenplay in front of you.

Inevitably these things end up making life run more smoothly. Sure, you'll spend all morning suffering through what should be an easy scene. But you'll remember what the scene's about or maybe even learn something about your character. Inevitably you'll listen to the rest of the day with a new ear.

Please don't quote me on any of this in a few weeks. But I do try to formulate a survival plan for the important around this time of year. I'll spend an hour writing before I hit email. I'll make food at home. I won't go to more than two holiday parties in a row. I'll spend some time choosing presents and trying to remember what this is all supposed to be about. There's an abundance out there worth being grateful for -- even around the holidays.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Lord of Obstacles

I've always had a fondness for the Hindu god Ganesha.

He's not a god of war or the harvest or fertility. He's his own god, a kind of deity without portfolio. He fits in where he's needed -- a kind of generous, humorous personality that understands human nature. Plus, he's got an elephant head, anywhere from 2 to 16 arms, and he rides around on a rat.

Ganesha is the son of Shiva, who created the universe in Hindu mythology. Shiva's a bit more lively than our Judeo-Christian god. He didn't state the universe into existence. He danced it into existence. There are numerous myths around how he came to have a son. One is that Ganesha was born of his laughter.

And Ganesha couldn't quite stop laughing soon enough. He loves to tease, and in fact made fun of his dad and his dancing. The end result? He dances the arts and music into existence. In some myths, Shiva chopped off his human head out of anger at this impertinence. Ganesha's mom had to make do with an elephant head in a pinch. If that's not a recipe for character sympathy, I don't know what is.

Ganesha is a trickster. He likes to play. He's the god of obstacles. He both places them and removes them. He brings about change. You can pray to Ganesha if you want to make things move smoothly. But Ganesha might just stick an obstacle in your path if it's going to teach you something in the long run.

By all rights, that should make Ganesha the god of screenwriting.

Ganesha knows something about what makes an obstacle effective. He knows what draws us on is often the same thing that draws us astray. It's important to remember this when you're struggling to make your character compelling and complex. There's a simplicity at the base of all complexity. Ganesha knows it.

I wrote in my previous post about trying to get a little girl into a car in time to hear a conversation the whole script hinged on. There didn't seem to be a way without pulling back on the conflict and forcing the characters to back down on their misbehaviors. I teased myself that perhaps they were all learning something -- getting past their problems. But I knew it wouldn't work. I got the square block halfway into the round hole, then spent the afternoon trying to extricate it.

A good obstacle forces you to think. It forces you to admit something important. The story isn't about you. It's not there to make things easy on you. It's there, primarily, to help you learn. That's why we write, even if we've got visions of first-look deals dancing in our heads.

And you realize at some point that your character can be lead astray quite easily. And that 'astray' is often exactly where you want to be. You can trick your character. You can force them to confront things they'd never look at. You can force them to grow.

There's something fascinating here, like watching a parrot figure out how to get a nut out of a tube, or a toddler figure out how to use a doorknob. Something greater than you planned on comes out of nowhere. And writing is worthwhile again.

Always remember your character's goal. Always remember their in-the-moment context. And always remember their problem -- even when it seems to be working against you. And remember that there might just be a fat guy with an elephant head giggling just above your head at that very moment.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Finishing with Symmetry

For me, good screenwriting is largely a question of modeling complexity effectively. Good characters are complex. They have a depth and a resonance to them. But they arise out of two simple traits -- a misbehavior or flaw, and a goal or desire. It's not that those two completely define the character. It's that those two give the audience access to the rest of the character.

Take a good conceit, also known as a strategy for unity. It's what gives a script its 'thingness', its identity. How do you know you're watching Wall-E or Jaws? There's a key concept that permeates every good script that gives it uniqueness. It's present at virtually any moment in the story, but it's not the story. It gives the audience access to the story. For that matter, it gives the WRITER access to the story. It helps you find the tale. It tells you where it is, or what it might be, rather that what's right or wrong. You find association and affinity with a story through a well-derived conceit. You go beyond the fact of the matter and find a dynamic with your conceit.

Plot is no different. Screenwriters plot and plot (or plod and plod) through synopses and loglines and treatments before actually tackling a script. There's a reason for it. For one, it's actually less work in the long run, because you work out most of your problems on a single page rather than in 120. Second, it lets you know what's important. It helps you find the unity.

But then, sooner or later, you actually start to write. Now, if you've worked out most of what's happening, it's relatively smooth. But small problems and shifts inevitably occur. There is no science here. It's like ironing a shirt or laying down a piece of carpet. You roll out one small wrinkle, but it never quite makes it all the way out. As soon as you think it's gone, it's popped up on the other side. You attack and attack, but that wrinkle just moves around to wherever you aren't paying attention.

I'm drafting a story now with this problem. In my synopsis, I let a little girl eavesdrop on an adult conversation. When I got to the scene, she ended up on the wrong side of a car door. No big deal, you think. But of course, she doesn't know what happens inside the car anymore. Which affects the next beat, which affects the beat beyond that, and so on.

You might try solving the problem by putting the little girl in the car. No big deal, right? You've papered over the crack, and saved yourself an awful lot of work. You go onto the next beat. Everything seems fine. You aren't quite as sold on how the whole thing fits together as you might be. But it works. And you write another beat. And you wonder if maybe you need to rethink the misbehaviors a bit. This, of course, means you stare at the ceiling for at least an afternoon. And then your thirty pages down, and the little girl and the old man have to steal a car. And there's absolutely no way to make it work. They just wouldn't do it. They wouldn't think about it. They aren't that crafty or resourceful. They don't fight that way. And strangely, somehow, that's all because you let the little girl in the car to hear the conversation.


What happened when you let the little girl into the car. First, you probably sidestepped some necessary conflict. You were choosing your own needs over those of the main character, who really had no desire to have the little girl in the car. You lost a chance to express their misbehaviors. You muddled the whole question of what the characters ultimately want. You didn't let them fight for it.

And thirty pages later, it comes back to bite you.

How do you find your way out of the wilderness?

The blanket answer is you go back to your tools. There's plenty you could do here with character, but just for today, let's talk about symmetry.

If you've read anything about screenwriting, you know something about the three-act structure. If you've read this blog before, you'll probably know that virtually all the gurus and schools of screenwriting essentially rehash Aristotle.

Aristotle was big on UNITY. Why can't you start a rom-com halfway through Jaws? Because you're breaking unity. You're working against expectations. You're deflating your own drama. The audience wants to see dramatic distance covered -- real developments. And those changes, those developments, are all contextual. They are relevant to the story. If Sleepless in Seattle ended with Tom Hanks becoming president of the United States or defeating a gigantic shark, he'd be a good guy. But the story wouldn't make sense.

Symmetry is the activation of that unity within the plot. The inciting event has symmetry with the climax. The opening has symmetry with the resolution. The first plot point has symmetry with the second, and so on. What does this mean? It means that SOME things are the same, and some things are different. You can gauge the differences -- and therefore the dramatic distance -- by measuring them against the elements that are the same.

There's something incredibly key here for a writer. Say you're struggling with your climax. Where do you find a cue? In your inciting event. Or the reverse. Say your little girl character is outside of a car you thought she'd be in. Look at the symmetric beat. And, voila, you find the bigger picture. In this case, the older male protagonist is pushing the little girl away and damaging himself. In the symmetric beat, he more or less rights that wrong -- by having another secret conversation, and learning from his mistake.

Say you find yourself at a loss when your characters just won't steal the car they need to steal for the plot to move forward. Take a look at the corresponding beat earlier in the script (i.e. equidistant from the midpoint). Guess what. They're actually taking a car that doesn't really belong to them.

Surprise! We have unity in our heads. We aim for symmetry, even when we don't realize it. Look at any story -- your own or someone else's. Find the structure, and I'll bet you'll be able to locate symmetries you hadn't noticed before.

Suddenly you're master of your universe again. You look to the beat, what's same and what's different. And soon you've deepened BOTH beats, and found a lot more story.

How does this affect the reader/viewer? Listening to a story is more or less recognizing a pattern. When you see a character in a parallel situation, but acting differently, you can gauge where you are in the story. And you settle in, relax, and wait for that pattern to unfold.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Lives of Others

I've finally cleared out some space in my head. It's been a week to remember. The end of the Bush administration now at hand. Friends of mine who woke up Wednesday morning uncertain if they're married anymore. It tears you apart.

I've been obsessed with the election, and very nearly broke out of my screenwriting blog mode to pursue something more general about media and narrative. That may happen, but not today.

I finally saw The Lives of Others. It's a German film about a famous playwright and the State Security officer who put him under surveillance. It's a deeply moving film, and a picture of careful, passionate screenwriting. If you desire to be a careful yet passionate screenwriter, check it out.

The script answers some critical questions for new writers. I'll delve into a couple today.

It's common for new writers to reject any kind of formula for their main characters. How can it be as simple as a misbehavior and a goal? My character is so much richer than that! (And I have 100 pages to go! How am I supposed to fill that with one trait?)

I'll give a class on dramatic distance -- setting your main character as far back from the finish line as possible. New writers nod and agree that's a good idea. Then you start seeing their drafts and you realize the slightly distant look was as long as you don't put them *too* far away from the goal.

You go on and on about symmetry, about how knowing your ending can tell you how to write your beginning, or how one plot point can flesh out another. That's all well and good, they think. But it's too damn hard. Or it's a recipe for formula.

Watch The Lives of Others.

The main character, Wiesler, is a fairly unpleasant individual at the beginning. He not only interrogates enemies of the East German state, he trains others to do it too. He's a whiz at his job because he understands human nature only too well. He knows how to listen.

He's ruthless at his job. He in fact fingers the playwright, Georg Dreyman, for surveillance when all others considered him above reproach.

Did you see the flaw? He knows how to listen. He's obsessed with listening and finding the subtext. He worships at the altar of human nature. And that's not necessarily a good thing when you work for the Stasi. He's too good at his job.

As Georg's best friend commits suicide and his wife gets pawed by a powerful politician, Wiesler can't help but feel sympathy for the man. When he encounters Georg's wife by chance, he knows exactly what to say to her to strengthen the marriage. And the drama continues.

Georg and some friends discuss smuggling one of them into West Germany. Wiesler hears the whole thing, and decides not to report the future crime "just this once". But Georg and friends were simply running a test -- to see if the apartment was bugged. They never counted on Wiesler's sympathy. And they start to hatch a bigger plan without taking precautions. He's put both Georg and himself in greater danger.

Now Wiesler has a choice. Come clean or continue the lie. He continues the lie -- in fact coming up with a fake play to cover up real work his subject doing. He gets another security man off the case, arousing the suspicion of his boss. Soon Wiesler is risking literally everything to save the couple -- all without their knowledge.

At the end, Wiesler is the interrogated, not the interrogator. He's come full circle. He's covered more dramatic distance than you can imagine. And you believed it every step of the way.

I've summarized here. I've taken a hugely dramatic script with multiple storylines and subplots and turned it into the answer to an essay question. That's a problem with blogging. It's not finding something new. It's reporting what you saw.

I'm going to insist that you watch this movie with one thing in mind. Not merely "can I identify the screenwriter's tools?" Look a little deeper, and see that a beautiful, true story is beautiful and true BECAUSE it has these tools. They aren't tools once they've left your head anymore. They're simply true. They're simply beautiful.