Category Archives: Screenwriting
Storytelling is at the core of all art forms. No matter how abstract that form is, there is still at least a basic theme behind it. It doesn’t matter if you’re making a film, writing a novel, composing a song, making carvings from tree stumps, painting a watercolor, or photographing orangoutangs in their native environment. If you are creating art, you are telling a story. And the better you are at the craft of storytelling, the better of an artist you will be.
Of course good storytelling is in the eye of the beholder. I have my own opinions about what elements of storytelling I consider invaluable to various artistic disciplines and I will talk a little about that here. However, I won’t go into too much detail regarding the classical methods and elements of storytelling. I am after all, a self-described jack of all trades and master of but a few, so while I consider myself a writer as well as a connoisseur of good writing, I absolutely will not be so sententious as to pose as a writing expert. It is my humble opinion that all artists should read a book or two on writing in order to gain a basic understanding of story construction.
Books on writing talk about various ways to categorize and classify stories. There are genres (e.g. comedy, action-adventure, horror, thriller, science fiction, etc.). And there are recognized archetypical themes (e.g. the hero’s journey, the coming of age, fall and redemption, etc.) And then there are also the aspects related to the length of the story and how that affects how the story is unveiled (short stories and short films have to tell the story more quickly, and therefore may gloss over or even skip entirely, certain elements that would be considered more important in a full-length feature film or a novel. But all storytelling has a few central tenets.
The primordial component of a good story is the theme. The theme is that central concern of the work of art that resonates with the audience. Writers know that every work of fiction has a theme and that theme should be clear in your mind before you start the process of writing. But other artists also should think (albeit sometimes unconsciously) about a theme when they pick up a brush or chisel or guitar or still camera.
A theme could be as simple as a feeling or emotion (pain, elation, anger, bliss, etc.) or it could be a more complex concept such as man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, or a warning about the oppression of the common man by the machinations of life, or it could be a moral adage such as do unto others what you would have them do unto you. But it is always there, even if only at the subconscious level. It is useful to pull it up into conscious thought when trying to create something meaningful.
Beyond a theme, stories have a plot, characters and settings. The plot (in a very small nutshell) is essentially the sequence of events in various settings, that shapes the characters as they encounter conflicts and work toward resolving them, from the beginning to the end of the story. Plots can be rather complex: there could be several subplots twisting and turning and intertwining in the story.
In literature and film, these three elements are complex and carefully developed: the story is laced with dialogue and narrative descriptions that help define the settings and the characters. In more static works of art, these are usually more subtle. A painting with people posed in a particular setting, going about their lives can evoke an idea about what’s going on, but to a lesser extent than explicit prose can. Much of the story must be inferred by the viewer, and clearly each viewer will come away with a slightly different take on it. Again, that is part of the pleasure of art: that part of what you take away from it is highly personal.
Of course, as art becomes more abstract, the story becomes more difficult to perceive. The more abstract the art, the more its interpretation is left to the imagination. But this too is part of the satisfaction and pleasure of viewing art. We cultivate our imaginations by attempting to see beneath the wavy lines, the rough textures, the vivid colors and the sharp borders.
A friend of mine was working on an oil painting a while back, and she asked what I saw in my mind when I looked at it. So I sat in a comfortable chair just looking at it for a while and thinking about it. And in a way, I sort of translated it into a little story in my head. Although a painting, by its nature is static (there is neither action nor dialog in a painting) and this one was a bit abstract, I saw distinct imagery and felt a certain feeling. I saw a savage city looming over the people who resided there, oppressive with its size and complexity. The city didn’t do this intentionally—it was just being itself. Yet the people seemed to be coping with it, and even thriving, as most life can thrive almost anywhere if it has the will to. So I saw a triumph of the will over oppression and angst. When I told my artist friend what I gleaned from her painting, she looked at me with amazement. She told me that lots of people saw the buildings and the people beneath them. But not many saw a story with a powerful theme (replete with conflict and resolution) in it. And then she told me that this was exactly how she had felt on her first visit to New York: that the tall buildings and bustling streets had seemed intimidating and even threatening—until she walked inside a few and found a friendly neighborhood bar, or a nightclub with a jazz band playing, or a market with shelves full of colorful and tasty things for sale. The feeling that she had was about how even the cold intimidation of the city could be overcome by digging beneath its veneer. I felt good for her (and a little for myself) that I had seen the same little story behind that painting that she had been thinking of when she conceived it.
And then there’s a great body of classical music from which you can glean stories without hearing any words or seeing any actions. There are stories of bloody wars, disaster and triumph, love shattered, and redemption from a fall. It’s all there in the sad violin solo, the cascade of horns, the crescendo of the timpani drums, the crash of the cymbals—if you but listen for it. You can hear the story build from movement to movement. And you can be driven to tears by the climactic ending.
With literature and film, the storyteller has more means to express the story through spoken words and actions and narrative descriptions than in other forms of art. And therefore, the pressure is on the writer or filmmaker to tell a good story to an audience that is expecting more than just mundane dialogue, funny jokes, exciting action, and stunning scenery. But every brushstroke, every bit of stone chiseled away and every musical note has a meaning too.
I’ve heard it said by a famous sculptor, when asked how he knew what to chisel away: “I see in my mind what it is I’m trying to say, and anything that doesn’t contribute to saying it gets removed, and then what I’m left with is pure meaning.” That was a bit of an epiphany to me, since sculpting is subtractive in nature—you start with all the material and remove that which shouldn’t be there, as opposed to building up a work piece by piece as happens in painting. By comparison, writers and filmmakers do both: they put together a rough work and then edit out what they then feel doesn’t add anything.
No matter what form of art a person is into, the common goal is to tell a story, no matter how short and sweet it is. All artists should think about this before getting started on something. What is it you’re trying to say? Your audience is expecting a good story when they sit down to read your novel or to watch your film, or listen to your song, or view your photographs, paintings or sculptures. When you fall short on your implicit promise to tell a good story, you let your audience down.
You’ve undoubtedly seen posts of the following nature all over the internet forums aimed at writers, filmmakers, musicians, etc. (Facebook is the worst offender):
“Hey everyone, I’m a new writer/filmmaker/musician and I just finished a short story/short film/song: could you all visit my page and read/view/listen to it, and hit like? It will help me with my career”.
Newsflash for all the fledging Stephen King’s / Marty Scorcese’s / Dave Mathews’s out there: posting links to your so-so stuff in Facebook groups and begging people in that group to click the like button isn’t going to help launch your career. It will only tend to evoke a bit of empathetic pity from other misguided artist wannabes—if anything. Personally, I’d be more inclined to view your stuff if you asked me to take a look and give you my honest feedback, instead of just “like me, like me…”. The reality is, these people probably don’t even care if you watch or listen to their stuff—they just want their view count and like percentage as high as possible. They subscribe the specious notion that if they get their numbers high enough that important people who can help them with their careers will magically call them to set up a meeting.
Well, the reality is this is not a game whereby the person with the most likes wins the prize of a lucrative contract with a big publishing house or film studio or record label. Social media may be good for contacting others just like you to talk and to bitch about stuff, but it isn’t some wondrous new invention that can instantly make stars out of you if you post enough drivel often enough. The only one thing that is going to propel you in a successful career as a writer, filmmaker, musician or artist of any stripe is to be both good and lucky. Nobody can help you with those—you have to study your craft and practice incessantly for that to happen. But regarding who can really help you, you have to make connections with the right people (not just other struggling artists in the same boat). You have to meet the people who can help you polish and distribute and sell your art (we’ll talk about who these people are in a future blog).
I commented in an earlier post about how technology has made it easier to self-publish. Whether you’re trying to sell a novel or collection of short stores on Kindle, or distribute a short film on Vimeo or YouTube, or sell your songs on Reverb Nation, it has unquestionably gotten much easier to get your stuff “out there”. But the flip side of that is that there is so much stuff “out there” that it is getting harder and harder to get noticed. It has really become a landfill on which you are tossing your little nugget of gold and hoping and praying for the best, if you only post enough “watch me/like me” messages.
So to start with, you need to learn your craft and practice until you really have come up with a gem. A work of art that is appealing, is what’s going to sell. Slapping together a poorly-edited novel with a weak plot, or a film with no character arc and trite dialog, or a song that just doesn’t hook you and get your blood pumping and then uploading it to one of those mass distribution channels and then begging people to look at it and like it, just isn’t enough. I went to yet another local “premiere” held by a local “filmmaker” recently, and saw a film that was not a story, just a recounting of some awful things that happened to the writer as a child, and then while I was waiting for some entertaining and/or enlightening climactic ending, the credits started rolling. I was expecting either redemption or poetic justice, but saw only the ending credits instead. It was yet another WTF moment.
If only your family and friends and cast and crew members’ support alone could propel you into stardom, you wouldn’t need to worry about little things like telling a good story. You could just string together a collection of scenes or beats or riffs, and use some pretty camera work and some catchy music, and you’d be all set. But don’t complain about the injustice of the “system” when you’re still making latte’s for your day job instead of moving to a new home in Bel Air. There’s so much of that kind of fluff out there that it has jaded the average person. And those people who can and might be trying to discover new artists and their works aren’t going to dig through that landfill looking for your nugget. Those agents, publishers, film distributors, and art dealers might or might not have assistants searching the depths and crevices of the net for potential new talent, but all the noise out there makes it all the harder for them to find you! As I said in a previous blog: the signal-to-noise ratio on the internet is near zero. And if they did by some chance come across one of your nuggets, you may only get that one golden opportunity to have it looked at with a critical eye/ear, so don’t blow it by putting incessant substandard junk out there.
What do you have to do to rise above the noise floor? In whatever art form you work in, you have to tell captivating stories. You have to both entertain people and move them emotionally with some message. And you must never confuse the medium for the message (read Marshall McLuhan). If you don’t know how to tell stories, then you are not there yet as an artist. Have confidence in yourself, but don’t act like a best-selling author when all you’ve written is a handful of unpublished short stories. Nobody likes a poser!
There are filmmakers who believe that great lighting and camera moves are the most important factors in creating a good film. I see these folks in pre-production meetings obsessing not over the story, but over lenses and lights and dollies and cranes. Most of these types of filmmakers came up through the ranks of cinematographer (camera guy). They possess all that lovely and expensive equipment and they so want to use all of it in every film they make to justify their expenditures. This use of technology sleight of hand to try to sell a film that is otherwise devoid of good storytelling isn’t just a small-time indie malady—it happens on medium-to-large budget films as well. It’s a hallmark of the so-called “B” movie. When a filmmaker has a weak story, he or she too often thinks that just lacing the finished footage with complicated effects, impressive stunts, cool sound effects, and other “wow factor” ingredients is all that it takes to bring the quality level right up there. Some people might buy that, but I personally do not think a whole lot of people do.
And while dedicated writers know a little more about the importance of story structure, they still come up short quite often. How many times have you writers had an inspiration for a really great story, but didn’t know how to end it (or even to start it)? Perhaps at some critical turning point you weren’t sure wether to go down one path or another, so you just slapped together something just to finish it? It probably would have been better to just set your script aside and worked on something else until that epiphany hit you (and it hits all good writers who have the patience to wait for it). But we all so want to have more immediate gratification and get more stuff out there faster. Art is not a competition or a race. It might be controlled too often by business interests. But at its core, it is an expression of the mind, heart and spirit.
I’ve dabbled in songwriting, and found similar urges to take short cuts to hurry up the process. I used to mock the old Beatle’s songs for the simplistic lyrics that mostly were variations of “she loves you” or “I love her”. Of course the Beatles franchise made billions of dollars with their “silly love songs”, so what’s wrong with that? Artistically-speakingm nothing really. But the Beatles went through several distinct definitive phases. They began with the commercial art phase where everything from their costumes and hair to their publicity releases, to their lyrics, was about creating fan buzz and satisfying the record label execs. I don’t think many folks would try to argue that their first couple of albums were beautiful works of art. And that’s okay in my book, because they did evolve over time, and then the art started shining through. The storytelling became more obvious by the time they got into their Magical Mystery Tour/Abbey Road phases. And since they were pioneers, people were much more patient with their evolution. Musicians today who try to make a lucrative career out of mere flashy appearance, ear-numbing waves of sound pressure and shocking lyrics, are more likely to be left in a perpetual state of wondering when someone is going to recognize their art and their careers are going to take off. Again (and I cannot stress this enough) whatever your medium is: you have to be good at telling stories. I’ve gone through this again and again. You need to know how to do this. And though the technique differs from art form to art form, you have to introduce and develop, create conflict and resolution, excite and deflate at the right times, have rising arcs of understanding and expectation, and an exciting climax. Your audience has to come away having really felt your work, not just glanced at it.
Truth be told, there is no absolute solution to creating great art that can also make money for you. There is no self-help book nor class that can teach you how to bare your soul and channel what comes out of your heart into beautiful works of art that other people so very much want to own and to look at and listen to and to touch (and to pay handsomely for the pleasure). Creating art is something no one can teach you. You can be taught about the tools and materials of the trade, the importance of good work habits, how to get started, basic technique and structure, and maybe you can even acquire some hints on how to unblock your creative juices. But no one can tell you how to create art. It flows out of you or it doesn’t. That is the intrinsic nature of art.
As for making a living as an artist: we all know it is very tough. With the exception of the most gifted (and lucky and also well-promoted) artists at the very top, it just doesn’t pay that much. At the lower levels, we do it for self-growth. There a lot of competition out there and therefore it is a huge challenge just to get noticed by the right people. I have a niece who is studying ballet. It is the love of her life right now, but she is fully aware that unless she lands a spot with one of the top ballet companies in the country, she will probably be fortunate just to make slightly less money than a secretary. Whatever career she might have in ballet will be brief, grueling, at times painful, and inevitably it will end before she would like it to. She would then try to find a job teaching dance and maybe eventually opening her own studio. It’s sort of a parallel to being a minor-league athlete.
You will inevitably face a decision point somewhere along the way regarding “selling out”. By this I mean becoming involved in commercial art. This is the world where economic and financial considerations weigh on the creation of the “art”. For filmmakers, it might mean literally making commercials. For musicians it might mean composing advertising jingles or it might mean working at a music store and teaching music to kids. For writers, it might mean writing (or re-writing or copywriting or editing) for a newspaper or magazine. It will almost always mean there is some business person looking over your shoulder telling what to do and what not to do.
But don’t feel like you’ve sold your soul to the devil if you follow this path. Everyone needs to make a living somehow. Some of the more interesting up-and-coming local filmmakers and actors I know have unrelated real-world jobs like teaching kids, writing computer software, managing networks, and waiting on tables. That doesn’t take anything away from them either as human beings or as artists. Just because you create your best pure art during your off-hours from your day job, that doesn’t invalidate it or dirty it up in any way. You just have to learn to separate the two worlds in your head. Don’t be thinking, as you’re putting the finishing touches on a watercolor painting you hope to have displayed in a gallery, something to the effect of “Hmm, this nice titanium white is rather expensive, so I can save maybe a few bucks by using that cheaper stuff they sell at Target.” Keep your two worlds separate and distinct in your head and you’ll be okay.
I’m pretty certain of one thing though: you cannot beg people to either look at nor to like your art. Your friends and colleagues will do that for you out of loyalty. I don’t believe that those view and like counts on your short film or novel or song mean very much (unless you get into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of hits, and then YouTube (or whatever) is willing to attach advertisements for cars or deodorants or baby food or whatever on top of your stuff. And generally those “high view” videos tend to be of talking dogs or boxing cats. The notion that all you need to do to be a success is to have your video go viral and that your Facebook buddies can make that happen, is a specious assumption. There are other, more effective means of promoting your work (more on that in a future blog). But you really should first focus on honing your skills before your start seeking out those people who really can help you.
It is narcissistic and fallacious thinking to believe you can cajole and plead your way into a career as a writer or filmmaker or musician or photographer or whatever, without having anything of quality to show. When you are really producing the good stuff, then and only then, focus on developing those valuable contacts who can help you. And after all that, if the fame and notoriety doesn’t follow right away, and if you have to wait on tables or give music lessons to kids, or make wedding videos for a living for the time being, you are definitely in good company. Most of us “artists” have to struggle to survive. In my humble opinion, that only makes us better.