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.
I got some positive feedback and also a little eyebrow raising from some of my director friends who read my previous blog entry “How much power should a director have over a production”. Now I have a vested interest as a writer and aspiring actor, as well as experienced sound guy, to maintain good relationships with local filmmakers, so I have to resist the urge to tone down my thoughts and opinions in order to avoid being ostracized. But I feel I can and must be honest and open in my blogging. To do otherwise would constitute a commercial sellout for which I would deserve to be completely squelched out by my readership here and on Twitter. How can I champion art over commerce, and then abandon my principles in order to land parts and and crew work? So I tell myself that I wouldn’t want to work for or with any local filmmaker who cannot take some constructive criticism and look in the mirror once in a while. I do it every day! And much of what I say here is tongue-in-cheek, and I will mock myself just as quickly and easily as I’ll mock anyone else.
One of my colleagues told me in no uncertain terms that until I’ve walked the walk, I should refrain from criticizing anyone else. Well, my first short is in post, and as soon as I finish the editing, I will put it out for the world to see (and criticize!). But as I stated in a previous blog, I do not believe that one needs to be an expert practitioner to be able to nor allowed to critique the work of others. And furthermore, there is a benefit to having one’s efforts objectively critiqued. A filmmaker’s close friends and co-workers are going to be hesitant to tell him what’s not right about what he’s doing or make strong suggestions for improvement (not if they want to continue to be friends and work on productions). That’s what the outside set of ears and eyes is for. That’s what I do. (takes a deep breath)…
Let me state for the record, that while there are some good indie directors who can also write, being a good director neither implies nor guarantees being a good writer. These guys need to study the craft just as we dedicated writers do. They need to read books and take classes, and practice just as diligently as any other writer. They should have friends review their screenplays and solicit honest feedback, just as any smart writer would do. And they should (if they aren’t already doing it) be reading lots of Hollywood screenplays and watching lots of movies.
I think I struck a few raw nerves when I insinuated that ego was possibly the reason many indie directors only want to direct their own scripts, even if (as I had originally put it) they were just so-so writers. And I think that is a shame, since there are a lot of great writers (who don’t pretend they can also direct) with some great scripts to offer up. It seems to be the nature of the (indie) beast though that most of the filmmaking is done by combination writer/directors.
There are a lot of brilliantly-photographed, wonderfully-acted, beautifully-scored films where objective viewers are left scratching their heads at vague themes, lack of character development and arcs, trite dialog, thin plots and predicable endings: the hallmark of poor writing. Now, it’s not all as bad as that. There are some great small budget indie films and web series’ out there (and I know some of the people who have made them and will interview a few of the top area filmmakers in the near future). I’m just saying that there is also a great deal of poor storytelling (yes even in Hollywood and even on Netflix): thinly-disguised with interesting camera work, sensational special effects, and catchy music. It’s pandemic though in the indie world. We should all strive to rise above that.
I wrote in an earlier blog about how indie filmmaking had become a much more accessible medium with the advent of inexpensive video cameras, and free or cheap distribution channels such as YouTube, but that this had created an over-saturation of mediocre quality material (what I, when wearing my sound guy hat, refer to as a low signal-to-noise ratio). I am a firm believer that for a film to rise above and apart from the noise floor, it needs to have more than beautiful shots, a lovely musical score, and photogenic and talented actors. It needs a great story. I can’t see anyone arguing with that point.
I sort of hope that one of the main outcomes of any constructive criticism, will be that the cream of the low-budget indie filmmakers would self-reflect more and would raise their own standards even higher. There are some really talented local filmmakers. A good screenplay is one of the things that a low-budget filmmaker can afford in the indie world (as opposed to helicopter shots, exploding cars, and shots of actors walking on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange at midday). I also would hope that those who are endlessly churning out fluff, and then begging incessantly for people to view and like their stuff, would be encouraged to put their inexpensive camcorders aside for a little while, and study and read and reflect, and pay attention to the good stuff out there. Maybe they should consider even hooking up in a supporting capacity for a period of time with a truly talented filmmaker to really learn what goes into the making of a good film.
My parting advice to everyone is to dial down the egos a little: there’s room for improvement for everyone. I know that my writing can certainly stand improvement. That’s one of the reasons I blog. And it’s one of the reasons I heartily welcome your feedback.
There’s a well-known adage to not judge a book by its cover. But we all do it. And for writers, it’s good advice to think carefully about how your submitted work appears at first glance when you send it off to whomever you hope will read it and like it. There’s nothing that will get your manuscript or screenplay tossed in the circular file by an agent, a publisher or a studio faster than for it to be ill-formatted on paper, riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, and just plain unappealing in its structure. Put yourself in their place for a moment: professional readers who read maybe dozens of manuscripts or screenplays in a month, can easily develop a sense of fatigue, and that means they have pretty much zero tolerance for submissions that look like someone who doesn’t know how to write, sent it in. It could be potential New York Times bestseller material, but if you type it up hastily using Microsoft Notepad, and either omitted or prepared a cover page that doesn’t show what it needs to in the right places, they are very likely to just toss it out without even turning to page one—you might as well have written it with a crayon on the back of some napkins.
YOU NEED TO ACQUIRE A WRITING APPLICATION! I uppercase shouted that one for extra emphasis. Trust me, you don’t want to try to get an ordinary word processor to do all the intricate formatting—especially for a screenplay. There are reasonably good ones you can download for free, such as Celtx. Celtx was originally aimed at screenwriters, but now can be used to write novels, stage plays, and comic books. It has many tools that word processors like MS Word don’t have that are dedicated to writing manuscripts or screenplays. Formatting conventions for screenwriting are much more stringent than for novels. There are a half-dozen basic elements of the script that must start at and be indented and so forth in a precise manner. Even if you are struggling to put food on your table, there’s no excuse for skimping here. This bears repeating: if you misformat your work, you will be laughed at and dismissed as a rank amateur by most of the people who read your screenplay or manuscript.
And read books on writing, and maybe take a class or two, for goodness sake! I am surprised by how many aspiring beginner writers whose works I get a chance to see who don’t have the slightest inkling about the craft of writing. And as much as I hate the concept of formulaic writing, learning and adhering to the standard formatting guidelines is a must-do if you want to be taken seriously—not only in New York or London or Hollywood, but in small-town “indiewoods” around the world.
Now I know a guerilla filmmaker or three whose idea of a script is their notes on index cards. Sometimes they don’t decide exactly how they want the shoot to go down until they’re on set and ready to roll. Films made under these conditions tend to be more spontaneous and freeform, and have an almost documentary sort of feel to them. But it is a bit unfair to your actors under most circumstances to not give them a well-formatted script in advance that they can glean what they need to from. I don’t believe for filmmakers, that being good with a camera and having lots of contacts is a good substitute for knowing how to write.
So what can you tell when you read a draft a colleague or acquaintance has asked you to look at and give your feedback, before you even chomp into the meat of the story? Well, keeping in mind that every distinct genre will look and feel a little different, and every reader or viewer will differ in their desires and expectations, there are things that tend to turn you on and things that tend to turn you off.
A script can be too heavy on dialog. You can see that at a glance in a screenplay because of the indentation convention. Dialog-centric scripts might work well for touchy-feely dramas such as a story revolving around a couple of grandmothers recounting their early lives to each other (and the reader/viewer). But it can be an emotional anchor for an action-adventure or science fiction story. Think about the last time you got excited watching and listening to people talking for a very long period of time. Being too heavy on dialog means the story is too light on action or narrative. Narrative is what paints a picture in a reader’s mind of the locale, what the characters look like, and so forth. You strive to develop complex multi-dimensional characters, but dialog alone is not enough to accomplish this.
On the other hand, the story might come across as too light on dialog. Sometimes this can give a film something of a documentary sort of flavor as there is always something happening and only occasionally someone talking about it. For the most part, we look for dialog to give us a peek inside the heads of the characters that we cannot completely accomplish from their actions alone. In literature, there can be well-placed sections of lengthy narrative that work well, but eventually, we want to see and hear characters interact with each other, and this is where dialog comes in. There is a good balance between the various story elements, but it is not an exact science.
Screenwriting adds a few additional elements that aren’t of concern in writing novels or short stories (film is after all a visual experience, and even the script should convey imagery at all times). There are “directives” such as “FADE IN”, “PUSH IN ON”, PULL BACK TO REVEAL”, and so forth. And there are editing hints like “CUT TO”, and “DISSOLVE TO”. Some directors hate these. They think it insults them for a writer to suggest what a camera operator or an editor should do under his or her direction. But since not everyone who reads a script is a director, screenwriters use these anyway since they help convey the visual imagery of the as-yet unmade movie in the reader’s head.
And then there are the parentheticals laced occasionally into a block of dialog that are used to clarify how the line should be delivered e.g. (MUTTERING) or whom the line is being spoken to, e.g. (TO JOE). Again, some writing instructors advise going easy on parentheticals so as not to insult the director by implying he doesn’t realize who an actor is supposed to be speaking to or how he should speak the line. But sometimes it isn’t clear, and the writer really should clarify thee ambiguities. Directors can be very touchy people. If you’re writing for Hollywood, go easy on these add-in writer notes. If you’re writing for some local smalltime director, feel free to add as many directive notes as you want. It is better to give the director too much information as to what you the writer were intending when you wrote the script. But again, remember that directors aren’t the only people who read scripts. And since directors can and should have a shooting script prepared from the writer’s script anyway, and can potentially remove or change things at will, this is really just informal advice to go easy on them (too many parentheticals do sort of distract from the flow).
The balance of the different elements on paper is one of the things that defines the style of the writer. But it is also driven by genre. Horror, for example tends to have more staccato sort of flow to it to help build tension. Comedies might have more dialog, as the banter and kidding around may play a central role in defining the characters. How you write might also be driven by who you write for. If you write spec (speculative) scripts or a self-published novel or collection of short stories, you have more freedom to express your style. You have only yourself to answer to. But if you’re writing or rewriting for a studio or magazine, you may be required to comply with certain guidelines (such as a word count range, avoiding controversial issues, etc.). And the chief editor might tell you you need to adjust your style to fit the expectations of the readers. Welcome to the world of commercial writing.
With experience and with reading lots of other people’s works, you develop a sense of rhythm, pace and balance. The best advice I ever got from a writing instructor was: if you want to be a good writer, you must first become a good reader. I firmly believe you need to read a lot of existing novels and short stories (or if a screenwriter, read lots of scripts and watch lots of movies). Everyone has his or her own personal preferences, but we are all shaped by that which pre-exists all around us at all times.
This topic came up as a result of a question from a friend at a local pub with a bunch of other friends, after a reasonable yet significant level of inebriation had been achieved. My friends are well aware that I’ve started a blog that does quite a bit of analysis under the guise of being a “critic”. So the question posed was, “Boris, you’ve done production sound, hell you even worked in a real recording studio, you’ve written and directed a short film that’s still in post, written several novels and screenplays that are just sitting on a shelf (albeit several of the screenplays have been registered with the WGA-West—for what it’s worth), you’ve cooked for your friends a few times, shared some interesting photos you took whilst galavanting around the far east, you play a little guitar, ride a Ducati… Yada yada blah blah blah—so how does that qualify you to be a critic of people who have been producing art, music, food, film or whatever for years? What gives you the %#$@ing right to write about other peoples’ blood sweat and tears, in areas you’ve only dabbled in?
In a sense, I can see the logic in that. How could I possibly know what goes into making a feature film, or putting on an exhibit of paintings or photographs, or a piano recital (when I can barely play chopsticks on the ivories), a dance performance (when the best I’ve ever danced is to wave my arms around like a chimpanzee, whilst my wife pulls her hair down over her face to hide her identity). But then I remembered that there are very good art, film, music and food critics out there who never mastered what it is they critique. There’s even that old saw that if you can’t do it, you teach it, and if you can’t teach it, you criticize it (actually critics critique stuff, and only occasionally when it is really bad stuff do they criticize it—there is a bit of a difference you know).
So to be honest, I think that you can never know what goes into an artistic effort of the magnitude of making a full-length feature film, or publishing a four-hundred page novel for real (on real paper, and sold in real bookstores), or performing in a musical or dance recital, if you haven’t done it. But if you are a serious artist, you wouldn’t be critiquing it. And if you had mastered the art, but then had to retire early for some reason (such as a career-ending injury or old age for a dancer) you’d probably be teaching. Only the lowest of the bottom feeders attempt to make any sort of career (paid or unpaid) of critiquing other peoples’ work.
But someone has to do it. If you hear the friends, family and close colleagues talk about someone’s artistic products, they will gush with praise (and hit that “like” button” in a heartbeat) even for something that is absolute and obvious rubbish. So it falls on the likes of those of us who operate at the periphery of the art world and hang out in the shadows of artists both great and mediocre, to take on the sometimes not-so-well-received task of telling it like it is.
So does that make me qualified? My short answer is yes. My long answer is hell yes. And if you don’t like that I referred to a home movie a friend of yours shot with a $100 camcorder, out of focus, and that sounded like the on-screen characters were in a tunnel, and like the lighting was done using a flashlight—that’s just too darn bad. That’s just what I do. And if you put some tune you created out on Reverb Nation that I feel sounds like a two-year-old vomited her strained peas onto a $100 Casio digital keyboard—again, too bad. That’s what I do. And if like a certain English professor at a certain local major university, you run a writing Meetup group and boast about your self-published novels on Kindle that had all the plot and character development of a child’s finger painting and I said that here (I have not!)—you quite possibly deserved it (but I’ve heard plenty of other people say similar things about your work in the Kindle review section sir).
I call em as I see em. If you don’t like what I have to say, and you really want to beat the crap out of me, I’m the guy at the exhibit/show/concert/recital who looks like an English Bulldog. But conversely, I will give kudos to someone who has worked hard to improve with each new work they put out there. After all, we should all strive to be better at whatever we do every day. And I recognize good entertainment value, even if as an art form, the work has come up a bit short (like if you posted a YouTube video with two cats boxing). Stand-up comedy is in fact a high art form and a difficult one to do well. And done well, it is highly entertaining—so much so you might accidentally tear a muscle in your side from laughing.
But fair warning: the thing I will most tear into is posers acting like accomplished artists. At least I’ll be the first to admit that my guitar playing qualifies me for playing in a garage band with four other significantly inebriated grown-up adolescents. I have a good friend who plays a little better than I do and is waiting for Eddie Van Halen to return his calls (you know who you are). Go figure. And then there’s my cooking. While my wife says it is very good, a professional chef would probably mistake a plate I had prepared for one needing to go into the dishwasher. And then there’s the photography. I get laughed at for having one of the nicest DSLR’s available (a 5D3) and not knowing what 90% of its capabilities are. But I’m learning. And then again, I never pretended to be the heir apparent to Ansel Adams, as a few photographer acquaintances of mine seem to think they are.
So what I do think really about the necessary qualifications to critique some form or other of art? In my humble opinion (hopefully that word humble will make you back down a bit on your anger level) to be a critic, you need to have had some basic exposure, and a little education (even just reading a few books I think counts), maybe have an aptitude of an advanced amateur, and definitely a sincere interest in and respect for the art form. You can’t be a good critic of country music for example, if you think that every country music song is about a guy’s wife taking the dog and the pickup truck. So I will recuse myself from critiquing that particular “art form”. I love to recognize artists who really produce fine work and put on a great show. And I will recognize a great effort that falls short in some area. But I will just as quickly come down hard on the posers who think because they are a little more talented than Joe The Plumber, that their work should be on exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Seriously, I will always accept an invitation to get a personal demonstration and education as to what is involved in creating a form of art (as long as it doesn’t take place in a secluded alley late at night). I want to learn more and to understand more about what you professional artists really do in your studios and on your stages in your professional artistic endeavors. I definitely make every effort to improve myself every day by practicing a little guitar, shooting some pictures or video footage and editing it, and writing novels, screenplays and of course this blog. Hell, I’ve even helped a neighbor with his home brewing. It is all both fun and very educational. Life is a mega adventure to me and like a shark, I need to keep swimming in order to breathe. But please don’t take it too hard if I didn’t gush with praise over something you spent all of a week working on during breaks from watching South Park reruns. It’s all part of the game of life.
I am reminded of Rod Stewart’s old song “Every Picture Tells a Story”, every time I read a screenplay (or listen to a song a friend is composing, or gaze at a collection of photographs in an exhibit at a gallery). It is true—to an extent for every artistic endeavor, that there is a story behind the work of art. Sometimes you might have to squint hard to find it, but that’s part of the joy of art appreciation. Every movie, every stage play, every painting, sculpture and photograph, every novel, short story and poem, and every song and dance should tell some story. That’s what art is all about after all (save for purely and intentionally abstract art). Sadly though, it seems of late that story telling, if not dead, to paraphrase something Frank Zappa once said about jazz, smells funny.
There are a lot of business-minded folks (as well as skilled technologists) out there, in places like Hollywood and New York, as well as in cities and small towns the world over, who seem to think that storytelling is secondary to having exciting action sequences, dynamite special effects, gratuitous violence, and frankly, as much as we try to believe it ain’t so: lots of T&A. And the problem isn’t just an issue of quantity over quality, or ultra-tight schedules and budgets. I truly believe the fine art of storytelling has been lost to many people—especially in filmmaking, where sophisticated computer-generated imagery, dazzling visual effects and sensational high-dollar action sequences have supplanted good old storytelling. As long as the film does well at the box office, it doesn’t matter to producers how artistic a film is. Getting back to Frank Zappa, I remember at one of his concerts way back at the dawn of heavy metal, he wheeled an air raid siren onto the stage, donned ear plugs, and then activated the siren. While he was making a not-so-subtle statement that rock fans were becoming more interested in loudness than in the quality of the music, the fans in attendance cheered wildly, in essence validating his statement.
While Hollywood is often thought of as a soul-crushing machine where nothing but the almighty dollar matters, I’m seeing a lot of locally-produced micro-budget independent films (both shorts and features) — where you would think good storytelling would be used to make up for lack of budget, but in fact where it seems storytelling has taken a backseat to getting something (anything) out there on Vimeo or YouTube as fast as humanly possible, and then begging anyone and everyone across the blogosphere and Facebook and MySpace, who will listen to their incessant rants to watch and like it. The signal to noise ratio in my humble opinion has dropped to near zero in the indie filmmaking world. (At this point my colleagues would remind me to breathe).
But the truth is, cheap camcorders and cheap editing software along with free and easy distribution models like YouTube, has made moviemaking into a much more democratic process where the studios don’t control everything. But this has brought with it the dramatic lowering of quality of the average independent production, as everyone and their kid brother records some trivial stuff on the family camcorder or DSLR and then posts it. Facebook groups dedicated to local filmmaking endeavors have turned into bulletin boards where the mediocre hawk their stuff, and beg people to view and like. If it’s goofy enough, it might end up getting more hits than an entire season’s worth of NHL action.
A similar situation exists now for literature with the advent of self-publishing models such as Kindle. While it makes getting one’s novel out in the public eye far easier than it used to be (no dealing with agents, editors, and publishers who won’t give the time of day to anyone who isn’t already a well-known published author) it has lowered the bar to the point where the bar is practically underground. And while user ratings and reviews can sometimes help guide a reader through the morass of junk masquerading as literature, the ratings systems can and have been gamed. I heard recently that a writer who penned a scathing assessment of the Chinese penal system had found the fury of the motherland released when in a single day a huge number of negative reviews (some calling her an outright liar) appeared virtually overnight. And that’s why purveyors of low-quality movies on mediums such as YouTube go on a campaign of begging other filmmaker wannabe’s to give them a “like” to support their “career”.
I joined a couple of these local filmmaking Facebook groups to try to network with other serious filmmakers about techniques and maybe find people for cast and crew (or who were looking for cast and crew) but found they’re mostly of the “watch and like my home movie” variety of posts (with an occasional religious sermon thrown in by a fanatic). I rarely take a look at their news feeds anymore. I guess there’s a supposed implication that if enough people view and like someone’s hastily slapped together home movie on a site like YouTube, it will propel the filmmaker into a great filmmaking career. The fact is, all it does is pull the signal to noise ratio even lower than one would think possible (can it become a negative number?). The chuckles I hear from filmmaker acquaintances of mine who have actually won awards in local film festivals is that these pleas to “watch my video and like it”, as opposed to “give me your helpful feedback either way”, are a somewhat pathetic embarrassment. The really good local filmmakers seem to have abandoned mainstream communication channels like Facebook (other than private messaging), due to the high level of noise bombarding these groups on a daily basis. It has become like trying to hear the music above the air raid siren.
In all fairness, YouTube was never really intended to be a distribution mechanism for quality entertainment. Everyone knows it’s mainly where you can post your cell phone video clips of dogs gone wild, or babies vomiting up strained peas. It’s a video bulletin board. The fact that you can monetize your YouTube channel if you get enough views and likes, and actually make some money from it, doesn’t make the dog chasing his tail into an artistic work. The universal maxim that “you get what you pay for” has already moved the more talented and serious filmmakers into outlets like Netflix online and the festival circuit. Anyone willing to shell out $1,500 up front (or whatever it’s up to) to get an aggregator to screen your film to determine if it’s got any redeeming quality worthy of being potentially seen by millions of viewers on Netflix online is generally is a more serious filmmaker. It’s not that everything on Netflix is really good——on the contrary, much of it is rubbish. But it is far more likely a filmmaker will be discovered there or at festivals than on YouTube.
The small local film festivals usually charge a modest entry fee and at apply at least a little bit of pre-screening before they will show a film. Again, much of what you see on the local festival circuit is of dubious quality, but at least some of the absolute rubbish gets weeded out. I didn’t intend to get into too many details about film distribution in this particular blog. I have acquaintances who are far more knowledgeable about distribution than I am. And a man needs to know his limitations. But it bears mention that YouTube, while a good place to post and look for very short documentary-style clips of real world shenanigans, and the “peoples’ news”, it is not where people in general go to watch an entertaining movie. But I have digressed. Back to the almost lost art of storytelling.
The essentials of good storytelling: complex plot development, a central theme, character arcs, rising conflict and resolution, and maybe a moral delivered by the end, have all become afterthoughts (if thought of at all) to just cranking out footage as quickly and cheaply as possible, and maybe glamming it up a little with software tools like Aftereffects (or not). A good writer researches the subject area a little, maybe even interviews certain people to try to write with more authenticity. Coming up with an idea for a story is just the beginning of a long journey that can take months for a short and a year or more for a feature. Then comes the hard part of developing the story. Most good writers rely on trusted friends to read their scripts with an objective outside (read: critical) eye. They can take (or not) that feedback and use it to strengthen weak areas of the story. Sometimes, a friendly table read with local actors can let a writer know if dialog is working or not. The writer needs to let go of his or her ego as much as possible throughout the process.
I recently read a script that was sent to me by a local beginning writer I had worked on set with before, for an action-adventure short film that started off with a boring office conversation and then went downhill from there. The person who sent me the script seemed offended when I asked if anyone else had read and commented on the script before me. This aspiring writer told me a local director and a few actors were already on board and that they liked the script (in other words they were desperate for work). I suggested that maybe starting with a more intense dramatic scene than having two cops passively discussing the bad guy at the police station would be a good hook. I even gave notes and an example I came up with, starting the story in the midst of a crime in progress, and the local police foiling the crime, yet not catching the criminal. I explained that starting off with a tense bit of drama and as much action as the budget would allow, would make a good lead into the office scene. For my troubles, this writer acquaintance no longer talks to me, I guess for my attempt to help, I was seen as showing disrespect or something. I simply figured that the concept of putting in a hook in the first few pages, and then keeping the audience involved vicariously and/or voyeuristically, and on and off the edge of their seats throughout, as characters were developed and a plot unwound, and then bringing it all skillfully to a climax, was good storytelling technique. But good storytelling seems to be something a lot of folks who call themselves writers, seem oblivious to. I think this is the ego getting in the way. I look forward to seeing the finished production (which to the best of my knowledge is still in preproduction). I am after all, a curious person.
Many films coming out of “indiewood” suffer from the same malady. They seem to just be mere collections of scenes that the writer and director (often and unfortunately the same person) thought up and jotted down. Maybe someone thought of an interesting thing that could happen to someone and made that the centerpiece of the story, and then slapped a bunch of disjoint scenes together in front of and after it almost as a filler, and then thought they had written a good screenplay worthy of producing and distributing. I can’t imagine these writers having started with a log-line, then a synopsis, and then an outline, and then laying out color-coded scene cards on a table and arranging and rearranging them, carefully thinking about story threads interweaving across locations and between characters, as a complex plot emerges and colorful dimensional characters are shown evolving—all leading to a satisfying climax.
I get the feeling most of these “writers” have never read a book on writing nor taken a single writing class. It’s blatantly obvious when their script doesn’t even follow universal screenwriting conventions. But even if they’ve read one or two books, they still don’t seem to understand what they’ve read. When I was learning the craft of screenwriting, I was advised by my instructors and in countless books and articles I’ve read on screenwriting, to read as many scripts as I could get my hands on, in multiple genres, to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, and why. I found after I’d read maybe a hundred different screenplays, that I was just starting to get an idea of what flows well and makes a good and entertaining story.
If I could give these aspiring writers one important bit of advice, it would be if you want to be a decent writer, you should first become a reader. Read, read, read, read—everything you can get your hands on. “Elements of Style” is a must-read. There are a number of good books on screenwriting out there, but my personal least favorites are the “Save The Cat” series (for promulgating the Hollywood formulaic approach to writing (find a successful story and “write the same thing only different”). The advice to read lots and lots and lots of screenplays bears repeating. You can get them for free from various sites on the Internet.
And for god’s sake, master the English language—strengthen your vocabulary and knowledge of grammar, syntax and usage. Even if you’re writing a down and dirty street story full of slang, you want to use the slang and idioms and “street talk” in the right places and in the right way. If you are not reasonably competent with the language you are writing in, you probably shouldn’t be a writer until you do become so. You don’t want to negatively impress the world with poor language skills when you’re trying to sell the idea that you’re a writer. Now, I’m sure I’ve overlooked a mis-spelling or three in this blog that the spellchecker missed, and maybe got the grammar wrong somewhere, but this is blog of the kind that gets cranked out in one sitting. Hopefully there was nothing too distracting. In the blogosphere, there is no luxury of passing work onto an editor for prior review. So forgive my petty sins fellow writers. I am of course always looking to improve myself, so fire away with your salvos if that makes you feel better.
To conclude this rather verbose entry, it’s a darned shame that moviemaking has become so easy that people have gotten lazy with respect to the demands of good storytelling. Reliance on just on having a decent camcorder or cheap DSLR, and a few willing friends to stand in front of it and monotonically read a script you slapped together with all the reckless abandon of a blog, might be a good practice exercise, but it is not a formula for making a good film. If you want to be a successful screenwriter (or novelist, musician, photographer, painter, sculptor, dancer or whatever) you have to be able to tell a good story folks. And I do believe that like any talent in any area of endeavor, some people are born with innate skills and others have to work very much harder to come close to the same level of proficiency.
To answer my own question: no I don’t think storytelling is dead. There are some great storytellers around. There are great small-budget filmmakers (I hope to be able to interview one from time to time), just as there are some great singer-songwriters amidst a sea of kilowatt amplifier stacks, tight spandex, and high-speed guitar shredders. You just have to look harder for them. And when you find them, make sure you let them know in one way or another that you do like to hear or see or read a good story.
In a future blog I will talk about what happens when the writer and director are not the same person, and the director misinterprets the story but insists he or she has the sole authority and responsibility to manipulate the story for the film medium.