Sunday, November 10, 2013

Storytelling – Yeah, it’s a living

Storytelling is the art of conveying words, images, and sounds through improvisation or embellishment to produce an entertaining or meaningful narrative.  There is magic in storytelling.  But, storytelling is more art than skill.  You can’t learn it; you develop it through trial and error and lots and lots of practice.  A well-developed and presented story can cut across age barriers and holds the interest of the viewers.

Some clear ‘rules’ about storytelling.  A good story has:

  •  a single theme, clearly defined;
  • a well developed plot;
  • vivid word pictures, pleasing sounds and rhythm;
  • fully developed characters;
  • and dramatic appeal.

Storytelling traditionally begins with "Once upon a time..."  This traditional opening serves as a "ritual" or signal that the teller was suspending "time and space" transporting the audience to a world of imagination and play.  This opening identified the teller and established the audience’s commitment to accept for the moment that this imaginary world and its "rules" exist.  In screenwriting we use the words FADE IN, but they serve the same purpose.

A “The End” or “They lived happily ever after” were "rituals" signaled the end of the story and a return to reality.  As screenwriters we use FADE OUT, but again they serve the same purpose.

Unfortunately, many screenwriters have forgotten the rules of the game.  From my experience, a lot of writers spend a lot of time studying Syd Field’s paradigm and plot out screenplays like they would plot out a set piece battle.  Plotting out a screenplay is not telling a story.  The first thing an officer is taught in tactics is no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.  In this case, the ‘enemy’ is the story meeting a finely crafted plot.

First and foremost, we writers are telling a story.  The last thing we want to do is show the audience the effect.  A magician wrote regarding the performance of magic:  “The real magic is in the performance, and not in the trick.  Your audience wants to be entertained.  A trick is 90% presentation; the effect itself (and its secret) is merely a cleverly constructed prop.  By revealing the secret, you are knocking down the admiration your audience had for you because you could do something that they could not.  You are spoiling the mystery.”  You need to tell a story and not show the audience how clever your prop is.  So, my advice for screenwriters is that while you plot out your screenplay using whatever paradigm that suits your needs you never lose sight of the fact that you are telling a story. 

I am sure that most of you have already read Robert McKee’s book “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting.”  If you have not, go hence, purchase a copy, and read the sucka.  Then, in a couple years of writing read it again.  You will be amazed at the insights.

5.  Intelligence

Intelligence is defined as an umbrella term describing a property of the mind including related abilities, such as the capacities for abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, learning from past experiences, planning, and problem solving.

 Most of you reading this are remarking to yourself, “Yeah?  So?  What?”  Shhh, and I will tell you.

Writing in general, and screenwriting in particular, is an exercise in showing off one’s intelligence and good writers cannot help but show off their intelligence.  One cannot write without engaging in abstract thought, problem solving, communication, and so on.  However, I do believe that the two most important of these qualities are learning and reasoning.

Learning is a process of thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis (Yes, I read Marx: Karl not Groucho.) with an emphasis on the synthesis.  As such, screenwriters need to read everything not only about their art and craft but about history, philosophy, science, math, etc.  They also need to engage with writers and non-writers as well.  They also need to engage impartial outside sources of information such as educators, consultants, and coaches to provide insight beyond their own experience.  In these ways, they can bring together ideas and assimilate them in a meaningful manner.

I would add here that as good writers we need to get out of our own political echo chambers.  Many folks working in Hollyweird are by their nature politically liberal.  By my nature, I am politically libertarian (Go read up on Ayn Rand if you do not know what that means.) and conservative*.  But the fact that I read Big Hollywood before the Huffpost does not mean I do not read the Huffpost.  The point here is that reasoning entails the ability to generate conclusions from assumptions or premises.  To become better writers, screenwriters must take all of these opposing views and make decisions on how that integration or synthesis might occur.  Reasoning is a cognitive task that helps us in discovering what is true or best about all the accumulated information and how that all will serve our stories.

Why are you reading this?  Go write!

John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.

*And no, I am not a Christian conservative.  I am Jewish by birth and am not, nor will I ever be, a religious Jew.  I am a rationalist, humanist, and spiritual person (Yes, that is contradictory.  Live with it.  I do.).

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