Thursday, February 14, 2013

Tell It Slant.

"Tell the truth, but tell it slant." --Emily Dickinson

All of modern poetry could be derived from this single line--although Dickinson is not really following her own instructions.

And as we all know from modern poetry: indirection can get boring fast. Like so much modern art, poetry pushed itself right out of the mainstream.

But Dickinson's edict still has something to teach us--about about art in general, and about screenwriting in particular.


A movie is not just a story, a plot. The way it's told matters. There's always a slant.

Between what happens and what we see, there needs to be another layer, another kind of work: a slant, swerve or deviation; some mediation, in-between layer, even something that obscures the story. And that layer is deeply connected with the medium you're using--whether it's poetry or cinema or dance.

I've written before about how screenwriting has three clear levels.

  • Competence: Is it a movie? Or a laundry list?

  • Craft: Is it well-made? Does it use the techniques of the medium effectively?

  • Art: Is there a governing purpose? Does it have a reason for existing?

You could ask the same things about a sonata or a vase. For a sonata:

  • Is it a music? Or just some notes? Is it a sonata? Or just a few tunes?

  • Is it well-made? Is it a specific style of sonata? Do the parts fit well or interestingly?

  • Does it exist for a reason? Is it making a new kind of sonata? Or using some aspect of music we treasure--beauty or noise or sweetness or spirit?

Slant Is an Area Where Art Governs Craft.

That is: some effective creators will always find some ways of slanting preferable to others. (Dickinson's phrase already does this--preferring the slant to the non-slant.) Some might be:

  • Characters who lie are always more interesting than those who tell the truth.

    • This implies that the storyteller is enough in control to show that the character is lying.
  • Hiding some bits of the story is always more interesting than revealing everything.

    • You give the audience credit for intelligence--and then also give them some work to do.

      • You keep the audience busy and avoid talking down to them.
  • Why something happens matters more than what happens.

    • So if you show some complex causes before a given event, the event becomes more interesting.
  • The consequences of an action matter more than the action itself.

    • It can be very powerful to show a seemingly trivial action having powerful consequences.

      • Bresson's L'Argent does this beautifully: a teenager's lie leads to a man's life being ruined.
  • Figuring things out is more interesting for the audience than having information dumped at their feet.

  • Etc.

Different Strokes.

Different creative types will each have a different set of such preferences. These slants add up to styles, and they cluster in genres. Mystery stories obviously have one way of doing these things. Which of course sets up yet other writers to create anti-mysteries: the audience knows whodunit but the characters don't, or the like.

Bunches of these slants become rules of thumb that writers use to make sure "yes, I'm doing my job." Consider the following dialogue.

Joe: Jane--I'm glad I ran into you. I've been wanting to tell you for some time that I love you and want to marry you.

Jane: That's amazing. I was thinking the same thing myself.

This is terrible--unless it's meant to be funny or absurd. If movie characters could express themselves perfectly, there would be no movie.

Thus writers develop rules of thumb like:

  • Don't let characters say exactly what they feel.

  • Give the characters reasons for not being able to express themselves.

  • Etc.

Slanting Your Plot.

The same goes for plot. Say you develop a simple plot.

  1. John calls in sick to work.

  2. He is really having a date with an old flame.

  3. The date goes terribly.

  4. And someone from work sees him--not sick.

(It's more of a set-up than a plot. But let that be.)

If the scenes you write show us this and no more, then you might as well just hand the audience your outline. That would be something like:

  1. John at the telephone, all dressed up, fakes a sick voice to call his supervisor.

  2. John shows up to a fancy restaurant. "Nancy, I haven't seen you since we broke up. You look great...."

  3. The supervisor is having a business lunch at the same restaurant, spots John. The supervisor is talking to his boss about downsizing.

  4. John exits the office building with his possessions in a cardboard box.

So how can you tell it slant? At what points? Some are easy to spot.

  • We see people at work reacting to John's absence, but not his calling in.

  • We see the old flame before John does--so we know that she is not what he expects.

  • Maybe John is not even aware that the date is going terribly.

    • You could show John and the date both recounting it to friends--in very different terms.
  • John doesn't know the person at work has caught him faking, so his "recovery" and return to work can be quite embarrassing.

Adding Ripples.

Possibly doing all these things is a bit much. One might be enough. Another approach would be to make this story cause ripples in other stories.

  • Who's at work that will be impacted by John's absence? Or who might be terribly concerned about him?

    • Someone at work could have a crush on him, and so the impact on her could be another way of 'registering' the basic story.
  • Or you could embed this story within another.

    • If John's workplace is in the midst of downsizing, John's being fired could save the job of the coworker who's been nursing a crush on him.

Indirection magnifies, multiplies and ramifies your story.

"[T]hough indirect,/Yet indirection thereby grows direct...."
--Shakespeare King John

Don't Send a Telegram.

One old-time Hollywood mogul used to say, "If I wanted to send a message, I'd call Western Union." By "message," he meant something social or political. But his point is a good one: you don't want your script or movie to just be: a telegram acted out.

Slant includes increased complexity. Slant adds layers of irony and significance to relatively simply plot events. If you can't slant, you're missing opportunities.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Matrix in MANPOWER:

No, Not That Matrix

I blogged earlier about the idea of a matrix: a configuration of elements that's repeated across a movie until the pieces fall into the 'right' configuration--at which point the movie can end.


  • A C A C
  • B D B D
  • B A D C
  • D C A B
  • A B C D

This is a more nuanced idea than a formula, whether it comes from myth or genre, because the idea of a matrix implies a permutation of elements across an entire film, and this permutation is part of the writer's art--not something pre-given.

Thus the matrix may pre-exist a movie (and often does), but it's the manipulation of the matrix, the re-scrambling of its elements in a sequence to lead to a conclusion that is the key to the writer's craft, and not the simple use of pre-given elements, which we are all stuck with as long as we want someone to understand us.

A Matrix in Manpower (1941)

The 1941 Raoul Walsh-directed Warners melodrama Manpower is a nice test case. Even though 1941 was by no means "post-classical"--meaning: they were hardly 'done with genres'--the big studios cranked out so many films that they often needed to mix-and-match elements, innovate, yet also create a satisfying product. Manpower is one such product.

Manpower focuses on tough powerline workers--their daring doing's and misadventures with dames. It's a kind of adventure film that's got elements of crime and romance. The movie has more a complex matrix, but the most obvious part is very common: the nuclear family or heterosexual couple.

Edward G. Robinson is hot-headed and lead-footed: he fights, he can't dance, and the ladies don't go for him. But he's got a heart of gold. (I told you originality wasn't necessary to organize a film around a matrix.)

Rather than the gangster he usually plays, George Raft plays Robinsin's tough friend. He's a moral compass to Robinson, who always played characters who were a little bit 'off.' Raft balances out Robinson, and it's clear they could go along in the same way for a long time. They're a bit stuck.

Soon enough the pair stumbles across Marlene Dietrich--and that "changes everything," as we now say. Dietrich plays a b-girl: she gets men to pay for her over-priced and watered-down drinks at a dive joint where sometimes the men also lose their wallets (a 'clip joint,' as it was then called).

Dietrich's also the daughter of Robinson and Raft's dour German colleague. When Dietrich gets out of prison, Raft is there, and it's clear he doesn't think highly of her.

It turns out Raft's disdain and machismo turn Dietrich on: they don't just fight, they spark. (They were perverse at Warners in the 40's). But movies being what they are, it's Robinson, not Raft, who falls for and thereby redeems Dietrich.

Dietrich doesn't love Robinson, and she's honest about this. So the whole machinery of the plot is basically trying to get Dietrich away from Robinson and into the arms of Raft. The story pattern is: a mistake corrected. Dietrich makes the wrong match, and the movie must set that right, because of course movie characters can't stay in the 'wrong' marriage for longer than 80 minutes.

In terms of the joke I told earier, in Manpower, George Raft is the private, and Marlene Dietrich is the piece of paper. The 'right' situation is her in his arms, and at that point he can shout "That's it," and the movie can end. (It's so clear, that they don't even use any dialogue at the movie's end: the couple just walk together in a long shot with music covering their dialogue.)

The Matrix, Elaborated

The movie is a bit more complex, because the couple has another element--the woman's father or father-figure--and because male camaraderie is so important in the film. The powerline workers are fun-loving tough guys: they risk their necks and often wind up hurt or dead. They 'work hard and play hard.' (The use of a matrix to structure of story does not exclude the use of cliches: indeed, the way a matrix organizes other elements can also just be the unpacking of a cliche.)

Robinson, in fact, is injured early in the film in a work accident, and this is clearly supposed to be a sign, along with his temper, of a character flaw. Even though Dietrich is damaged goods, she apparently deserves better than a character the movie repeated calls a "gimp."

When Dietrich's father dies, this moves Robinson to marry her. This is framed more like him replacing the dead father, rather than becoming a romantic partner.

Thus the two additional elements of the "right couple" matrix are: men proving their worth through meeting dangerous challenges, and a father giving his daughter to a husband.

Not Exactly New

None of these matrices are new.

  • 'And they lived happily ever after'? Not new.
  • Men proving their worth through daring do must go back to medieval chivalry, if not cave men bringing home the bacon.
  • Framing women as objects transferred between men--well, it's written right into the marriage ceremony, so how old is that?

Thus all of Manpower is basically a series of men proving their worth through daring do--electrical wire disasters and brawls--such that a woman can be given to the right man by a father of some sort. The whole movie is a series of the same elements searching for their final configuration.

The father's death transfers Dietrich to Robinson, but it's clearly not the 'right' configuration: there's no romantic love, and it's a father-substitute rather than a lover. (There seems to be no sex in the marriage: more than once we see Robinson waking up from a drunk, and Dietrich wide awake--and frustrated. Did I mention what dirty minds they had at Warners in the 40's?)

What must clearly happen is: the best friends must fight a battle such that the woman can be transferred from the father-husband to a husband-lover--from Robinson to Raft. And that's what happens.

So the movie is a series of male contests such that Robinson can become the father-figure who hands off and blesses the union of the more appropriate husband to form the new family unit.

The older man-younger man succession is also old: it's the Fisher King trope so much has been made of: an old father is symbolically powerful but literally impotent and so must be replaced with a younger and more fertile 'newer model.'


So if the ending of your script is not in fact some kind of re-arrangement of things which came earlier, you better think twice.

As to what makes some configurations more 'right' than others, it's hard to say.

If Manpower is exemplary, the matrix can be familiar, can even have a long history. All that matters is that one configuration seems more right than the others.

And when you find that 'more right' configuration, you and the audience can shout "That's it!"

--Edward R. O'Neill

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Ending, the Punchline, and the Matrix:

No, Not That Matrix

A Joke

There's an old army joke my parents used to tell me.

A private wanders around the base picking up scraps of paper.

Each time he picks up a scrap of paper, he examines it, says "That's not it," and throws it back down.

  • He picks up a bit of old newspaer. "That's not it."
  • He picks up a Hershey's wrapper. "That's not it."
  • He picks up a mislaid love letter. "That's not it."

People notice this odd behavior, send the private to the company shrink, and the private is determined to be unfit for active duty.

They give the private his discharge, and when he gets the piece of paper, he looks at it and shouts "That's it!"

This is a good pattern to bear in mind when thinking about movie endings.

Endings: Content vs. Form

Lots of ink has been spilled about how to end a movie. Mixed endings are often better than happy endings, as happy endings smack of wish-fulfillment. A good ending is often like that line from the old Rolling Stones song:

You can't always get what you want,
But if you try sometimes, you might find
You get what you need.

But such advice concerns the content of the ending, rather than the form. And from the perspective of craft, it is often better to worry about the 'how' rather than the 'what.'

One way of describing the form of the ending is: a good ending arranges all the earlier pieces in the 'right' order. A movie's elements in their final configuration can be describe as a "matrix."

A Movie's Matrix

The word "matrix" has many meanings. A matrix can be an origin, original, template, founding pattern, frame, or factor providing binding unity. Combining these with the specifically mathematical sense, we can think of a matrix as specific elements in a specific configuration.

A matrix is a kind of formula. But the important thing about the formula is not how it comes from somewhere else--old stories, another movie, a genre--but rather how the matrix structures the work itself as a series of configurations terminating in the 'best' configuration. The matrix is the key that provides internal structure. The matrix may be borrowed, but the way it's implemented gives the movie structure and cohesion, and it's the implementation that's a key part of the writer's craft.

So in the joke about the private, the matrix is the soldier holding the 'right' piece of paper.

Everything else relates clearly and strongly to this matrix--and so builds up to it, by way of contrast. The matrix is the 'right' configuration, and the movement of the work--the joke or story or novel or movie--is a kind of permutation or perambulation through the wrong configurations of the same elements until finally the 'right' one is reached.

Indeed, this punch line packs two punches: the moment the soldier finds what he needs is also the moment we find why the soldier acts as he does. The matrix of the joke is also the matrix of the soldier's life.

The Punchline and the Matrix

In a joke the punchline is usually the matrix. But a movie is longer, and the matrix may never be articulated as a line in the script--though it sometimes is.

In The Shop Around the Corner the matrix does become a punchline.

Jimmy Stewart works and fights with Margaret Sullavan, but the two are secretly pen pals--and in love. When Stewart is going to meet his epistolary girlfriend for the first time, a friend who knows the Sullavan character comes along and takes a peek when Jimmy Stewart is too frightened to get his 'first look' at his beloved pen pal.

Stewart: Can you see her?
friend: Yes.
Stewart: Is she pretty?
friend: Very pretty...She has a little of the coloring of [the Sullavan character].
Stewart: This is a fine time to talk about [her].
friend: If you don't like [the Sullavan character], you won't like this girl.

Indeed, when I saw a screening of the reworked version You've Got Mail, they re-used this line, this was the only line in the whole movie that got a laugh!

'If you don't like X, you won't like y' (where x=y) is the matrix of The Shop Around the Corner.

  • Stewart both likes and doesn't like his coworker.
  • He hates the woman he sees, loves the woman he can't see.
  • Stewart can't recognize the one in the other, doesn't know that the one is also the other.

So this punchline embodies the whole idea of the movie: it present the matrix the whole movie is acting out.


The matrix is more important now than it was in Hollywood's first 50 years.

Film and literary genres have their own patterns. And Hollywood's classical period--roughly the 40 years from silent features until 1948--had no trouble recycling the same genre stories again and again.

But as independent and art cinema emerged as a competition to and an inflence on the mainstream, this kind of matrix became more important. Lacking a story formula, a filmmaker must create her own.

The movie's form then becomes not a repetition of a pre-existing pattern but rather the arranging and re-arranging of elements in the search for a satisfactory configuration. We know the movie has ended when the elements scramble themselves "where they ought to be."

Hence the matrix is important for writers for two reasons.

First, movies that never quite 'gel' may have an unsatisfactory ending, or they may fail to use a matrix pattern to impose order on the work.

More importantly, you may use a pre-existing pattern: every genre film does that. But a pre-existing pattern can easily become a tired formula. And while some even advise using a specific screenplay formula--the hero's journey, which is just another version of Moses, Jesus, Superman, and the Russian folk tale--the ability to create your own original work and to make your story cohere in a satisfying way is a far more valuable skill than the ability to repeat an existing formula.

In short: use a formula, but use it as a matrix, not a template.

About which more another time.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Comedy Sketch in Four Beats

If you're daunted by the task of writing a whole feature script, it's appealing to try something shorter. It builds up your confidence, and you get practice at all the basics.

The sketch is a good place to start doing dramatic writing--screenwriting, playwriting, whatever.

  • The sketch is a free-standing dramatic form.
  • A sketch is a complete scene, usually comic, between three and ten minutes long.
  • A sketch is a self-contained unit: it doesn't imply a next scene. So there's no longer story to worry about.
  • The sketch goes back to forms of theater like vaudeville and burlesque, but it's a form that still exists in late night comedy shows--like Saturday Night Live.

Like most dramatic writing, sketches are built out of actions. But a sketch also requires: a change in situation.

  • A change in situation might be: a boy is chased by a giant. Run run run. If the boy kills the giant, the situation is changed. The boy no longer has to run.

Writing sketches is good practice.

  • A sketch is almost like a tiny little movie. It's a freestanding story with a situation, actions and a change in the situation.
  • A sketch has a beginning, middle and end--so it helps you think about story issues.
  • But a sketch is also like a single scene from a movie. So writing sketches is also practice for writing scenes.

In short, writing sketches gives you all kinds of practice.

For the purposes of building one, a sketch consists of four 'moments' or 'beats.'

  1. Within a clear initial situation,
  2. a character finds a bizarre solution or adaption to one of life's little problems: an action.
  3. This action is repeated several times (if at first you don't suceed, try, try again), resulting or terminating in
  4. a change in the situation.

Each 'beat' may be more than one action. (I'm just numbering them here for convenience.)

'Beat' #3 is the bulk of the sketch.

Let's parse an example.

  1. Initial situation. Parents suffer from aimless teenagers at risk for drug use.
  2. Bizarre solution. So the parents hire a motivational speaker to inspire the teens--but he is a scary intrusive boor.
  3. Repeated actions. He yells at the kids. He insults them. He wrestles with one of them. Finally, his actions break the furniture.
  4. Terminating change in situation. Ironically, this works--the kids are motivated, and the family is unified--in trying to prevent the speaker from invading their house.

After you parse a few of your favorite examples, it's not much work to generate premises to develop into your own sketches. Here are three I often give my screenwriting students.

  • When a church organist calls in sick, an unusual replacement is found.
  • A young woman's boyfriend is not satisfying her in bed.
  • A family finds they must take a very cheap vacation.
  • A movie director tries to get an honest, realistic peformance from his star.

Have at it.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Schweddy Balls, Ulysses and Dramatic Writing

One of the nice things about dramatic writing is: the same basic tools are used to make very simple and very complex artifacts. Or, put differently, craft and taste are very different.

Take a simple situation.

A man whose family name is Schweddy makes seasonal treats, including popcorn balls, cheese balls, rum etc. So, yes, this man sells Schweddy Balls.

Everyone likely knows the Saturday Night Live comedy sketch based on this not-very-complicated dirty joke. The sketch elaborates the joke through constrast and repetition.

  • Contrast. Mr. Schweddy is interviewed by two very buttoned-down female hosts in those recognizably subdued tones characteristic of public radio--a medium very far removed from vulgar puns.

  • Repetition. The female hosts need to discuss the Schweddy Balls in detail: their appealing size, the way they glisten, how good it feels to have them in your mouth, etc.

Clearly, there is nothing too complicated going on here. A single pun structures most of the sketch. But the very simplicity allows us to unpack this structure in ways that show something larger about dramatic writing.

The two larger ideas could be called: summary and subtext.

Namely, a well-constructed bit of drama can be divided such that:

  • one part stands in a special organizing relation to the whole, and
  • the whole scene is split horizontally, so to say, between something on the surface and something hidden or unspoken.

The part that organizes the whole is the summary. In the case of this sketch, it's the punchline of the sketch--this is the line that seems to get the most reaction from the audience. This is the moment when Mr. Schweddy says "No one can resist my Schweddy Balls."

The punch line (because it's a comedy sketch) summarizes the whole scene. Everything else in the scene is essentially laid out there to illustrate, embody, act out, and point to the summary.

  • Sometimes the summary is a line spoken in the scene. When Hardy says to Laurel "this is another fine mess you've gotten us into," that summarizes what the rest of the scene acts out, bit by bit: Laurel getting he and his buddy into a mess.

  • Not every scene requires that the summary be spoken aloud. But if the audience doesn't get the summary, couldn't articulate it for themselves, there's a rather serious problem--or it's a different art form than what I'm discussing here.

  • A summary for James Joyce's Ulysses, hefty as it is, might be: "Bloom is a modern-day Ulysses." It's not complicated, but it's true. The summary is a kind of matrix: it connects something and something else, one semantic unit and another, be they a Jewish guy in Dublin and an ancient literary hero, or holiday treats and perspiration-soaked testicles.

The other key division is between what we see and what it points to--which in anything worth paying attention to, must be somewhat different than what's on the surface.

  • If the surface points to nothing other than itself, you're again talking about a different art from: something literal and based on boredom, rather than symbolic and based on curiosity.

So in the Schweddy Balls sketch, as in almost every bit of drama, there is a surface string of: actions, behavior, conversation. And this surface is held together by a logic we understand from everyday life.

  • There is action and reaction, question and answer, a topic and its exploration--all sorts of verbal continuity we recognize from life.

  • Were the scene more physical, we would have to recognize the logic of physical actions: beginning and ending actions, exerting effort, becoming tired, preparing to do something, etc. There is no exhaustive list of these things, and that's why writing about dramatic structures is so tricky and usually fails when it tries to be exhaustive.

This sketch is immaculately constructed.

  • Every sentence points in two directions: on the one hand towards eating holiday snacks, and in the other direction towards two women licking a man's testicles.
  • The set-up of the radio show underlines this. The sketch's imaginary radio audience hears only the verbal layer and thus is deprived from the behavior we can see: the women eating holiday treats.

The fact of one sign pointing in two directions has many names.

  • Ambiguity is one way a single sign can point to more than one meaning.
  • A pun is a single string of sounds that can be interpreted as more than one word or sentence.
  • Subtext is when characters say one thing and actually mean another.
  • Dramatic irony is when the characters think one thing is happening, but we know another is happening: as when Oedipus marries his mother but doesn't know it.

Many aesthetic terms point to the same general phenomena: something that's also something else. Indeed, art in general could be subsumed under such an idea: daubs of paint that looks like grapes, shabby actors that are also kings and queens, to name only two.

Thus in a simple, elegant, funny and coarse comedy sketch, we can see something powerful about how dramatic writing works.

  • There must be a surface series of actions, whether physical or verbal.
  • The surface actions must be held together by an autonomous coherent logic: we must feel 'this is how people talk,' or 'this is what people do when putting on a radio show,' or whatnot.
  • The surface actions should point towards something else. The characters have secrets, or something hidden is going on, or they're clueless, or we know what's happening and they don't. It doesn't matter what it is, so long as the surface actions have some other meaning an audience can get interested in.
  • On some level, the actions, behaviors and conversations must hang together. They must add up to something. Either the characters need to be able to summarize what's happening--"We're lost!"--or the audience will be lost for real, not as a fictional story.
    • Likely the writer wrote the summary first, and then invented the behaviors to embody it, and if the writer did a crappy job, the actions are not separately interesting in the logic of their unfolding: they do nothing but flesh out the summary.

This is delicate work: many things can go wrong.

  • If the surface actions do not hold together by some recognizable logic, that's a problem, because the audience can't follow along.
  • If the surface actions point to nothing besides themselves, you're trapped in literalism, and it simply is not that interesting. The audience can't remain interested for every long--unless the people are very good-looking or doing something inherently interesting, like performing risky stunts or having sex. (Pornography is almost entirely of subtext: it relieves us from the burden of meaning in a way that's pretty delightful.)
  • If no summary is possible or given, or the wrong summary is given, the result is likely too confusing to be pleasurable. (I assume here that some balance of understanding and confusion is pleasurable.)

All of these then make reasonable criteria for us to use on our own writing or on others'.

  • Is there a logic holding the actions and dialogue together? Can it be recognized?
  • Can the scene be summarized? Can we unify the actions under a clear idea?
  • Is the scene simply the summary boringly written? That is: is there not enough of a gap between the actions and their summary to justify our paying attention?
  • Is there subtext or dramatic irony? Is there more than meets the eye?

Finally, there's the question of how the summary of the surface actions and the subtext line up. This is complex and more a question of art than craft. Likely some will find Schweddy Balls/sweaty balls uninteresting, just as some will find Leopold Bloom/Odysseus uninteresting.

But that is a matter of taste, not craft.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Formulae, Interestingness & Being a Human Being

Aspiring commercial writers often look for a formula. Boy Meets Girl, Redemption, etc.

When I teach beginners, I use a different method: induction.

Write some stories. Write them as step-outlines: so only consisting of sentences describing actions, since only things that can be acted out can be used in a movie script--which is the target from. Get some friends to write similar stories.

Now look at them. Which are more interesting? Speculate why. Develop your own theory, your own equipment for detecting why some stories are more interesting than others.

Some advice-givers in the dramatic writing arena emphasize conflict. But not all good stories have explicit surface conflict. My own very complex technical term is interestingness.
Now if you look at drama and at other areas of life, interestingness is not hard to explain.
  • Situations which cannot be controlled or foreseen are more interesting.
  • Situations involving danger or risk are more interesting.
  • The combination of uncontrolled and dangerous situations is especially compelling.
  • Two patterns can be combined to be interesting: one beat on top of another in music, two characters with different habits interacting.
  • One thing transposed to another dimension: dolls that act like people, animals becoming human, etc.
In short: anything people pay to see at a circus or stop and watch on the street, in a theater, on TV, or would find interesting to read about in a newspaper. Each person has her own sense of this, but there is still serious overlap.

I think of a writer as having good Interestingness Detection Equipment. Good writers develop it, and it's unique, not generic or formulaic. Philip Roth is interested in different things than Billy Wilder.

Then the only formula is this. A story should be interesting. It should be continuously interesting--without a sag. And it should be increasingly interesting--more and more all the time.

Yes, there are separate questions about feature film form (three-act structure, resolution, etc.)

If you develop your Interestingness Detection Equipment, then the only other skill you need is the ability to modify an existing story--to be more rather than less interesting. Than you have access to the controls: you can modulate Interestingness up and down as you please--which means even the "more and more" formula need not be followed.

Basically, formulae and prescriptions are to me not the most interesting or powerful way of conceiving the individual patterns of human behavior. If you look at any sophisticated discipline, from sociology to genetics, they search for basic mechanisms which produce profoundly complex patterns: they don't search for simple patterns under which complex mechanisms exist.

If you want to write something formulaic--use a formala, then try to hide it. If you want to write something interesting, find what interestingness is for you, and it will likely have some interest for others.

The writer does not stand outside humanity trying to reduce humanity to basic configurations. A writer is a sample of humanity, an instance of it. And she can therefore trust that her own experiences, when properly seen and framed, can stand in some representative relationship to other human beings, and possibly even to humanity as a whole.

To completely immerse oneself in rules and formulae is at some level to treat oneself as a machine and to forget one's humanity--which is the most interesting thing about each of us.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Bringing Characters to Life: What That Can Mean

We know that good dramatic writing has something to do with life.

One ("Method") definition of acting as: living truthfully within the given circumstances of the text. Put simply, the actor "lives" the part. The writing must convey a sense that the characters are living human beings. If there's no signs the characters are alive, the actors will have a hard time bringing them to life.

But what does "living" mean here?

  • "Live" how?
  • Where is the "life" in the part?
  • How does it get there?

Briefly: the writer puts it there, and the actors and director find it and use it.

So how does one do this?

What Is "Life"?

When I refer to "life" I mean something at once simple and complex, obvious and subtle.

Being alive is a corporeal, bodily state, as well as the feeling of moving from one state to another. It's a kind of registration in and alteration of consciousness by the impact of physiological states--and vice-versa.

Hence things like:

  • waking up and falling asleep,
  • getting excited, growing bored,
  • being in suspense, anxious,
  • being or growing more or less calm,
  • having the hair on the back of your neck stand up,
  • running for your life,
  • meeting an old friend,
  • meeting an old enemy,
  • falling in love,
  • getting drunk or
  • sobering up,
  • being very hungry or
  • very full--
  • and the like.

This is not a rigorous philosophical definition: it's a rough-and-ready bin to use for practical purposes.

As a writer, you are obligated to give the characters a sense of life. If you're just arranging incidents or using words and actions to convey plot information, you're not really dealing with drama: you're creating puppets to mouth your story.

Little bits of life in a drama are like breadcrumbs for the actors to follow to find your character in the forest of words on the page.

  • Think how often writers have their characters stay up late at night, get drunk, fall in love and the like.

These bits of life make the character humanly-identifiable--hence actable. If you don't put some bits of life in your work, the actor has little to glom onto.

It's not hard to see the life of drama--when experts are at work. The experts are: the writer, director and actor. We can look at a couple of nice examples:

  • a scene in one of George Cukor's films (Travels with My Aunt), and
  • a short scene in All About Eve.

Why These Scenes?

Cukor. Director George Cukor was very expert. His movies include beloved classics, and he had a special knack for eliciting fine performances. Performers under Cukor's direction were nominated for Oscars more than 20 times.

The critical vocabulary for talking about acting is so impoverished that most can't say why Cukor is so good at this or in what his goodness consists. Looking at the issue of "life" in the dramatic text, we can.

One of Cukor's arsenal of tricks was the long take: letting the camera run for a minute or several to really showcase the actors' work.

  • In one sense, the long take shows the actor working in real time. Hence long takes really are bits of living, life laid out across a duration.
  • But in another sense, the long take shows the director's ability to control the actors--even when not using the way a shot's edges 'crop' a tiny moment, pull it out of the flow of life to blend it back into a flow of shots.
    • (The long take is the flipside of the 'shot': not the shot as bounded by edges but the shot as full of something--full of time and life.)

Mankiewicz. With fourteen Oscars nominations and six wins, including Best Picture, All About Eve is well-written, -directed--it got Oscars for those--and well-acted: it had five acting nominations and one win (for George Saunders in a supporting role).

  • Bette Davis was nominated for ten Oscars and won three. She knows her way around a soundstage. (The year of All About Eve, Davis lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.)
In each scene, we can ask:
  • What is the life of the scene? What are its moments? Its changes? Its arcs and curves? (For life has an aesthetic shape as well.)
  • Where are the markers of this life in the text--the dialogue? Where can we see that the actors and director together have interpreted the text to find signs of life they can develop?
  • Finally, what is the story of the scene, the information--as opposed to the life? We need to see this to see what a weaker writer would have put in a scene unsupported by human life.

Tired, Stoned Divulging.

It's late at night. A man and a young woman (a stranger) are drinking champagne in the man's sleeping car. They will smoke some cigarettes, reveal personal details about themselves, and eventually get into bed together (mostly clothed).

Already, you can sense the "life" the actors need to perform: it being late, getting drunk, getting high, the woman getting upset, the man comforting her, the two preparing to sleep--or something.

All this could be acted out with whatever dialogue. It's the life of the scene--or part of it. But the writers added another fun element, and the actors and the director have a helluva good time with it.

(The writers were Hugh Wheeler, who also wrote the books for a couple of Sondheim musicals, and Jay Presson Allen, who wrote Cabaret and Marnie, among other things: these folks know what they are doing. And Cukor worked on the script's development.)

Namely, the young woman brings out some cigarettes. The man thinks they're "American," but the woman says "I got these in Paris." When she takes a drag, it's a tell-tale deep drag. The man asks: "Are these herbal?" And the woman replies: "I don't think so."

Clearly, the two are smoking weed, but the man doesn't know it.

So the actor does some nice things to show that smoking this cigarette is not familiar.

  • He coughs.
  • The cigarette doesn't seem to taste right.
  • At one moment he seems dizzy from the cigarette.
Then the other actor joins in the fun.
  • The pair break out into giggling, even with no clear reason.
  • The dialogue is a bit repetitive, and so they act the hide-and-seek of topics as a function of the two being stoned.

In short, there are cues in the dialogue about the time of day, getting drunk and high, exposing one's private thoughts and feelings, and the director and actors invent details--the funny taste, the slight headache, the giggling--which create the physical life of the characters, and this helps to ground the scene, helps us to understand it humanly.

As information, the scene is slight. But the point is the contrast between the two lifestyles and moral codes.

  • The man's an Anglican. The woman is a kind of daffy rich hippie chick.
  • He's British, and She's American.
  • He's staid, and she's bohemian.

None of this is central to the plot. But the man's transformation is central. And so the man's coming to know a different world and getting stoned without knowing it: these are life experiences that slowly but surely add up to changing the protagonist.

All About Eve

This scene is about 35 minutes into a 2:20 movie. (Don't ask me which 'act' that is.)

The scene consists of actress-diva Margo Channing is awaken at 3 a.m. by a phone call.

At one level, the scene is largely about information: we learn something new, and so does Margo. But Mankiewicz is too good a writer not to have the information land with psychological impact. And Davis is too good an actress to do a scene which is not humanly interesting.

Zoom to 6 min & 4 seconds: Youtube's software won't do this for me.

The operator claims to be placing a call at her behest for midnight California time. Margo knows nothing about this. The other party turns out to be her boyfriend Bill (who's in Hollywood shooting a movie). During the call, Margo discovers:

  • That it's Bill's birthday,
  • that her assistant Eve scheduled the call (and neglected to mention same),
  • that Eve is also planning a welcome home/birthday party for Bill upon his return.
A lot of the work is done through dialogue.
  • Dialogue marks one of Margo's realizations: "Bill, it's your birthday."
  • Dialogue also tells us something about the way Margo says it, because Bill (a director) criticizes her performance.
  • And the dialogue also tells us Margo is not thinking straight: when Bill says "I love you," she replies "I'll check with Eve"--repeating an earlier line about party guests and showing the audience how intertwined the three characters have become, and how unconscious Margo is, in several ways.

The scene ends with Margo lighting a cigarette, and in the next scene she's still in bed--as if perhaps knocked for a loop and still recovering.

So what is the 'life'? Where is it marked in the text? How is it acted?

Very simply, the life of the scene is a woman waking up. She is waking up at two levels.

  • She is woken up, catches on, becomes aware of Eve's treachury, the way Eve's 'mistakes' end up benefitting Eve.
  • And by a clever strategem, the writer Mankiewicz chooses the life of a woman physically waking up.

The writer was the director, and he either told Bette Davis, or she figured out herself: you go from sleeping to wide awake, because the woman learns something unpleasant.

So what Davis acts is: first struggling to stay awake, wanting to sleep. The writer, director and actor here are all on the same page. They mark a clear contrast from being asleep, through struggling to stay awake, to not being able to fall asleep.


You may not choose to weave "life" into your scenes. But it is at least a guarantee you have more than one level in your script--on top of the intricate information you have woven in to reveal character through subtext and actions. And you will also befriend your actor if you can give her some life to embody--life that carries the meaning of the story, too, not just its outer husk.

--Edward R. O'Neill