"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.
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.
Slanting Your Plot.
The same goes for plot. Say you develop a simple plot.
John calls in sick to work.
He is really having a date with an old flame.
The date goes terribly.
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:
John at the telephone, all dressed up, fakes a sick voice to call his supervisor.
John shows up to a fancy restaurant. "Nancy, I haven't seen you since we broke up. You look great...."
The supervisor is having a business lunch at the same restaurant, spots John. The supervisor is talking to his boss about downsizing.
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.
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