Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Compositional View of the Arts.

My sense of art forms is compositional:  artists select and arrange some substance.
  • For poets it's words.
  • For painters, it's paint.
  • For composers, it's musical notes.  
  • For choreographers, it's movement.
  • For dramatic writers:  it's actions.
As a screenwriter, you are selecting and arranging actions.

Sometimes people think:  I'm writing pages.  I'm describing what's seen on a screen.  I'm telling the camera where to move.


Or:  yes, but only later.

Saying a screenwriter writes documents in screenplay format is like saying a writer writes in ink lines on a page:  it's true, but it misses the point.

First, and more essentially, as a screenwriter you are listing and describing actions.
  • Actions in a sequence.
  • Actions that unfold in a specific universe.
  • Actions that impact and ramify each other and their world.
And actions are not abstract.  Actions are holistic:  they are always parts of larger wholes.  Such a feeling has been pithily expressed.
For the want of a nail, a shoe was lost.
For the want of a shoe, a horse was lost.
For the want of a horse, a battle was lost.
For the want of a battle, a war was lost.
Dating is part of courtship.  Courtship may be part of marriage.  Marriage may be part of family.  Family may be part of growing up, living and dying--part of life.

The actions that a screenwriter selects and arranges are torn from life.  And life still clings to them the way dirt clings to a vegetable that is torn from the earth.

A rich man walks into a very expensive shop.  He is drunk.

What happens?  What are we curious about or fearful about in watching such a scene unfold?

And where does the materials for writing this scene come from?
  • What do we know about how people behave when drunk?  
  • About the difference between rich and poor?  
  • About the way people who work in shops act?  
  • About how they deal with customers, rich and not-so-rich, drunk and sober?  
  • What do we know about tact?  About diplomacy?
All of that comes into a simple scene of:  a drunk rich man walks into an expensive shop.  

Because a dramatic writer composes with actions, and actions are wholes, and actions are not pure and abstract, they come from an understanding of life.

And that is the deepest yet simplest thing I can think of to say about screenwriting.

--E. R. O'Neill

No comments: