Friday, April 6, 2012

What, How and Why? The Three Levels of Screenwriting (or Lots of Other Things, Too, Probably)

In teaching and learning screenwriting, we are often faced with the puzzle or how to organize what we’re teaching.
  • Where do you start? 
  • In what order do you present the elements of the process? 
  • Where are you heading? 
  • How do you diagnose the kinds of things that can go wrong--so you can help writers move forward?
  • What are basic errors, rookie mistakes, and what are deeper problems?
The same questions apply to teaching most art forms--and probably many other disciplines, too.

In my experience, creative activities have three clear dimensions. These answer the questions: what, how and why.
  • What are you doing?
  • How do you do it?
  • Why are you doing it?
The answers to these questions correspond to three dimensions of the artistic process:
  • the discipline or medium,
  • craft, and
  • art.
Each dimension has a definition, a quantity and criteria.
  • The discipline defines the identity and borderlines of the medium. What is and is not a screenplay? The answers are limited: basically, the answer is either “yes” or “no.” You are either writing a screenplay, or you are making a cleverly disguised memory or fantasy or daydream or shopping list--which happens to be typed in screenplay format. The criteria in any discipline is: competence. You are either competent or you are not.
  • The craft concerns itself with the techniques of the medium. These are plural: there is more than one technique. But the number is limited: there are not an infinite number of techniques. The criteria here is how well the techniques are used. In a sense, the criterion is always efficiency: you either use the techniques of the medium efficiently or wastefully to accomplish a specific purpose.
  • The purpose, ends or goal of the activity is what makes it an art (or not). Why write? Why write this way rather than that, using dialogue rather than images, or vice-versa? How do you make choices--not only about technique but about what to do, what goals to shoot for? In screenwriting, the art often concerns the relationship to the audience: should the script comfort, scare, compel, please or disturb the audience--or some combination. The ends of art are plural but not limited in number. If the ends of art are not infinite, they are nearly so. And the criterion is excellence, sometimes called beauty.
Much the same could be said for: playing a musical instrument. 
  • The discipline demands the ability to render clearly a musical message--a melody, say. Banging the piano keys is not playing the piano: there is no competence involved. And the same message cannot be created again--except by chance. Some might be able to improvise a melody. This is still using the medium as a form of speech to form a coherent message. 
  • The technique involves being able to play loud or soft, fast or slow, notes of different lengths, staccato or legato or rubato, in different combinations. For the piano, one must be able to combine melody and harmony, preferably in either hand. Complete fluency involves being able to render complex musical messages with accuracy.
  • The art of playing an instrument centers on the purpose. Is the goal to amuse the listener? To charm? To frighten? To keep her awake, put her to sleep? Is it to transmit an idea or a feeling? When you are considering such questions, you are in the domain of art. You may still need to solve problems of technique. But it is unlikely you will ever get to art if you are not competent.
Now consider again writing a screenplay, but in more detail this time.
  • In screenwriting, the medium is what allows you to depict a human action, someone (specific) doing something (specific): a man falling in love, a woman looking for a job, a child winning a spelling bee. If an audience cannot comprehend what is taking place--what person is doing what action when where and why--then the writer is not competent. And the more specific, the more competent. Take a middle-aged man with a headcold and an allergy to wheat falling in love with a shy 30-something librarian: you may not be interested in it, but if you are not able to write it, you are unlikely to be able to write anything in much detail.
    • A more sophisticated description of competence is: the ability to communicate human actions using visual images and dialogue. To be effective and somewhat realistic, the dialogue needs to avoid exposition and redundancy. The characters cannot simply get together and discuss what’s happening: the audience must see it, infer it, or some combination. And ideally the characters will not say things to each other that they already know--simply so the audience can overhear it and be clued in.
  • The craft of screenwriting centers on the lovely way that the story unfolds, all the parts connected, yet slowly emerging over time, each part leading towards the next yet also being open enough that the audience might remain curious.
    • Probably the central element of craft is simply interestingness, involvement, immersion. The audience must not be bored, and they cannot leave the cinema before the movie ends. The writer is therefore at a very basic level simply keeping the audience in their seats.
    • Techniques for keeping the audience interested range from giving them risky and dangerous things to watch, making the outcome unpredictable enough to make them want to find it out, delaying resolution, adding complexity so the execution becomes unpredictable, etc. The list is long, but not infinite.
    • Writers often speak of set-up and pay-off, but I would point to the ability to weave different actions together, to combine the preparation for something to come with the consequences of what’s just happened. If a writer can’t combine actions--say, to make a bank robber fall in love in the middle of planning a heist--then the writer has little skill.
    • The basic elements of the medium such as cross-cutting must be something the writer can use to increase interest and even enrich the meaning of the experience. If a writer cannot intercut two stories, he will really have a difficult time getting very far into a script.
    • There are other elements of technique, but these areas are probably key.
  • The art of screenwriting is something different. You are encountering screenwriting as an art when a specific vision of human life takes shape on the page. What, at bottom, is life about? Is it a grim and unrelenting tragedy from which no one is spared? A comedy in which we all are made fools? What should a movie do to its audience? Move, startle, charm, impress, shock? When a screenplay has no vision of human existence and no definite pattern or aim in relating to the audience, it lacks art: it has no purpose, no sense of why movies exist--aside from the sheer level of distracting us with a charming puzzle.
If a writer can achieve the first two levels, the results should be quite interesting. Craft assures a well-made thing, and a well-made thing is interesting and involving to look at, get involved with, and interact with. 

Look closely at any finely crafted object--something with a few moving parts. A nice old cigarette lighter, with its clever way of sliding apart and holding liquid, its wick to keep the liquid from seeping out, the flint and the clever way the flint is struck by a simple action of the finger: this is a lovely kind of thing. And a curious person can find quite a bit of fascination in such objects. 

Many puzzles and toys exert fascination in pretty much this way. And it is no mean feat, and quite an honorable thing, to be able to craft something that is interesting and that holds and repays attention.

But craft is not art. It is hard to imagine art without craft--though putting your name on a urinal may well count. Some art is just a brilliant recombination, with no specific technique of its own, only those techniques which are needed. Some kinds of experimental theater or film strike us this way. And we can be struck by and admire this kind of art. Though most art requires some craft, art is still not reducible to craft. Art is clearly a different level--as a melody is not just notes.

Quite possibly, one could say the same thing of prose writing or the production of rigorous knowledge, whether scientific or humanistic.
  • A prose writer must convey an idea in sentences that are long or short, simple or complex, and an artist has thought carefully about what kind of impact to have on a reader, and why to bother using prose at all. 
  • A scientist or scholar can not only argue a claim that’s meaningful within a discipline--chemistry or art history--and prove or support that claim, but she has also thought carefully about which claims are more significant, more probative, more weighty, more impactful. Perhaps the Mona Lisa was really painted by someone else--but what are the implications and consequences?
To become competent in screenwriting, one only needs to master the basic tools by depicting any human action whatever: a bad day at work, going on a date that ends surprisingly, running errands that go wrong, etc. It is a good idea to focus on things that go wrong, as this helps avoid the tendency to lapse into happy daydreams. And as we all know, life can go wrong in so many ways, and there is a sort of mirth that comes from watching just how quickly  the simplest plan can go awry.

To learn the craft, it helps to start simply. It is not hard to take a simple action and make it more interesting, to lead the audience in one direction and then provide a surprise. It’s a little trickier to write dialogue where the audience can infer that something is going on beneath the surface. But it can be done--in part by studying very good scripts and plays which do this very well. 

One can become competent at screenwriting fairly quickly. But the craft can take months and years to get very good at. It is not necessary to involve oneself in artistic questions: the questions of craft and technique can be rich enough to keep a student busy for some time. But eventually, if a writer wants to grow, she must address the largest question: why write at all? The relevant parallel question is: why live at all? And this is why the most engaging art tends to give some large vision of what human existence is like: because the probing question of “why?” resounds outside of the medium and cuts us to the quick--if we really bother to care about it.

For the art of screenwriting, one needs to turn to the very best exemplars of the medium. I would point to: Wilder, Chaplin, Sturges, Mankiewicz; the scripts chosen by and written for Resnais, Hitchcock--to name only a few personal favorites which are hardly unknown.

It is not so hard to do a thing, once you know what you are doing. And the order in which you proceed makes doing a hard thing a bit easier. 

--Edward R. O'Neill