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