Every filmmaker should consider themselves a Dramatist. Not a writer or story-teller or script analyst or any other useless term, but a Dramatist - someone who understands and can construct Drama - human engagement with experience, narrative and catharsis. Too often this is watered down into just ‘story’. A colleague of mine, an extensively experienced screenwriter and movie project developer, declares ad-nuseum that the filmmakers job is NOT AT ALL to tell a story but rather take the viewer on a journey through the story. The distinction I believe is profound.
What invariably arises out of such exertions and declarations is discussion of what Story is and how it is or should be structured? At this point ‘Aristotle’ rears his head - 3-act structure - various ‘methods’ - Hero’s journey and so on. Only a fool rejects these - 4000 years of performative works of drama cannot be so easily dismissed, let alone the past century of cinema - more dramatically satisfying then any other form that has gone before.
But once any artform develops a cannon of work people begin to view that body of work collectively and analytically and start to see patterns. And from those patterns they form conclusions and assumptions. Of itself, to this point, that?s a-ok. But the art of the dramatist can quickly fall in a hole when such patterns begin to be referred to as ‘rules’, formulas, set-in-stone-defy-at-your-peril parameters.
Am i the only one who wonders why so many of the so-called Gurus of screenwriting structure Do Not have impressive CV’s as produced screenwriters? With the glorious exception of William Goldman - it makes me wonder why, if these guys do know all the answers as to ‘how to write a screenplay that sells’, they’re doing a whole lot more preaching than practicing? Or do they just know that there’s a whole lot more money to be made from preaching than actually practicing? Or, more cynically, is the preaching a way to make up for a lack of talent? (ie “if i talk loud enough about Aristotle and dramatic arcs no one will notice my lack of actual screen credits…” (notice im not naming names as I dont want to be sued - these guys who shall remain nameless strike as the litigious type…)
Anyway, it was while musing on this idea that I struck upon an article in WIRED by Scott Brown entitled “Why Hollywood needs a new model for storytelling”. Satyrical though it is, it none the less prods at the ‘sub-industry’ of self-help that often plagues filmmaking.
“Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here today to mourn the death of Story. As you may have heard, it’s kaput?or, at the very least, terminally ill, wracked by videogames, wikis, recaps, talkbacks, YouTube, ADD, and the rise of a multiplatform, multipolar, mashup-media culture. Hollywood, vendor of Story in its most denatured form, is most at risk: The film industry is slowly but steadily being forced to part with quaint artifacts like the “hero’s journey,” Joseph Campbell’s so-called Monomyth. (Which is just so … well … mono.) Beginnings, middles, and ends are headed for the attic, next to the box marked VCR Rewinders/Beastmaster Franchise. And Tinseltown can kick this chestnut to the curb.”
If you want to understand story, you need to understand people, what makes us worry and fear. if you want to understand Aristotelian ideas then here’s a thought; read Aristotle! better from the horses mouth than from some bloated mis-attributing parody. Read Howard Suber’s book “the Power of Film” which will NOT tell you how to write a screenplay but will tell you a lot about the fundamentals of what makes a person/idea/event ‘dramatic’. In fact DO NOT read any book that even vaguely suggests that it will tell you HOW to write a screenplay. Instead read about ideas, conflicts, struggles and adventures; there is far more to be learned there then in another re-hashing of screenplay ‘rules’.
And better still, if you REALLY want to understand the ‘construction of experience’ that is the nuts and bolts of cinema, DONT ask a screenwriter…! Instead ask an Editor. Dont read Screenwriting books, read books on Editing. Start with Norman Hollyn’s superb ‘The Lean Forward Moment’ and work your way from there.
The screenwriter is simply the first writer on a movie. The Director then ‘re-writes’ with direction and the actors re-write their bits with performance but ultimately the king kong final-say ‘writer’ is the Editor. Most editor’s Ive ever known have a significantly more engrained and innate sense of the ‘cinematic’ and how to leverage dramatic action into emotional enaggement than most writers will ever comprehend. The art of the Dramatist is the art of Problem solving. Screenwriters only have to solve problems in a 2-dimensional way, it’s the Editor who has to wrangle, craft, shape and manipulate drama with 3-dimensional holistic density - not just as words and actions but also as timing, rhythm, pace, moments, glances and inflections, tones, colours, shapes and sounds.