The Story of Your Life November 28th, 2007

For years I kept hearing that screenwriters are storytellers. Screenplays are stories told with pictures. Story is the most important part of a screenplay. Blah blah blah.

When I was a newcomer to the field this all struck me as odd and inaccurate and skewed. In thinking about my favorite movies I would rarely think of the overall story. Story seemed almost incidental to the good parts of a movie. Instead I thought about great characters, or great lines, or great scenes. When I saw a movie I rarely took away the whole pie; I only took away the best slices of the pie.

My goal as a screenwriter was, then, to write great and memorable movies, and the way to do this was to create wonderful slices of pie. After creating the slices, then I merely had to arrange them in a reasonable order and shave and craft them into a 120 page pan.

The result was enlightening. I had creativity and invention, jaw-dropping originality and enviable attention-getting excellence. And, of course, the screenplays were terrible. The scenes fit together with logic, but there was no heartbeat. I could sew together all of the best pieces of a man – and I mean ALL of the best pieces – but was unable to create life. Something more organic had to happen.

The stories told in Hollywood movies – particularly in the comedies – mostly felt to me uninteresting, uninspiring, unoriginal, and unworthy. Yes, a clever person can make anything funny or find humor in anything (see my as yet unwritten entry about “Creation and Discovery”), but the stories, for all of their alleged central importance to the screenplay, were to me uninspiring and boring.

Retelling of the same stories – Hollywood repetition – had brought over-familiarity, and for me sucked all the true inspiration from these films. I hated sitting down to a movie and knowing in the first five minutes how the entire film was going to unfold.

Yes, you could argue, but movies aren’t about WHAT happens – they’re about HOW it happens.

I see. So movies aren’t really about story after all; they’re about storytelling. Nice distinction. Didn’t help me at all. I still didn’t want to tell an unoriginal story. There had to be a way to avoid the formulas.

Screenplay-wise speaking, story is structure, and Hollywood won’t make a movie without it. It doesn’t matter how beautiful and original your building’s design, if it doesn’t stand up it will never become a building. It may not matter whether the structure is made of steel or wood or straw-bales – whatever it’s made of, it still must have a structure (it doesn’t matter what the story is, but there must be one).

Think of a person without a skeleton. Yikes. You don’t have a person – you’ve got a puddle of protoplasm. The best features of the person may be present – lush hair, vibrant eyes, silky skin – but all this is hard to appreciate when they’re just a puddle of protoplasm.

So, there must be a story and the story must be strong and simple and central. And coming up with a new one is practically impossible. Many have argued that there are only x number of stories in the world (3, 8, 12, 50… depends on whom you ask), so naturally any movie you see will have some basic familiarity. Perhaps it would be better to start with a familiar story and then add the meat.

Personally, I can’t do it. Not interested. This is not where I get my inspiration. Working in this fashion is completely inconsistent with how I live my life. I find no joy, here, no excitement, and doubt that I could ever pass along joy, inspiration, and excitement to others through a film I would write in this fashion.

But clearly I could not ignore structure. And the structure I built had to be more than the sum of its slices. It had to have a natural and organic flow, or else there would be no emotional tug. The good parts of the movie would have no power.

What has developed for me – and is probably the method used by everybody – is a back and forth, back and forth. I’m on structure for a while, until I find it too constraining and I let go and fly free of the branches, feeling my originality and my freedom, until I get too far from the tree and need to grab onto something solid, and back and forth and so on. I do not commit stubbornly to an existing structure, nor do I insist on my need for freedom to the exclusion of anything that has ever come before. The recipe for when to do what – when to grab and when to fly – is me, and that is what will make the screenplay feel original, even if in the final analysis it isn’t really.

So many metaphors flying around this essay! Let’s see… we’ve got pie and Frankenstein, architecture and anatomy and trees. But wait – I’m only talking about writing screenplays, right? Okay – let’s go for it:

If you think about your own life, perhaps you think about the moments, the characters, the scenes. Can you create a great life by creating only memorable moments, only associating with superior “characters,” only participating in great “scenes”? Can you be completely original and inventive?

Alternately, can you only build a life by holding firmly to the proscribed structures and institutions presented to you at birth? Is building a great life any different than creating a great screenplay? How do you build the story of your life – and how is that any different from building a strong movie? Even if you try to be completely original in your life’s path, don’t you inevitably wind up recreating some existing structure which you could have grabbed onto and followed in the first place?

Lots of questions, here, and they all arise from my daily interaction with story, with freedom and structure, originality and conformity.

Welcome to my world.

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