Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Beginning Scriptwriting ~ Notes/Reflections I

First class I arrived 10 minutes early and took a seat in the front center row. Students began piling in and soon all the seats were taken. I couldn’t see everyone, since they were all behind me, but I did see lots of young faces, some older. The instructor sidled in through the tight desks. An older gentleman, up in his years. I seem to keep finding myself amongst the matures. That suits me just fine. This day he was wearing one of those caps, the sort I could see a writer wearing in a French cafĂ©.

We began talking about character. He said that, “Most people think they can visualize film, but it does not happen in the obvious description, but in the character—the character’s wants and desires.”

I thought it interesting too that he said most cultures go through the emotions, that is except for the French. They tend to go through the mind. It made me think about the few French movies I have seen. Yes, I can see that—the mind.

A character chooses to go for something or is forced into something—forced into an adventure. We are reminded that, “Characters are not people.”

Another reminder, and something that most storytellers and writers know is, “First thing is to grab an audience and have something that ‘pays off’ in the end.”

Why do we see films? He says that everyone goes to see a film for the emotional experience. Some people like the same experience over and over, while other’s like new experiences.

We talk about the differences between characterization and character. Simply put, characterization is what we can observe in other people. As he says, they are the “External accoutrements of our life.” A character is what a person or a character will do under pressure. We need to put a character under stress to see how they will react.

The book for our class is Robert McKee’s, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. I’ve had this book on my shelves for about 12 years when a friend mentioned it back then. I only read a few passages here and there and it stayed on the shelves collecting dust. Now, the book reenters my consciousness. Everything is going along fine in reading up to the point of when McKee talks about story, which is early on. I realize I’m in over my head, but hell, I’m here, so I may as well stay and get what I can out of the ride. I’m a reflective writer, a journaler, an observer. Sometimes an essay, a poem, maybe a story. But, I don’t believe I’m a natural storyteller in the sense of creating characters. I observe characters, but I’m afraid to put them through conflict. I’m afraid because I feel out of control with this scriptwriting business, but I feel that I’m right where I’m supposed to be. I can already get glimpses that my prose writing is going to pose conflicts to fit myself into this container that seems so precise, where I need to dig deep into my characters who don’t even exist right now. What I’m finding is I keep coming back to my own experiences and I don’t want to do that. My personal material usually finds its way into my reflective and essay writing. But to bring it to this container feels naked, feels scary. It’s difficult to explain, especially since the class has only begun, but I can feel a resistance within myself. And even McKee cautions against the “personal story.”

I only know how to write truth, with the few exceptions where a tale has come out of me.

Two statements that McKee makes in his book that ring loud in my ears and make me ask myself if I’ve got what it takes are: “A storyteller is a life poet” and “Story talent is primary, literary talent secondary but essential.” I am hopeful that I at least get a glimmer of what it takes.

In the end, will I be able to create a story with characters that are real, multi-dimensional, and make the audience feel? I operate from my emotions, but I don’t know that this will be enough to help me with the story aspect.


Vincent said...

I'm sure your instincts are right on this, more so than what your instructor has to say, though his role is considerable in this.

You say you only know how to write truth. I'm so glad of that, because what you feel, whether it flows from remembered experience or tales that come to you, is what will make the audience feel.

The purpose of fiction is to tell the truth. That is the purpose of dreams too - the tales told to us while we sleep.

Your instructor says that the key is in the character's wants and desires, but that doesn't describe every film. My favourite film of all time is if.... - that is the title, with lower case and four dots following. I'm thinking about the characters in that, and whether they choose or are forced. It seems to me that what's described is an inexorable system, (the English "public" school) which forces the characters to behave as they do: even forces them to rebel against it in bloody revolution.

So yes, the script reflects the individual characters and what they bring to the plot. But it also reflects the place, the culture, the context which influences the actions of the characters and is influenced by them.

I wonder if you can expand on the saying you quote, that "Characters are not people". Sure, they are not real people, they are characters, who (usually) are required to evoke the multi-dimensionality of real people. But what did your instructor mean to say, in reminding you of this?

Vincent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rebb said...

Vincent, Truth is an interesting matter. I think you are right--as long as what I feel comes through in my observations, it should translate to the audience. I guess what I mean about truth is that in relation to characters, etc., one begins with truth and then it could feel like untruth because then the characters tell their own truth and we don’t always know or expect what that is going to be. That’s the scary part: To go with them where they decide to take us. Exciting and scary, I suppose.

I imagine there are always exceptions to every statement, but I’m glad you pointed out the film, “if…” I added it to my movie queue and it should arrive soon. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Absolutely. The script will reflect those details as well. This was only day one. I still haven’t completed my thoughts on day two. But he did say that, “Structure will take care of itself if the characters are well written.”

I wonder if what he meant by saying that “Characters are not people” is that especially with students learning scriptwriting for the first time, we may tend to try and model a character after people in our lives, down to the last detail. I think he’s trying to remind us that we may start with a small piece of memory or observation from a person, but then we must get out of the way and let the character be born. We then have to follow the character where they want to go, not the other way around. As an example, I keep thinking of different family members and how they could easily be characters, but then I think, there is a fine line of taking what parts of the experience or parts of their personality versus taking all of them, the whole person. But see, that’s where I struggle, I don’t want to write characters from my personal life, yet there are certain aspects that I think would work. So, I have to find a way to get deep into the crux of it, pull out the blood and guts of it, so to speak, and allow a character to form that embodies whatever it is that will be my starting point.

Funny note about your “Existential Angst” blog—I had recently checked out a book on existentialism from the library and returned it a few days ago. I have a book on it of my own—don’t know exactly why I checked it out. One of my most favorite novels on the matter is Herman Hesse’s “Demian.” It reached down deeply into my core and has stayed with me for life. He is one of my favorite authors. I realize that books speak to us in different ways, speak to different parts of our psyches. But also after my saying these few words here, two other books come to mind by the Swiss author, Par Lagerkvist: “Barabbas” and “Sibyl.” Barabbas is simply written on the surface, but I remember feeling so much when I read it years ago. In fact, I’m thankful that I found this author that I may not have, had it not been for thumbing through the books in a small bookstore that was owned by a lady that loved good literature. That was 15 years ago.

Even though anyone born in the time of when “Demian” came out, probably knows of this book. It was while I was working as a deli clerk on a break and saw a girl with her nose planted in a book that it entered my world. It was “Demian.” This was before I really read so much, but something about how she looked with cigarette in one hand, taken away into that world. It feels as though, since then, I’ve tried to find books whose worlds had meaning and feeling when I entered them and were written poetically. There is so much I have not read and know I may never get the chance to read. That is a painful feeling, but It’s also ok.