WRITING IS HARD
It’s hard to write. Let’s start off with that. It’s hard to write. Aristotle begins his Poetics talking about “mimesis,” or imitation, and how we, as human beings, learn everything by imitating the actions of other humans (as if there weren’t enough of an incentive not to be raised by assholes). We mirror life. We learn by watching and then doing. And when we see beauty in the real world, our first inclination is to make a copy of it (be it a Gustav Klimt or a Heidi Klum).
I appreciate what Aristotle is getting at here. It’s a lovely thought. You see something that’s captivating in real life—a type of personality, a heard bit of dialogue—or even something awe-inspiring—a transcendent moment, a lesson learned—and the artist in us wants to capture it. We want to paint it, or photograph it, or dramatize it. And when we see great art, we want to copy that, too. How many of us heard Bob Dylan and bought a guitar? How many saw The Apartment or Henry IV: Part I and said then and there, “This is what I want to do”?
That’s all fine and good, but Aristotle has left one pivotal part out, and that’s the period between “awe” and “mimesis,” the one between our being enchanted and our reproducing that enchantment, and that’s the period where we suck at it for a really, really long time. And that part hurts like hell, and most of us never get beyond it—going to the page, day after day, year after year, and wondering if anyone has ever written anything as exquisitely crappy as this.
With drama, there’s a cure for this feeling. It’s hard-won, but it’s called structure. There is a form in which people like to see movies and plays. There is a way they like drama to unfold, and whether it’s the nurture of being told stories in a certain way since Sophocles, or whether it’s the nature of us all having one Jungian collective unconscious, the preference is there, and, as dramatists, we will all do better to learn and emulate that form rather than rail against it. Because even if creating a narrative that sustains a person’s attention for ninety to a hundred and twenty minutes isn’t our ultimate job as dramatists, it is most certainly our first job as dramatists.
When an audience is bored, they don’t say, “Gosh, I could really use a solid reversal right here.” They say, “My butt hurts.” Or “Maybe I’ll go ahead and go to the bathroom.” Or “Maybe I want popcorn after all.” They’re not articulating it; they’re feeling it in their butts.
Over the twenty-five hundred years or so of producing drama, a craft has developed. A craft like any other. It’s a craft like building a chair is a craft. As every good chair has four legs, a seat, and a back, every good drama has desire, conflict, tension, obstacles, and reversals. And while the ultimate test for a chair is “Can you sit in it?” the ultimate test for a drama is “Can you sit through it?”
WRITING TO “SAY SOMETHING”
In grad school, I was too cool to learn craft. I said I wanted to be experimental. The problem with that thinking is that if you don’t know the craft, if you don’t know the form, with what are you experimenting? It took me a long time to learn that “experimental,” in my case, was a synonym for “childishness,” and for not wanting to do the work. Then I got out of school and realized that the stakes had never been higher: Learn the craft, or get a real job.
God has supplied me with neither the strength nor the requisite amount of Maker’s Mark to try to explain the actual mechanics of dramatic writing. However, He has been inordinately generous to others in this regard, since you can’t swing a cat in a bookstore without hitting five screenwriting books (and, on average, for every five screenwriting books you hit with a cat, you will hit ten screenwriters. You will recognize us as screenwriters by our hollow eyes and the Barnes & Noble embroidered on our green smocks). Some of my favorite books on screenwriting appear at the end of this article. There’s not a lot worth reading in terms of playwriting, so if that’s your trade, you’ll have to muddle through like the rest of us.
Instead of discussing effectively placed plot points, or the distinctions between complications and obstacles, let’s do something unheard of: Let’s talk about why it matters that we master them. I want to focus on why we write in the first place and what it is that drama does when drama is done right. What purpose does it serve? Is it beautiful and useless, like great music? That would certainly be enough. But no, good drama does something else.
If we’re being completely honest with ourselves, we would admit that life is often nasty, brutish and, if we’re lucky, not so short. If we like movies and plays, we generally like them better than we do our lives because they compress life and remove all the useless deliberation, unpleasant equivocation, the waiting in lines, the arduous getting from point A to point B, and the general mundane bullshit. They also eliminate one of the most vexing things about everyday life: the vexing part. Drama keeps the characters in the dark and the audience in the light, and gives us, the viewers, a world of clarity and certainty. Even if we are watching a tragedy, we feel that we are living more fully through the intensified experiences of a character because not only is time compressed but action and meaning occur simultaneously. What takes months, or years, to figure out in real life takes no time at all in films and plays. We are able to comprehend the full impact of events as they happen because we have a God’s-eye view of the proceedings.
In a novel, an omniscient narrator can explain motivations and beliefs of the characters, but in a well-constructed drama, we are the omniscient narrator. We understand what the character on screen is going through, and precisely what he needs to change in order for his life to improve. This release from having to make order from chaos in our own lives is what gives us so much pleasure in a theater. Order has been made for us, so we are left to relax and yell toward the screen something as simple as “Don’t go in the basement!” or as complex as “You thought you were avoiding killing your father and marrying your mother by moving to Thebes, but it was precisely your avoidance that will seal your fate!” It is this relaxation, this sense of safety and clarity in a world we believe we fundamentally understand, that allows us to absorb meaning through drama.
In the introduction to his book Shakespeare’s Politics, the late scholar Allan Bloom describes what Homer was able to do that Aristotle never could. Bloom says that the poet is able to “cause men to know without knowing that they know.” The same holds true for drama. We all write to “say something,” even if all we say is that we don’t believe in saying anything.
Good drama doesn’t tell you anything, at least not overtly. Drama teaches through shared experience. There’s a main character, and we, the audience, live vicariously through his story. We enter a theater and the lights fall; soon enough, we’re engaged. The frame of the screen or stage disappears and we’re living through Willy Loman or Michael Corleone or Lady Macbeth or “Cool Hand” Luke Jackson. With hope, we acquire that person’s realization without the pain of having experienced what he or she experienced. In all good drama, we’re witnessing what Joseph Campbell described as a “transformation of consciousness.” The main character begins the journey one way and ends a different way.
Movies and plays, then, when done correctly, are nothing other than “transformation of consciousness” machines. They are about the time this person completely changed the way he looks at the world. They’re about the time this guy who was raised by assholes decides not to be an asshole like his parents. Or maybe the guy determines that he can’t deny his asshole nature any longer (see Michael Corleone).
But this brings us back to the question, “How do we say something?” In poetry, you have words, punctuation, and maybe the spaces between the words. In prose, you have all the description you want. In drama, you have dialogue, sure, but no capable dramatist uses his characters as mouthpieces for his views. You can’t write a movie about Newtonian physics. You can write a fascinating movie about Newton’s attempts to decode biblical messages, or his enigmatic private life, but you’re better off giving someone a textbook than a movie to really teach them anything about his laws of motion. The dramatist’s medium is action, and where speeches speak to the intellect, actions speak to the emotions. The best we can hope for when an audience watches our film or play is that they will be struck on a heart-level, not a head-level, and they will say, “That. I’ve felt that. You have articulated not an idea for me…but a feeling.”
As a dramatist, you speak through theme. Your protagonist embodies a worldview, and your antagonist represents its antithesis, and then the two do battle. The consequences of those choices made in battle enact your theme.
I’ll give a simple example. At the beginning of a movie, a character loves nothing so much as money. He wants to be rich. So he sets out on a journey to rob a bank. But along the way, he meets a girl, and the girl is worried about her father because her father is a banker and the bank is faltering and near collapse. Her dad’s bank, obviously, is the bank he was going to rob. Suddenly, he has a dilemma. For his entire life, he’s wanted nothing so much as money, but as he prepares for the heist, hiding his plans and his double-life from the girl, he’s falling more and more in love. What does he do? He has a choice. Love or money? Well, traditionally, he abandons his former belief that money was most important and sacrifices his plan in order to stay with the girl. Love wins! That feels better, doesn’t it? Now that’s a simple story, but it reflects our hope as human beings—that love is more important than money. And if your idea is as simple as “love conquers all” (and it’s a popular one), then that story will work. My point is that starting to write a play or a movie with the thought of “What do I want to say?” is not the wrong way to go about it, as long as you understand how drama can say something.
Movies and plays can reveal to me the aspects of my character that need the most improvement, and better that than someone scolding or instructing me. It’s the difference between learning through inculcation and learning due to inspiration. When William Wallace in Braveheart, or Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, or, yes, even Luke Jackson in Cool Hand Luke, are willing to die for their causes and make a choice that we, the audience, could never make had we been in a similar situation, we admire that character. And admiration is nature’s way of showing us that there is a better way to live.
You may respond, “Well, I don’t have themes in my writing; I just write.” But no matter how much you try to avoid it, your worldview is represented in what you write. How do you feel about the world? Let me read your writing and I’ll tell you. Does everyone get together in the end and live happily ever after? You’re a cock-eyed optimist. Does everyone get together in the end only to be mowed down by a random assassin? You’re probably just having a rough day. Inevitably, you’re going to be dramatizing your worldview, so you might as well get clear about what that is. Having a theme in mind when you write, an actual “message” you’re trying to get across, is what separates truly transformative drama from its commercial version. You may find solid structure, great characters, and witty dialogue in both. Both may have four legs, a seat, and a back, and are comfy, but only one changes the way you think about the world.
Oh Lord. I didn’t want to address the industry. I’ll feel so cheap and tawdry afterward. It’s also where I spent all that Maker’s Mark I mentioned before. But the subject of this article does warrant that we acknowledge the tension between art and commerce. You may have no interest in writing for Hollywood or Broadway, but certainly many writers have wished to make livings by writing the kind of stuff they want in their hearts to write. At the very least, playwrights and screenwriters all want to have productions and for people to see their work…and when you add up even our most modest expectations, you find it is quite a lot to ask.
The nature of any industry has nothing to do with meeting our needs; the entertainment industry is based on meeting its own need, which is, of course, hookers and blow. Or, if you want to split hairs, “making money.” The major studios are publicly traded companies with shareholders, not arts endowments or cultural salons interested in furthering the form. They are interested, primarily and ultimately, in creating a product for people to consume. There are people in Hollywood who want to create good films (you will once again recognize them by the Barnes & Noble embroidered on their smocks), but if you think culture is the foremost concern of producers (or even their secondary concern), I’d like to sell you a painting I did of a unicorn with big eyes and rainbows and angel wings.
I may be callous, but it frustrates me as much as it does you. However, the sooner we come to terms with the realities, the sooner we will find creative ways to reconcile what we want to write with what we need to write in order to actually reach viewers. And as frustrating as the economic facts are, they’re not even the industry’s biggest problem.
The biggest problem with the movie industry, and the reason so much commercial film is so bad, is a fundamental one: Most projects are created like inverted pyramids. The concept, or “the hook,” is at the tip of the pyramid and determines whether the project is purchased or not. “The hook” is important commercially. It’s what we glean about a film from glancing at a poster or watching fifteen seconds of a thirty-second commercial; it’s what gets most of us to warm seats on a Friday night. But the casualties of this approach can be the most fundamental aspects of the story. I’ve read Aristotle’s Poetics a few times, and while he establishes the basic principles of drama—plot, character, theme, diction, music, and spectacle—I don’t recall him ever mentioning “the hook.” What you often have in commercial film is a pyramid built on its flimsy tip, attempting to prop up the weightier elements of good storytelling—provided, of course, they exist in the story at all.
In the end, in order to make it in the industry, we’re not going to beat the system, so we either have to work outside of it, or find ways to work within it, which gets tricky.
We all make mistakes in our careers out of insecurity. I believe this because I have done it. Sure, we want to create great works of art, but if we lop off the corners and strip it of any personal feeling, we might be able to create a living instead. We make mistakes when we base our artistic choices on fear rather than on love. And I can promise you, when we are offered that choice, it takes extraordinary discipline to stay true to ourselves, and even then, it is a battle we will often lose.
I will argue that one’s legacy is not more important than one’s existence. What we create in this life is not more significant than our happiness or the kind of people we were while we were here. (Maybe I’m a softy.) But what we leave behind matters. I know that when we finally find the theme we were looking for, when we are finally able to clearly and cogently articulate what it is that we were trying to say, our meaning becomes both the easiest thing to remove and the first thing they will ask us to remove to make our work viable. And we will try to tell ourselves that we have to make a living, consoling ourselves with success or the hope thereof—and the future freedoms it will deliver. But let’s keep in mind that meaning is hard-earned, certainly harder than any structural solution, because it’s based on painful lessons we learned in our own lives, so we must always remain aware of what we’re giving up because it may have been the very reason we went to the page in the first place.
As to the business itself, your chances are the lowest they’ve ever been for making money. “Independent” film is in intensive care, and they’ve called a priest. Studio film is based more and more on sequels, on popular source material and known commodities (when Ridley Scott signs on to direct a movie based on the board game Monopoly, this trend becomes undeniable), and less and less, if at all, on any kind of financial risk. As to the world of financially lucrative playwriting, it never existed.
(I would worry about these statements discouraging you, but I know that if you possess the kind of stomach necessary to make a career of dramatic writing, nothing I can say will make you flinch.)
So…what do we do now? What do any of us do?
Regardless of our commercial ambitions, or lack thereof, we work harder and get better. We make better films and plays. We work twice as hard. We master structure, character, dialogue, personal voice, theme, and tone. The days of an interesting little independent film, or play, that has a lot of structural flaws but really great characters, or a really cool style making it in Hollywood…those days are over. Because producers are looking for any possible reason to tell us “no,” we need to learn the craft, and we need to master it. And here’s the other thing. They want to be surprised. The good news is that there’s only one way to surprise them. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard reinforces this claim: “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” Write about what astonishes you. Why write about anything else? Why bother?
As writers, all we have is sensitivity. I’ll repeat that because it matters. As writers, all we have is sensitivity. So get alone, get quiet, and let yourselffeel.
Yes, there are some stupid people in positions of power in Hollywood, but, all easy joking aside, the majority I’ve met are a hell of a lot smarter than I am about this stuff. So producers and studio heads aren’t dumb. But they are busy, and they’re terrified, and they’re trying to keep their jobs, and they’re struggling to keep their companies afloat. And what they’re asking from us—from you and me—is damn-near impossible. They’re asking us to make it easy for them. Make it easy for them. That’s our job. Write a compelling story with great characters, clever dialogue, and a riveting climax. Oh, and it needs to be enough like something they’ve already seen so they can be comfortable with it, and it needs to be new and exciting enough so that they can sell it to their bosses by saying it’s “like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” Most of these people read between ten and twenty scripts per week. That’s what they’re wading through. Astonish them by first letting yourself be astonished.
Elia Kazan declared that the life of a dramatist, “is a totality.… Everything is pertinent, there is nothing irrelevant or trivial.” You are choosing to depict life as your vocation, so you must know life better than the average observer.
Part of what appealed to me so much about writing was the writing life—the idea of spending most of the day in my pajamas. Sitting there, thinking, “playing” essentially. Acting out the parts, talking to myself. It’s a brand of insanity. And that’s still the part I love most.
I didn’t realize that I would be managing the business side of my life, too. That I would have to learn how to market myself and my work. That I would have to struggle to get jobs, or even the possibility of a job. That I would be competing with five other, more qualified writers to adapt a book I don’t even like for a screenplay that will likely never be produced in order to pay the rent for the next year, so that six months from now, after I’ve finished the required drafts of that screenplay, I might be able to write the play I’ve wanted to write for the last three years. But that’s the reality. And it’s a far cry from the images of Didion or Plimpton or Morrison in their studies, drinking wine while looking over the day’s work. Dramatic writing is not peaceful; it’s dramatic. The life of a writer is not pleasurable. It’s frenetic and ugly and involves a lot of pacing and a lot of phone calls and a whole lot of worrying how you’re going to eat in six months.
But the payoff is extremely high. It has to be, right? I have not yet written the scripts I’ve always aspired to write, but a great movie, or a great play—what that thing does—is unlike any other endeavor I know. A great movie or play can take us back to a childlike state of, that word again, astonishment. Cinemas are a womb experience—warm, dark, comfortable, food and drink practically fed to you. Why else do you think we’re so damned irritable when our peace is disturbed? People talking, their cellphones ringing, doing that horrible scrape in their popcorn buckets as if they’re eating it with a metal claw. You want to turn around and yell, “Get out of my womb!”
But that’s what a good story does. It provides a womb. No matter how much the story and its emotions and themes may grow in complexity, the truly masterful screenwriter or playwright is able to dole out that information in such a pleasing and digestible way that the audience takes it in without being the least bit unsettled. It’s a simple story well told. By “simple,” of course, I mean nothing less than a story that ascribes meaning and order to the chaos of everyday life. The way Annie Dillard puts it in Living by Fiction is that an artist’s keenest skill is to discover and invent order in the universe: “The purpose of people on Earth is to counteract the tide of entropy described in the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”
Culture is our highest calling as humans, and we arrange things in an attempt to neutralize a universe falling apart. That we spend our leisure time living vicariously through another’s challenges tells us something about the human spirit. That characters in plays and films only learn anything through conflict is an acknowledgment that pain is what leads to understanding. It’s not that we get pleasure from seeing others experiencing adversity, it’s that we love seeing people triumph over, and gain knowledge through, adversity, and I can think of no stronger affirmation of existence than that.
The dramatist takes important truths, not intellectual but emotional truths, about existence and presents them almost casually so that, unlike in real life, every question is answered in the end, all loose ends are tied up, all uncertainties, finally, made certain so that viewers can sit in a warm, quiet theater and, as the boundaries of the screen or stage disappear, they are swept away. The experience of drama then transcends the basic components that actualize it—the story, the theater, the filmmakers, and the studios—and the more superficial thoughts that enter the theater—the stars’ actual lives, and the viewers’ bad days—and through living vicariously the life that is projected, the viewers affirm some simple, emotional truth about existence. They suddenly “know without knowing that they know.” That is the purpose of drama. That is why we pay twelve dollars, plus babysitter, plus overpriced Skittles and drinks; it’s why we spend our days in pajamas, pacing, muttering to ourselves, gnashing teeth, shaking our fists at the sky, feeling ennobled and defeated, inky-fingered heaps of anxiety and exaltation; it’s why we agonize over plots, sacrifice stability, throw up at our openings, mourn our failures, and still go back to the page; and, most importantly, it’s why we all love good plays and movies.