Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Writing the Wrong Story

So I was learning music this week, convinced that it was the wrong song for me, and I had an epiphany...or car sickness. I'm not sure. Either way I began to wonder if that sinking feeling also comes to screenwriters who force themselves to write something that they know in their guts they don't have a knack for writing. I am not talking about professionals here because yeah, SO MANY of them read this blog. I mean wannabe writers who are good at one form or genre of writing but insist on writing another.

I should back up.

I probably haven't mentioned that I sing. I am the absolute very best of the mediocre. I'm also one sixth of an all female ensemble. We don't advertise, don't have a web site, and never sell CD's, t-shirts, or autographed photos at any of our performances. Still, we get plenty of bookings. Somebody who hears us tells their great Aunt Bertha and next thing you know, we're invited on a cruise or to sing at a women's event, opry house, or baseball game. We're amateurs but our combined voices get us star treatment wherever we sing.

Word of mouth. No advertising. How does that happen?

We're very careful that what we sing is perfect for the collective "voice" of our group. Not every song, no matter how good it is, works for us. A great arrangement could be disastrous if it doesn't fit our balance, the textures of our voices, or personalities. We've learned the hard way where our weaknesses are. We don't sing songs that are heavy in the middle and rarely sing two part arrangements. They just sound lazy. We like complex arrangements, tight harmony and three or more parts. Most importantly, we insist on learning the music so well that we aren't focused on mechanics during a performance.

On American Idol, the judges often say something like, "You're a good singer and it's a great song, but it was the wrong song for you." In many cases, NO song will work for that voice and they're just softening the blow. But usually, that statement means that the singer just needed a better fit for his or her voice. Just because you love the song doesn't mean you can sing it. Well, just because you love the story, does that qualify you to write it?

In screenwriting, we are advised by some to write what we know and by others to write what we love. But shouldn't we also write what we're good at writing? What if we have no knack for writing what we love? If we are supposed to write the stories in our heads, is it even possible to write the wrong story?

We writers need to know where our strengths and weaknesses are. I don't write rom coms because I frequently misplace my sense of humor (hey, I sing at a LOT of funerals). My strength is in drama. That's not to say that a drama writer can't learn to write rom coms or that there is not humor in drama, but unproduced writers should certainly showcase their best work.

We know that there are good stories that are poorly written, but aren't there also bad stories that are well written?

I'm reminded of a line from Who Framed Roger Rabbit where Jessica says, "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way." I don't want to give anyone who reads my work cause to say, "it's not a bad story, it's just written that way."

So, you tell me. Can a screenwriter actually write the wrong story?


Anonymous said...

I have potty mouth so I feel an affinity for gangster themed scripts

deepstructure said...

Can a screenwriter actually write the wrong story?


folks write for a lot of reasons, even the dedicated ones. any one or combo of those reasons can be wrong for a project.

we all know people that can't tell a good story, right? we have a friend that rates everyone on their story-telling ability. she even breaks it down into delivery, content, etc.

i absolutely believe there are stories that suit a writer and those that don't. for instance, i wrote this once a blog entry:

i desperately want my films to reflect what i value in my entertainment: intelligence, tight justified story structure, quick-pacing and intensity.

and those are exactly the qualities i believe i bring to a script. i'm not interested in rom-coms usually because they tend not to utilize these attributes. and i wouldn't be any good at writing one.

unless of course, i do a revisionist one. is the rom-com genre ready for it's revisionist phase? :)

Hoff said...

Write to your strengths. I don't think it's the type of story so much as the voice that's telling it. I've been trying to crack into the publishing business, and so far my work hasn't been widely celebrated, but last year I joined an awesome group of published and amazing writers and they basically helped me find the story-telling I have inside me. The last 8 months have been amazing and everything I've written has been met with like 180 degrees of difference by editors. Fingers are crossed that I'll either publish a short this year or finish my book and get an agent, but I definitely feel like I've found my "voice".

MaryAn Batchellor said...

There's an old proverb that says "when the pupil is ready, the master will appear". It worked for me. Bet it works for you.