Friday, June 15, 2007

You Are What You Eat

What we know about screenwriting is a cumulative digestion of experience and knowledge but since we aspiring screenwriters are usually lean on experience, our diet consists mostly of books, seminars, DVD's, film school classes, and the miscellaneous other means by which we follow the teachings of gurus such as tracking them in the trades and stalking their screenwriting advice on the internet like starving dogs rooting through garbage cans.

They are the gurus. We hunger for what they know to the point of trying to eat their very brains! Poor things. No wonder they avoid us at parties.

But are there theories that should be excluded from a newbie diet or do the tidbits of every guru brain merit being gobbled up by wannabe screenwriters?

Maybe that depends on whether or not the person feeding you is actually a guru and whether or not you really know exactly what it is you're being fed.

Philippe Falardeau, a Quebecois screenwriter and director, is quoted on another site as saying to "never have contempt for your characters". That's all. No lead up. No context. Nothing to tell us whether this quote was from an article, conference, or seminar. No explanation of what he meant. Somebody just regurgitated that quote and said "discuss" as if the quote held such self explanatory genius that every reader with any degree of recognition for such ecclesiarchal aptitude would seize the opportunity to "discuss".

Consider it seized. Let's "discuss".

Contempt for your characters. Let's see . . . does this EVER happen? When would a writer have contempt for their own characters? Writers cannot write compelling dialogue for characters they don't value and find critical to their story.

Maybe he meant contemptible characters.

No. Can't be.

We must write contemptible characters. They are the fuel that ignites conflict and their demise brings about restoration and reconciliation.

Perhaps he meant that we shouldn't feel contempt for our shallow and one dimensional characters.

That can't be it. We SHOULD have contempt for those characters. Kill them! Kill them, now! Sorry. I get carried away. Just rewrite them.

Here's the point. As with any diet, there is no magic pill that will absolve you of doing the work and not all authors on any subject are experts. That doesn't mean a person has to be an expert to have something valuable to say. But I do think people occasionally throw out accidental placebos.

Was the Falardeau remark a placebo? Beats me. We only got a regurgitated portion of it. He may have said something weighty and penetrating that will echo through eternity and forever change the way screenwriters craft their characters. But we only got scraps of what he fed his audience. Was it sirloin or was it Puppy Chow?

Unqualified screenwriting advice is food poisoning of epidemic proportions and people like me are blogging, posting, commenting and questioning based on our limited knowledge. Writers better be prepared to evaluate and discern based on their own knowledge, experience, writing styles, and needs because in many writing situations, there is no one size fits all. Don't trust me. Verify and research anything I say. I may not know what I'm talking about.

Furthermore, mentors and gurus will even contradict each other now and then although they usually DO know precisely what they're talking about. Why do they contradict? Go back to my lead in. What we know is a cumulative digestion and each person's own experiences and knowledge are the foundation for their creative fingerprints.

Don't depend on somebody else to bottle feed comprehension to you. Life doesn't work that way. Neither can you simply regurgitate something you hear and expect your mentors to grind it into mashed bananas and spoon it to you. Writers don't work that way.


Julie Goes To Hollywood said...

I think there are so many good books about screenwriters because there are so many would be screenwriters looking for a place to put all their useless knowledge. Trust me, I'm one of them. With rare exception, once you have a basic understanding of craft, the best place to fill in the blanks is somewhere deep in your gut, that strange and wonderful place where nobody lives but you.

esruel said...

Possibly, Maryann, you may have to speak more on this subject, just so that anyone reading fully understands what you are getting at. To me, it is the most fundamental part of any writer, or any artist's, make-up - the ability to think for themselves, and not to blindly accept everything that is said by way of advice or direction. Whatever I might say in the way of advice (whether I'm qualified to o not), and whatever anyone else also says by way of advice, I keep banging on about instinct, gut feeling, as being the most important element. You need to be able to filter information, on your own, otherwise you will be swamped, overwhelmed even.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Just a little food for thought.

Nick said...

My grandfather used to say, "There's no such thing as a stupid idea, but there are such things as stupid people."

There is so much info out there, and so little time to read it. My personal plan of attack is learning through communication. Sure, Robert McKee knows a lot, but he doesn't have a blog where I can ask questions. I read his book, but I do most of my learning from Scribospherians that I communicate with.

So, I have to be careful who I glean knowledge from. John August is an established screenwriter, so his advice is top notch. Someone like Unk or Mystery Man -- while they may be an unknown mystery (wink), it is obvious to everyone that they know their stuff. Other's out there are hit-and-miss for me, but it's just a process of picking and choosing.