Saturday, July 21, 2007

Silk Purses and Sows' Ears

Fans of Animaniacs will remember the Good Idea/Bad Idea segments which featured variations of the same idea where one works and one doesn't work.

Good Idea: Drinking fresh milk from the carton.
Bad Idea: Drinking fresh milk from the cow.

Regardless of how well the bad idea is executed, it's predestined for failure by its very essence (as the mental image of getting your milk straight from the cow would suggest).

We're often guilty in screenwriting of doing such an excellent job of executing characters, scenes, and story elements that when they don't work, we fail to recognize them for what they really are -- bad ideas -- albeit well developed and well executed bad ideas, they're basically sows' ears or deadwood or some other negative analogy for an albatross around our screenwriting necks.

Excellent execution does not negate a poor idea.

We writers are a possessive bunch of wordsmiths. Once we thread a few words together, we hate to yank out our own stitches even if we're left with a superfluous character or a misplaced scene. Sometimes we think if we just keep our beloved string of words long enough, everything else will come join them. Maybe. But one of two things needs to happen: (1) the rest of the story must change to accommodate the bad idea or (2) the bad idea must be disguised to go with the rest of the story. Rewriting a whole screenplay is, of course, at the writer's discretion but disguising a bad idea to make it work doesn't change the bad idea.

Okay, let's go someplace else for a minute. For those of us whose middle age weight gain keeps Lean Cuisine in business and who fork out cash for gym memberships only to sweat next to pencil sized hot girls in push up bras wearing size 3 exercise outfits, this big fat lie exposed is a victory for ordinary women who have thought, "I could look like that if they airbrushed my stretch marks and photo-shopped my back fat".

Come on, Redbook. You let me down. And, you got caught doing it.

I expect fashion magazines, swimsuit calendars, and those literary masterpieces in my brother's bathroom cabinet (guess what? he doesn't keep the extra toilet paper in there) to slenderize, buff, bleach, and erase female flaws but Redbook? Those women are supposed to look more like me.

Kind of.

You see, I don't JUST have crow's feet. I have crow's ankles and thighs and they have freckles. There are even freckles on that big Witchy Poo mole next to the Kirk Douglas cleft on my masculine square chin. Oh, and gravity is not my friend either. Duct tape and super glue are important wardrobe staples. So are staples.

Wait. Where was I?

Oh yeah. Story development. That Redbook cover is a well executed work of art. Somebody painstakingly removed Faith Hill's back fat, slenderized her arms, erased her skin flaws, and corrected her posture. But the original photo is still out there and so is the person who posed for it. No amount of photo-shopping will change that. The reality of who she is hasn't changed. Only the execution of perception has changed.

Yeah, yeah, I know plenty of bad ideas have been made into movies. But imagine spray painting a dry dead lawn. It's still dead. It may be green but would you put a sign in the yard announcing yourself as the landscaper? Now, picture Michaelangelo painting the nine scenes from the book of Genesis right there on that lawn as if it was the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The quality of the mural is not the question. The lawn will still go up in flames if somebody drops a cigarette butt. The execution is genius but it's still a very bad idea.

My grandmother used to say that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. You can, however, carrying around handbags made of sows' ears. If you have a legitimate place in your story for a sow's ear, then by all means, write a sow's ear. But how many sows' ears are in your screenplay masquerading as silk purses?

A professional writer once told me that the most important key to becoming a better writer is knowing that you don't know it all and being GENUINELY willing to learn. He stressed GENUINELY but didn't elaborate. I think his subtext was that I would, over the years, witness people faking a willingness to learn but that fooling everyone else wouldn't help me one little bit.

If I have learned anything about screenwriting, it's that you must learn as much on your own by discovery and by trial and error as you do by allowing somebody to spoon feed you what THEY learned by discovery and trial and error. How else will you ever be able to discern good advice from hogwash? Wisdom from rubbish?

And, if you can't discern treasures from trash while you have the luxury of being univested, how can you possibly make the separation in your own work when you are personally involved?

Objectivity becomes paradoxical.

One of my favorite Good Idea/Bad Idea segments sums up our struggle with figuring out when ideas don't work:

Good Idea: Playing the accordion at a polka festival.
Bad Idea: Playing the accordion anywhere else.

The assumption here is that an accordion player's love of the instrument blinds him to what we all know: the accordion isn't the kind of instrument that works in mainstream entertainment regardless of how well the guy plays. How many of us share that kind of devotion to our craft?

We all struggle with certain characters and write scenes that just don't feel like they're working. That doesn't mean they're automatically bad ideas. They could be brilliant ideas that simply need a whole lot of silk before they can become a purse. The burden is on the writer to figure it out before the screenplay crosses a reader's desk.

Readers are adept at differentiating silk purses from sows' ears. Writers need those same skills, especially when they visit screenwriting blogs that post about the best execution of bad ideas. How else will they know if the post itself isn't a very bad idea?


Grubber said...

Good Idea: Playing the accordion at a polka festival.
Bad Idea: Playing the accordion anywhere else.

Love that one.

The only thing with this analogy is that Faith Hill looks better afterwards and that is all that cover is aiming to do, make her look good so they will sell more copies, therefore, I am thinking they achieved their aim.

I haven't seen such a great way of showing the airbrush technique before, that is well done.

If you take a bad idea and twist it (airbrush, hell, slather it in paint if necessary) into something good, then again, haven't you succeeded? If you leave it untouched then absolutely it will still stink.

Thanks for that Maryan, I needed to think at 5 in the morning! :)

Olaf Legend said...

I much recall Animalympics from the 1970s. Is this same thing?

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Works on magazine covers, Dave. It was well executed. But I guess my point is that you can't airbrush your way through a screenwriting flaw.

Olaf, um, no. Not the same. But good to see you again.

mernitman said...

Nice one.

The Faith mess-up is so sad... but leave it to you to fashion it into ingenious metaphorosity.

Meanwhile, your accordion reference reminds me of an old musician's joke. Did you hear about the accordion player whose car got broken into? He came outside and found six more accordions in his back seat.

(This was told, of course, back in the day before the popular ascension of zydeco. I love them squeezebox sounds, myself.)

Anonymous said...

"only to sweat next to pencil sized hot girls in push up bras wearing size 3 exercise outfits"... if thats the case where do I sign up for a 3 month trial membership?

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I wonder if it works for other instruments, too, Billy. I've always wanted a Haynes flute.

Nothing is free, Todd. I hold my breath when I pass the trainers so they won't charge me for breathing their air. FYI: Size 3 doesn't bounce much.

Dante Kleinberg said...

I don't know if it's possible to objectively rate your own ideas, unless you put them aside for a month and look at them again.

What is or is not a good idea can be subjective. If something grabs you enough that you want to spend several months writing about it, then YOU probably think it's a good idea, even if no one else does.

So just pray you're lucky enough to be gifted with mainstream tastes?

I don't know... but I love Animaniacs.

Suburban Screenwriter said...

I still have an old faded tie die Animaniacs t shirt which my wife just abhores but I just love it only gets worn when there absolutekly nothing left to wear. Good post, MaryAn hit me on all cylinders :)

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Dante, I think you can eventually learn to pick out those things that trip your story up. It's kind of like defensive driving with a red pen.

SS, can I find one on eBay, do you think? My all time favorite episode is Potty Emergency. THAT one hits me on all cylinders.

Anonymous said...

if I was a size 3 my wife would have sent me back heh... oh yeah, extra luck for Nicholl notice btw

Spatula007 said...

hey, good points there. In other words, If you build a house out of dead fish, don't write a complaint letter to Febreeze. Ok, your words were better.
Animaniacs was like crack to me. Wakko belching the 1812 Overture always made my day, LOL.