Monday, July 29, 2013

Three big lessons I've learned about writing

So I've got a draft of the first novel done, and I've gotten some feedback from friends. It's been surprisingly positive. I say 'surprisingly' because writing the book was a slow and difficult writing process, and getting it above novella length has been a struggle. Being much more used to writing screenplays, I knew that there would be a learning curve, and that by the time I got to the final book I would know a lot more about writing, knowledge that I could then apply to revising the earlier volumes. (I'm not gonna think about publishing – self or otherwise – until I'm sure the books are as good as I can make them.)

Now I'm starting to write the second book, and I find it's flowing a lot better. Thinking about why that might be, and thinking about things that I and other people have written, has made me think about some lessons that I've learned about writing.

These are lessons I learned by doing. Some of this is stuff that I've always believed but couldn't articulate until now, and some of it is stuff that I learned only after making mistakes.

LESSON ONE: Your character needs to be active. He or she needs to have a goal, and be willing to do something to achieve it.

The biggest mistake that people seem to make when they first start writing is having a character who doesn't do anything, who is introverted, alienated, lonely, and passive.

Everybody does this when they start writing. Everybody. Even people who are proudly anti-art and anti-independent in their tastes, who never watch a movie with subtitled dialogue that isn't spoken in Klingon or Huttese, seem to want to write an Antonioni film on their first attempt. If they ever go to film school or take a writing class, and have to read or watch the equivalent efforts by their fellow students, they would probably discover how boring that is for the audience, and it might make them realize that their own version is probably just as bad.

Why do new writers tend to fall into this trap? I can think of two possible reasons. One is that, as a new writer, you are trying to Express Your Personal Self, and writing is an internal process anyway. So it just feels good to write a character who is caught up in his or her thoughts, cut off from the world.

The other, and much worse, reason is that they allow themselves to think that being weak and passive and doing nothing is somehow … deep. I'm not sure how this attitude caught on. Once upon a time, even punks and hippies and grungies wanted to actually do things and make things. But nowadays I notice that a lot of people – especially on the Internet – really can't identify with anyone who had a dream and put in the effort to make that dream come true.

Somehow the people who strive and aim high, and pick themselves up when they fall, are the villains that deserve scorn whenever they do even a single thing wrong … while the people who just sit back and do nothing but complain about everything have somehow convince themselves of their own superiority.

All I can say is that when I was first trying to teach myself to write screenplays, I tended to look at movies that I liked, and try to figure out how they work and what made me like them. I know that many other people have done that also, but it might be less common than I thought it was. How else to explain why people who take pride in only liking genre films – movies about characters who DO THINGS – keep wanting to write dramas about navel-gazers who are helpless and passive?

When people write, they reveal a lot about their own psychology. People who are unambitious, and see life as one big conspiracy against them that they can do nothing about, are unlikely to be able to lead a main character through the process of changing the world. The people who write one page of something, and then can't think of what happens next, are perhaps struggling to understand how a person might go about making things happen.

Sometimes I hear people say “Well, I want to write about character rather than plot.” But here's a secret: Plot is what reveals character. What your character does to achieve a goal, how s/he treats people, how s/he responds to challenges … those are the things that reveal character. Not just sitting around spouting monologues.

So if you're thinking about writing about a character who does nothing, try writing about a character who does something. If that's not true to who you are, then watch some movies or TV shows, or read some novels or comic books. See how fictional characters respond to stuff, and try to learn from that. Study some successful models and try to follow them. Get your character off the sofa, wipe the streaked mascara off her face, and send her out on a journey!

And just having your character do what other people tell him to do? Not quite enough. It's a step in the right direction, but it's not quite enough. Ever heard of the “refusal of the call”, that Joseph Campbell moment when the hero doesn't want to accept the mission he's been given, before eventually agreeing? Until now, I never thought about why that trope is there. But now I realize why it works: It shows the character actually doing something. By choosing the life that's familiar to him over the one that's being presented to him, he is taking a stand. And when he decides for himself that the mission is actually important and that he is willing to take the risk – often for personal reasons other than the ones initially presented to him – he is again taking a stand. Without this element, the character is merely a pawn.

I've certainly written – and even filmed – scripts about a character who is introverted and alienated, as a vessel for my own feelings at that particular stage of my life. So I can't be too smug about this. However, a trick I used to compensate was to surround my alienated protagonist with more assertive and colorful characters who get pulled into his or her orbit.

Which brings me to ...

LESSON TWO: Your character should have, or make, friends.

I'm calling this a “should” rather than a “needs to” because it's certainly possible to tell a decent story about someone who is alone on his or her journey. However, it's damn hard to do this well.

And why do you want to? When have you ever seen a movie that you liked, that did this? I guess it gets back to the “I'm alienated, no one understands me, so I'm going to write about loneliness” approach again, so I won't repeat points I've already made, except to add one thing: Stories with multiple characters are more interesting.

You know how a lot of people say that TV is now better than movies? Why might that be? One reason is that there's more time for big story arcs, but another reason is character. A modern TV drama tends to have an ensemble of characters, each of whom gets his or her moment in the sun, and viewers often have a particular character that they love (or hate).

An important thing about writing for an ensemble, rather than a solitary protagonist, is that you have to write characters who aren't you. Rather than just having a sullen loner who is meant to represent your own sad-sack viewpoint, you have to imagine characters who stand on their own merits as fictional creations, who have their own hopes and dreams and quirks and strengths and weaknesses.

Maybe it's just me, but I always liked movies where there was a gang. I always liked it when there were a lot of characters with different abilities or personalities. You know, obscure arthouse fare like Star Wars and Aliens and, I don't know, The Goonies.

Having a gang means that your characters can talk to each other about the plot. When something happens, they can all have different reactions. The brave one, the fearful one, the smart one, the naïve one, all can have different perspectives on the action. Also, you can split them up and send them off on different subplots. This might be a challenge if you have difficulty coming up with one plot, let alone two or more, but that's part of why you should try it.

What can I say … As a writer, I guess I've always found the Wizard of Oz template more appealing than the Eraserhead template. Even though I like both of those movies.

LESSON THREE: Having a story is more important than having themes or a message.

You might be expecting me to drop the Sam Goldwyn quote “If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” but I personally think that's too cynical and discouraging. Film and literature are certainly capable of having something to say.

I prefer a quote from Orson Welles, who said that “most movie messages … could be written on the head of a pin.” I take that to mean: you can put a message in a movie if you want to, but it won't actually amount to that much. It won't be as important and earth-shattering as you think it will.

There certainly have been moments when it seemed like movies could change the world. The late 60s/early 70s has been widely hailed as such a period. I would argue that the late 80s through the 90s – an indie-friendly period stretching from Blue Velvet and Do the Right Thing all the way up to Fight Club – was another one.

I'm not sure we're living in a time like that right now. Maybe once upon a time it was oh-so-shocking if a movie made a political statement or criticized something about our society. But now we have blogs, talk radio, and entire cable TV channels devoted to decrying how much worse things have become since … well, since the last time people said how much worse things have become.

With indie cinema seeming to become ever more marginalized by franchise Goliaths, I don't really like to discourage anyone from consciously putting a personal philosophy or political viewpoint in their scripts. However, I'm not sure any philosophy is likely to be compelling enough to compensate for the lack of a decent story.

First of all, with all the chattering going on out there on the Internet, the chance that you genuinely have an absolutely unprecedented opinion about something is somewhat low. If you think you do, then by all means go for it. But you can't just (to paraphrase Team America) read the news and then repeat it like it was your own opinion.

And usually what people have to “say” is grouchy and negative. Every once in a while we get an Amelie or a Ferris Bueller's Day Off or something that tries to convey a positive philosophy, but usually we get A Hard Hitting Satire rooted in anger. To some degree that's the rebellious spirit of youth and/or art … but man, we are so knee-deep in that toxic negativity now. It used to be a brave thing to create art that challenged the status quo, but that hostility is now so omnipresent that it has become the status quo.

For me the absolute worst is when people write a script or make a film that merely exists to criticize something ephemeral ... like a particular politician or celebrity who's going to be out of the limelight before you know it anyway, or a current pop-culture trend that you find annoying (often for no better reason than that it differs from the pop-culture of your own childhood). When I see something like that, I tend to think: Come on, dude. You had a chance to make something cool. You could have been part of the solution. Instead you gave the problem free publicity.

I guess it's easy for me to say all this stuff now that I'm more experienced. I've done much of the above, and have now gotten it (largely) out of my system. Maybe people need to do it wrong first, not just for practice but because you need to get those things off your chest somehow. But what motivated me to write all this up was encountering a lot of scripts recently that are about self-absorbed inaction.

Two decades ago, indie filmmaker Hal Hartley complained about the “empty formal posturing” of suburban film students trying to make urban gangster films. He said that, instead, they “should be writing stories about sitting on their couch watching gangster films.” But since then, we've gone so far in that direction. We've had so many Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino wannabes who've embraced the “dude, we can make a whole movie just about guys in one place talking” aesthetic of both directors' debut films without demonstrating the wit or cleverness of either. Spouting opinions has become a substitute for actually doing anything or having any ambition.

So I think a little of the “formal posturing” that Hartley complained about 20 years ago – understanding how drama and storytelling and genres work, rather than just snobbily rejecting them or nerdily critiquing them – would go a long way toward making off-Hollywood scripts and movies better.

And novels, too. Speaking of which, time to get back to work ...

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