The 21st Century Screenplay
Book excerpt below
Linda Aronson is the first author to provide detailed practical guidelines not only for conventional narrative, but also for non-linear forms like flashback, multiple protagonist and multiple time frames, structures traditionally regarded as ‘too difficult’ or ‘too dangerous’. Her award-winning first book, Screenwriting Updated was endorsed by Christopher Vogler writer of The Writer's Journey and immediately picked up for publication in Los Angeles and it is widely-used by working writers and teachers of screenwriting internationally.
In 2010 she published The 21st Century Screenplay, a greatly enlarged and extended version of her theories, including a mass of new material on films like 21 Grams, Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Atonement, Amores Perros, The Hours, and the like) which has already been acclaimed in the USA, UK and Australia.
'A VERY WONDERFUL book. I love the strategies for plumbing the unconscious story mind. There's no other book that gives such an in-depth analysis of the "bone structure" for all these various
kinds of narratives.'
Robin Swicord, Screenwriter, Little Women, Memoirs of a Geisha
'Linda Aronson provides screenwriters with invaluable detailed strategies to lay bare the workings of the craft. She has constructed a remarkable guide to take you from that mind-numbing first blank page, over all the hurdles, through to polishing the final draft.'
Jane Scott, Producer, Shine, Head On, Crocodile Dundee I and II, Goodbye Paradise
'Tired of the Syd Field and Robert McKee dyad? Screenwriter Linda Aronson has a new nuts-and-bolts book that could leave the other gurus searching for day jobs.'
Erick Opeka Austin Film Resource, Texas
EXCERPT FROM 'THE 21st CENTURY SCREENPLAY' by Linda Aronson
Chapter 1 - Creativity and general problem solving
THERE ARE MANY THINGS that a writer cannot control in the film industry. What we can control are the ideas we choose for our scripts. The most important ingredient in screenwriting is a
first-rate film idea. This may sound obvious, but in fact many very talented writers do not fulfil their potential to write world-class scripts because they choose ideas which, while interesting
and deeply felt, unfortunately, are simply not strikingly original enough for the highly competitive, expensive medium of feature film, particularly now that feature film has to compete for
market share with drama from an ever-increasing number of platforms. Of course, we should all be passionately committed to the films we are writing, but there is no point in writing a script that
has no chance of being made, and this means asking the hard questions, and asking them early. The question to ask is not so much 'Do I passionately want to write a film on this topic?' but
rather, 'Is my film so vividly original that audiences all over the world will go to the cinema on a wet Monday night to see it?' (This is particularly important for art-house films, as they
already have a limited demographic.) If it is not, ask yourself whether you want to invest a couple of years of your life in a script only to have producers tell you that you're a terrific writer
but unfortunately your script won't find a market.
All of us, experienced writers and newcomers, need to take on competition in the way that Olympic athletes do: calmly, consciously and consistently aiming high, pushing our imagination and talent to the limits. In practical terms, we can try to do this by employing targeted brainstorming to get good ideas then meticulously planning our script structure.
Getting good ideas
The two perennial writing problems in scriptwriting are getting good ideas and structuring them properly. The enemy is pressure particularly pressure of time, because it triggers a panic reflex that tempts us either to use clichés or to write story material that strains credibility.
The fact that so many clichéd and unbelievable films are made every year is testament to the power of this panic reflex. It would be reassuring if all of these weak films were made by inferior talents, but the sobering reality is that the people creating and funding such films—the people seduced and dazzled by what will appear to the rest of the world and, eventually, to themselves as a second-rate movies—are usually highly talented, sophisticated and commercially savvy people with a string of successful credits; otherwise they would not be in the position of making films in the first place. The lesson is that pressure has the power to warp the judgment of the best of us. We can all make stupid mistakes. Unfortunately, as we can't slow the industry down, the pressure is not going to go away. Time pressures have been part of the dramatist's job description since at least Shakespeare's day, and the reality for scriptwriters is that the job is not just about talent but about a capacity to be talented on command and to a deadline.
So what can we do? Well, we can ignore the problem and hope that it will never happen to us. A more sensible choice is to realise that at some point it will, then attempt to define and pinpoint what is going on intellectually when we make stress-related writing mistakes, and also when we are writing well That way, not only should we be able to short-circuit the stress-related impulses towards cliché and the incredible, but hopefully—if we can just work out what's occurring mentally when we are writing well—we may be able to reproduce the process to order, and find techniques that will help us to be creative at speed, under pressure and for long periods of time. As Jack London succinctly put it, you can't wait for inspiration: you have to go after it with a club.
De Bono's creativity theories and screenwriting
Many accounts of the actual writing process exist, all remarkably similar. They describe an interaction between imagination and technique, a dual process whereby a logical, craft-skilled part of the writer's mind works to filter and make sense of streams of ideas, images and words coming from another part of the mind, usually loosely termed the 'imagination; 'subconscious', 'right brain or, in earlier times, 'fancy'.
Interestingly, this division between imagination and technique, instantly recognisable to all kinds of writers, is also recognisable in terms of Edward de Bono's ground-breaking theories about
the workings of creativity in Lateral Thinking (1970). In fact, de Bono's theories provide such a useful breakdown of the writing process as described by all manner of writers over the centuries
that they can be used in a very practical way to pinpoint how good writing happens, and how poor writing can be improved.
VERTICAL AND LATERAL THINKING
De Bono describes two sorts of creativity, instantly recognisable to writers from their own work patterns. The first, 'vertical thinking; is a step-by-step logic that results in `right' and wrong' answers. It's the sort of thought process that we apply in arithmetic, and writers use it for such tasks as judging whether a plot point is credible, or whether a piece of dialogue sounds lifelike. The poet Coleridge called it 'the organizing spirit of imagination. We call it craft or technique. Its negative side is that it can push us to produce technically correct clichés. Vertical thinking makes up the 'ninety per cent perspiration side of the writing process. The steps are depicted in Figure 1.1.
The second sort of imaginative thought process, lateral thinking; makes up the 'ten per cent inspiration'. It is a generative and very personal, associational, stream-of-consciousness thought
process that is concerned with providing as many answers as possible, regardless of quality. The lateral mind is what is unique about each writer. In the old days it was called the writer's
'fancy or 'muse It is what is at work when we write about emotions or intuit clever links between disparate things and, because it lacks any judgment, it is also what is at work when our work
becomes 'over the top' or unfocused. Figure 1.2 depicts the lateral imagination in action, responding to a stimulus by accessing masses of connections, logical or otherwise.
Good writing seems to happen when craft (provided by vertical thinking) and the writer's unique view of the world (provided by lateral thinking) are inextricably mixed to produce a work of striking originality. For screenwriters who regularly work under pressure of time, in the rush to finish a script it is easy to either underuse the two sorts of thought process, or else to use each for the wrong jobs. The result is writing that is less original and less technically skilled than it needs to be.
What causes weak writing
Few of us have escaped the depressing experience of finding that something we thought to be a fine piece of writing turns out, in the cold light of day, to be clichéd or unbelievable or just simply over the top. How precisely does this happen? How can a fine, experienced writer produce technically correct but clichéd material? How can an exciting new writer let a good idea fizzle out into cliché, or become incredible or silly? How is it that we do not recognise poor work at the time of writing? Weak writing seems to happen when there is an imbalance between vertical and lateral thinking (often caused by pressure of time).
THE DANGERS OF BEING TOO VERTICAL
Being too vertical can make writers produce clichés without being aware of it. Because vertical thinking is based on experience, learnt skills and logic, it can only repeat and classify information that it has encountered before—in the case of screenwriting, what it has encountered before on screen. Functioning as it does on facts, accuracy and the idea of 'right' and 'wrong' information, vertical thinking tends to seize upon the first possible solution to any problem and stop there, quite uncritically, convinced that this is the 'right' answer. In screenwriting, the effect is to make the writer, even a fine one, produce a cliché and be happy with it; for example, creating a female character so weak it can only be described as 'love interest. In all areas of screenwriting requiring originality (premise, characters, backstory, dialogue etc.), vertical thinking can only suggest what has been done before on screen. Hence, an over-reliance on vertical thinking will always pull towards cliché.
For example, given the problem of writing the screenplay for a film centred on a police station, busy professional writers unconsciously locked into
vertical thinking will conclude that the 'right' way to do it (because this is what we've all seen before), is to have a range of stereotypical characters with stereotypical backstories, speech and plotlines (the rebel cop with the bad marriage paired with the conservative cop with the good marriage; the disapproving chief detective who constantly threatens the rebel with dismissal; the cynical, uniformed female cop, and so on).
In addition to the cliché problem, the emotional authenticity of stories and characters created by vertical thinking is always shaky because the writer is not getting into the character? heads and trying to feel the emotion. Instead, the emotions and dialogue are being unconsciously copied from our memory of other films and television shows, which the vertical thinking mindset convinces us is what people say and feel in the given situation.
Overdependence on vertical thinking often happens through exhaustion (particularly for storyliners/consultants on television series), and is a perennial problem for established writers, making them write 'on automatic pilot' without being aware of it.
In Selling Your Screenplay (1988), Carl Sautter gave an interesting example of vertical thinking at work when he was story editor on the US TV drama series Moonlighting. Part of his job was to listen to writers pitching story ideas. He commented:
I was astonished that almost every writer pitched variations of exactly the same plots. The most popular: Maddie and David are trapped together. Each writer pitched this isolation idea with fervour, confident that it was the most original and compelling notion of all time.
I heard a similar and equally frightening story from a judge in a short-film competition, where a staggering number of the many hundreds of films submitted had essentially the same plot. This had a person arriving at their car to find a stranger doing something bad to it (unlocking it, giving it a parking ticket etc.) and then the person assaulting the stranger, only to find that the car is not theirs. A similarly high percentage of the films in the competition indicated 'morning' by a close-up of a beeping alarm clock and a hand coming into frame to switch it off.
THE DANGERS OF BEING TOO LATERAL
An over-reliance on lateral thinking makes the script pull towards the incredible, silly, repetitive, unfocused and overly emotional. Lateral thinking is prone to all kinds of problems connected with poor technique and the 'real; because lateral thinking has no interest in such things; indeed, it lacks any kind of critical faculty at all. Lateral thinking pushes the writer to write for the sake of writing, unconcerned about structure, focus, repetition, intelligibility and redundancy. It falls in love with its own cleverness in devising dialogue or ideas or jokes, and doesn't know when to stop. In plot and characterisation, this means it is unable to discriminate between what is real and what is over the top. It is at work in all of those thriller films where the audience finds itself thinking: 'Why don't these people just call the police?' or 'Why are they walking into what is so obviously a trap?' In characterisation, being too lateral will pull us towards writing material that is maudlin. It will frequently make the writer too visible, and often lead to the preachy and the overt.
Because its whole approach is that more is better (quantity rather than quality), it can unwittingly produce the same scene (in essence) over and over again. Actor-writers are highly prone to this fault because lateral thinking is the major imaginative skill they have to use in improvisation, and when they come to write they automatically resort to it. This means that they tend to create a unique character and keep showing it doing the same thing over and over again. Mr Saturday Night, produced, written and directed by Billy Crystal, is a good example (see pp. 434-7).
Lateral thinking can also pull the writer to write in 'real time; meaning they create scenes as they would actually happen in real life, and not to cleverly push the plot and characterisation forward under the guise of naturalism. Lateral thinking cannot monitor how much exposition or backstory to include or when. It doesn't know when enough is enough. It typically produces scripts with several apparent endings before the real one.
WHY IS IT SO EASY TO GET VERTICAL AND LATERAL THINKING OUT OF BALANCE?
In their separate ways, vertical and lateral thinking are immensely seductive (see Figure 1.3 for a comparison of both approaches). Each creates an enormous, but false, sense of self-confidence. What makes things worse is that, in the pressured world of the film industry, the process of stopping to check that vertical and lateral thinking are in balance is counter-intuitive. Our every instinct is to jump at the first half-decent idea, whether it is a cliché resulting from vertical thinking or a half-baked idea resulting from lateral thinking. At every turn there is pressure to get something on paper. And of course, once scenes and dialogue are on the page, it is almost impossible for a writer to throw them away. The result is that writers can easily become deeply committed to ideas—just because they were the first ideas that occurred to them—that do not do them justice.
While both new and experienced writers are capable of imbalances in either direction, stress will typically make the more experienced writer rely on vertical thinking's craft skills, forget originality and jump with relief at the first half-decent idea so as to get at least something on paper. Meanwhile, the less experienced writer will typically get carried away on the imaginative roller coaster that is lateral thinking, exuberantly throwing credibility and all critical faculties to the wind.
Vertical thinking is seductive because its quick answers make the writer feel totally in control. Lateral thinking is seductive because its lack of self-criticism not only results in fluent, fast writing, but convinces the writer that everything they have written is wonderful. In both cases, the combination of fluency and self-confidence is hard for any writer to resist.
And writers are not the only ones to succumb to an imbalance of this kind: the fact that there are so many scripts that are unbelievable or clichéd means that directors, producers and network executives are also susceptible. Indeed, one often hears producers suggesting clichés because they feel that clichés are part of the genre ('... then a rookie girl journalist comes in to investigate and she falls in love with him!). The hard economic truth is that imbalances between vertical and lateral thinking cost the film industry many millions of dollars a year.
How to use vertical and lateral thinking
Successful pieces of screenwriting—perhaps of all sorts of writing—are always credible but highly original, which means, in the words of Carl Sautter, they are always 'real but unusual: While they might take a traditional genre or situation, just as Strictly Ballroom takes the Cinderella story, they will always give it a strikingly new twist. Even if the work produced is avant-garde and non-naturalistic, the 'real but unusual' factor applies because what is 'real' in such cases is an emotional or intellectual reality, or sometimes both.
This balance between real and unusual seems to be a key to success in everything from the initial idea through to things like structure, characterisation and dialogue. In fact, it's useful to follow Carl Sauttees advice and think of the phrase 'real but unusual' as a motto for writing generally.
We can use lateral and vertical thinking processes to give us these 'real but unusual' components. 'Real' seems to be linked with vertical, and 'unusual' with lateral. To achieve a balance between the real and the unusual during writing, we can consciously switch between lateral, which can generate new and original ideas, and vertical, which, with its logic and analytical skills, can monitor the credibility and appropriateness of suggestions created by lateral. The trick is to know which jobs are best done with which process.
An analogy is driving a car. You can't drive a car without alternating between the brake and the accelerator. To 'drive a script, alternate the accelerator pedal (lateral thinking, which drives the script forward by originality and emotion) with the brake pedal (logical vertical thinking, which keeps the script in control—that is, structured and 'rear). It is easy to be either too clichéd (using only the vertical imagination), in which case the 'car' will grind to a halt, or too emotional, unstructured and over the top (using only lateral), in which case the 'car' will go off the road.
The development strategies method
Is there any way to control the balance between vertical and lateral thinking so that we can write to our best? While of course no method is absolutely foolproof, it is possible to duplicate the process that happens when vertical and lateral are working well together. This process breaks down into three steps which are repeated over and over again:
1 Vertical thinking defines the task; for example, inventing a speech for a particular character that will get across specific plot and theme details while remaining credibly in character.
2 Lateral thinking brainstorms the task, running through a number of possibilities and making as many original connections as possible.
3 Vertical thinking chooses the best 'real but unusual' answer.
Development Strategies 1 and 2: Diagnosis and general problem solving
From my work with writers and producers I have created a set of questions and reminders I call development strategies which copy this natural three-step problem-solving, imagination-boosting process. There is a wide range of development strategies in this book.
Their aim is to stop our naturally highly active imaginations running away with themselves by consciously keeping lateral and vertical thinking functioning methodically in tandem. Development
Strategies 1 and 2, described in the following pages, are designed to assist with general writing problems. They help with getting original ideas at every stage of the writing process by
consciously firing the imagination with a variety of good triggers while ensuring that the resultant ideas are based in human truths and presented with sound technique. They can help with
everything from getting a good idea for a film to creating a powerful speech. Later development strategies help to pinpoint the specific originality of the idea, act as reminders about common
traps, and form a step-by-step method to create and revise a classic three-act narrative.
However, there is one very big problem with the development strategies: our own natural overwhelming urge to write—write now, and write quickly. Every dramatist is a natural storyteller and what we want to do is invent characters and make them talk. To slow down and ponder options is completely counter-intuitive; indeed, for many writers, particularly new writers, it is actively panic-inducing, because the all-pervasive myth about writing is that talent means speed and fluency, and speed and fluency automatically mean brilliance. Not always. They often mean recycled clichés or a writer out of control. All art requires focus and control. Ten per cent inspiration, ninety per cent perspiration.
DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY 1: DEFINING THE TASK AT HAND
It is frighteningly easy to jump in and start writing before you really know what writing task you have on your hands. Be conscious that your instinct for survival will push you to rush. Resist that instinct. Think: 'What am I supposed to be doing here? What is the problem here?' For example, if you are asked to submit ideas for a low-budget thriller film, have you defined to yourself precisely what the demands and potential pitfalls of a low-budget thriller are? Or, if you're writing a romantic comedy requiring two enemies to MI in love, have you planned a series of plausible steps to make that credible? Again, if you feel there is something wrong with your film's opening, before you start pulling it apart, have you tried to define as precisely as possible where the problem might be? Or, if you are writing a scene, have you defined to yourself precisely what you need to do in this scene before you start putting in the dialogue?
Use Development Strategy 1 to help define to yourself whatever task you have at hand. Once you are clear about what the task involves, you can use Development Strategy 2 to brainstorm a range of ideas from which to choose.
DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY 2: BRAINSTORMING THE BEST 'REAL BUT UNUSUAL' REMEDY
Once Development Strategy 1 has provided a range of questions that need to be asked, you can use Development Strategy 2 to brainstorm a range of 'real but unusual' answers for filtering later. It is important to realise that brainstorming, being lateral, is counter-intuitive, particularly in the situation when it is most needed; that is, a crisis. In a crisis, every vertical-thinking instinct will (a) be pushing us to jump at the first possible answer, which is likely to be a cliché and (b) be trying to filter out the more extreme or silly ideas coming from the lateral imagination. This can mean that potentially excellent ideas get thrown out along with the rubbish, so do not let vertical thinking hijack the process.
The crucial thing to remember about this ideas-generating stage of the process is that any idea, however weak or crazy it may seem, is acceptable because it can lead by association to something
useful. As writers, we are so used to rejecting substandard ideas immediately that at first this is a difficult process. It can feel like a rejection of our hard-earned skills of discernment. But
in fact the process is liberating and empowering: instead of finding ideas by default ('this one isn't good enough, that one isn't good enough, this one is okay, let's go with it.. ;) we end up
with a range of good ideas from which to choose.
It takes discipline and practice to brainstorm in a crisis, because brainstorming requires you to 'daydream about a problem rather than take action. It is rather like being faced with a charging tiger and asking yourself not to run but to consider the patterns on the tigers coat.
To use Development Strategy 2 to maximum effect, writers need to stay calm and give themselves permission to think of silly or outrageous answers on the way towards exciting and original ideas. One simple way to control the panic instinct that says brainstorming is a waste of time is to use a stopwatch to set a time for brainstorming—even ten minutes can produce a fund of ideas.
DROWNING IN IDEAS?
As you start to practise brainstorming for ideas over the following chapters, you may well start to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choice you create for yourself. You may feel that your head is spinning and wonder how on earth you will ever pick an idea and get started on the writing. This is particularly likely if you are a writer who hitherto has written without a plan. Don't panic. Later I will be explaining strategies you can use to choose the best ideas. For now, revel in your wonderful imagination. Enjoy the fact that never again will you need to be hostage to the first idea that comes to you blind, in your panic or enthusiasm, to the fact that it might be clichéd or over the top. You can be confident of creating a whole range of ideas even under extreme pressure.