Monday, June 16, 2008
Its purpose is to reveal the story (the meaning) that
lies behind the black squiggles on the page.
A script is a lure for feeling.
Reading a script is - in part - a meditation on what is
revealed, and through that meditation, a discovery of
what is hidden or implied.
The effective reading of a script is akin to the art of
translation. In its way, it is every bit as demanding as
the art of actually making a film.
One reads a script to uncover not only the emotions
that it conveys but the TRUTH that it expresses.
The truth and the emotions are inextricably connected.
“Truth is beauty and beauty is truth.” HOWEVER, when
you read a script, you are not looking for YOUR truths,
or the truths that YOU believe your society, or the
imagined society of the writer, is trying to uphold; you
are looking for the truth of the script… the sum of those
almost indecipherable moments of grace by which the
story becomes more than the sum of its parts.
To read a script creatively (i.e.: effectively) you have to
be able to SEE and HEAR what is actually there, and not
simply what you THINK is there.
“THE FIRST JOB IS TO DISCOVER WHAT THE SCRIPT
IS SAYING, NOT WHAT IT REMINDS YOU OF.”
- Elia Kazan
The first job is discover what the script is saying,
not what it reminds you of.
A script is the expression of a story that is to be enacted
A story is a carefully constructed series of vivid and
emotionally charged events (action = change) that attract
our attention and compel our interest by virtue of the
conflict and significance inherent in these events.
Some common errors that are made when analysising and
• The Affective Fallacy (Impressionism) …
• The Fallacy of Faulty Generalization (Over-expansion)
• The Fallacy of Reductiveness
• The Fallacy of the Half-Truth (Debunking)
• The Genetic Fallacy (Fallacy of Origins)
• Intentional Fallacy
• Secondhand Thinking
• Reality Testing
The Affective Fallacy (Impressionism) …
When one allows one’s pet notions or momentary
enthusiasms or the momentary enthusiasms of one's
community to intrude on one’s judgement of the story,
one is employing affective fallacy.
For example, in a script like Death of a Salesman, one
might be reminded one's own father, and be tempted to
make judgements about the character and the story based
upon one's personal memories and feelings. On the other
hand, one might identify with Willy’s economic plight and
allow one's own problems to AFFECT the way in which one
"feels" the action of the story.
Intensely personal experiences projected onto scripts often
produce critical carelessness, and may allow sentimental
and, possibly, propagandistic writing to go unchallenged.
To avoid becoming hopelessly bogged down in a kind
vicarious self-analysis, applying any number of personal
situations, ideals, attitudes, or conflicts to someone
else's script, special care should be taken NOT to project
your own personal convictions or experiences onto a
screenplay written by someone else.
Instead, one should look for conditions that are objectively
present in the story. This means one must separate intimate
personal responses from what is objectively given in the
The Fallacy of Faulty Generalization (Over-expansion)
When you jump to a conclusion about a script without
having enough evidence for arriving at that conclusion, you
are usually talking more about your own prejudices and
fears than you are talking about the script.
When one resorts to generalisations one runs the risj of
over-looking the subtle nuances and complexities that may
lie buried in the script. Sweeping assertions that attempt to
encapsulate a story can work to blind one to a story's
complexities. Be careful to avoid the uncritical use of words
like “typical", all” or “never” in statements about a script, and
seek out and challenge your own prejudices with whatever
contrary evidence the script provides.
The Fallacy of Reductiveness
A common mistake - this occurs any time one sums up
a script by reducing its meaning to the smallest,
common demoninator. To say that Platoon is merely
an anti-war story, or that The Godfather is nothing
but a gangster film is a way of dismissing much of what
gives both of those stories their potency and its drama.
The phrase "nothing but" is the giveaway, when attempting
to articulate the underlying theme or meaning of a story.
Allied to reductiveness is …
The Fallacy of the Half-Truth (Debunking)
This error in logic occurs when readers use the same
explanation for everything, usually with deliberately
When someone says: “Woody Allen's films are only about
his own sexual neuroses," they are guilty of the fallacy of
The remedy is to study the script more than once with
an open mind. This is not just a question of finding any
reasonable explanation and verifying it in the script but
also of testing what connects to what against the many
points in the script.
The Genetic Fallacy (Fallacy of Origins)
Ezra Pound once said: “You can spot a bad critic when he
starts by discussing the poet instead of the poem.”
Reducing a script to its sources in the biography or social world
of the writer produces the genetic fallacy.
For example, the question should not be: what does Contempt
tell us about Goddard's view of the 20th century woman, or
about Frenchsexual values in the mid-1950s, but rather what
does it tell us about itself? It is fallacious for a writer to say
his/her script works as a script because he/she had first-hand
knowledge of the experiences which the script presents.
Remember what the black creative writing professor said at the
end of Todd Solondz's film, Storytelling?
"Once it's written down, it's all fiction."
There may be some connections between a script and some
external features in the life and world of the writer, but they
should not impinge on one's critical meditation on the story
grammar or the dramaticeffectiveness of the script as a
This error results from speculating on what the author’s
intention is and whether this intention is fulfilled in the script.
The road tomediocrity in criticism - like the road to Hell - is
paved with intentions.
This error is a corollary of intentional fallacy. It stems from
unconsciously relying too much on other people’s opinions
and judgements, especially when dealing with difficult
Addiction to the judgments of others inhibits self-confidence
and independent thinking.
Writers and others should beware of cutting themselves off
from new experiences, feelings, or words by relying on
established opinion rather than on direct contact. Likewise,
directors and producers should be wary of sub-rating their
own feelings about a script in favor of what someone else’s
response might be.
“THE SECOND-HANDEDNESS OF THE LEARNED WORLD IS
THE SECRET OF ITS MEDIOCRITY.” (Alfred North Whitehead)
To permit the free exercise of imagination, script analysis
should initially be a solo experience.
A lot of inexperienced readers resort to what I call
“reality testing” as a way of understanding or not
understanding what a script means.
This is the error of evaluating everything in the script on
the basis of its likeness to real life.
When it is used as a negative judgement, a statement like
“the Ghost in Hamlet isn’t believable because science tells
us there’s no such things as ghosts” is a typical crude
Other examples I’ve heard include: “A couple who have been
married that long wouldn’t talk like that.” OR “Teenagers
would never be that dumb.”
This kind of thinking is a sign of a limited imagination as
much as anything else.
The quality of observed reality in a script has little connection
with the script’s potential for expressing truth.
A script can be completely unrealistic in all its outer features
and still permit emotionally honest acting.
Emotional reality and theatrical reality are completely separate
and distinct issues and do not contradict one another.
Good scripts create their own realities, and everyday reality
is largely irrelevant to understanding a script as a dramatic
Frigidity here means not treating the feelings in the play
with the importance and care they deserve – literally, not
showing enough concern – or the right kind of concern –
about the characters or situations. It is a lack of empathy.
The standard of comparison is the concern any decent
human being would naturally show under the circumstances.
Frigidity also includes an inability to recognise the seriousness
of things in general.
Frigidity occurs when pulling back from genuine feeling or
when only looking at the surface trivialities in a conflict.
Unfortunately it is one of the chief characteristics of the current
artistic scene. It leads increasingly to less and less concern for
the characters, meaningful (i.e.: emotionally confronting)
narratives and commitment to theme and meaning for the
QUESTIONS to ask of a script:
What is the genre? How do I know the genre?
When do I know who the protagonist is?
How quickly is the line of action established? (the problem
or opportunity that starts the protagonist on his/her quest)
When is the opposing force identified?
How far am I into the film before this happens?
What does the protagonist need and who or what stands in
his or her way?
What traits or characteristics make the protagonist compelling?
At what point do I begin to do I sense the theme of the story?
What is the core conflict?
What surprises are there?
Why does each scene work or not work?
What scenes are implied rather than shown?
What are the complications in the story?
What is the key element in the script that holds my attention?
What in the script is dramatically valid and what is not?
Saturday, June 14, 2008
The only dramatic stories that are important to us are the ones that start and end in our own experiences.
Examine your values. What do you believe and disbelieve? What you love and not love? What is admirable in human life, and what is not so admirable? Find, enact and tell those stories that are true to your self and tell them completely.
A dramatic story is a reply to the unseen, the unheard, that gnaws in the darkness of ignorance. A person who refuses to ignore, ridicule, or falsify the gnawing is an artist – whether s/he makes her/his daily bread teaching school, digging ditches or working as a CEO.
The best dramatic story-makers are creative and courageously so. They apply creativity to every significant dramatic action they encounter.
Creativity is not antithetical to management, leadership or authority. When merged with story it produces the most compelling and inspiring form of leadership.
Essentially, creativity is the art of relinquishing control.
We necessarily relinquish control every time we enter a story-in-the-making. This is what allows the story to make us just as much as we make it.
The most powerful stories are the dramatic ones.
Dramatic stories are powerful because they are about PROBLEMS and CHANGE.
Dramatic stories involve characters that suffer and whose actions are aimed at overcoming that suffering.
A dramatic character ACTS in order to overcome suffering.
A dramatic action always has a goal or objective. The ultimate goal of every dramatic character is to resolve the problem that has created the suffering.
Dramatic problems require real change in order to be solved. Without real change the solutions that one applies to solve dramatic problems will only make the problems worse.
Change is frightening because its outcomes are not predictable, because human characters frequently equate change with loss.
Every dramatic character is an aspect of us.
Dramatic characters navigate this human predilection to fear change by actively and persuasively pursuing goals with which the audience can readily identify. By virtue of emotional identification, an audience also becomes a participant in the evolving story of change.
The actions of dramatic characters ARE the change that leads to the story’s ultimate resolution.
Great story-makers understand that they are but one character among many characters, that they, too, are going on a journey, guided by a clear objective and propelled by a credible plan of action that might be changed at any time to accommodate the changing circumstances of the story.
Drama, in the form of story, is humanity’s way of contextualising its experience of change in terms of living, human experience with all its suffering, hope, risk, faith, conflict, fear, growth and love.
Characters in dramatic stories are revealed by their actions and the impact that their actions have upon the other characters..
Dramatic action - by definition - either propels a character closer to or further away from their ultimate goal.
As story-makers and audience we must be aware not only of what the characters are wanting to communicate, but also of what they are trying to hide.
Dramatic storytelling involves both creative exposure and creative hiding.
The story-maker, like every other character in the story, is also in hiding.
The story-maker is also a character.
To understand any character’s story, you need to view it from the inside out. Short of an intimate understanding, there can be no emotion, only emotional cliché.
We don’t necessarily know – or need to know - the story we are trying to tell. If we did, we wouldn’t need to tell it.
Knowledge, for the most part, is useless. Finding “the story” requires ridding yourself of everything you know.
What you know usually stands in the way of what you might discover.
Finding the story is a voyage of discovery – self-discovery.
Understanding drama = understanding yourself.
“Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage
to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads."
To be is to be anxious. To be creative is to endure the anxiousness – to use it, shape it, transform it, into something that transcends anxiety.
As story-makers we are custodians of a “dreaming”, which we are obliged to attend to and work with and birth, in order to share the dream with others in all of its potency. The ultimate meaning of the dream resides in its shareability.
An appreciation of the inspiration and obsessiveness of the story-makers, finders and tellers that have gone before is itself a story – the awareness that one is operating within a timeless tribe of storytellers carries a sense of responsibility that is freeing insofar as one begins to realise ever more vividly how all storytellers speak through every storyteller. Those who have gone before have drawn from the same pool that you draw from, and those who come after you will do the same. We are family. We are part of a tradition, whether we know it or not. There is courage to be found in this understanding.
Acquaint yourself with different kinds of stories from all sorts of oral and written traditions, including short stories, autobiography, letters, and oral histories (e.g.: Idries Shah’s Sufi Tales and Studs Terkel’s Hard Times, Dickenson, Robert Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, etc.).
Know what it is that you do not know.
The art of the story doesn’t begin and end with a book or a poem or a screenplay or a keynote address. It is a way of being in the world; a way of seeing and hearing the world; a way of letting yourself be touched by the world. (i.e.: by yourself).
Every person, place, memory, image, dream, song, smell, and shadow, is potentially a story, or the beginning, middle or end of one.
The expression of “modernism” in poetry is the materialisation of the idea that the power of art resides in what is not stated or shown, but implied. In business, it is called walking the talk. It is no different for good dramatic story-making.
It is often what you leave out – what you don’t express (overtly) – but that is implied by the emotional logic of what is shown that has the power to move an audience and conduct the energy that makes the experience of transcendence possible.
We prize our poets because they are the most economical of storytellers - their poems, the most succinct form of the story: the brief-but-vivid image, the relationship of one image to another, the implied comparisons, the particularity of voice, the exactness of phrase, the thumbnails of dramatic structure – it’s no accident the world’s greatest dramatist was a poet.
The inspired story-maker is alone but seldom lonely. His/her characters have more substance than the strangers posing as cut-outs in the queue at Cole’s, and yet even the characters in Cole’s are potentially important characters, or characters-in-the-making, poised briefly on the threshold of a checkout counter waiting for some catalyst that might suddenly transform them and us into another story.
Great stories always speak – not only for the story-maker but also for the voiceless ones. Justice comes into it. The carriers of the wisdom (read: stories) of any tribe are courageous beings. Without courage where does one find the strength to confront the unknown? Lacking courage and the inspiration of creativity where does one find the impetus to consider something from a unique or unexpected point of view?
“The world is made of stories, not of atoms.”
So, what is your story?
What is your obstacle?
What is it that you can’t get over?
Talk about your characters and their stories as if you know them. Talk to them! Gossip, embellish, fabricate. Don’t simply write them down. Become them! Live them, Breathe them, dream them! Eat them!
Leave your ego at the door.
No one has power unless the story itself has power.
Only the story can empower you. You cannot empower yourself. Nor can you humbly or otherwise bestow your power upon the story. It is the story that baptises you, not the other way around.
The only reason to make choices for your characters is to enter into a relationship with them that is vivid enough that makes it possible for them to choose for themselves; at which point it behoves the story-maker to let them do as they will and simply manage the time it takes them to do it.
A story progresses according to a character’s needs, fears, plans, and obstacles (i.e.: what stands between the character and his/her goal).
A successful story reveals both a character’s strengths and weaknesses. These can only be authentically revealed when a character is faced with drama. A dramatic story is the presentation of creative action aimed at overcoming a problem that threatens one’s well being or one very existence. Adversity BUILDS character!
The onset of creative thinking/feeling is signalled by the arrival of problems. It is the problems that forge the initial relationship between the story-maker and his/her characters.
The business of telling a story is working through the problems that result from wanting to tell it.
You cannot solve all the problems and then proceed to tell the story; the problems are the story you are trying to tell.
The more you seek an intimate relationship with your characters and their story, the more you flee from them and it.
You do not choose your story. It chooses you.
So long as you don’t become discouraged and give up, you will eventually discover that in working as a character with the other characters to solve problems that are common to both of you, you have developed a level of intimacy, respect and a competency in collaborative problem solving you wouldn’t have thought possible.
Story-making is essentially about catching not pitching. It is about listening, and keeping open. It is an illuminating dance of relationships in transition.
As much as possible, learn to convey stories without employing words. Focus on the non-verbal and the imagistic. Whilst the voice is an important story-making tool, remember that the voice of silence carries an eloquence all its own. Speech is tango – both movement and stillness.
Become familiar with the nuances of your own voice…
and begin to discover those other voices that live within you.