An Ecology of Dramatic Screen Storytelling
"Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind…”
- Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions
The empirical investigation and extrapolation of an organism’s relationship with its physical environment is preeminently the domain of the science of ecology. The identification of ecological fields are expressible as sets of dynamic, vital relationships occurring as natural processes that affect the sustainability of all members operating within that system. While the value and scientific usefulness of such investigations is undeniable, the application of an ecological model to areas of human endeavour not previously interpreted in ecological terms is also capable of producing a number rather unusual and useful insights that are both surprising and illuminating. This is particularly the case when it comes to dramatic, screen storytelling as experienced by the storyteller in the act of finding “the drama”.
In seeking to uncover and examine the ecological dynamic of the set of “natural” relationships that define and vivify the dramatic adventure, one must first assume a process or number of processes in which mutually generating and mutually sustaining sets of identifiable activities are taking place. In terms of the processes relevant to the finding and realisation of dramatic screen stories, these will involve all the conventional considerations of genre, plot, character development, and theme, as well as the dialogical experience, internal and external to the actual screenplay.
Because these primary relationships operate as essential elements in the composition of every dramatic story system, one might posit, at least heuristically, that the way in which these agents transact and transfer emotional energy between and amongst themselves determines the nature and emotional quality of the underlying dialogic, as well as the potency or otherwise of the story-being-found. Ultimately, their meaning and value resides in the expression and appreciation of a dramatically viable screen story.
We can assume that great stories do not happen by accident. They can no more arise from dead matter than maggots spring spontaneously from rotting meat. Nor will an infinite number of monkeys sitting in a room with an infinite number of laptops ever reproduce the classics, though they might come up with “To be or not to be, that is the Gazornin Plan”.(1)
The process of finding the story-that-wants-to-get-itself-told is the outcome of a series of intuitive, intricate and intimate mental and emotional adjustments and re-adjustments transpiring empathetically between and among ALL of the story agents (read: “characters”), including the dramatis personae, the storyteller/s, the audience and the tribe, as they confront and struggle with their anxieties in their quest to grow and overcome and heal. Every effective screenplay owes its development and final realisation to these interactions and to the symbiotic relationships that are forged and sustained as a result of the shareable or dialogical nature of the mediumistic, story-finding enterprise. Considered in this light, it is not such a great leap to suggest that what we have here is something approximating a working ecology.
All dramatic stories involve “findings”. The characters in the script find what they need to restore order or love or trust, while the screenwriter struggles through draft after draft to discover why he/she is writing the script to begin with. The best stories impact their audience by virtue of a series of inter-related acts of discovery made by the characters (including the storyteller) AND the audience. Each act of discovery tends to build energy or interest by keeping the energy viable and continuously moving throughout the life of the story. An ecology of dramatic storytelling must necessarily posit this inter-dependance; indeed, the characters require each other if the actions they take are to make any sense whatsoever.
In terms of the evolving screenplay, dramatic choices and actions are largely determined and bounded by the societal, cultural, political, economic, legal and/or spiritual contexts in which the actions of the characters are set. These circumstances can be the source of both positive and negative forces affecting the emotional well-being of the characters. They provide the basis or ground for the dramatic problem or opportunity that will goad the characters into dramatic action. For dramatic action to be credible (clearly motivated) the characters’ circumstances must in some way be jeopardised or challenged by the presence of something they have not previously encountered. Whether it be the report of a dead body (as in Stand By Me) or a severe and grave threat to their existence, or the existence of loved ones, as in Deliverance or John Ford’s The Searchers, dramatic characters are stimulated into action by problems that cannot be ignored and will not go away. A dramatic problem carries with it a sense of urgency, and prompt action not only from the characters inside the screenplay but also from those who have a stake in what those characters do. One might say that the characters inside the screenplay are not the only characters whose attitudes, hopes and fears prompt action.
Ecologically speaking, dramatic stories are environments in which storytellers, characters, audiences and tribes meet and address one another within the context of a narrative founded upon the purposeful actions and interactions of characters grounded in an emotionally charged and tribally based logic that operates by way of cause and effect. The logic presumes a set of identifiable circumstances that provide the contextual basis for the characters’ actions. Stanislavski referred to these as “the given circumstances” – the totality of necessary assumptions a dramatist makes concerning the world that the characters inhabit. One cannot hope to enter the drama so long as one refuses to enter into a relationship with the environments that define and condition the scope and value of every character’s actions.
And just as the characters inside the script’s story-world possess “given circumstances”, so too do their “external” partners – namely the storyteller, the audience and the tribe – possess their equivalent “tribal circumstances”. Naturally, in the process of finding the story, it is necessary that the screenwriter work from a vantage point that is connected to or affiliated with one or more of the tribal groups whose story is being told.
Taken together these circumstances provide the impetus for the meaning and nuance of the emotional energy generated within each scene and between one scene and the next, as well as in the transformation or modulation of this energy as it flows sequentially from one scene to another throughout the entire narrative. The given circumstances constitute the elemental dramatic forces operating within the story world, and play an essential – though oft times overlooked - role in the ecology and, ultimately, the dramatic intensity of the story.
Despite the innumerable variety of possible story-worlds, what is common to all is the dynamic flow of energy by which a story moves and lives, conducted by a series of inter-related and highly intuitive transactions amongst all the agents of change, set within a logical, coherent and necessary set of preexisting conditions.
As I have said, a story is never a given. Its life begins as a potentiality, and very often remains a potentiality, especially if the natural interplay of dramatic forces is stymied or interrupted by the imposition of choices and actions that abuse or disrespect the story’s essential ecology.
In the name of clarity and market forces, a story’s nature is nominally referenced in terms of genre; however, the deep structure of any story – its inner workings and un-workings – is not so easily pigeonholed, nor should the application of genre inhibit or otherwise constrain the creative filmmaker. To be limited by such phenotypes runs contrary to the range of possibilities and adventures that genre considerations invite us to explore and experience. One could say we have lived with genres long enough to realise that they were invented to be re-invented or even transcended; and that this is always possible so long as the filmmaker understands the nature of the form and the grammar with which he/she is playing. All that one can say with any certainty is that in drama, action IS nature, and nature is change; and that fresh and credible change is unlikely short of an intuitive and empathetic understanding of the story’s ecological nature.
Any passionate screenwriter with a modicum of talent and an obsession for finding the drama will, like some driven protagonist in quest of a seemingly impossible goal, fight the fight, which is ultimately a very personal struggle against those self-imposed demons that are the writer’s own expectations, prejudices, and unspoken fears. Writing this, I can almost hear the howls of derision from those whose university courses and creative writing teachers offer faint-hearted training in all the by-products of story. In my experience, Story already exists - in Eternity - and the job of the storyteller is to find a way of getting close enough to it to actually hear it, and letting it become and find its way unhampered by the insecurities that the writer – that all writers – harbour; to bring it down to Earth so that it can more easily be heard and seen by one’s audience.
In the beginning one proceeds with little more than a shred of an idea, an experience, a smell, the hope that something might be found – but even these are not enough if one places too great a reliance upon one’s intellect. The ecological coding of each story is far too intricate and complex for the mind to navigate it with one’s intelligence alone. If one is to trek into the heart of a story one must conceive of the journey as a work of love. In other words, one must become part of it.
Stories are living creatures, but only for those who do not feel the need to kill them in the act of writing them down. The inhabitant of Chestnut Ward still warns us over decades: “with usura hath no man a good house.” (2)
Built in to the imaginative structure of every story’s potentiality is an impulse for its own conservation. Indeed, every story worth telling seems possessed of some kind of organic mechanism for preserving its own integrity. This is evidenced, in part, by the experience of every writer that has laboured over a story enough to discover that it contains a profound and seemingly impenetrable core that is not easily entered - a hidden truth or value that, if it is to be fully realised, must be suffered over and fought for. You can take from a story whatever you like, so long as you pay for it. And a story, like a good writer, possesses its own in-built crap detecting device for weeding out its serious suitors from those who merely wish to exploit it for their own ends.
Every great drama exacts its own price. It will not be farmed, or manipulated, or otherwise abused without incurring such damage as to lose its identity entirely. One must pay for everything one finds. Conceivably, the most “expensive” might even cost you your life, and if one is to pass somewhat unscathed from the profane (mediocrity) into the sacred (originality). one must find the appropriate forms of supplication.
One could say that a story’s intrinsic potency is protected by a veil, and that this veil is the most singular and profound artefact of its ecology of any screenplay-in-the-finding. This veil, or self-conserving “instinct”, operates in conjunction with the storyteller, the audience and the tribe in concealing the story’s essence – its source and power – from anyone who would seek to employ it for selfish or unworthy ends. Interestingly, every story worth telling has as part of its ecology this self-preserving faculty.
The best way to observe the ecology of a dramatic story is by actually entering into and becoming a part of those interactions by which and through which one finds it. As a mere observer you may experience some kind of passive appreciation for what is there, but when you actively enter the fray and live with the characters and their desires and frustrations for weeks, months or even years, you begin to gain some insight into the organic quality and operation of that rich and often sublime matrix of energies that is the dramatic experience. As you do so you, begin to realise that the story itself has a will of its own, a will to be told; and not only that, but a will to be told in a way that is true to itself, even when this is contrary to the expectations and prejudices of the storyteller.
An effective storyteller is one that has grappled with, and endured, frustration and enough fear to be possessed of a willingness to listen to what the story wants to say quite contrary to whatever plans or insecurities the storyteller in his/her anxiousness may have desired to impose on it. As a story is allowed to become its own “person”, the essential ecology that regulates the interactions between all of the agents in the storytelling enterprise is ever more clearly grasped and appreciated. In ascertaining and respecting the story’s essential integrity, one frees it to become a more active, intimate and vivid interlocutor whose dramas are played out both within and around the actual artefact that is the screenplay itself.
The most significant consequence of this freeing of the drama is the storyteller’s unavoidable encounter with what I some times refer to as “the unresolvable problem”, but for the sake of brevity shall henceforth be referred to simply as “The Wall”.
To confront The Wall is to face the story at the epicenter of its being. It is the focus of the inescapable initiation ceremony that every story worth telling requires of its storyteller if he/she is to find and ultimately reveal (or make present) the essential secret/sacred lore that fuels and sustains the active power of the story-being-found.
In acknowledging this phenomenon, Cassavetes stated one of the more sublime truths of dramatic, screen storytelling, namely that “film-making is about asking questions concerning things for which one has no answer, while holding (oneself) tenderly open, ready to come across new questions at any moment.” (3)
While every dramatic story worth telling harbours within its becoming a series of obstacles and complications that the script’s characters must navigate with some degree of ingenuity and unexpectedness, the experience of The Wall is an altogether different kind of experience, both in degree and in its ability to derail the entire enterprise. Standing inexorably between the storyteller and his/her understanding of the story’s final cause or purpose, The Wall defies thought and application of any method to its ultimate solution. It is not susceptible to thinking. Thinking is its friend. If you can think of some way of getting around it or through it, you’re wrong. You cannot think your way around The Wall. It is not about thinking. If you think you’re wrong.
To THINK up a solution only robs the drama of its native integrity and authenticity. Thought, too readily tied to the past and past experiences, invariably leads the screenwriter into imposing actions derived from already existing stories. This is the essence of formulistic storytelling; and the uncritical adherence to any formula constantly runs the risk of transforming the narrative from a genuine exploration of a character’s fears, needs and choices – as expressed in dramatic actions – to a plot driven machine in which the central concern of the storyteller is to neatly hit every relevant plot target so as to effect a transition from a beginning to a middle to an end. To operate in this way invariably produces a story that is either predictable or stale; for is the storyteller is able to think up a solution to The Wall, then there is every likelihood that the audience will be able to do so as well.
When one arrives at The Wall one arrives at the “question for which one has no answer”, which is the singular means by which every dramatic story protects and conserves its most powerful and transformative energy. The Wall is the last test of both the characters’ and the storytellers’ ingenuity; it is the sacred initiation into the final meaning and truth towards which the actions of all the characters have been leading - the final artefact under-scoring the unassailable nature of creation – the act of discovery or inspiration that no amount of learning (or thinking) can manufacture except in facsimile.
In the process of finding a powerful and fully realised dramatic story one experiences the equivalent of the “long dark night of the soul” and proceed without knowledge or any guarantees that one will ever find one’s way to the other side. Great and timeless stories – stories that live and move audiences – will not be used or appropriated in the name of money or fame, and they contain within their innate organic processes the means to block every predator who would think or act otherwise.
As an audience, our ability or willingness to care must be built on something more palpable and enduring than sentimentality. The sentiment that drives a character to action must be authentic, and enlivened by an emotional intelligence which we – the audience – admire and might seek to emulate. We are much more prepared to form an emotional connection with a character whose actions evidence resiliency and ingenuity than we are with a character that merely wants to avoid trouble because it makes him feel uncomfortable. The Wall offers both a challenge and an opportunity to discover what is fresh and unexpected.
Character-based screen stories are always subject to – and not uncommonly subverted by – the needs and fears of those who tell them, namely, screenwriters, directors, producers, and others, whose extra-narrative agendas sometimes work to confound or distort the story and the story-finding process in ways that trivialise those emotional energies that might otherwise encourage, motivate and empower the characters. There are no handy methods or sure-fire techniques for dealing with these fears and anxieties. The application of method – as has already been suggested - can itself become an expression of fear; and if allowed to operate unchecked and uncriticised will constantly stand between the storyteller and the story that is seeking to get itself told.
The Wall is the means by which a dramatic story initiates a story-seeker into a story-finder. It is the final initiation and obstacle that every storyteller must face and deal with if the story is to give up its secrets.
The Wall, or the unresolvable problem, is organic to the essential logic and grammar of dramatic storytelling. It proceeds from the dynamic nature of the dramatic quest, which requires the characters to act in the face of increasing urgency and risk, under growing threat to their well-being. For a story to be effective, there must always be the possibility of failure or unexpected calamity; whatever opposes the main character/s must be formidable enough for both the audience and the storyteller to fear that it may be insurmountable, making impossible for the protagonist to ever attain his/her ultimate goal or objective.
Problem, goal, plan - as each new plan for overcoming the problem fails, a new plan must be devised, and each new plan in turn must fail if the story is to go on building the sort of emotional energy that will keep the audience emotionally involved in the protagonist’s quest. Eventually, the challenge to overcome the forces of opposition becomes so great it appears that there is no way out, no way of continuing the fight short of repeating what one has already done. When one arrives at this juncture – when the character and the storyteller arrive at this seemingly unresolvable problem – everything stops. The writer looks at the character and asks: “What’re you gonna do now?” And the character looks back, and says, “I dunno. You’re the writer; what’re you going to do?” When this happens, one has reached The Wall. Interestingly enough, the wall is where the real writing begins – if one has the courage and stamina for it.
So what is one to do?
For many writers, what they do is look at another screenplay whose characters faced a similar or approximate problem, and they make their characters do what those characters did. This is common in the world of high concept filmmaking, where spectacular effects and archetypal conflicts are devised to make up for whatever is lacking in genuine dramatic passion and originality of vision.
A less common alternative is to THINK your way out of the problem. What would I do? The screenwriter asks, and if his/her own life is anything to go by they usually opt for the least dramatic alternative. But even when the screenwriter dares to be dramatic, this is seldom if ever a satisfactory solution because if YOU can think of it, so can your audience; and if they’re able to see it coming – which they probably can – then they’re way ahead of the game and the screenplay again fails by virtue of its predictability.
Successful screenplays succeed because of the authentic discoveries they allow both the storyteller and the audience to make. Surprise is “the magic” that makes the difference between mediocrity and freshness.
But if thought promotes predictability and formula leads to staleness, how is one to confront and successfully navigate The Wall? The answer is graphically illustrated in Escher’s famous “Print Gallery”, which depicts a kind of mobius journey through a European print gallery with no way out, only an area of bright, white light at its centre. Have a look at it.
The screenwriter facing The Wall is like a fly that has flown into a fly-bottle – a large glass container with a very small entrance and the promise of free space all around, except one is separated from it by impenetrable glass.
What one must do is think. Think up something, anything that the character might do to resolve or overcome the unresolvable problem. Write it down in script form. Commit to it as you write; make it convincing, using every bit of talent you have, and when it is down, go for a walk, clear your mind, forget about it for a few hours or a day (if you can). Then come back to it, read it critically, from the vantage point of your audience. It doesn’t work, does it? And you can hear it, you can see it -, and you can see why.
So think of something else, and commit to that and write it out, using all your ingenuity as a writer to make it work, and then go for a walk, or a drive. When you come back it – as audience – you’ll see that his doesn’t work either. And so you think up something else, and the process repeats and repeats and repeats, and every notion is written out and examined later, and nothing you write down works.
Eventually, depending on how many possibilities you can think up, you will come to the realisation that you can’t think yourself over The Wall. This is no mere intellectualisation; it is an existential fact that threatens your very identity and existence. Metaphorically at least there will be much gnashing of teeth and eyeball rolling; maybe you’ll throw yourself in front of a bus, or wind up homeless, living in the street, or maybe you’ll just abandon the project altogether and resume your job as a copywriter. Or perhaps the long dark night of the soul, which is the task of The Wall, will cause you to abandon all belief in what you think you know – perhaps, in one blinding moment of insight you will acknowledge that you know nothing at all. When you can do that, when you can manage that apparent nothingness (a nothingness illustrated by the central white “light” in Escher’s “Print Gallery”) you have arrived at that place where you have the first and last best chance of hearing your characters, and of them hearing you. “Hey,” they whisper to one another, “maybe this writer really is committed to finding our story – maybe we should take pity on him/her”. And then, from the depths of nothingness, one looks again at the characters and their desires and one notices something one has never seen before. The way around The Wall becomes vividly clear, and the solution or course of action for which one has been searching, is revealed in all its obviousness and simplicity.
The way through or over or around The Wall is always simple; when one finally sees it, it is obvious. It stares one in the face, so that one is inclined to ask; why didn’t I see it before? One is overcome with the realisation that The Wall was never in the script to begin with. It was in YOU, in those prejudices and assumptions and expectations you brought with you from the very beginning into the process of finding the story. Some of the assumptions had their use and permitted you to enter and successfully navigate parts of the story world you were seeking, but many of your most cherished and uncriticised prejudices were not only irrelevant but actually prevented you from penetrating into the unique nature of the story you sought. As the emotional energies of the characters’ actions became more intense, these prejudices and assumptions reached critical mass, creating a blockage that metaphorically stood like a wall between you and the final important discoveries that carried and conveyed the ultimate meaning and power of the story adventure.
The drama, if it is to happen, occurs both inside and outside the script. Both the audience and the screenwriter-as-character are adversaries insofar as their expectations, fears and prejudices, subvert or trivialise the story. The ecology forged by the dynamic inter-play of these characters in their interaction with both the dramatis personae and the relevant tribes that speak through these characters provides the coherent and natural system out of which The Wall is formed and operates as the final provocation of authentic discovery. The Wall is the final test of faith concerning the storyteller’s readiness and worthiness to reveal the secrets that lie buried in the hearts of the characters. It is both an obstacle and – if one acts in good faith and with courage – a promise of the exhilaration that accompanies the experience of originality. It is the final initiation ceremony into the sacred lore of the story that one has been looking for – the story behind the story, if you like – that last crucible through which ALL the characters must pass if are to be fully born, alive and forever free. It is only when the storyteller is surprised by what he/she finds on the journey that the audience has a chance of being surprised. The Wall is the means by which ingenuity, originality – and, indeed, the experience of discovery – enter the story and make it eternally fresh.
(1) From a comedy sketch by Bob Newhart, as performed on The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart
(2) Ezra Pound. From The Cantos. Faber.
(3) John Cassavetes, quoted by Ray Carney in “Non-contemplative Art: Thinking in Time, Space, and the Body”, from The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (Cambridge University Press)