Wednesday, December 29, 2010


"Everyone talks about "the magic", but no one knows anything about it. The secret/sacred act by which the story-experience transforms itself into something special defies formula. Spend a lifetime enquiring about its nature; no one will be able to tell you what it is. Though its presence might be obvious, its appearance is unpredictable. One experiences it as a disarming freshness - an enduring "newness" . Whatever it is, you can't cook it up.

"If you want to become the kind of storyteller/filmmaker in whose actions the magic lives, then you must enter into the most intriguing and challenging set of relationships you have ever encountered, relationships in which the essence of the characters intersects and mingles intimately with your own essence, so that you no longer meaningfully distingush these essences or see and hear them as separate.

"Only when your characters' essence (or origins) merges with your own essence (or origins) does the magic, which is ORIGINALITY, become possible."

To read more about the MAGIC of non-formulistic, character-driven, dramatic screen storytelling be sure to visit WHERE'S THE DRAMA? at

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Episode: THE PAWN / Mission Impossible

Watch one of Billy Marshall Stoneking's episodes of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. Paramount Television's popular 1980s television series, shot in Australia.

Mission Impossible - The Pawn - WHERE'S THE DRAMA?

The I, THOU & IT of Dramatic Screen Storytelling

Martin Buber, in his major contribution to modern thought, I and Thou, posits a philosophy of personal dialogue in which human existence may be understood and differentiated in terms of the way in which we humans engage in dialogue with each other, with the world, and with the divine. Buber contends that human beings invariably alternate between two attitudes toward the world – one which is expressed through what he refers to as an I-Thou relationship, and the other, which he terms an I-It relationship. I-Thou signifies the relation of subject-to-subject, while I-It is a relation of subject-to-object.

Likewise, the screen storyteller’s relationship with characters may also be understood in terms of such a choice. Does the writer choose an I-Thou relationship, in which the writer is cognizant of and emotionally open to ALL of the characters necessary for finding the story, or does the writer simply enforce his own separate role of chauvinistic puppeteer, armed with a predetermined agenda to which the dramatis personae are obliged to dance as though they were mere puppets dangling at the end of not-quite invisible strings?

In the former relationship, the writer is an equal – no more or less important than the other characters (including the audience and the tribe or tribes whose story is being presented). In such a relationship, the writer acts and interacts within a context in which none of the characters becomes a slave to formula. In an I-Thou relationship, the roles of the characters, including the role of the writer (who is but one character among many), are not subsumed under the tyranny of method or served up in answer to the requirements of technique, or as some simple-minded response to unmanaged fear or prejudice. Successful – i.e.: fresh and original – dramatic characters do not live merely at the pleasure of the storyteller, to be manipulated according to every passing fit and whim. Instead of perceiving one’s fellow characters as separate, isolated beings whose raison d’etre is to serve the insecurities and needs of the writer, and whose actions are aimed at hitting each plot target in a timely fashion, the mediumistic writer immerses him/herself in a vital, transformative dialogue in which ALL of the characters are involved with all of their being with each other.

In contradistinction to this, the I-It relationship, is largely an act of insecurity, a misguided need to control events at any cost, the full meaning of which usually lies beyond one’s emotional comprehension. In an I-It relationship, the screenwriter perceives the characters largely as consisting of specific, isolated qualities and attributes. How many fledging writers have wasted their time and energy compiling copious lists of what foods, colours, clothes, hobbies and attributes their characters like or possess? To perceive characters simply as a list of attributes and attitudes is to view them – and oneself – as fragments of an objectified world of things. I-Thou is a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity, while I-It is a relationship of separateness and detachment.

Screenwriters, and filmmakers generally, often try to convert (or pervert) the subject-to-subject relation to a subject-to-object relation, seldom realising that the being of a subject is a unity that cannot be analysed as an object. When one tries to analyse a subject as an object, the subject is no longer a subject, but becomes an object – in short, it becomes something that it is not – something inauthentic, something contrived or pretentious. When a subject is analysed as an object, the subject is no longer a Thou, but an It. The being, which is analysed as an object, is the It in an I-It relation.

The subject-to-subject relation affirms each subject as having a unity of being, and in that affirmation creates the possibility of recognising that larger unity, which is the resonant power of Love – as an emotional energy binding the two subjects into One. This atonement – or at-one-ment – is the essence of the experience of IDENTICATION, which is the emotional essence of the dramatic experience.

When a subject chooses, or is chosen by, the I-Thou relation, this act involves the subject’s whole being. Thus, the I-Thou relation is an act of choosing, or being chosen, to become the subject of a subject-to-subject relation. The subject becomes a subject through the I-Thou relation, and the act of choosing this relation affirms the subject’s whole being.

Buber says that the I-Thou relation is a direct interpersonal relation that is not mediated by any intervening system of ideas. No objects of thought intervene between I and Thou.1   I-Thou is a direct relation of subject-to-subject, which is not mediated by any other relation. To accept this is to suddenly be free of all those screenwriting tomes and how-to books by which the snake-oil salesmen ply their foolishness. One is either IN the drama and in an I-Thou relationship with one’s characters or one is not, and the only things that method, technique and formula can do is to keep you from entering into the only kind of relationship that will make any difference at all.

Thus, I-Thou is not a means to some object or goal, but is an ultimate relation involving the whole being of each subject.

Love, as a relation between I and Thou, is a subject-to-subject relation. Buber claims that love is not a relation of subject-to-object. In the I-Thou relation, subjects do not perceive each other as objects, but perceive each other’s unity of being. Love is an I-Thou relation in which subjects SHARE this unity of being. Love is also a relation in which I and Thou share a sense of caring, respect, commitment, and responsibility. In this way, the writer/story relationship is both a sacred trust and a secret feeling.

Buber argues that, although the I-Thou relation is an ideal relation, the I-It relation is an inescapable relation by which the world is viewed as consisting of knowable objects or things. The I-It relation is the means by which the world (or screenplay) is analysed and described. However, the I-It relation may become an I-Thou relation, and in the I-Thou relation we can interact with the world in its whole being.

In the I-Thou relation, the I is unified with the Thou, but in the I-It relation, the I is detached or separated from the It. The detachment is frequently perceived as a threat, something that must be manipulated or dominated, something that can be sorted out and when sorted out can produced money and fame.

In the I-Thou relation, the being of the I belongs both to I and to Thou.

In the I-It relation, the being of the I belongs to I, but not to It.

I-Thou is a relation in which I and Thou have a shared reality. And in the world of screen storytelling, this is nowhere better expressed than through STORY. Story is the shared reality of ALL the characters, but never becomes fully born unless all of the characters are involved with all of their being, and BEING WITH.

The I which has no Thou has a reality which is less complete than that of the I in the I-and-Thou. The I which has no Thou seeks meaning in what it might acquire – and in the realm of storytelling this often means the frantic acquisition of incompatible additions to that incomplete reality that will remain eternally incomplete by virtue or such additions.

The more that I-and-Thou share their reality, the more complete is their reality. No addition is necessary. Their completion merely multiplies completion.

Buber equates God with the eternal Thou. God is the Thou that sustains the I-Thou relation eternally. Whether one accepts the idea of God or not is less important to committed storyteller than the wisdom that the eternal Thou is not an object of experience, nor is it an object of thought. The eternal Thou is not something that can be pigeon-holed, investigated or examined. The eternal Thou is not a knowable object.

The unformed character – the goad to action – the uncarved block that pits one’s courage against unlimited possibilities – call it what you like – God or the imagination, or freedom (including the freedom to choose not to be free - as in the Garden of Eden story – whatever you like, Thou is the barrier-less Being through which and from which one speaks to the future and from which the future is becoming, becoming present, not yet. It is the courage to Be that appears when everything that we have held most dearly disappears in the anxiety of doubt.

One does not use knowledge to get one to the edge. Knowledge is the edge. If one is to leap into the unknown - which is the story - one will have to leave knowledge behind. The leaping IS the Thou before Thou appears.


1 Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), p. 26.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

THE DRAMA OF SCREENWRITING - the legendary character workshop for screen storytellers

returns to AFTRS

The legendary screen storytelling workshop devised by Billy Marshall Stoneking will return to AFTRS in 2011. For both experienced and beginning filmmakers, this workshop offers unique opportunity to discover and apply to one's work the grammar of dramatic screen storytelling as it is expressed in MEDIUMISTIC, Character-driven drama.

Powerful and believable characters are essential to the life of any screenplay, and the screenwriter’s relationship with character is the primary relationship in the dramatic enterprise of “finding the story“. Since 2001, screenwriters, directors, producers, editors, designers and actors, have been influenced and inspired by the unforgettable experience of dramatic storytelling that Billy Marshall Stoneking’s now legendary character workshop offers its participants. This is neither McKee warmed up nor Syd Field in paraphrase, but a totally unique take on screen story-finding that will change the way you connect with your characters, and they connect with each other.

THE DRAMA OF SCREENWRITING has started many a filmmaker on the road to creating and developing award-winning and critically acclaimed short films, features and documentaries. Participants have described this workshop as:

‘A must do course for the brave. To uncover in yourself the courage to write from the core’

‘I loved the course. It was inspirational and went to great depths on screenwriting’

Students will come face-to-face with the living, emotional energy that is the basis of effective, cinematic, character-based dramatic storytelling. The workshop itself becomes a story in which the participant encounters and interacts with dramatic characters and situations that they have created.

ONLINE NOW to ensure your place in this extraodinary, life and career changing 4 days. ‘A must do course for the brave. To uncover in yourself the courage to write from the core.’


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reply to a Reader who asked: "What exactly is DRAMA?"

A dramatic story is a structured presentation of emotional energy given moment, movement, and meaning (form) by the actions of characters. Dramatic characters are necessarily threatened or otherwise endangered by a disturbance or problem of such magnitude and urgency that, unless they deal with it immediately and find a way of overcoming or neutralising it, they risk losing what they most desire. Galvanised by a human need that is identifiable to an audience, and guided by a clear objective or goal as well as a plan for achieving that goal, the dramatic character struggles against seemingly overwhelming opposition in order to achieve his or her objective.

DRAMA arises every time when change forces change upon CHARACTERS that we care about. Change is expressed through the actions of the characters and/or Nature, and a dramatic story acknowleges and dramatises the proposition that life is "a perpetual perishing", and that it is in the essential nature of a human being in the course of BEING to "rage, rage against the dying of the light:.

The struggle or the contest by which we (as audience and co-creators of the story) FEEL our existence is framed in drama - it may come in the guise of a desire that is suddenly frustrated, the loss of someone or something that is precious to us or with which we identify, or as self-doubt occasioned by a severe psychological wound, or as an existential disconnection that renders life meaningless.

The striving against everything that might frustrate, discourage, or ultimately defeat us (and the characters in the story) - this striving is the essence of dramatic action, together with ours and the characters' refusal to accept the prevailing conditions, which in turn leads us back to our own origins and the essence or source of our slavery and our freedom.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Omnibus (1992) is a short comedy film directed by Sam Karmann. It won an Academy Award in 1993 for Best Short Subject and it won the Short Film Palme d'Or at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival. In terms of dramatic storytelling this is arguably one of the best short films ever made.

Produced by Anne Bennet
Written by Sam Karmann & Christian Rauth
Starring Daniel Rialet & Jacques Martial
Cinematography Daniel Diot
Editing by Robert Rongier

Saturday, October 9, 2010


Cinematic storytelling is “the art of the invisible” to the extent that a good deal of what a dramatic screen story MEANS is seldom if ever seen or heard; more often than not, it is suggested or implied by the interplay of image, sound and character. Likewise, a screenplay’s facility for multiplying meaning cannot be reduced or accounted for merely in terms of the details it resumés, or the collection and ordering of events it presents. A successful screenplay’s power resides in its ability to stimulate and sustain an audience’s emotional participation and involvement in the story’s characters and their quest. To do this it must conjure images and sounds in such a way that it transforms its audience into a character among the other characters within the story world that the script evokes. Where the transformation is successful the audience is energised and inspired to forge some kind of identification with one or more of the characters in the drama. In effecting this degree of engagement, the screenwriter must necessarily explore and present his/her story in such a way that its ultimate realisation requires a series of imaginative and fully interactive experiences that involve readers (or audience), screenwriter, tribe and the dramatis personae (the characters in the screenplay).

Aspiring screenwriters commonly write feature-length scripts filled with prosaic details concerning the lives of their characters. Physical descriptions, the way in which they move, the circumstances of their daily lives, and the relationships in which they are involved are presented, sometimes in rich detail. Some writers even go to great pains to describe or illustrate the values and attitudes that lie behind the actions of the characters and the key relationships that have informed and influenced their lives. But somehow the mass of information remains aggravatingly little more than information and seldom if ever rises to the level of dramatic action.

Fundamentally, most stories fail to connect emotionally with their audience because the script itself lacks the essential underpinning of a dramatic grammar. Stories that eschew the grammar entirely run the risk of coming across as arbitrary, rambling, or cryptically personal at best, and usually thoroughly opaque or confusing at worst. Certainly, the ungrammatical construction of any narrative undermines the emotional logic that might otherwise tease significance and meaning from the actions of the characters.

Symptomatic of this is the way in which most screenplays manage to avoid ACTION and change. In their failure to present active characters in pursuit of clear goals, whose needs and desires are opposed or undermined by formidable opposition, the most would-be dramatic stories forfeit any claim they may have had on our attention or concern. Instead of goal-driven characters whose actions are continuously frustrated or complicated as a result of nature or the incompatible agendas of other characters, what we have instead is little more than a collection of historical (or expository) events that produce a screenplay much less than the sum of its parts.

In terms of dramatic storytelling, there is a massive difference between the delineation of events and the presentation of active characters in pursuit of compelling objectives, the very pursuit of which conveys a sense of risk and ever-increasing danger. Events tend to be linear; whereas dramatic action is always concentric, rippling out through the story-world, affecting the emotional energy, well-being and meaning of every other action. Stories that are dramatic, that effect change in all of the characters – including the audience, the tribe/s and screenwriter – are stories possessed by characters that we care about because they are embroiled in adversarial relationships in which something of value is at stake, something with which we, the audience, identify as important or worthwhile. In the struggle to protect, save or retrieve what has been threatened, we are tossed about and tormented continuously by the nagging of all questions, “what if?”

In short, dramatic action is the primary means by which an audience is guided to the threshold of a story’s meaning. It is through a character’s actions – what the character does and says – that the writer is able to reveal and illuminate what are essentially internal states of being (i.e.: the emotions and the emotional logic that gives those feelings meaning).

But mere action is not enough. Cinema fails when all it does is explain or simply show in a strictly linear way. It must also allow its audience the opportunity to participate in the creation and realisation of the story. This is also the case even at screenplay stage of the process. An effective screenplay communicates best when it cultivates and exploits the reader’s empathy in ways that permit the reader to see or realise meaning that is only suggested by what is shown in the “big print” or stated by the characters in dialogue. One might say that it is not mere actions that contain meaning, but what a character’s actions and their relationship to each other and to the actions of the other characters imply or suggest. In the process, of entering and operating within this nexus of relationships, the visionary screenwriter/filmmaker cultivates a keen awareness of and sensitivity to something greater than what is simply presented to the eyes and ears.

A dramatic screen story’s most profound and memorable actions simply and potently suggest what is not seen and not heard by presenting a complex, rhythmic interplay of image, sound and character that provoke energy and - through a synergistic interplay and interaction amongst all the characters and their conflicting agendas - produce ever increasing emotional intensity or energy.

Constructively, the first thing this writer should do is go through the script with a pen or pencil and excise everything that is absolutely not essential for conveying the story. In this way, the writer might be able to sweep away enough of the unnecessary language to see what is missing and what NEEDS to be there, DRAMATICALLY.

As well, the writer is obliged to look at every character and ascertain what it is that each one wants, and why they want it, and who or what is stopping them from having it and why? These are the fundamental character questions that must be answered by the actions and words of the characters if one is to find or create a dramatic story. At the very least the writer needs to emotionally intersect with and understand each character’s quest. What is it each one wants? What is the wound that each is trying to heal? Who or what caused the wound? What part did each play in their wounding, or in stopping the wound from being healed? Who or what does each character fear and why? These are but some of the necessary character questions any dedicated screenwriter writer must seek answers to if he/she is to discover the emotional heart of the story.

I daresay the first place a writer should look is at his/her own life, and the relationships he/she had with parents and siblings, as well as his/her partner and children if there are children. In order to penetrate to the essence or source of a character’s identity, one must be prepared to penetrate and explore the origins of one’s own nature. A dramatic screen story cannot hope to be either surprising or fresh if authentic discoveries are not made by the writer in the quest to find the characters and their emotional journey. The journeys compliment and reflect one another.

Guided by a mostly intuitive grasp of the emotional logic that sustains and guides the characters’ objectives and plans, as well as the threats and fears that threaten, subvert and frustrate their well-being or the well-being of those they care about, the screenwriter selects, orders and calibrates in written text, those images and sounds that maximise dramatic interaction among all the characters whilst providing and maintaining the shareability of experience necessary for stimulating in the audience a degree of emotional identifications with those characters.

Just as a screenplay presents a blueprint or plan for a dramatic narrative rooted in action and sound, so, too, are its constituent actions and sounds provocations that compel us to look beyond what is actually shown and stated. Character-based screenwriting acknowledges this implicit “language” by enlarging the concept of what it means to be “a character”, and by permitting each of the characters their voice, contradictions and ambiguities. Successful character-based drama pits characters. one against the other, without losing sight of the love, which some times looks more like hate. If one is to work effectively one will have to cultivate a degree of intimacy and openness with all of one’s characters, enough to coherently embody each character’s inconsistencies, anxieties, hopes, rhythms, gestures, habits, idiosyncrasies and speech patterns. Prescriptive methods, formulas, and every kind of analytical technique divorced from the lives and emotions of the characters will not in themselves be of much use. Cinema - the art of the invisible - demands something more than a recipe a and the transformation and surprise that lend a dramatic story its power, freshness and originality can be neither quantified nor categorised. They arise from those words and actions that speak in us, that sneak up on us in the dark and shake us to our core.

When a dramatic story surprises us it does so not so much because of what it actually shows and tells, but rather because of the way in which it engages our imagination and concern. A story conveyed mediumistically makes all of the characters - including the screenwriter and the audience - participants in the story and story-world that is the collective identity of these characters in the act of finding the story, a story that all of the characters are discovering by means of dramatic action and interaction.

Fresh and meaningful screenplays and films demand more than cold-blooded strategies and calculated formulae if they are to work magic. In the process of finding a story worth telling one will do well to avoid keeping company with the various, popular screenwriting tomes replete with their tried-and-true principles, procedures and recipes for screenwriting success. The so-called “gurus” that promulgate the tidal wave of how-to-write-a-screenplay books have usually had about as much experience conceiving and writing dramatic screenplays as your average football supporter has had with the actual experience of playing World Cup soccer – an experiential shortcoming that nevertheless doesn’t deter them from offering sage advice to any would-be player with a passing interest in the game. Trot them onto the field, however, and ask them to perform – like you would of any dramatic character – and you’ll soon find them every bit as passive as those characters you’ve wished you’d never written.

Rather than relying on prescriptive principles and methods, the mediumistic screenwriter proceeds like one who is both blind and deaf, grappling in the sightlessness of learning, sophistication and habit for one, authentic and powerful action, for a sound that can be trusted, a sound from that intimate “other” that is heard intuitively at first and then only fleetingly. One must learn to trust oneself without falling prey to what one was educated to believe. This sort of trusting is hard-won and occurs only, if at all, after so many false starts, wrong turns and misguided choices that it seems one might more easily and more comfortably crawl into a hole than finish the first draft of a powerful screenplay.

Screen storytellers who would operate as mediums must sharpen their perceptions in the life and death struggle that eternally rages between knowledge and ignorance, in the battle between habit and discovery, between love and indifference, in that theatre of illusion where the souls of all characters meet and fight and reveal themselves through what they do and say, and through what is suggested by what they do and say, in deeds and words that operate on multiple levels, circles within circles, streaming out from a source that is all and becomes all.

To wrestle dramatically and creatively with oneself (and the other characters) requires sensitivity and some facility for managing one’s anxieties, as well as one’s relationship to and understanding of the sights and sounds one encounters in the evolving struggle. It requires that one is open to the rhythms inherent in character actions while maintaining a keen awareness of the range of possibilities concerning the interactions and orderings of these as they occur visually and aurally.

As one discovers what the images are and begins to commit to some while omitting others, one tests the efficacy of every action, of every word, nuance, tone and colour - of everything shown and not shown, said and not said, so as to see and hear what is neither shown nor heard. One must dream the alchemist’s dream – this obsessive sifting, combining, combing through, and separating the base materials in search of the self-alteration that is complete identification with one’s characters and their emotional life. The real power of film resides in what it allows us to imagine as a result of the flow of images and sounds.

When one observes a film, one sees and hears characters going about their business within a setting, but when one experiences a film one actually undergoes a transformation of emotions produced not simply by what is seen and heard but by what is implied or suggested. In its suggestibility, a film offers its audience a chance to interact with and participate in the creation of meaning and thus to identify more intimately with what the characters are doing and why they are doing it. Hence, at any one time in cinematic storytelling, story is operating on three different, albeit inter-connected levels – text, subtext and context.

Since the most interesting and compelling dramatic characters are almost always rendered impotent by obvious expository detail, dialogue and stereotypical behaviour (except some times in the case of comedy), what is it that permits us entry into the inner lives of the characters - that most private and inward world of the heart? By what means are we conducted from passive spectators to active participants – indeed, to empathetic co-creators of the story-coming-into-being? What is the essential nature of the “happenings” that occur in a dramatic screenplay and film that allow us – or any audience - to enter into a deeply personal and highly emotional relationship with one or more of the characters?

These are questions predicated upon the assumption that a film’s essential drama is grounded in character. They also assume that the emotions of characters in a screenplay – like human emotions – are substantially internal. If one assumes the essential inwardness of the emotions and affirms that feeling is both personal and private to the character or person undergoing the feeling, then the dramatisation of emotion requires that the screenwriter/character, aided and abetted by both audience and tribe, makes the inner journey in order to intuitively uncover the authentic outward actions, including their rhythms, counterpoint and juxtapositions with other actions, gestures, and images. One bodies forth the characters in order to understand at a level deeper than intellect the play of emotional energy that commands our attention and the attention of those who come within its ambit.

A dramatic screen story is like an iceberg; only part of it is showing. The dangerous stuff – the stuff that threatens and endangers and makes us sit up and pay attention is always below the surface, operating in the interplay between story, audience, screenwriter and the context in which they create one another and themselves.

The power of cinema resides in what it enables us to imagine. Hence, the defining power of cinematic narrative is its facility for embodying a multifarious suggestibility unequalled by other forms of artistic expression.

It is not possible to speak about “suggestibility” without acknowledging the importance of irony. The word “irony” derives from the Greek “eironeia,” = simulated ignorance, denoting a form of dialectic employed by teachers, like Socrates, who pretend NOT to know something in order to get a student/opponent to explain it; so that their explanation can be used as a starting point for picking their argument apart, thus opening their minds to other possibilities. Irony involves a contrast – an awareness of at least two divergent understandings or realities operating side-by-side. When speaking of cinematic drama, three types of irony can be identified: dramatic irony, situational irony and verbal irony.

Dramatic irony occurs whenever a character makes a fateful choice based upon information that the audience knows is incorrect or incomplete. Situational irony, on the other hand, occurs when one of the characters in the story knows something that the audience doesn’t know, but which the audience will find out about at some stage during the course of the action. The Sixth Sense provides an example of this type of irony. Whereas verbal irony is any form of speech in which what is said is not what is meant; sarcasm, being a case in point.

Subtext, or cinematic implication (which applies equally to word and image), calls our attention to what lies behind, beyond or within the literal meanings or significations of film text; but, while subtext is a crucial component in nearly every successful character-based screenplay, it is but one kind of suggested meaningfulness.

Dramatic film stories order and present actions imbued with emotional energy, in time. The emotional energy conveyed is invariably expressed in rhythmic “strings” of character-driven images and sounds (including dialogue and other utterances) that lure us – almost hypnotically – into a fixated receptiveness not dissimilar to a trance state. Each unit of action occurs in time and is possessed of its own timing and pace. A character’s gestures, movements, expressions and words are time events. And the rhythms inherent in what they do and say tell us much about them.

Rhythm also, like subtext, suggests - but in an entirely different manner. The rhythm of the scene, the sequence, and of every act, is embodied and played out in the rhythms of the characters – their speech, actions, and interactions. Rhythm is, perhaps, the dramatic screenplay’s most primitive and seductive means of conducting an audience toward the emotional core of both character and story.

As humans, we are particularly susceptible to rhythm. Our lives are framed and continuously enlivened by it. Our breathing, our heartbeats, the movement of the sun and moon, the tides, and seasons, all bear witness to our intimate connection with pattern and the recurring alterations of contrasting intervals of sight and sound. The rhythms of nature evoke a livingness that calls us by a million names. Rhythm changes the way we do business; it alters the way we feel about people, about places, about ourselves. It is the secret persuasiveness lurking within every language – that ever-present movement and flow of energy that one rides with a growing sense of adventure in the reading or viewing of a dramatically realised story. Rhythm is the magic by which a writer attracts and captures an audience, the seemingly spontaneous and effortless dance by which one’s tribe initiates the uninitiated, the primordial source of inspiration by which one forgets oneself in order to find oneself in one’s characters. To write a dramatic screenplay in ignorance of your characters’ inherent rhythms is as meaningful as jumping rope under water.

The Ancients understood the ritualistic power and seductiveness of rhythm: the tribal drumbeat, the ritual dance, the mesmerising chant. Today, the computer monitor and two fingers on a keyboard replace the campfire, the toms-toms and the dance, but the beat goes on, behind and within everything that is alive. No matter what you do, without it, without that rhythm, the characters can have no life; the screenplay is still-born.

Rhythm is the pulse of the story, the pace and timing by which living characters go on living and make their emotions present and recognisable, moving expeditiously from one action to the next, from beginning to middle to end. And as they move from one dramatic situation to the next, as their actions alter their relationships and their proximity to the problems and possible solutions that confound and comfort them, the beats and off-beats, the syncopated surprises and unexpected shifts of meter keep us – the audience - alert, surrounded and emotionally involved. We know we are in the presence of characters that matter because their rhythms are continuously present. As the Duke Ellington song has been reminding us since 1931, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

Another type of suggestibility can be found in the cinematic application of a poetic figure of speech called synecdoche, in which a part of something is employed to suggest the larger thing that it belongs to. Synecdoche is employed in a scene from Goodfellas, when Henry Hill’s narration and a panning POV shot introduce us to the wiseguys in Henry’s world – guys with names like Freddy No Nose, Fat Andy, and Jimmy Two Times (who said everything twice, everything twice). But synecdoche also works visually, through sign and symbol. When the poet, Ezra Pound, said “the natural object is the best symbol”, he was referring to poetry; but it is an observation that also applies to cinematic storytelling. When the singularity of the natural object references the pervasive and underlying beliefs or history of an entire society, as it does so effectively in the flyblown image of the pig’s head in Lord of the Flies, one is in the presence of synecdoche. Likewise, the mystery Rosebud – which we discover at the end of Citizen Kane is the brand-name of a sled that the young Kane played with as a child, but in the course of the reporter’s quest to discover the significance of Kane’s last words, it has also come to suggest innocence and the love for a home and a mother that he lost to fortune.

In The Verdict, when lawyer, Frank Galvan - played by Paul Newman - goes to visit his client, traumatised by medical malpractice by doctors at one of Boston’s foremost Catholic training hospitals, he steps into a sterile ward in which the only sound is a mechanical breathing machine, an inhuman device that keeps his client precariously suspended between life and death. The noise it makes provides the perfect synecdoche for what Newman and his client are fighting for and against – the machine implies survival, but it also represents the inhuman, mechanised world of the hospital and the legal system that defends it. The breathing apparatus in the ward very subtly suggests this by referencing the world of machines and systems and their clinical connection to human life and death. The courts and the legal machinations which establish the court’s power and authority can also be just as cold and unfeeling, a central thematic idea in the story, and one that is reinforced in the very next scene when Galvan confronts the archbishop and refuses to settle out of court because, “if I take the money, I’m lost.” In a sense, Galvan too is on life-support – this is the case that will either make him or break him depending on what he does. And he is up against the toughest legal machine in Boston. The machine mentality and Galvin’s fear of what the machine can do to him if he refuses its succour keep him suspended in a kind of living death, a death that he can only break away from if he takes himself – metaphorically – off the machine.

In Hitchcock’s thriller, Dial M For Murder, there is a long scene between ex-tennis pro, Tony (played by Ray Milland) who is the husband of Margot (played by Grace Kelly) and Tony’s unsavoury and money-hungry former classmate, Lesgate, whom Tony has elected to murder his wife. In the cat’n’mouse that ensues, Tony outlines “the perfect crime” while Lesgate plays devil’s advocate, offering up various reservations and objections concerning Tony’s plan. At the conclusion of their discussion, Tony asks for an answer. In reply, Lesgate picks up the envelope containing the down–payment on “the hit”, and slips it into his jacket pocket. The envelope is another example of the dramatic use of synecdoche. He never says he will murder Margot, but his action of picking up the envelope suggests no other possibility.

The art of cinema at its most powerful presents images and sounds that make us imagine the presence of something that is not actually shown. The opening sequence of Jaws provides an excellent example of this. We do not see the shark – not for the first forty-minutes of the film - but its presence and the threat it poses are vividly suggested by the clever use of character-specific cinematography and the now-famous music. At one point, the camera is underwater, looking up at the unsuspecting legs of an attractive, bikini-clad teenage girl, and, for that moment, we ARE the shark, stalking its prey. Then suddenly the shot switches to the top of the water as the girl is hit, dragged sideways, then pulled under into a boiling fountain of red that gushes everywhere. .

The use of the POV shot is a common type of suggestibility, almost exclusive to cinematic storytelling, and, when used wisely, is an effective way of building suspense within a scene. But POV is not limited to the unobserved observer perspective. At another point of the story, the local chief of police, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), is on the beach when he sees teenager, Alex Kintner, eaten by the shark. The camera does a close-up on Brody while pulling the background away from him, suggesting an inner state of traumatic horror and shock at what is being seen. Without actually showing the shark, the viewer feels what Brody must be feeling while seeing the attack.

While these sorts of cinematic decisions may be right for films like Jaws and other genre pieces, they may be too broad or exaggerated to work effectively in stories that feature characters of greater complexity. But the central concept - the use of suggestibility in telling effective stories – is just as relevant to more sophisticated storytelling as it is to melodrama. Most filmmakers are only too aware of what can be accomplished by a creative use of suggestible sounds and images, especially when these are arranged in such a way that their relationship to other images and sounds promotes the multiplication of meaning within a scene and between one scene and another.

The multiplication of meaning, created and conducted by way of suggestibility, is central to Eisenstein’s montage theory, and is one of cinema’s key principles – the idea that by placing this image next to that image, one can create – or suggest – a meaning that is not contained in either image when looked at in isolation from the other. The best films have always thrived on the opportunities afforded by this kind of suggestibility. Their power derives from what the audience contributes by way of reading the implications of one image to the next.

The Kuleshov effect - named after and demonstrated by the Russian filmmaker, Lev Kuleshov - provides yet another example of the way in which the audience mixes one image with another to imaginatively produce a meaning that is not contained in either image looked at in isolation. The Kuleshov experiment involved a series of still photographs. The first, being a close-up of a man looking into the lends of a camera for a number of seconds. Then the image cuts to a photograph of a plate of porridge. We hold on this image for a number of seconds, then cut back to the close-u[ of the man, who now we understand, from the porridge and the look on the man’s face, suggests that he is hungry or at least wanting to eat. Then the image of the man cuts to a photograph of a dead baby and we hold on the corpse for a umber of seconds before cutting back to the man who now looks distinctly sad, upset, beside himself over the death of his child. What is interesting is that the photo of the man is always the same photo, but what we see in it is altered or suggested by the context on the images juxtaposed to it.

In the film, Silence of the Lambs, the Polaroid that Clarisse (Jody Foster) is shown – a snapshot of Hannibal Lector’s last victim – is made much more gruesome by the fact that we never actually see the picture. What we see is her boss handing her a Polaroid, then we see her reaction as the FBI chief explains how they needed dental records in order to identify the victim. The look of Clarisse’s face as she stares at the photograph says it all, without us ever seeing the actual photograph. Because cinema can arrange images in a pre-determined order, directing our attention to what it wants us to see when it wants us to see it, and because it has the power to manipulate the rate at which the images come at us from the screen, its facility for implying and provoking visions beyond what is actually seen is remarkable.

In cinema, to show is not always to reveal. Sometimes, to show is to resolve, to reduce the emotional energy that is at play in a scene. Sometimes, to show is often to limit – to render finite an emotion or an experience (this, not that), and in so doing to acquit our interest and involvement in it. Some times, as in the case of Silence of the Lambs, to suggest what a photograph reveals by showing us Clarisse’s reaction to it speaks much more loudly and more horrifically than any art director’s artificially constructed madness.

Likewise, the shower scene in Psycho – suggests more than it shows. The pace of the cutting and the juxtaposition of images stimulate the viewer to “mix” perceptually what is shown with what is implied, and to “see” what is actually not shown, i.e.: a knife viciously stabbing a naked body.

The writer, Flannery O’Connor, in writing about the power of symbol in story, notes that “certain… details will tend to accumulate meaning… and when this happens they become symbolic…” She goes on to say: “I once wrote a story called “Good Country People” in which a lady Ph.D. has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman whom she has tried to seduce. Now I'll admit that, paraphrased in this way, the situation is simply a low joke. The average reader is pleased to observe anybody's wooden leg being stolen. But without ceasing to appeal to him and without making any statements of high intention, this story does manage to operate at another level of experience, by letting the wooden leg accumulate meaning. Early in the story, we're presented with the fact that the Ph.D. is spiritually as well as physically crippled. She believes in nothing but her own belief in nothing, and we perceive that there is a wooden part of her soul that corresponds to her wooden leg. Now of course this is never stated. The fiction writer states as little as possible. The reader makes this connection from things he is shown. He may not even know that he makes the connection, but the connection is there nevertheless and it has its effect on him. As the story goes on, the wooden leg continues to accumulate meaning. The reader learns how the girl feels about her leg, how her mother feels about it, and how the country women feel about it, and finally, by the time the Bible salesman comes along, the leg has accumulated so much meaning that it is, as the saying goes, loaded. (So) when the Bible salesman steals it, the reader realizes that he has taken away part of the girl's personality…”

O’Connor’s story is perhaps one of the most chilling stories of rape ever written, and yet nothing overtly sexual happens. The rape is the taking away of the young woman’s identity, stealing her power, a power that her intellect allowed her to believe was unassailable by any one so lowly and uneducated as a huckster Bible salesman.

This accumulation of meaning by objects or places is yet another example of the way in which screen stories – through an effective use of symbol – work to suggest meanings within a context that is larger than the screen and the actual scripted story.

Characters, too, can be symbols as easily as objects. When characters operate in this manner they take on the quality of archetypes. In the film Citizen Kane, Kane and his history come to be synonymous with the American Dream. Kane is not simply a newspaperman, he is THE newspaperman – the consummate American entrepreneur who builds a fortune on the ideals of freedom of speech.

Cinema, too, in its efficacy to suggest, or multiply meaning, accumulates significance through images, actions and words. Its ultimate significance is mostly due to its facility to engage its audience imaginatively, by suggesting meanings that have emotional context and force. Every time a cinema story suggests more than it shows it gives its audience a chance to make the story its own.

Saturday, September 4, 2010



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Friday, September 3, 2010


Let me begin by saying that for some time now I have been teaching – although “teaching” really isn’t the word for it – I have been one among a number of dramatic storytellers involved in a series of workshops called “The Drama of Screenwriting” in which participants conceive, write and perform a series of dramatic monologues and scenes that are then interrogated, improvised upon, re-written and re-performed. What is discovered in the act of embodying dramatic characters is both illuminating and informative, and almost always inspiring. Each incarnation of the workshop has its own unique character, provoked into being by the collective imagination and actions of those involved, but common to all is the desire on the part of every participant to go out and tell as well as show others what they have discovered, which, of course, has generated an unprecedented explosion in the number of applicants, all clamouring for a chance to experience dramatic storytelling up-close.

A good deal of what I’m going to say here today is due to the challenges and discoveries that have come from working with both students and staff here in the hothouse laboratory of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Working in a place like this, you are continually bombarded with opportunities to observe, test and question, the assumptions, methods and processes associated with activities relevant to the creation of screen-based stories.

One of the more important observations I have made during my time here concerns the nature of collaboration. By “collaboration” I refer to the actions of any group of skilled individuals whose interactions are characterised by a constructive share-ability of experience directed towards commonly held goals. While the school has always extolled the value of collaboration it has not always succeeded in conducting the creative energies that are at play here in ways that conscientiously advantage a collaborative approach to character-based storytelling.

Part of the failure is due to a lack of experience and confidence on the part of students and staff in understanding and employing dramatic action in ways that are mindful of the grammar by which such action is made meaningful. The lack of fluency in this regard frequently makes constructive discourse about the work difficult if not impossible, which in turn leads to misunderstandings, wounded egos and a general dissatisfaction with the creative process. In the past this was also aggravated by the absence of any common criteria as to what made a dramatic story dramatic. Students and staff had opinions and prejudices about what they liked and why they liked it, to be sure, but neither one possessed a sufficient understanding of the grammar to enable them to effectively examine the characters’ actions enough to penetrate the inner lives of the characters and the essence of the story’s energy.

Having a working understanding of the means by which stories convey meaningful emotional energy (i.e.: the dramatic grammar) enables storytellers to conceive as well as articulate critical and constructive insights about the characters and their actions, and the degree to which the selection and ordering of these actions works to clarify or obscure the emotional and physical journey that is the story. The non-intuitive storyteller, on the other hand, because he or she is not conversant in the grammar, will struggle to become an effective member of the collaborative team.

Even at the best of times, insightful and constructive comment and criticism concerning story is a rarity. When I first took up my appointment here in 2001, it was almost non-existent. Script conferences were little more than thinly disguised recitations of each team member’s prejudices and fears. Critical discourse seldom progressed beyond “I don’t like the ending” or “It wouldn’t happen like that in real life”; or “Poor people don’t talk like this”. And that was about as far as it got. It was as if the students didn’t know what they were looking at. As far as story was concerned, they had no way of picking it up, turning it over, hearing it, smelling it, tasting it, shaking it, seeing what it was doing and why it was doing it.

In an attempt to remedy this problem, the screenwriting department introduced what came to be known as “The Drama Report” – a twelve-page document composed of a series of questions concerning the dramatic actions of the characters in the script, and the circumstances affecting those actions. Students who used the report quickly discovered that when a script couldn’t provide answers to such questions as “who is the main character?” or “who or what opposes the main character?” the script was invariably ineffective in conveying a coherent dramatic story with enough emotional energy to compel attention and real interest.

Storytellers that ignore or disrespect the grammatical forms through which character actions find intensity and meaning fail because the storytellers do not understand the language with which, and through which, they are working – a language that communicates by evoking and presenting, then building and releasing emotional energy. When the energies in a story are neither built nor released, the story stagnates, which is another way of saying, it becomes undramatic.

But make no mistake. The mere fact that a script provides answers to all the questions is no guarantee that it will avoid mediocrity. No set of questions or answers, on its own, can ever guarantee the creation of an enduring and powerful story. Despite its obvious usefulness as a diagnostic tool, the Drama Report can never address what is most important to any dramatic story, namely freshness, surprise and credibility, or what some storytellers refer to as “its magic”.

So where and how does one find what is fresh?

A while back, Bill Russo[1] came to me with an idea for a feature film that had been brewing inside him for years. After hearing him out I suggested he started writing it down, in script form, which he did. Then, over a period of 18 months or so, he kept bringing it back for me to read and discuss, draft after draft, during which time we talked a great deal about character and story and the means by which storytellers entered into the dramatic action and conducted the energy that that action created. It was an incredibly stimulating experience, accompanying Bill – a formidable film editor – on a journey of discovery towards the first draft of his first-ever screenplay. What developed was the sort of interaction that ought to be happening around here a lot more than it actually does. As I conducted Bill into the world of screenwriting, he conducted me into the world of editing, and we both began to see ever more clearly how writing and editing are intimately entwined, so much so that one could almost say that writing is editing. Halfway into the process, Bill said: “I wish I’d written a script 20 years ago; it would’ve made me a much better editor.”

What we were both sensitive to and what made the collaboration so useful to both of us was the recognition of what we held in common. And the common understanding centred upon our passion for character and the energies that the characters’ actions were building and releasing in the rhythmic flow of the story.

Experiences like this encouraged me to look at the nature of dramatic storytelling in ways that went far beyond the perspective usually ascribed to writers. Through my association with Bill and others I began to appreciate the full significance of an insight I had had many years earlier. Stories are not simply about the relationships characters have with other characters; they are also about the relationships that the storytellers themselves have with the characters. When storytellers are working at the top of their game – whether they be editors or sound recordists, cinematographers or designers, directors, producers or writers – they are presenting not only the emotions of the characters in the story but also their own emotional relationship with them as it develops and takes form behind, beyond and within the story.

When it comes to dramatic screen storytelling, the final cause of every creative act must be the vivid and effective realisation of emotional (meaningful) energy as built and released by the actions of characters striving to overcome problems that threaten their well-being. But to achieve this end every member of the storytelling team must be ready and able to enter the drama, which means entering into an effective and emotionally illuminating relationship with the characters. And they must be the same characters, the same characters with which all of one’s collaborators are also having a relationship!

In order to enter intimately into the emotional life of one’s characters, one must also cultivate and play out a relationship with one’s audience. The answer to the question “who is it for?” is not “everyone”. It’s not even “the 18- to 25-year-old age group” or whatever other group you have in mind. A percentage or description of a faceless mob is creatively useless from a storytelling perspective. If one is to actually enter the drama, one requires an audience. But who is one’s audience? Quite simply, it is that person to whom the story is addressed, a person with whom you are on intimate terms, like your mother or father, your son or your daughter, or lover or the ex-, or some colleague who maybe saved your life once – some person you imagine is capable of being changed or moved or healed by the experience of the story you are telling; in short, someone who needs it. Effective, character-based storytelling is impossible without this intimate sense of audience – not as a demographic but as an imaginative act.

To become one’s audience is to experience the characters and the story as one imagines one’s audience would. In becoming one’s audience one creates a contrasting perspective from which to view the action. As this happens, one also alters one’s psychical distance[2] to both the characters and the story.

To say that such an audience is unimaginable is to answer the question, ‘who is my audience?’ with the answer, “no one”. If that were truly the case then, guaranteed, no one will be listening! Not to have an audience is as meaningful as making erudite statements to an empty room. Hence, storytellers must have a relationship not only with their characters, but also with their audience. And, indeed, the two relationships continuously impact on one another. In fact, they require one another.

Some time ago, the directing lecturer here at the school, Sophia Turkiewicz[3], asked me if I might comment on a script she was writing. I warned her that I hardly liked anything I read, especially screenplays, and she explained that that’s why she’d wanted me to read it, because she was sure I’d give her an honest opinion. So I read it, and it was terrible. I can say this because Sophia’s given me permission to talk about it, which, if you understand the way the grammar works, will tell you that this particular story, as far as it goes, has a happy ending.

At our first meeting, which I thought would probably be our last, I asked Sophia to tell me what had compelled her to write such a cheap B-grade melodramatic detective story. She answered by saying that it had started out to be a story about her mother, but because so many project officers and script assessors at the various governmental funding bodies had lamented the lack of drama in it, she had assiduously worked to transform it into its present state, with only a hint of the mother-daughter relationship intact. When I pressed her for details she explained that she and her mother’s relationship had always been difficult, even painful, owing to the fact that when she was a girl, her mother had placed her in an orphanage and gone off with a man. Later, after her mother had married the guy, and he had adopted Sophia, they migrated to Australia where Sophia discovered who her real father was. Angered by the deception, she took herself off to Italy, against her mother’s wishes, to be reunited with her father and a family she had never known. It was a thousand times more interesting and powerful than what she had in her script, and I told her so. Why aren’t you writing this? I asked. And she sat there, shaking her head: “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know…..”

After that, she wrote an entirely new story based upon her mother and their relationship. It wasn’t great, but it was a lot better than what she had, which is what I told her at our second meeting. We spent a long time discussing it, or at least I did, and, by the end, Sophia went away re-invigorated. She also took with her some very vivid impressions about me, including quite a few insights concerning my individual taste and intellectual proclivities, not to mention a variety of very vivid responses I had to the characters, the depth and intensity of their actions, and how these had impacted or not impacted on me emotionally.

Then something very peculiar happened. At some point, maybe four or five weeks after our second meeting, she came back with the official 2nd draft of the new script and asked me if I’d have time to read it. Sure, I said, and put it on my desk. And there it sat, unread, for nearly two months. I didn’t even open it. It wasn’t that I was avoiding it; I was busy, I forgot. Things happen.

So time goes by and eventually Sophia comes to my office door and asks me if I’ve read the script. It was the first time I’d thought about it since she’d given it to me, and I felt a little embarrassed. Sophia, I’m so sorry, I say, some what sheepishly, I’ve been meaning to do it, but…

“No, no, no,” she interrupts, “it’s okay. I was hoping you hadn’t looked at it, cos I’ve realised there’s some parts of it that still aren’t working, and I want to fix those up first.” Saved, I thought.

Then, about three weeks later, she comes back and says, right, this is it! And this time, the 3rd draft sits on my desk for about three months, and when she finally comes to enquire, I start to say: you’re going to kill me… but she says, quickly: “It’s all right. I was having a look at it the other night, and I’m still not happy with it…”

And it goes on like this for a couple more drafts, none of which I ever read. And when the 5th draft arrives I say to her, do you know what’s happening? And she says “Yes”. And I say, what? And she says, “You’re my audience”. And I knew exactly what she meant. What a discovery!

You see, it was important that she gave me each draft, and that I kept each one on my desk where, at any moment, I could’ve easily picked it up and read it. It had to be on my desk, and it had to sit there long enough for her to start wondering, long enough for her to want to go back and pick up her own copy, and read it again; cos when there’s no feedback, when there’s been no validation of your existence, even in the form of negative criticism, you start imagining all sorts of things, like “what if it stinks?” or “what if he thinks it’s awful?” or “maybe the climax at the end of act two isn’t strong enough?” And at some stage you pick it up and look at it, not from your point of view, but from the point of view of your audience, which, in Sophia’s case, was me! And she read it as if she was me, and goes “Oh my God. No way!” Sophia loved it, but Billy – Billy sees right through it. And every time she did that she became her audience and viewed the story she had been finding from an entirely different perspective.

Now this might sound odd, I know, but it’s happened to me – as a writer – enough times to know how it works. And it does work, this way of entering the drama, this alternate vantage point that allows one to become more conscious of what is actually going on in the story by creating a contrasting perspective from which to view the characters and their actions.

Conventional wisdom conceives of character-based stories as structured presentations of emotional energy enacted by characters whose well-being is so seriously threatened by the actions of other characters that they are forced to act in order to re-establish some degree of safety, order or control. In short, the actions of the characters drive the story forward. There is, however, another component to the character-based story that is just as important, and is almost always overlooked. In character-based stories the storytellers, themselves, must transform themselves into characters, not only the characters in the script, but the characters to which the story/script is addressed, namely, its audience.

Sophia’s audience – as personified by me – allowed Sophia, the storyteller, to view herself as more than simply the story’s author. From the vantage point of audience, she also apprehended Sophia-the-storyteller as but another character among characters whose fears, prejudices, values and choices are every bit as significant and germane to the progress of the story as those actions committed by the characters whose lives are described by the script.

When storytellers view what they are doing from the perspective of audience they view it with eyes and ears that are tuned quite differently from the eyes and ears they employed as storytellers. This ability to imaginatively alter one’s psychical distance to character and story through the medium of a character external to the story’s actual narrative is central to the notion of character-based storytelling.

So there are these two primary relationships – two distinct vantage points – from which to view story: the storyteller/character relationship, which provides a vantage point or perspective from inside the story; and the storyteller/audience relationship, which provides a contrasting perspective from which one can more dispassionately apprehend the actions of the characters and the emotional gravity of those actions from outside the story. But there is also a third perspective without which the dialogic that informs story and enables storytellers to enter the drama and creatively and effectively collaborate with one’s colleagues.

Dramatic stories are dialogical by nature. They are dialogical because they are told in a context, to an audience. They are also dialogical in the sense that they are received; they come from somewhere. When I began to think about where a lot of my own stories and other writings had come from, I remembered those years I spent in the desert, sitting around campfires, listening to Pintupi elders like Tjungkarta “Nosepeg” Tjupurrula and Tutama Tjapangarti chanting the stories of the Dreamtime. Caught up in the journeys of the ancestors, the entire world became a living drama. Those trees over weren’t merely trees; they were the digging sticks of the Namputarkatjarra women. And this claypan here, this is where the patjarta man musters all them poor buggers to warn them of the danger of the evil mamu.

Whitefellas called them “dreamtime” stories, but the anarngu at Papunya, Yuendumu and throughout the western desert, call them tjukurrpa – the Pintupi word for the Aranda word altjuringa, which Spencer translated into German, which was later translated from German into the English word, “dreaming”. In fact, tjukurrpa means creation. So that the dreaming times really, more precisely, refer to creation times.

Dreaming stories are narrations, usually in song, of the coming-into-being and transformation of things. They are dramatisations concerning the origins of everything in the natural world – plants and stones, sand dunes and rock holes, mountains, animals, birds, people and their belonging places. For an initiated Aboriginal man or woman, to enter into the essence of a creation myth is to realise where that story (or dreaming) comes from. From a storyteller’s perspective – even a whitefella storyteller – to truly find a story is to intersect a story’s origins with one’s own origins, so that the two connect. This is the basis of origin-ality. To know one’s story is to know from whence it springs.

The third perspective, or relationship, without which one cannot truly enter the drama, and apart from which one’s story will have neither the power nor the impetus to either attract or initiate others into the worlds that the story inhabits has been ignorantly neglected by the screenwriting gurus. There is no commonly used expression or word that one automatically thinks of when thinking about this perspective, so when it comes to thinking up a name for it, a word that might adequately describe this relationship, that is both simple and concise, the word that came to mind –mainly because of my past experiences, and because I was working within an Australian context – was “tribe”.

Tribe, for lack of a better word, refers to the relationship that exists between the storyteller and whoever it is that is speaking through the storyteller. Who is it that is speaking through me? Or, more precisely, who am I speaking for? Who is my tribe?

To know that we are all, each of us, carriers of the wisdom of our tribe or tribes, is to become participants in a tradition that reaches out of one’s past and propels one into the “not yet”. It is to understand storytelling as a karmic dance – to realise that the story causes us as much as we cause the story. We are causes and effects of one another, and both the storyteller and the story have grown out of something much larger and deeper and more profound than is containable in mere words on a page. It is to realise that we have a responsibility, a moral and spiritual obligation, to give a voice to the voiceless, a body to the bodiless; to build courage where courage is needed, to bring light to the edge of darkness; to be and to become by virtue of our belonging, by virtue of our dedication to something greater than ourselves.

The notion of tribe is ontological. To be is to be part of a tribe. Hence, it is neither fad nor fancy, neither “front” nor fashion. Our stories, in the context of tribe, take on an entirely different meaning, and, as was the case with audience, when we view them tribally we view them and hear them with entirely different eyes and ears.

From the vantage point of tribe, our stories are gifts we receive from the ancestors and give back to the ancestors as works of love for those who gave us birth, and nurtured us; who educated and wounded us, who provided obstacles and frustrations and opportunities that enabled us to build character, to grow, to care, to create some kind of identity in the world. From the perspective of tribe, our stories are myths that challenge us to live and create more courageously, to take more humbly that which is given, and to give more generously that which can never belong to us until we give it away.

The entire idea of tribe – as it relates to what goes on in the school – was brought home to me one day last year during a storytelling workshop with the first year students. John Lonie[4] and I had screened the short film, Splintered[5], and Bill Russo had presented a thoroughly engrossing demonstration of the way in which the film’s editor had laid bare the guilt and anger between the two principal characters, two teenage mates whose lives diverge one night when a break-in goes wrong and the younger Gavin runs away, leaving his best mate, Kane, to be beaten and sentenced to a detention centre.

As I looked at the boys on the screen I was reminded of the script development process where both the writer and the director were seeking to find their own, individual stories in the story that was slowly beginning to emerge. During one of the early script conferences, both Ian and Peter admitted they had indulged in the same kind of criminal behaviour that was becoming ever more apparent in the actions of the characters in the script. Indeed, Ian – the writer – had had a friend that had been caught and incarcerated for a crime Ian was also involved in, but because Ian was a few weeks younger than his mate, he managed to avoid imprisonment, and this had made him feel extremely guilty. It hadn’t occurred to me then, but, looking at the film again, the full significance of what was confessed that day came flooding in. It was a tribal story! It was being told – or rather found – by two members of the same tribe – two young men who shared a profound tribal connection by virtue of their past involvement in juvenile crime. It wasn’t a matter of each one twisting the story to fit his own needs and prejudices; it was a question of realising that they were telling a tribal story that was common to both of them.

Like Capote had said in the movie - or the actor had said (I don’t know if Capote said it) - about Perry and himself: “he went out the back door and I went out the front”. It was Capote’s way of acknowledging that he and Perry were of the same tribe. And it was the same for the writer and director of Splintered – their characters had gone out the back door, and Ian and Peter – successful screen storytellers – had gone out the front. But each was connected to the other, tribally. And it was the tribal connection that made the potency.

Such stories come from places and associations much larger than the film makers’ individual ambitions and ego-centric identities. Others are involved, others who did not have the platform of film through which to tell their story. Those boys – whom they both had once been – were speaking through them, tribally, and Ian and Peter’s art and skill lay first of all in hearing what those boys were saying.

“It’s a tribal film,” I said to John Lonie, then to the entire class. “It’s tribal! This film works because it knows what it is, and the people through whom it came into being, who birthed it in their way, know what it is, because they lived it and went on living it in the process of finding it and turning it into a story. It is connected to them tribally.” It just came out. And Lonie looked at me, and I looked at him, and we just went BANG. My God! That’s it!

Later, thinking about the handful of marvellous films that the school has produced in the past thirty-odd years, the few that people actually remember, it came as no surprise to me to realise that films like Inja and Birthday Boy – were tribal films. They are the ones that endure.

So what is your tribe? The answer to that question may very well be the work of a lifetime, but you can start answering right now if you take the time to look and to listen and to feel. A writer’s tribe is/are those people, or that culture, association, or community that the writer identifies with by virtue of a substantial emotional connectedness. Army buddies are tribe; South Melbourne (or Sydney Swan) football supporters are tribe; non-practising Catholics and reformed alcoholics are tribe; Air Force brats are tribe; single-mums are tribe; carers are tribe.

The storyteller/tribe relationship acknowledges the fact that in order to find and effectively enter into the lives and drama of the characters, the storyteller must connect with the story through a context that is larger and more encompassing than the storyteller’s (or the audience’s) individual ego and its drive to express itself. One could say that the storyteller/tribe relationship is the super-ego of the creative process. It is the conscience that lies embedded in every part of the story, the “gristly roots of ideas that are in action”[6].

Some might want to construe tribe as a divisive force, insofar as it susceptible to fascistic manipulation. Every idea, no matter how noble, can be turned towards its negation as proof of it completeness. However, tribe as I understand it is not about dividing or separating people; it is about bringing them together; and, indeed, the tribal vantage point is the lynchpin of character-based storytelling and the art of collaboration. It’s about identity and belonging and recognising and being true to one’s origins. It has nothing to do with limitation or exclusivity and elitism, though it can surely be brutalised to serve the small-minded purposes of the bastard muses[7].

Most of the stories that fail at AFTRS – and most of them, as dramatic stories, do – do so because they are being told by storytellers who do not have a tribal affinity with either the characters or the world of the story they are trying to find. It is delusional to believe that one can tell a meaningful dramatic story that one isn’t tribally connected to. This does not, however, mean that one can never be connected to it. If one becomes so obsessed with the characters or situation in which they find themselves, that one cannot help oneself, that one must tell the story regardless, then one can also find ways of being initiated into the tribe whose story one wants to tell. If you aren’t tribally connected to a story, a process of initiation might enable you to become so intimately connected to the world that is the characters’ world that one lives in at as the characters do themselves. It’s what used to be called research, which is about connecting with something ever more deeply. A meditation in which one eventually merges with the subject.

So we tried this thing that I decided to call a Tribal Workshop, and over three days I sat in a room with all of our first-year directors, writers and producers, and listened and watched as they told stories about themselves through the medium of dramatic scenes that each of the participants had individually selected and brought to class.

Here’s how it worked. The group was divided into pairs. No two directors, writers or producers were paired together. If I was a director, I would be paired with either a producer or a writer. So let’s say my partner is a producer. What I have to do is pick a scene that I feel, from my perception of this producer, represents his or her tribal identity. And the producer does the same for me, choosing a scene they imagine represents my tribal identity. Then I pick a scene I believe represents my own tribal identity; and they pick one that represents theirs. So between us we’ve selected four scenes. When the big group comes together, our scenes are selected to be screened first so I screen the scene I chose for the producer and talk about why I chose it; and then the producer replies to what I have said and the group asks both of us questions if it feels like it. Then I screen the scene I chose for myself and talk about that, and the group asks me questions. And then the producer screen his scene that represents me, and after discussion screens the scene about himself, followed by more discussion. And it goes on like until every scene has been screened and discussed.

The thing that amazes everyone, because they hardly knew each other at this stage of the year, was how insightful it all was. It was so overwhelming that hardly an hour went by that people weren’t in tears. Not because they were frightened or nervous, but simply because someone had actually seen them.

Well, the dramatic scenes that grew out of tribal workshop represent some of the most astonishing work that has been done here. Each sequence of scenes, in its own way, is an example of an attempt to tell stories that rarely get told in this place. Told, not for show or to impress or because they’d look good on a show reel, but because the stories themselves represented aspects of the identity of the people who were caught up in the act of finding them. Even when a story didn’t quite fit the tribal identity of every collaborator, the ones who were tribally connected took responsibility for initiating the others into that world.

So I leave you to consider these three primary relationships and their efficacy in the creation of effective collaborations and the making of compelling dramatic stories. These three perspectives from which storytellers might view their characters and enter ever more deeply into their dramas will always inform the very best character-based stories. These three primary perspectives that form the basis of a mediumistic approach to story telling allow every storyteller working in concert with one another to conduct a story’s energy from inside the drama, not at arm’s length, but in relationship with one’s characters as well as one’s audience, one’s tribe and one’s collaborators.

We speak for those who cannot speak. We have a duty to tell the stories for those who do not have the advantages that we have to tell stories. We must not speak falsely. The stories that we are entrusted to tell are stories of our tribes, or the tribes into which we have been initiated.

But just how much can someone belong to tribe that they aren’t born into? Several years ago I wrote a collection of poems called Singing the Snake. That chronicled my fours years living at Papunya Aboriginal Settlement in Central Australia. A number of publishers read the manuscript in the years after I returned to Sydney, and for a variety of reasons decided not to publish it. One even proclaimed that it was “racist”. The company that eventually committed to it had already passed on twice, but their reader, Les Murray[8], had encouraged me to try again, and shortly after, it was accepted and became the fastest selling book of modern Australian poetry ever printed by Angus & Robertson.

Several years prior to the book coming out, I was visiting Sydney with three Aboriginal elders from Papunya. Mick Namarari[9], Tutama Tjapangarti[10] and Nosepeg Tjupurrula[11], found themselves accompanying me to a poetry reading at the Café L’Absurd in Balmain. I was one of the invited guests, and they had never been to poetry reading before. As I finished my set, or just close to finishing it, Old Mick got up, frowning, and sauntered out the back door. I was quietly horrified. Oh my God, I thought, maybe it’s true. Maybe these poems are offensive. When I finished, I went back to the table and sat down. No one said a thing. On the pretext of going to the toilet I went looking for Mick and found him returning from outside, down the long narrow corridor at the back of the café. I suddenly realised he was coming back from the toilet. As he came up to me he slowly reached out and took hold of my sleeve with his thumb and forefinger, stopping me, and very gently pulling me close so that he could whisper in my ear. “When you were talking,” he said, “I was happy”.

It was the best and most generous criticism my poetry ever received, and was also as I have come to learn, acknowledgement of the fact that, at least as far as Mick was concerned, I had been initiated into the tribe.
[1] Film and television editor (credits include Blue Murder, Young Lions, Two Friends, Crocodile Dreaming, etc) and formerly head of editing at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS).
[2] See Bullough, Edward. “'Psychical Distance' as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic Principle” rom British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 5 (1912), pp. 87-117 or at
[3] Sophia's television credits include adult and children's drama (Something in the Air, Mirror Mirror, Escape of the Artful Dodger, The Wayne Manifesto), telemovies (Time's Raging, I've Come About the Suicide) as well as the feature film Silver City, which was screened internationally and was the recipient of 3 AFI Awards.
[4] John Lonie is a novelist and screenwriter, historian. Formerly head of screenwriting at AFTRS. 
[5] Award-winning short film (9 mins), produced by AFTRS students in their first year, directed by peter Templeman, written by Ian Irvine, produced by Stuart Parkyn.
[6] The German anthropologist, Leo Frobenius used the term paideuma for the tangle or complex of the enrooted ideas of any culture and period. The American poet, Ezra Pound, employed the word to denote “the gristly roots of ideas that are in action."
[7] Sentimentality, Pornography, Propaganda, and Violence
[8] Well-known and critically acclaimed Australian poet and essayist, author of more than thirty books of verse and prose.
[9] Born c. 1926 at Marnpi in the sand-hill country south-west of Mt. Rennie, Mick is a one of the major artists of the Papunya/Tula school of dot painters.
[10] Born in the early 1920s in the area north of the Petermann Ranges, Tutama’s pencil drawings provide “visual poems” in Singing the Snake (Angus & Robertson, 1990).
[11] Painter, actor, storyteller, guide, translator and full-time raconteur, Nosepeg was the first tribal Aboriginal man Elizabeth the Second ever met. On meeting her in Toowoomba in the early 1950s and being introduced to the Queen of England, he replied, “Really! I’m Nosepeg; King of the Pintupi.” The Queen’s response is not recorded.