The Screenwriter AS Character
When screenwriters write their scripts from “outside” the lives of their characters they rob their screenplays of the essential ingredient necessary for evoking powerful emotional responses in their audience. Any screenwriter, steeped in genre and armed with a pre-determined plot, who builds his/her characters around the story instead of the other way around, may be able to produce the semblance of a screenplay; it might even be a dramatic screenplay. So long as the screenwriter adheres to the conventions of dramatic plotting and places a active character at the center of the action, one assumes all will be well. However, the central question for any writer that is interested in producing something fresh is not who is driving the story, but what is driving the process? Only when ALL of the characters necessary for finding the story are effectively engaged and transformed by their on-going interactions is it possible to produce a script that is vital - in short, a compelling character-driven drama. When the screenwriter alone makes all the executive decisions and chauvinistically decides that only the writer can drive the story, the result is invariably melodrama.
In the story-finding process, the astute screenwriter is ever sensitive to the dynamic interactions taking place. Hemingway’s salutary advice regarding every writer’s need for a “crap-detecting device” is still relevant, only in the case of the screenwriter one must be able to discriminate between a story that is being lived by the characters and a story that writes them out of its writer's need to get to the end.
None of this should be construed as a criticism of melodrama. There is good melodrama and bad melodrama; melodrama that works, which stimulates our emotions and identification with the characters and their problems; and melodrama that, for any number of reasons, keeps us at a confounding, emotional arm’s length.
The problem with melodramatic templates, and genres in general, is that they constantly cry out for some fresh interpretation. If there is an art to melodrama – and there most certainly is – it must reside in the screenwriter’s vision and in his/her ability to disguise or imaginatively camouflage the more predictable elements of the melodramatic plot. Without such disguise, a melodrama-in-the-making constantly runs the risk of veering into contrivance or settling back into comfortable predictability. Good melodrama is difficult to write; bad melodrama is on every street corner. Have a look! Bad melodrama is where almost every would-be screenwriter starts and ends; that well-tilled common ground of popular cliché and sentimentality enshrined in forgettable events enacted by one-dimensional characters operating as plot functionaries.
In contradistinction to melodrama, the character-based drama generates energy through a series of logical and emotionally meaningful actions enacted by characters that are involved in a quest that is imperilled by risk and danger, the outcome of which is uncertain. At the risk of becoming boringly repetitive, let me say once again, this quest involves ALL of the characters whose interactions form the dynamic enterprise of actualising the story.
The actions that the characters employ to solve their problems are rooted in the character’s genuine emotional needs and desires. The emotional energy that these actions stimulate, that is built and released in the movement of characters in pursuit of their objectives, will necessarily provoke a powerful emotional response in one’s audience.
In dramatic, character-based stories, plot is the ongoing outcome of the characters’ desires, hopes and fears as these are expressed in actions. Character is the ever-moving focal point where all of the forces of the dramatic story meet and are played out. In character-centric stories, fundamental decisions concerning “what happens next?” are not based upon what the storyteller needs in order to move the tale from one plot point to the next, but upon what the characters want, why they want it, and who or what is stopping them from having it, and why.
The storyteller/character relationship – including the screenwriter’s relationship with both protagonist and antagonist – involves an exploration of the inward emotions of the dramatis personae (i.e.: the scripted characters) as dramatised by their actions, expressed in text, subtext and context.
The actions themselves are motivated by, and grounded in, the screenwriter’s and the characters’ mutual pursuit of clear objectives and goals (The Quest). Their dramatic value is determined by how effectively and with what degree of surprise and credibility they contribute to either advancing or thwarting the characters in their quest.
Allied to this is the quest of the screenwriter to liberate the characters from the straitjacket of narrow, pre-digested clichés, stereotypes and formulae, a quest that also involves the liberation of the storyteller him/herself. Such a liberation involves a transformation in which the writer becomes a receptive, responsive vehicle through which the characters speak and act.
This transformation is contingent upon the screenwriter’s ability to simultaneously inhabit a variety of vantage points or perspectives; which slightly alter the writer’s relationship with the story and the characters. In altering the “psychical distance"(1) from which the storyteller perceives the characters and their actions – as well as the storyteller’s own actions in relationship to the actual telling or finding of the story – the storyteller is afforded a perceptual contrast that enables a fresher view of both character and story. Aspects of character and story that may have been neglected, misunderstood or simply lost in the inertia and entropy of habitual examination and expectation are re-vivified when one shifts one’s psychical distance.
Stories that endure and change the way we look at the world and ourselves almost always dramatise issues that have the most powerful consequences. Prejudice, greed, oppression and faithlessness are perennial themes in dramatic stories that move us because they strike at the heart of what it means to be human.
To successfully dramatise the potency of such forces, one must have some experience of them. However, experience alone is not always enough. To become the vehicle through which powerful dramatic characters and stories come to life, the storyteller must have some feeling for those that have suffered as well as the courage to fearlessly explore and be true to the characters whose actions convey the turmoil at the heart of the drama. The feeling with which “Jesus wept” – and his reasons for weeping – cannot be foreign to, or beyond the ken of, any storyteller hoping to connect emotionally with his or her characters.
A feeling for one’s characters and the courage to follow them wherever they may take you is one of the surest antidotes to mediocrity and its yoke of predictability. This is rarely if ever effected solely from the perspective of the storyteller/character relationship. If one is to enter into the emotional energy that is the life essence of the characters, and thus become a medium through which they speak and act, then audience is indispensable.
An effective dramatic story requires an audience not only to complete its meaning and fulfil its emotional potential, but to provide a catalyst that will allow the writer to disentangle his/her ego and ego needs from the story that is trying to tell itself through the medium of the screenwriter and the screenwriter’s sensibilities and skills. To conceive and present a story that is told without reference to an audience is an absurdity, a dramatic story worthy of its name not only presents change but also creates it in the responses it elicits from both the storyteller and the audience. Until it has elicited such a response a story is not fully functional.
However, one must not think of audience as a faceless group of paying spectators. In the context of an evolving script, it is both ignorant and unproductive to reduce one’s conception of audience to mere demographics; to do so misses the important, creative contribution that audience makes to the realisation of the story-being-found.
Far from dreaming about “bums on seats”, a more productive and enlightened conception of the storyteller/audience relationship, and one that is ultimately essential to the storyteller’s own processes of transformation, involves the realisation that, far from being a generalised and sometimes quantifiable mass of potential viewers, an audience is personal, identifiable and capable of lucid visualisation by the storyteller. In short, audience is that person, known to the storyteller, to whom the story is addressed, that person to whom the storyteller is speaking.
When considered in the context of story and story creation, audience is never merely a group of people; it is a person, and not just any person, but a person with whom the storyteller is intimately associated.
The association must be close so that the storyteller can gauge the responses that that “person” would have to the characters and the actions by which the energies of the story are built and released. Conceived of in this way, audience is as much a tool of discovery as it is a final fact of appreciation. Audience is an act of the imagination, for it is not the actual person that the storyteller addresses. The storyteller’s vivid internalisation of his or her audience and the critical faculties that persona brings to an examination of character and story is what is crucial.
A storyteller looking at a script solely from the habitual perspective of the storyteller/character relationship is more likely to read through gaps or contradictions in the emotional logic whilst, at the same time, reading energy into stale or unenergetic actions; whereas the imaginative “other” – the storyteller-as-audience – functions very much as Hemingway described it, as “a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.”
In many ways, the storyteller’s relationship with his/her audience parallels the storyteller/character relationship, for just as the story is not entirely from the storyteller but depends upon the active participation of storyteller and character, so too does a story require audience to which it can be directed and through which its power and effectiveness can be challenged and tested.
To say that a storyteller can tell an effective dramatic story without the slightest hint as to its audience is on a par with saying that characters are irrelevant to the creation of emotionally compelling stories. Dramatic stories require both characters AND audiences.
This second vantage point – the storyteller/audience relationship – explores story from the perspective of it being something that is told to someone. It embraces the notion that every well-told story has a good reason for being told, and that that reason is as important a factor in its successful expression as the language that is employed to express it. Hence, the experience of developing a dramatic story is not unlike the experience of entering into an engrossing and life-changing conversation, not only with one’s characters but with the person who needs to hear and see such a story enacted. Indeed, that person – or audience – might even provide an important reason for the story’s coming-into-being.
This dialogue between the screenwriter and the audience may at first be largely unconscious, but even at the unconscious level it works to increase the screenwriter’s sensitivity to and awareness of where and how the storyteller has intruded into the story. The storyteller’s awareness concerning both his or her unproductive intrusions, as well as those authentic expressions that evolve organically out of the character’s needs or fears or desires, increases as the storyteller becomes ever more conscious and sensitive to audience. Indeed, the ear whose innate understanding of what rings true and what does not, belongs largely to the audience, or least the storyteller/audience relationship.
In the process of seemingly “disappearing” into the storyteller/character relationship, the screenwriter is still capable of aiding and abetting the dissipation of energy by unconsciously asserting his or her will over the will of the characters themselves. In the act of performing the role of the unseen player, the writer’s first goal is not always to find the drama; but, more often than not, the motivation is to protect or promote the screenwriter’s own prejudices and anxieties.
The storyteller/audience relationship enables the storyteller to lose him/herself completely without losing sight of who the story actually belongs to – i.e.: the characters. In the act of becoming one’s audience, the act of losing oneself enables one to find oneself as character, whilst challenging the wilful and unproductive intrusion of the writer/character who, if left unchecked, might go on contentedly manipulating the choices and actions of the other characters, thus compromising the power and authenticity of the lives of the story.
From the screenwriter’s point of view, the critical distance afforded by the storyteller/audience perspective is what renders the re-writing process meaningful. It calls attention to the fact that an essential element of this process is a meditative encounter with both character and story from the perspective of audience. Entering into the life of one’s audience, becoming one’s audience, is fundamental to the process of finding and entering more deeply into a relationship with the characters in the screenplay.
From the perspective of audience, the screenwriter’s perception of him/herself as “character” is vividly exposed. The prejudices and choices of the writer/character are now open to the same sort of scrutiny that was once reserved only for the characters in the script. As such, the storyteller/audience relationship can be understood as an audience/character relationship in which the storyteller addresses the audience and is addressed by it. When this occurs the screenwriter becomes an implicit character operating within the context of the other characters and their quest. Such a relationship provides a critical vantage point that allows the storyteller to retain what is useful to the empowerment of the characters while at the same time giving the screenwriter the strength and confidence to jettison whatever might be irrelevant, including the storyteller-as-manipulator with all of his/her accompanying airs, pretensions, doubts and delusions. The screenwriter who ignores this relationship does so at his/her own peril, for to create with a sense that no one is listening or watching virtually guarantees that no one will be.
In asking the question: who is my audience? one confronts the most crucial question of all: why do I care? The ultimate answer to this question can only be answered by the dramatic connections and disconnections that ensue from the collective actions of all the characters, and by those energies that are being built or released in, by and through their interactions.
Isolated from audience, the screenwriter lacks the requisite perspective to ascertain the effectiveness of the actions produced by the storyteller/character relationship. Audience permits of a contextual shift that re-constructs the dramatic experience through a non-proprietorial perceptiveness that allows the screenwriter to “read” and discern the physical, psychical, emotional and intellectual relationships operating within the script with a fresher eye and ear.
(1) Distance ...is obtained by separating the object and its appeal from one's own self, by putting it out of gear with practical needs and ends. Thereby the 'contemplation' of the object becomes alone possible. But it does not mean that the relation between the self and the object is broken to the extent of becoming 'impersonal.' See Edward Bullough’s "'Psychical Distance' as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic Principle".