Sunday, March 13, 2011


Three hundred years ago, most people on the planet were largely unaware of any reality other than the one into which they were born. Now, owing to the global spread of electronic technology and the speed by which we are able to navigate physical and virtual reality, we are ever more cognizant of other "readings" of human experience. Turn on your television or computer and you immediately invite the possibility of a cultural confrontation. The "culture wars" that Fox celebrates and warns us about are symptomatic of a psychical claustrophobia, a disquieting xenophobia that infects and terrorises all those who are either unwilling or unable to navigate the drama arising from the apparent disconnect betwen "us and them". In light of this, one's resilency and openess to change is a strong determining factor in how well one manages the fear as well as the intolerance that arises from the myriad cultural confrontations one encounters on an almost daily basis. 

The novelist, Chaim Potok, speaking to a fledging writer, once remarked: "If you know how your story ends before you write it, why write it?"  For Potok, one uncovered a story in a way not dissimilar to the way in which one journeyed through unexplored territory. This is particularly the case for the screenwriter. Anyone that has made the emotional journey demanded by a dramatic screenplay understands the role character plays in the finding of an original, surprising and emotionally compelling story. A rigorous honesty lies at the heart it, an honesty that admits one's own ignorance. It makes no sense to undergo the travail of all that suffering (writing) if you already know where all possible destinations are located, and what they mean. When scriptwriting becomes nothing more than target shooting, why bother? Unless you like target shooting. Unfortunately, when screenwriting is reduced to hitting plot points the resulting action is usually predictable and stale. A vision of what we possess and what we don’t possess, of what is ours and what is not ours, of what is and what isn’t, is essential to the becoming of any story-finder; indeed, it is the essence of what it means to be human. That, and the courage and fortitude to reach into the unknown and let the unknown reach into us, is what story is all about.

As for cultural confrontation, the kind that impacts on us the most is the one that strikes us at our core – the kind of confrontations that Huck Finn continually experiences when he and Jim pull their raft over to the bank and head up towards the lights of civilised society – a society that has very little in common with the meandering dream of the river. It is in the nature of this kind of confrontation – when it occurs in our lives – that it sometimes promotes a herd or mob mentality - as witnessed by the lynching party in its confrontation with Colonel Sherburne in Twain's timeless novel. It also, occassionally, provides the impetus for Huckelberry Finn. And notable acts of sellessness and bravery within human societies.

Such confrontations are quite often an inspiration to the telling of great stories. Indeed, it is this kind of confrontation – a core confrontation – that informs the action of almost every enduring dramatic screenplay and play.

Great stories are the outward manifestations of outer and inner journeys - and, when dramatic, present the invasion of one world by another, of one belief system by another, of one value system by another. What we so carelessly refer to as DRAMATIC CONFLICT is the enactment of a core confrontation - the sort of conflict that necessitates deliberate and immediate action and defines and confirms the identity of the characters and the significant meaning of their actions.


Dramatic screenplays are neither blueprints nor maps. Borrowing an idea from Ezra Pound - they are instances of "periplum" : wanderings in which one sights land "not as it looks on a map but as sea bord seen by men sailing." One does not so much write a drama as ENTER it. You walk around in the story world and when the going is good, its characters walk around in you. You find yourself intersecting with them at the same emotional level at which they intersect with each other.

Dramatic screen stories that work are possessed of character. The actions of the characters (as expressed in a screenplay) have voice, as do the words that the characters speak. The "voice" of the screenplay is itself a character. It has attitude. Its phrasing either brings us closer to the emotional lives of the characters or frustratingly impedes a more intimate involvement. Language is character becasue the "languaging" of every dramatic screenplay is conducted solely by characters - the writer as character; the audience as character, and the writer's tribe or tribes as character. One might say it's characters all the way down.

As storytellers we act and interact as one character among many, mostly by listening to them. At times what we hear gives rise to a successful (i.e.: emotionally compelling) screenplay. In snatches of speech and image, we work in concert with them to imagine and plot the actions, mutually playing out the "what ifs" and the "how comes", testing and exploring our incipient understandings of the dramatic problems and questions as well as the obstacles, beliefs, needs, fears, and values that drive us all. The ultimate outcome of this is a story, which on one level is simply the illumination of the nature of a process of transformation, the death of one state of being and the birth of another. If the story has a happy ending, it invaribly involves a healing; if an unhappy ending, the recognition that loss is mitigated by the nobility and the awareness that someone fought the good fight, and that there was nothing more that could have humanly been done.

The interactions of ALL the characters are played out both within and outside the script. The community of characters set within space and time and focused on a central problem gives rise to the story world. A dramatic story is a world that binds these characters together and lends meaning to their actions and discoveries. The telling and receiving of stories is akin to the Aboriginal notion of "walkabout" – a journey of initiation, a quest – the leading out of childhood (ignorance) into adulthood (wisdom, awareness). A dramatic story - framed in the form of a screenplay - is about movement, it is about walking the territory - the outer and inner territory of character as conducted by a camera in the eyes of a poet. It is about the storyteller becoming present to the characters just as the characters become present to the storyteller. It is about making that world PRESENT - a journey in the divine sense, where travel means to see, to hear, to change.

"Travel makes distance possible.

"The inspired traveller realises – intuitively – that to partake in any genuine odyssey is not to travel through a hundred lands with the same pair of eyes, but to see the same land through a hundred pairs of eyes.

"By way of story we come to understand what travel really is.

"Genuine travelling is not the overcoming of distance, but the discovery of distance, which is really the discovery of difference." 

(James Carse from Finite and Infinite Games)

It may not be immediately obvious, but all men and women are brothers and sisters in a world well told. In a world well told, whether it be the outer world of society and culture, or the inner world of spirit and mind (or both), we, along with the characters, are provoked into making a journey that lies beyond the circle of the known, beyond the boundaries of what is immediately past - to hear, to see, to FEEL, to re-member ALL those worlds that have contributed, will contribute and are contributing to making us what we are. In the experience of adversity and the need to defend or fight for what they believe in, or value or love, dramatic characters - including the screenwriter - come face-to-face with their own doubts, and guilt. They reach out touching death, touching nothingness, and in the reaching discover an antidote for the meaningless that might otherwise overwhelm them. 

It is not the business of a screenplay, let alone film drama, to lecture its audience, though one can always find examples of cinema-as-propaganda (e.g.: Triumph of the Will, Birth of A Nation). In seeking to effect an emotional response in your audience you must first of all engage emotionally with the characters, eschewing all acts of manipulation. One cannot employ a story's characters merely as mouthpieces for imparting one's personal grievances, especially when the information concerns issues to which one's audience is not emotionally tuned. The internet does a much better job of that. Fact is, finding dramatic stories has almost nothing to do with knowledge. Only a screenwriter that is not threatened by the posssibilities of his/her characters and is not persuaded to take refuge in cliche and formula, can achieve the degree of openess that permits the full and thoroughly credible particicipation of the characters in the story that wants to get itself told. The acceptance of the characters and one's respect for their essential integrity is required if the story-finder is to discover those actions through which the story invades our being.

A story has power. not because it tells the audience what it doesn't know, but because it expresses something that the audience knows all too well, but had never thought of expressing in just that way. Every dramatic story that works its magic, that effects significant and surprising changes and discoveries both inside the narrative and between the narrative and the audience, does so by cultivating and promoting a sense of identification, a sense of belonging, in which love is never completely absent. This cannot happen unless this sense of sonnectedness - of resonance - has first occurred in the relationship between the writer and the characters. When a story works, the emotional energies that it generates causes us to care about what is happening, and to empathise with, or at least understand, the strivings of the characters. This caring is fundamental if the story is to matter.

Our acknowledgement and appreciation of difference is both the beginning and the end of all our discoveries. It is only by virtue of the characters' differences, laid bare by their actions and interactions that we come to see the ironies that are at play below the surface of ehat is visual and audible. The differences that exist among the characters are echoed in the contradictions that exist within them. Without such contradictions subtext is impossible.

In our emotional involvement with a diversity of characters, pitted not only against one another but, at times, against themselves, we - screenwriters and filmmakers - come to see and accept (or tolerate) those untold, hidden aspects of ourselves, and the contradictions that we too must struggle against or imaginatively conduct if we are to be an energetic and ingenious contributor to the unfolding drama. Swept along by a compelling story, initiated into the emotional life of other tribes by characters that embody aspects of ourselves, the experience of I-LIKE-YOU becomes possible.

Great screenplays take the chaos of human experience and illuminate it, shaping it into an emotional logic that subrates our prejudices and whatever mean-spirited pettiness it might enshrine. Through the vivid dramatisation of core confrontations (drama) a screenplay inspires that quality of vision that is synonymous with respect - the act of "looking again", of seeing rather than merely looking. 

The core confrontations that make us US are the stuff of drama, and when we experience such confrontations in a well told screen story or film, far from being mesmerised by the vision, we and the audience find courage and strength and renewed hope. In short, we are moved. Hearing and seeing what is true is invariably moving. Someone has actually presented something that speaks to what is alive in us, and is itself alive. The freshness of such an experience, the boldness of it, renews and encourages a sense of genuine connectedness - a feeling that in our aloneness we are not altogether alone. Truth made new - perhaps this is the ultimate goal of every dramatic story, not to mention every work of art.

But what is it that we actually care about when a story makes us care?

I would submit that it is a clearer vision of ourselves. Certainly, conflict - or disconnection - is the life of dramatic action. But conflict only has meaning within the context of the possibility of belonging, and a struggle to belong, to heal, to overcome. Fragmentation lacks poignancy unless there is both the possibility of, and a desire for, change, which is the journey - the odyssey from disunity to unity, from sickness to health, from death to life.

Our encounters with other, seemingly different worlds, began at an early age. Most of us were most likely bombarded with alternate ways of thinking [about] what it means to be human. In the some times violent and blind interactions that took place, we began to wrestle with the first great personal question of our lives: what does it mean to be "me"? or "What am I?" It is a question sourced in everything that is most comforting and most painful to us, it derives from everything that fills us with dread and horror, and is at the same time the basis of all our freedom. It seems too glib to say there is nothing to fear, but in one's better moments - when one actually tastes the freedom - one suspects it might be possible, or even true. Nevertheless, there is a strange and unexpected good fortune in confronting and questioning those ideas we have held as sacred, unassailable truths. Indeed, such action is essential if one is to avoid stagnation and a life of opaque routine. This is particularly the case if you are to live and work creatively. If one is to become a relevant and courageous storyteller and filmmaker it must become second nature. To cultivate a passionate and inspired doubt is the essence of faith. For unless we find constructive and creative ways of remaining ever open and enthusiastic about whatever it is that challenges our carefully constricted and ever-so-safe sense of what it means to belong, we will surely die a slow and melodramatic death.

Enduring screen stories cannot be told from the perspective of a perfectly secure and familiar world. They might start there, but the journey you must make as a myth-maker - as a carrier of the wisdom of one's tribe or tribes - by dramatic necessity must take you far beyond your comfortable habits of thought and self-satisfied prejudices. Making it new does not mean coming up with new-fangled ideas about how to format a script, or devising novel and clever templates for structuring dramatic action. 

Dramatic action drives the emotional energy of every successful screenplay. But a screenplay or script is not the only field of struggle. The action that plays itself out inside the script is also being played out in the relationships that are external to the script, namely in the necessarily adversarial relationship taking place between screenwriter and audience. The changes that occur as a result of the interactions and emotional experiences of the characters in the script are echoed in the interactions occurring among ALL the characters, including the writer's relationships with his/her tribe or tribes.

Ironically, the story experience is the "mutually assured construction" of all of the characters necessary for finding the story, a construction that ultimately transforms both the writer and the audience. The sense of empathy that is built through the writer's identification with and participation in the struggles of the characters inside the story, works to initiate the audience into the emotional life of the tribal world or worlds inhabited by those characters, including the writer that is disguised as "the screenwriter". Only then does the vision that "I am LIKE them and they are LIKE me" become possible.

To experience this vision is to apprehend, as if for the first time, the seemingly strange and ofttimes unsettling fears of a screenplay's characters, and to realise that their anxieties are intimately connected to our own. That what is hidden in them is hidden in us, and that the source of their Being is in some mysterious way connected to those aspects of our own secret origins. To experience this is to begin to understand how the source of our BEING is not ours alone, but what we hold in common, not only with the characters but with all human beings. This understanding is the work and the outcome of myth, and the struggle to create and recreate myth is the drama that informs all those activities and actions by which myth comes to life. 

We inhabit and are inhabited by characters that speak with a thousand different voices. To find them YOU must make the inner and outer journey. The writing of the script is a finding more than a making. One makes the journey (with the characters) in order to find oneself in that world. The process itself is both the Grail and the Fleece, and more. The journey is the dramatic search for the sacred stone upon which the particular legend and truths of the storyteller's tribe or tribes are eternally enacted - what the Aborigines have called a "tjuringa", a dreaming. The quest to find it is a vision quest that calls us beyond the chalk circle of self, that requires us to open ourselves to the possibility that we inhabit and are inhabited by other selves, other worlds, other realities.

1 comment:

Gwilym Summers said...

This is brilliant, I think I get it but can I live it?