Monday, May 13, 2013
NEVER START A SCRIPT OR STORY QUESTION WITH THE WORD "HOW . . . ?"
Any time you hear a screenwriter talking about HOW to write a scene, or HOW to construct a screenplay, or HOW to write effective dialogue, or HOW to develop dramatic characters, Beware! “HOW” is never the right word to start any question regarding drama, story, character or screenwriting, generally. The more useful questions, in terms of getting inside your characters, are WHAT and WHY, and some times WHO and WHERE and WHEN. “How” implies a recipe, a secret esoteric knowledge, as if there is some mystical alchemical process, the knowledge of which is only possessed by a priests class charged with guarding the formula, that sure-fire method for writing screen stories, for which the supplicants come begging. Formulas exist, to be sure, but HOW is no “open sesame” and can never address the more fundamental issues of surprise, freshness and originality - in other words, that rare quality we some times refer to as “the magic”. “How” is usura. When it is employed by the writer it already implies a repertoire of writer-centered choices.
One must FREE DRAMA from the chauvinism and tyranny of a writer-driven story. The writer is only one of the ‘characters’ necessary for finding the story. If the process is reduced to a puppet-puppeteer relationship it produces imbalances of power in the writer / character relationships - the usurpation of the potential potency of the contributions the other characters might make.
“HOW” is strategy. “WHAT”, “WHY”, “WHERE”, “WHO”, and “WHEN” are tactics. “HOW” involves goals and choices that in, film-making, are usually reserved for the director - when the writer involves him or herself in formulating a story’s goals, what needs to happen and what the happenings might possibly mean thematically, he/she is likely to ask “how” questions. But the meat and potatoes of any narrative strategy are the tactics, which are character-driven (writer, audience and tribe). Tactics refer specifically to action. Not how do they act? but why, for what purpose, and what is it that has triggered the action? Knowing how a character acts is not the same thing as understanding why they act.
For the writer that wants to work as a MEDIUM for character, it is not useful to ask of a character: “how did she make such a bad decision?” That is the sort of a question an observer might ask. Better to ask: “Why did she make this decision?” which is more like the question the character would ask of herself. To work as a medium for character, the writer must become more and more invisible. And while I could agree that the “HOW” question might get the writer THINKING - that is not usually an effective way of entering into intimate relationships with the characters. Quite simply, the the process demands that the writer disappears, as much as possible anyway, and that the characters in the story are allowed to say and do whatever they must in order to address the “WHAT” and “WHY” of what is happening to them and what they need to do in order to obtain their objective or reach their goal. “HOW?” is a spectator’s perspective.
For what it’s worth, I do an immense amount of work with writers (as a script editor) - and have done so for nearly 20 years - and I never ask the writers with whom I am working “HOW?” Not as a matter of form, but simply because it sidetracks the writer into a mind-set that separates writer from character. The writers I work with might from time to time ask me “How should I write this?” or similar, and I always respond: “‘How’ is the wrong question - what does the character want and why does the character want it and who or what is stopping the character from getting it, and why?” If you answer those questions, the “how” takes care of itself.
FOR MORE ABOUT READING AND ASSESSING YOUR SCREEN STORIES, GO TO WHERE’S THE DRAMA?
ALSO, USE THE DRAMA REPORTS TO DIAGNOSE SCRIPT AND STORY PROBLEMS.