Safe is not safe

stepoffcliff

Yesterday, I watched the interview of Billy Crystal on The Daily Show and aside from the startling reminder of just how funny Crystal is as he approaches his 65th birthday, I was deeply effected by a story he told.

In his earliest days as a standup, he performed one night at Catch A Rising Star, where he absolutely crushed his audience—20 minutes of pure gold. And yet, when he had dinner later that night with Jack Rollins, the man who discovered Woody Allen and made him a star, Rollins was unimpressed with Crystal’s set. This drove Crystal crazy and when he finally worked up the courage to ask why, Rollins complained that Crystal had played it safe.

Crystal’s entire set, he explained, was material that he knew would be appreciated by his audience, and Rollins acknowledged it was funny. But it also left him cold, as it told him nothing about the man behind the humour. It said nothing about who Crystal was and what he thought about the world.

Never be afraid to bomb, Rollins advised Crystal, and it has been Crystal’s advice to aspiring comics ever since.

Too often, writers of all media and genres face the same challenge. With an eye to being popular (liked) and commercial, we play it safe. We don’t push ourselves, our talents, or our audiences hard enough. We hold back for fear of offending. The results are shelves of books and DVDs that are milquetoast, bland, generic, and channels that are devoid of anything stimulating.

It’s not entirely the writer’s fault. Some of us have agents and managers cautioning us before the next deal. Editors and producers “honing” and “refining” out creativity in the hope of better numbers. But we let them do this to us and to our Art. Playing it safe may get you that next deal, but will it keep the deals coming?

When your work reads like the next writer’s work, which reads like the last writer’s work, why does anyone need to choose you or your idea?

Like them or no, there is no denying the talent that went into shows like The Big Bang Theory (4 physicists and an actress?), Breaking Bad (a meth-cooking school teacher?) and The Big C (a cancer comedy?). Or the book 50 Shades of Grey (mom reads porn?). Or the movie Memento (an inside-out movie?).

None of these were safe choices. None of these was obvious. All of these made people uncomfortable.

Go to the edge with your writing. Stare down the precipice and smile.

Don’t just face your fears; laugh at them and then take a giant step forward into the unknown.

In life, safe is an illusion. In Art, it is a lie.

As an artist, the most dangerous thing you can do is play it safe.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because I like to live dangerously.)

Story before structure

Over the last couple decades, I have taken classes at a variety of post-secondary centres teaching everything from magazine writing to sketch writing to screenwriting, and one thing has always amazed and frustrated me about the majority of my classmates: They all think they are going to finish the class with a template for success.

For some reason, they believe that there is an inherent structure for a successful story that they can just drape story elements over. If I can just map out the three-act structure, I will win that Academy Award.

When in your lives have you ever walked out of a class with a structure for success? Ever! Ever!

Even the alphabet was merely a building block to communication. Please let me know who has gotten a job and achieved a pinnacle of success through the strict application of the alphabet as taught in pre-K or kindergarten. The alphabet is useless unless you rearrange and duplicate some of the letters, and even then there is more to it.

Don’t ask the instructor on what page the Act I turning point should come because not all screenplays are 110 pages and not all stories have their Act I turning point at the 25% point of the screenplay. (If you want your head to explode, try figuring out the Act I turning point of the movie Memento.)

Write the story that demands to be written, regardless of the canonical film, novel or sketch structure. Let the story and its characters tell you when things should happen. Luckily, because few of us still spit charcoal onto our hands against rock walls, we can easily move the elements of our story around later.

You can have the strongest architecture in the world, but if your story sucks, your screenplay sucks. If your characters aren’t truthful to themselves and your story, no one will believe them. Much as a roadmap doesn’t a vacation make, neither does a story structure a story make.

We learn these elements, the points in our writing, as guiding principles for our own thoughts, not as immovable stone markers for what must be.

When used correctly, this information can enhance a beautiful story, but when used as a crutch, it destroys creativity; we focus too much on the next point and not enough on the journey.

Write your play. Write your novel. Write your screenplay. Write your poem. Write your story.

Once you’ve done that, then check the beams and girders of your construction to make sure everything is exactly where it needs to be for the sake of that story.