Creativity unfettered

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Thank you for showing me that there’s a place for all of my thoughts & feelings to go. I was overwhelmed by emotion for almost the entirety of our class.

— Student

The urge to create is a powerful one. It can be so all-consuming that it overwhelms our senses.

At the same time, so few of us are born equipped to know where to begin with these feelings, how to convert that urge into positive, constructive energy. And if left untapped, we are prone to quell the noise, contain the chaos, if only to move forward with our lives in ways that we do understand, in ways socially acceptable.

I truly believe that all of us are born with this urge to create, and that it is as much the environment into which we are born and grow as it is our innate interests that determines what happens next.

For the many, the need to conform, the need to be good citizens, the need to normalize—often initiated by outside forces—leads them to confine those urges in a tightly packed container, left on a dark shelf deep in the lost recesses of their psyches.

For the few, however, those whose urges refuse to be contained, where the pressure to normalize is not so severe, creation is given voice, whether from the earliest days or later in life. Timid hesitant steps of interest give way to running vaults of passion, and creation floods ourselves and our worlds.

I am one of those lucky few; someone whose passions have been supported and nurtured from my earliest days. The hesitations and uncertainties of my past were largely self-imposed and have long since been removed and forgotten.

The need to create and to seek creation consumes and replenishes me. My world is one of possibility and opportunity; and if it is limited, it is only by my time here.

If I have been given the opportunity to act as nurturer and supporter to others—through teaching, social contacts, simple engagement with my universe—then I accept and welcome that function both enthusiastically and humbly. In the exercise, I receive as much and likely more than I could ever hope to give.

The urge to create is a powerful one. But it is nothing compared to the act of creation.

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Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

My thanks to Pexels for the free stock photos.

Writers beating off

The dog next door has been barking non-stop for days, maybe weeks. The first couple of times, you got up to see why, but never seeing anything, you barely hear the sound any more. It is just noise.

Alternatively, you’d never know your neighbour owns a dog, the creature is so quiet. But then, it suddenly barks. Jarred by the new noise, you look out your window only to find someone climbing through one of your neighbour’s windows.

Which dog are you most likely to notice: The one that barks incessantly or the one that doesn’t but just did?

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(Property of Jerry King: http://www.jerryking.com Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

If there is one function that I wish Final Draft and Movie Magic and all the other screenwriting software would remove, it’s the ability to insert the parenthetical (beat).

At the very least, when you type it, I would love a pop-up window to appear asking: “Are you sure it’s necessary?”

Because more often than not, it is completely UNnecessary. If anything, it is typically a nuisance.

As I understand it, (beat) is used to indicate a delay between one line of dialogue and the next.

In this example from The Imitation Game, the 2014 film screenwritten by Graham Moore, it is used to break up a phone conversation where we only hear one character speak. In this case, (beat) indicates a pause while Detective Nock listens to the party on the other end of the line.

Imitation Game phone

(Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

Unfortunately, (beat) is also often inserted by the screenwriter for dramatic reasons.

The writer believes that the brief pause makes the prior line stand out before moving onto the next spoken thought. A dramatic moment is revealed in the dialogue, and (beat) gives the line space to be heard.

Or at least, that’s the theory.

Too often, unfortunately, writers use (beat) in place of drama. Unable to devise a truly dramatic or powerful line, they instead insert (beat) in a vain attempt to imply drama.

It’s tantamount to someone Tweeting about how powerful, smart or cagey they are to compensate for none of those qualities being obvious in their person or demeanor.

In the writer’s defence—and this happens more with newer writers—the (beat) is exactly how they “hear” the dialogue in their head. The character takes a moment when speaking and so the writer types (beat).

This would be fine if it happened a couple of times in a screenplay, but what I’ve found is that:

Once a writer starts (beat)ing off, it’s hard to get them to stop.

 

The more dramatic the scene they’re trying to write, the more aggressively they (beat) off. And they don’t stop (beat)ing off until the scene or sequence achieves climax.

Although the writer may gain some satisfaction in this, few others do.

The pace of the read and therefore the pace of the story slows for the reader. The Director doesn’t want to be told how to direct, nor the performer how to act.

To a person, each simply ignores the writer’s directive to (beat). The constantly barking dog is effectively silenced.

When everything is dramatic, nothing is dramatic.

And worse, once the (beat) moves on, the reader, Director and performer are left with lines of dialogue that are not dramatic, that have no weight, that dampen the drama.

So, what’s the writer to do?

 

One: Write better, more powerful dialogue.

Writing is an art, but it is also a craft.

Write the best line that you can, and then rewrite it better and better, layering the drama into the words, the cadence, the subtext, the timing within the plot.

Two: Trust the process.

Know that you are not the only arbiter of your words and trust others down the line to find the drama you so carefully crafted.

Below, see another example from The Imitation Game, where Benedict Cumberbatch’s script is un(beat)en and yet he imbues his lines with drama and significance.

 

Imitation Game interview

(Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

If people cannot find the drama without constant insertions of (beat), they won’t find it with your direction (because it’s likely not there).

By being judicious in your use of (beat), those moments you do decide to use it will become the dog that never barks but just did.

The (beat) will stand out as something special, noteworthy; and so will your story.

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

We could be heroes

A new day starts, and you rise from your bed. As you head to the shower, your mind drifts to the challenges your boss is having connecting with her 20-year-old son.

As your boss has focused on her career, both her son and husband have come to feel like second-class citizens, the younger adult acting out by joining a gang.

It’s not your place, but as you’ve known your boss for 15 years, you feel drawn into the family drama and spend your morning devising ways to intervene on her behalf while simultaneously coping with the poison-pill clause in the hostile takeover bid.

Hold it. Wait a second. No, you’re not.

Sure, if your boss is a friend and she’s struggling, you’d likely help. You have your own life, your family and your job, however, to worry about.

You don’t merely exist to serve your boss’s life.

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(Character likenesses are the property of DreamWorks Animation & are used here for teaching purposes only.)

Consider the movie Shrek, for a moment.

Among the characters, we have Shrek, Fiona, Farquad, Donkey, Dragon and Gingie.

Of those, who was the hero of that movie?

Given the movie’s title, it is pretty likely that the central protagonist of the story is Shrek. And given the way the narrative plays out, based on the scenes we watch, Shrek is indeed the hero of the movie.

But do the other characters see it that way?

Did Donkey wake up one morning with a mission to help an irascible ogre find acceptance not only within a community openly hostile to him, but also within himself through his sacrifice for another?

No, he had his own issues.

Did Fiona allow herself to be locked in a tower, guarded by a knight-immolating dragon, so that Shrek could see her example of isolation as a metaphor for his own, and in rescuing Fiona, he rescued himself?

Not so much. Girlfriend had her own agenda.

So, I ask again: Who was the hero of Shrek?

EVERYONE!

(At least from his or her own perspective.)

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Everyone saw the same events unfold, but everyone saw them differently.

Shrek followed his life course. Donkey followed his. Fiona hers. Farquad, Gingie, the Three Blind Mice, theirs.

And in seeking to fulfill their own wants and needs, they each experienced their own character arcs. They each suffered their own Hero’s Journey.

As a screenwriter—or more broadly, a storyteller—this understanding is vital to doing proper service to your characters. The secondary and maybe even tertiary characters cannot simply be treated as plot devices, or at least not if you hope to make them seem real.

As you introduce your characters to your story, give thought to what their journeys would look like. Consider what they hope to accomplish by spending time with your main protagonist or the other characters. See their various relationships through their eyes.

And then write them with that in mind.

When they react to a situation or another’s action, they must do so with their own interests at heart, at least as much if not more than their counterpart’s interests.

When one character acts, consider the consequences and stakes for each character, and then watch the dramatic tension rise.

Look for those moments when a character must choose between his or her agenda and the greater good, or those moments where another’s behaviour threatens his or her agenda. There lies conflict.

Hear the words a character speaks and consider if those words mean one thing to the larger story and a different thing to that character’s journey. This is the subtext—conscious or subconscious—that you seek.

You may not—likely won’t—accomplish this level of intricacy on your first draft. First drafts are about getting the central story line onto paper (or whatever medium you prefer).

It gives you several starting points, however, as you enter rewrites and search for ways to tighten and heighten your story.

And at the end of that process, you should be able to write a logline for each of the major characters’ perspectives.

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Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

Living happiness

In February 2018, an organization called The Expansion Project is hosting a men’s retreat in Barbados as part of their efforts to help men and women find their ways to personal transformation and happiness.

I am hoping to speak at this retreat, and as part of the submission, they asked us all to do short videos, introducing ourselves, our proposed talks and how our subjects align with The Expansion Project’s mission.

The video above offers my thoughts on the role of passion in happiness, somewhat stemming from my recent blog post of Happy as a verb.

The fundamental premise is that happiness resides within us from our earliest days and simply awaits us to remove the layers of muck and mire that have built up over decades of living a life we may not have chosen, doing what was expected of us rather than what we longed to do. Reconnecting with your passions is the first step to removing that mess and uncovering your dormant happiness.

Please watch the video and give me your thoughts.

At the very least, in the comments section, please list your favourite charity, as The Expansion Project wants to donate some of their proceeds back to the community.

P. S. The Expansion Project is also hosting a similar retreat for women in the Cayman Islands in November 2017.

See also:

The Expansion Project on Facebook

Randall C Willis on Facebook

Leadership focuses on others

[See video here…Viacom pulled YouTube video above]

When you have really touched co-workers’ lives, when you have helped people grow by nurturing them and fostering their inherent talents, when you have taught people through example, then and only then can you walk away knowing that you have done a good job.

Anyone can shill the product or service that your organization offers, but it takes a special person to see beyond his or her ego and know that it’s about others and making the world a better place.

Looking forward to your next adventures, Jon. Thank you.

My Creative Journey – Part One

What follows are a few thoughts on why I write…the moments in my life that led me to embrace my passion. It is an incredibly personal story and I hope it doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable, but rather helps them reflect on why they embrace their own passions.

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I need to be creative on my terms.

When I was younger, it was all about acquiring knowledge and being recognized for having acquired that knowledge. In hindsight, I’m not exactly sure what I was planning to do with that knowledge.

In some respects, it was about solving a puzzle, which could range from how does this alarm clock work to how does the universe work. On another level, I think it was about control. Knowing how the universe worked meant knowing that there was a broader sense of organization out there; that the laws of physics and mathematics still held even when my own life seemed in constant flux. The subtle irony of entropy only occurred later.

But it was also about control in the sense that I couldn’t be expected to come up with answers, with solutions, until I had all the information I needed to make that decision. The aggravating reality of that method of control is it only works when you’re the one asking the questions. Nobody else is willing to wait until I have all of the info I need.

At the same time, I needed the safety of analysis and knowledge, I’ve also had a need to be creative. A need that has only recently blossomed as a regular part of my life.

When I was young, I was constantly creating new worlds through my stories. First, as play scenarios and then as the written word. I constantly developed short stories that took me in a million directions. Again, this might have been an attempt at control.

When I wrote, I was the master of my universe. I was the one who decided who lived and who died, who was allied and who was the enemy. I was the protagonist and the antagonist.

It was in 1977, as I started high school, that I first noticed the strength of my writing. That summer, my life changed with the release of Star Wars. So deeply effected was I by the characters and the story, that I immediately went home and started working on the sequel. My version took a very different turn than George Lucas’s—although there were some subplot overlaps—but over the next few weeks, I hand wrote 400 pages of dialogue.

I shared the script with my Grade 9 English teacher, who was impressed with the volume if not the content (my words, not hers). It was in her class that I first realized the power of my words to still and disturb an audience.

On day, Ms. Philp gave us a writing assignment that started with the sentence “I couldn’t believe it when I heard that sound.” It was supposed to be an in-class assignment, but I was onto something and asked if I could take it home to finish it. I guess she sensed something—that this was important to me—and she said yes. While I didn’t finish the story, I did hand her several pages the next day.

After reading the story herself, she decided to read it to the class. Whereas most people had written stories about funny sounds, spooky sounds or weird sounds, I had written about a man who comes upon a murder in an alleyway, first by the sound of bone and sinew breaking, and then by sight. I wrote about the fear and indecision in the witness’s heart as the murderer sees him and he flees for his life.

As Ms. Philp read the story aloud, there was silence in the room—a room of 14 and 15 year olds. No one said a word until she was done reading. It was magical for me.

I wish I could say that there was a rousing round of applause at the end and that this was the day that I decided to become a professional writer. There was no round of applause—although my class seemed to appreciate my story—and Ms. Philp continued to be supportive of my efforts, but there was no effort to foster this creative desire in a young boy struggling to define his world.

The opportunity was there. Everything was laid out for someone to recognize, but nobody tapped into it. Writing continued to be a strange little quirk of my life. I guess it was just easier to find ways to support my interest in science and history by buying me more books, taking me to the Science Centre.

What do you do for a budding writer? Get him a pen and a notebook? Buy him a typewriter?

Eventually, someone did buy me a typewriter—a vehicle to do my homework. But it quickly became the vehicle for my creative outlet, much to my mother’s chagrin. The muse hits me when I have time to be alone with my thoughts. When my day isn’t cluttered with requests for attention and responsibilities. Unfortunately, in my childhood home, those times only tended to occur when my family was asleep.

Routinely, my mother would yell down from her bedroom for me to stop wailing away at the keys. Loudly pounding them into submission. Watching the letter hammers get stuck because the thoughts occurred to me and be translated through my fingertips faster than the typewriter could accommodate. She wanted to be supportive, but not at the cost of a good night’s sleep.

It took no time at all before I had an incredible portfolio of work—half-finished thoughts, short stories—but they languished unread by anyone other than me. I had given voice to the creative urges in my soul but no one heard that voice. It was the proverbial tree in a forest. With no one to even acknowledge the existence of my efforts, did they really exist.

Where was my mentor to guide me through this process? Someone to help me hone my voice. To make my stories better. To help me get my voice heard.

To be continued…