Why even bother? (Creative crisis)

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The life of anyone practicing an art form—whatever you do with passion is your art—is a continual balancing act between impassioned self-expression and self-questioning despair. For me, this duality revolves around my efforts in fiction writing (i.e., screen, novel, poetry, short stories, etc.).

Earlier today, I learned that the television series 2 Broke Girls ended its six-season run on CBS, and the news briefly shifted my balance toward despair.

On a couple of occasions, I tried to watch the sitcom about two broke girls plying their trade as diner waitresses while targeting a dream of opening a cupcake shop. But each time, I had to turn the show off after a few minutes because I found the comedy so excruciating.

Every 15 seconds, there was yet another wink-wink nudge-nudge one-liner that I felt lacked any art whatsoever, dialogue that but for an incessant laugh-track would likely have been met with complete silence in front of a live audience.

And yet, the series aired for six seasons. It had enough of an audience for CBS to keep it on the air.

I like broad comedy; truthfully, I do. I even write it on occasion.

I live for Mel Brooks’ comedies, for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for Blackadder, for The Muppet Show, for SCTV, In Living Color and Kids in the Hall.

Anyone who has followed me for any period of time—especially on Twitter—knows I am up for any joke-opalyse.

But the appeal of 2 Broke Girls and its ilk—looking at you, Two-and-a-Half Men—simply eludes me. It feels like one-liners in search of a higher purpose.

But here’s the thing I constantly need to remind myself:

This difficulty rests entirely within me, and has nothing to do with the creators or writers of any of these shows.

 

Celebrate, don’t negate

Getting ANY television show to air, getting any screenplay turned into a movie is difficult, even in this era of seemingly limitless venues and diminishing equipment costs.

That any show manages more than a pilot episode is amazing. So, six seasons of broadcast should be celebrated from every mountain top.

As an artist, I applaud 2 Broke Girls creators Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings for getting their show on the air. I congratulate the people behind the Sharknado series for continuing to produce films.

To denigrate these efforts simply because they do not suit my tastes is not only unfair, it is also blatant hubris.

Who the hell am I—a writer who has one television special to his credit (thank you, SomeTV!)—to say that these efforts are unworthy of attention?

For that matter, even if I were more routinely lauded and vastly more accomplished, it would not be my place to dictate what should be valued as Art.

And as an artist, as someone exploring my passions:

Dwelling on this topic is useless. More importantly, it is detrimental to me and the craft as I exercise it.

 

Remembering why

It would be naïve to suggest that trends in comedy and writing have no influence on my career as a writer, but honestly, my career is secondary to my writing; a beneficial side effect, if you will.

Comparing my efforts to those of others is therefore unimportant.

My only true comparator is what I wrote yesterday and any internal sense of whether I am getting better at making the points I wish to make, telling the stories I want to tell.

I write because I have something to say.

I write because I don’t know how not to.

I write because it brings me joy.

Certainly, part of understanding my craft is seeing how others approach the same challenges and opportunities I face.

Just as I must choose my path forward, so too must they theirs. Although I may not see the merits in their choices, they are doing what is right for them and I must honour that.

There is room enough for all of us.

 

Disclosure:

I own complete series collections of Get Smart and Hogan’s Heroes, which I appreciate others might consider as insipid as I do 2 Broke Girls.

 

See also:

So, What’s Your Story? (web)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

Individual or traditional – Breaking the mould

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Blazing your own trail can be rewarding, but comes with risks. Photo by David Valuja via Pexels (bit.ly/davidvaluja)

If you read enough—screenplays, novels, articles, poetry—your mind can go numb to the sameness of storytelling, whether in subject, structure, narrative style or innumerable facets you no longer see.

As a storyteller, I dread the idea that my work falls into that category, and yet I know some of it does.

The urge, therefore, is to come up with ways to surprise the reader, to give their eyes, minds and souls something they have never experienced before.

We are creatives, so why should we not be creative?

How can I shake things up in my storytelling to dazzle the reader?

What if my characters all spoke in limericks? What if I wrote my action descriptions as music? What if I named my characters using the military alphabet (see M*A*S*H)?

Yeah, what if you did any of those things?

 

Novelty and expectation

The biggest challenge in going with your own style is that it absolutely has to work. There is no middle ground.

Out of the gate, you are going to piss off traditionalists: 1) they expect to read things in a certain way and don’t embrace change easily; and 2) they see your decision not as innovative, but rather as the act of a storyteller wrapped up in his or her ego.

Who are you to think of yourself as above the law?

(Very melodramatic, these traditionalists.)

Even with readers willing to go on a ride, however, you’re going to need to prove that your method is worth the effort, that it brings something to the storytelling experience that a more traditional approach does not or cannot.

In a recent Go Into The Story blog post, Scott Myers looks at how the writers of Wall-E used a very unconventional, almost poetic style for their scene descriptions. Offering examples from the screenplay, Myers shows how simplifying the descriptions allowed the writers to focus on what the heart felt rather than what the eye saw. In the process, they created a very fluid and impactful read.

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Descriptions more poetry than prose. (Wall-E, written by Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon)

Up for the challenge?

So, should you rush back to your manuscript and do the same thing? Or do an equivalent that best suits your specific narrative?

The answer to those two questions is unfortunately two other questions.

Is there an appropriate equivalent? And can you pull it off?

Even if there is an alternative way to present your story, you may not yet be ready to effectively execute it.

Your writing skills may yet require some seasoning until you can effectively pull off non-traditional approaches to storytelling.

Alternatively, you may be approaching this challenge with the wrong (I hate to use that word) mindset; that you’re seeking novelty for the sake of novelty and not because it will enhance the power of your story.

That said, if you really want to try something new, if you really want to challenge yourself, then go for it.

 

Go for it

Nothing is permanent. Versions can be saved. You can always retell the story in a more traditional manner.

Even if it doesn’t work, you have improved your storytelling skills for the experience.

And ultimately, to counter my earlier point about others’ reactions, most of us tell stories because we have a passion for storytelling. The business of storytelling is secondary.

I welcome and encourage you to continue to explore that passion, both for your own happiness and because that is how you will create the truly remarkable.

 

To learn more about effective storytelling, as well as the power of story analysis and story coaching, visit:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

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Story is everywhere

[First part of a weekly series related to my new story analysis service So, What’s Your Story.]

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Even the most esoteric subjects have story, with all the elements of a fictional novel or screenplay…even text books about business or biochemistry or writing.

There’s no story in text books!

Yes, there is.

Only here, plot is less about action sequences and more about the interplay of the different aspects of your subject and the causes and effects that drive your theses or perspectives forward. This can be reflected in the cadence of your descriptions, as you walk the reader through your arguments, leading them to your conclusion.

Likewise, your characters are less about personalities and more a sense of the…you guessed it…characteristics of your subjects. In the broadest sense, the conflicts and synergies between the component parts or ideas of any topic are what effectively humanize the topic, providing a familiarity to the reader or viewer.

Without story, your manuscript or presentation has no narrative drive, nothing to draw the reader or viewer forward. Instead, it reads like a specification sheet or spreadsheet; a series of minimally connected facts and figures that provide information but only to the most intrepid reader.

Story is one of the reasons why you can have hundreds (thousands?) of different versions of the same facts, and how publishers and book retailers stay in business.

So, if you’re working on a nonfiction manuscript or presentation, let’s talk and see how well you are bringing your ideas to your audience.

Reach out and tell me: What’s your story?

Twitter: @createdbyrcw

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/storyanalysis/

Website: [to come]

Jason Bourne should have stayed home (review)

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Super-assassin Jason Bourne is trying to figure out who he really is. In doing so, he falls into a web of deceit and potentially world-crippling black ops, including the one that gave birth to him. People try to neutralize him…silly people.

Cars race through crowded streets. Shots are fired from every direction. People die just as they start to provide answers. More shots are fired. Bourne gets answers but no real resolution or peace.

If you expected any more from a Jason Bourne movie, then you will be seriously disappointed with the latest installment of the series based the lead character of the novels by Robert Ludlum. In fact, if you want more from a Jason Bourne story, read the novels by Robert Ludlum because they are insanely better than any of the movies.

[Some SPOILERS hereafter]

In the latest installment of the series, Matt Damon’s titular character is brought out of hiding by his former nemesis-turned-ally Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who has hacked into the CIA server and stolen the complete dossiers of the agency’s Black Ops. She wants to turn the information over to a Julian Assange kind of character, but asks for Bourne’s help, enticing him with information about his father’s involvement in his creation as super-killer (think X-Files Fox Mulder).

After a momentary “I’m getting too old for this shit” and some personal sacrifice on the end of a bullet, Bourne is alone again and we are off to the races.

Bourne cast

The CIA Director (Tommy Lee Jones) wants him dead, relying on another super-assassin The Asset (Vincent Cassel) to get the job done, while IT-savvy CIA analyst Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) sees an opportunity to advance her career and maybe replace her boss by bringing Bourne in. Oh, and in the background, there is something about the CIA having access to the personal information of everyone on the planet via the Internet and a Sergey Brin-like character.

Unless this is your first Jason Bourne movie, you know how this all plays out…and if it is your first Jason Bourne film, why should I spoil it for you?

If you are looking for 123 minutes in which to simply check your brain at the door, then this is an entertaining way to do that. Stuff blows up, people fight, lots of car chases. But nothing really happens that hasn’t happened in the previous movies. Much like a roller coaster, the ride can be exhilarating at moments, but once the ride stops, so does the exhilaration.

And that was my problem with the movie…the thrill is quite literally gone for me. Jason Bourne has become his own cliché, and the writers and directors of this series are simply repeating moments from the other incarnations.

Where they had an opportunity to do something truly interesting with this story—the moments we spend exploring Bourne’s relationship with and confusion about his father—the writer-director Paul Greengrass and writer Christopher Rouse give us the barest taste and scurry back to blowing shit up. Rather than offer any sense of discovery and revelation, they simply have a former agency hack fill in the background under threat of death.

Is toady ex machina a thing?

In the earlier incarnations of this series, I never knew what to expect. In this incarnation, I knew exactly what to expect and it was delivered each and every time with a pretty pink ribbon. Or was that faded red tape?

I’m going back to the books. At least Robert Ludlum knew how to write.

As for shit blowing up, back-stabbing political conspiracy, and disquieting Internet voyeurism, 123 minutes of Jason Bourne just can’t compete with 20 minutes of CNN.

Bourne books

You have the write to know

Write

I write about writing. I’ve seen dozens of blogs that do the same and suspect there are hundreds if not thousands more blogs about writing I have yet to find.

I routinely visit web sites dedicated to writing, reading amazing posts from amazing (and some not so amazing) writers. And I have two bookshelves dedicated to various aspects of writing, from dictionaries and tomes on prose to bound witticisms and opinions on the minutiae of character, plot and the perfect turn of joke.

I have taken classes on sketch comedy, screenwriting and story editing, and have listened in on dozens of podcasts and teleconferences given by the kings and queens of screenwriting—the latest given by Robert McKee. And I have recently started going to writing conferences, bending and rubbing elbows with writers established and in the birthing process.

Conference

All of this information and guidance has been invaluable to helping me understand my craft. But for all those thousands of hours of effort, I’m really not sure that any of it has helped me be a better writer.

In truth, I think there are only really two things you need to do to be a better writer:

  1. Write
  2. Share what you’ve written

Unless you’re willing to write, write some more, write yet again, and then when your body has given up the ghost with exhaustion, write again, you will never get better. All of the academic training and guidance in the world will not make you a better writer if you are not willing to write.

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Writing can be like literally shoving fingers into brain to extract words

But writing is a very insular process, so it is equally important that you share what you have written…with literally anyone: your mom, your partner, your dog, the guy on the subway, the squirrel at the park.

How does the other party respond to your work? Are you communicating well? Do they see, hear, taste, what you see, hear, taste?

I am not asking do they like what you wrote. Personal tastes are just that. Rather, you want to know do they respond to what you’ve written…good, bad or ugly.

Oh, and I was only being half-facetious about the dog and squirrel…try it. You’ll be amazed at what happens.

Because most animals can’t read—I blame the current education models—you’ll be forced to read your work to them…the minute your work moves from visual to aural, a different part of your brain opens up and you hear whether you are affected by your work. Invaluable.

Love the internet for this stuff..."woman talking to squirrel"

Love the internet for this stuff…”woman talking to squirrel”

So read all you want, whether online or in those ancient paper constructs we call books. Attend conferences, lectures, podcasts and classes. I applaud your effort, your drive.

But I reiterate…there are only really two things you need to do to be a better writer:

  1. Write
  2. Share what you’ve written

Good luck.

Adapt or die

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Recently, I’ve read a couple of screenplays based on novels, and with this albeit low number of examples, let me start by saying thank goodness I have yet to find a book I wish to adapt for screen. The process, it would seem, is tedious and fraught with perils.

Odds are, especially if you are just starting out as a writer, you’ve chosen to adapt a specific book because you love it.

You love the way it is written. You love the story it tells. You love the characters. You may even love the paper on which it’s printed or its cover art.

Congratulations. You’re doomed.

I say this not to be mean but to point out that the book was written as a book for very specific reasons. The format and structure of a novel is incredibly different from that of a film.

At its simplest, you have the space in a novel to indulge yourself in narrative and character introspection. More simply put, you can describe a setting or reaction in such detail that if linearly translated to a screenplay, it would result in ten minutes of film focused exclusively on waves rolling across a beach or on the angle of an eyebrow raised over the left eye of your heroine.

Even simpler, novels are verbal, ironically, while films are visual.

And unless you’re planning on running a voice over throughout your movie—please say no—I have no idea what your characters are thinking. I can try to guess from their facial expressions, but it is a guess and will have as much to do with how easy it was to find a parking place in the megaplex as it does with the actor’s talent.

The novel could afford to be 500 or 1000 pages. Your screenplay can’t.

I love Kenneth Branagh. I love Shakespeare. Branagh did a very linear interpretation of Hamlet for film. I was bored. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet? Held my attention and was entertaining. [Compare the two “alas, poor Yorick” scenes linked here.]

The difference? A very sharp editorial knife.

So, I am going to ask you to take the thing you love and hack it. Cut it with broad strokes and wild abandon. This is no place for finesse.

This isn’t about trimming paragraphs. It is about slashing subplots or entire chapters. It is about burning away all of the decorative niceties until you reach the essence that turns your crank.

Be cruel. Be ruthless. Be honest.

Take that Sistine Chapel and reduce it to the handful of bricks that make you sweaty; that keep you coming back time after time.

It will feel like murder. In some ways, it is. But it’s murder for the greater good, because once you’ve hit that core, you can begin to rebuild. You can start to rescue some of the elements you set aside earlier or add new ones that are truly unique to your vision.

What is that core? I don’t know. That’s for you to decide.

Maybe it was the setting. Perhaps it was the relationship between two characters.

Whatever it is, find it and make that your story. That is what you love. That is why you keep coming back for more.

Honour that and you’ll have a screenplay worth turning into a movie.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission. I’m adaptable that way.)

For my friend Emma

…and all my other female actor friends and colleagues, a simple request to storytellers and writers:

When creating a female character for your story (or any character, for that matter), please describe her in terms that reflect who she is and not in terms of how she relates to another.

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Phrases like ex-girlfriend or soccer mom provide only a limited degree of context and tell us nothing at all about your vision for that character.

Is she a psychotic Glen Close type of character or is she a nurturing Barbara Billingsley type of character?

To what does she aspire?

If presented with a spider, she would [fill in the blank].

Around a board room table, her position would be [location], she would be dressed [adjective], her posture would be [adjective] and her eyes would express [noun].

If the character is important enough to move your story along, the character is important enough to be a human being (or whatever species you are dealing with).

If not, then you probably don’t need the character in your story.