Sunday, May 10, 2009

My body is my tool

(Title reference: "Not the Nine O'Clock News", Rowan Atkinson as the mime artist called "Alternative Carpark".)

Among all the forums, newsletters and blogs that I read about screenwriting, I've noticed a recent trend - the promotion and complaints about writing tools. Someone will say how a particular author's method for screenwriting is really great - so much better than Brand X. And then someone else will come back with how anything like this stifles creativity blah blah blah.

An instructive instance of this appeared on the "Artful Writer" forums only yesterday. I've just joined Artful Writer on a recommendation from James Moran , who had quoted an interview with Scott Frank. Someone had asked Scott whether any experienced and professional writers actually use the sequence approach to writing features, Scott was a little sarcastic in his first response. But a couple of postings later he said he'd check it out.

I use a lot of writing tools, mostly those from the book "Writing a Great Movie" by Jeff Kitchen. Apart from one, these tools weren't developed by him, they are things written by Aristotle, Polti and others. They actually include the so-called "Sequence method" but only as part of a bigger technique and without the more prescriptive additions that seem to have appeared.

I set great store by Aristotle (who never wrote a play), and this is why: Where Aristotle lived they had an annual play competition for which the subject matter was fixed - every play had to be about the same myth with the same characters. Aristotle observed that some plays were good and some weren't; and because they were all about the same storyline with the same characters he could separate out the plot elements to analyse them. Which is how he came to write the Poetics which describes the plot elements that existed in the successful plays.

I use writing tools that I know can help me put together a better story, and help me remove those things that won't work.

I remember when Desktop Publishing tools first appeared back in the late 80s. I was editor in a magazine publishing company at the time and our company was one of the first to move to computer-based layout. The layout and typography guys adapted to the new computer-based tools (mostly) and turned out better-finished work at a faster rate than previously. They were professionals and were now using better tools.

But the DTP revolution had another effect, obviously anybody could buy these tools - and they did - and they used them - but they had no training and usually no talent. And what they produced was garbage. They broke the rules of typography (like having a maximum of three font styles on a page) - because they didn't even know such rules existed.

Then companies began to include cookie-cutter designs with their software, for things like newsletters and pamphlets, so these untrained people could choose designs and fill them in - it meant that the designs looked reasonable. And yet, without a true comprehension of the rules of design and typography, these things are lacklustre. No sparkle. No real talent.

This is what happens with screenwriting.

You can follow McKee's monomyth for example and create a mythic story with all the right beats in the right places - even if you have minimal talent. The result will look like a proper story but it'll be lacklustre. No sparkle.

The thing is this: Each tool has its place, it has a purpose and an end product. But the tools themselves will not generate a good product. (You can't put an uncarved block next to a lathe and chisel, and expect to come back next day to find a beautifully turned chair leg. Not unless you know Rumpelstiltskin.)

If you are writing a story for which the monomyth structure is the way to go then fine. Utilise that tool to assist you in producing a better story. If you find that your story has illogical jumps and you can't quite make things connect use Jeff Kitchen's effect-cause tool to fix it. If you find that your protagonist does not engage with the reader, use Aristotle's Dilemma tool. Apparently the Sequence method is good for helping you through Act II and keeping things going.

But this requires you to know and understand the tools at your disposal. A professional does not reject a new tool out of hand, he checks it out, he sees if it will be useful. Is it a real tool, or just something someone's invented to make a quick buck? You can't know unless you look - which is why Scott Frank said what he said on Artful Writer.

I admit I do not understand people who reject all writing books, and other teaching, out of hand - it strikes me as ignorant. I have read Seger's books - I didn't like them and didn't feel they had anything to offer me. But I read them. Jeff Kitchen, on the other hand, provides a plethora of genuinely useful tools. (Apart from the character stuff - which I don't like and would never use. I have my own tools when it comes to character and have zero interest in pop psychology.)

I would contend that every professional writer (when I use the word professional I'm talking about attitude, not whether they've been paid for a script) has a toolbox. It might contain homemade tools, it might contain learnt tools, or a combination. But the toolbox is there - because writing is rewriting and when you are rewriting you're using something to analyse what's already been written and that something is a tool.

I must admit I have ended up saying something different to what I was going to say when I started - and I have convinced myself I need to read McKee and Campbell even if I never use them.

As a final note about the stifling of creativity: No tool will stifle creativity if used correctly. Just as woodworking tools are entirely safe as long as you understand them and how to use them.

In regard to Tec I didn't end up writing any scenes, I started an outline instead. I needed a different tool because stories of this complexity need to have their detail worked out first, otherwise they are not going to work.

PS: I'm not going to mention the Writer's Guild of Great Britain's special membership offer because everyone else has. (Doh!)

What's on the turntable? The Boy is playing "Yellow Submarine" on the saxophone...

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