Monday, August 17, 2009

The Screenwriting Priesthood

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


I, Heretic...

Whenever a body of knowledge develops about anything complex that promises fulfillment or wealth there is a natural tendency for a type of individual to emerge who inserts him or herself between those who desire such wealth or fulfillment and its attainment. These people see themselves as elite-thinkers, above the so-called "great unwashed." They believe they hold the "keys to the kingdom." They take it upon themselves to grant their “keys” to "Heavenly" wisdom only to those who meet their requirements, their price.

In some cases, there may be good reasons for such a group. Financial planners are one such. But in the case of others, partaking of such expertise can be counter-productive or even dangerous. Religion is one of the latter type, as we have seen with the Jones cult, the Branch Davidians, the so-called "Moonies," and other somewhat more benign groups of true believers.

And there are other dangerous types...

In the past thirty years there has arisen a screenwriting priesthood that, following this age-old template, has inserted itself between new writers and success. It threatens us all because its influence stifles worthy stories, shuts out promising writers, and imposes a limiting aesthetic on screenwriting. Sour grapes? There are more victims of this bias in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, dear reader. These folks are a profound drag on the film industry.

This priesthood is composed of, among others, authors of books on screenwriting, university instructors, and traveling teachers of seminars, most of whom don’t write screenplays themselves. But it also includes out-of-work script analysts, independent producers-without-a-deal on the fringes of the industry, writers for the screenwriting magazines, and, yes, bloggers. That is not to say there are no worthy books, classes, seminars, or blogs. Don't look for my endorsement to point you. Instead, know them by their ability to actually help you and your writer-friends, rather than by telling you for a fee what you can't (or shouldn't) do. As for this latter, to paraphrase Woody Allen, "those that can, do; those that can't, preach; and those that can't preach, preach theory."

These folks are known by their fanaticism to a fuzzy body of "laws," the "rules-of-screenwriting," which change and morph constantly, but generally include such mainstays as: required use of courier 12 pt. font; speeches of no more than 3 sentences; scenes no longer than 3 pages, max; no material directing actors, the director, the camera, or the editor; nothing that isn't seen or heard by the eventual audience; no flashbacks or time-shifting; no Voice-Over Narration; a length of no more than 120 pages, 100-110 is best; plain white card-stock covers, no colored card-stock; three-hole-punched, but fastened with only two brass brads; etc., etc. Jonathan Swift's small-end egg-openers (GULLIVER'S TRAVELS) warring on their large-end egg-opening neighbors have nothing on these people!

And ever attuned to the fickle nature of their subjects, the priesthood maintains an evolving devotion to what is in the current vogue, or priestly “zeitgeist.” They often adopt and absorb into their own aesthetic whatever is the current theory-of-the-month, hence the fuzziness of their rules. They are a powerful faction on the contest and consultant scenes. If they sit in judgment of your script, and you put anything in it that even skirts a rule, look out!

However, if you actually read produced and successful screenplays by (quite often) new-at-the-time writers, you’ll notice rule-breaking is not only common, but itself, the rule. Visit any of the popular script download websites and read some of these seminal works (CITIZEN KANE, ERASERHEAD, LETHAL WEAPON, RESERVOIR DOGS, PULP FICTION, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, ADAPTATION, etc.). Their writers more or less burst on the scene through no help of any priesthood or script guru. They wrote their own rules.

In truth, rules in screenwriting are of the thumb variety only: wise suggestions, but always to be broken when the specific material requires it. And your own gut will tell you that, not some text-book by a guy who only writes text-books. Still if you choose to play in the contest or consultant scenes--I suggest you don't--your success will depend on playing by such rules.

Case-in-point: If you write a script that includes flashbacks and voice-over narration, you are asking for trouble from the screenwriting priesthood. But if that script is, to cite one example, a classically-designed script set in the 19th century, I contend that you are exactly right in breaking those rules because that is the aesthetic found in 19th century writing: letter and diary entries, character reminiscences, large time digressions, and multiple viewpoints. These are all heavily in evidence in the works of the great 19th century writers.

Of course, degree is everything. It’s ultimately a matter of balance. So, you might want to ask yourself: were such devices depended upon too much by the script at the expense of visual storytelling? Or were they used with just the right touch, in just the right quantity, to evoke the time period and create the mood and atmosphere of the setting? And are they supportive of a submission-reading, rather than a hindrance? Do they lend the requisite tone and feel, or do they slow it down with excess verbiage?

This "catechism" of rules is rationalized by the priesthood as rooted in “industry realities” such as the tired studio executive with a need to get to bed on time, or story analysts with severe Napoleon complexes whom you must get past to reach the real power-brokers. Their effect is to subordinate the story at hand for some hypothetical deal ahead, entirely dependent upon their rules. These priestly experts contend that some studio MBA with one or two screenwriting seminars under his belt and an hour skimming through a script knows more about the writer’s story than that writer; that evidence of promise in a screenplay is not evidence of potential interest by an industry reader. Instead, they argue that only perfection (by their definition) gets a second look. While such things can and do happen, they cannot be the standard upon which your material is tailored. Writers need to have the courage of their original inspiration, and to Hell with the rest! The script isn't worth producing if it isn't worth producing right.

Eventually, such groups eat their young, and the priesthood is no exception. What was once a rule is later thrown out in favor of the latest hot new theory, or even its opposite. For example, the original priesthood rule of 3-act, Field-ian (as in early guru, Syd Field) structure has been, now, shunned by some as overly simplistic, and too regimented, with its page-number sign-posts. Field, himself, supplanted his original paradigm for an evolved version by his second book. This is that "vogue-of-the-moment," I mentioned above, taking effect.

The priesthood necessarily wrestles with the conflicting needs of getting its rules on record, and shunning such records once superseded by new ones. Rules, once published, begin to atrophy, as, codified, they are now subject to their own potential replacement. So, one-by-one, the priest of the moment, in publishing his "canon" to which all must subscribe, finds himself falling out of the very favor he once enjoyed.

Meanwhile, naive new subjects and their works of innocent inspiration continue to appear. Thanks to the hegemony of this self-appointed standards group, the rules, when broken, remain easy to spot, unlike the causes of a failing story. They yield the needed results: the flow of book sales and consultancy fees continue, jobs are not at risk, innovation and individuality are squashed, priesthood power is maintained.

Take some advice: You are the expert on your story; "dance" with the talent "what brung ya!"

Addendum (posted later):

There are LOTS of independent production companies who impose the rules I argue against. Most produce cable and straight-to-video films that are usually forgotten before the credits have finished running. Of the rest, I ask:

Why did you get into the business? Was it not to make good and interesting films? Perhaps you rationalize to yourself that you can do this by covering more scripts. But if you do this and at the same time fail to cover them well enough to find that “diamond in the rough,” has your product, to date, even come close to matching your goals? I bet not.

Beyond the ones I’ve mentioned, there are valid reasons why rule-breaking is necessary in screenwriting, and I will make a further case for it in a future posting.#


Lee A. Matthias

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