Tuesday, August 31, 2010

UCLA’s Kris Young, Bruce Lee, and Kung Fu Screenwriting

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.



A young BOY, a student, approaches LEE. Both bow.

             Kick me.

The student looks confused.

             Kick me.

The student attempts a half-hearted kick.

             What was that? An
             Exhibition? We need
             emotional content. Now
             try again!

The student tries again, this time better,
but unfocused, imprecise, eratic.

             I said "emotional
             content." Not anger!
             Now try again!

The student tries again and succeeds.

             That's it! How did it

The student thinks.

Lee smacks his head.

             Don't think. FEEL. It's
             like a finger pointing
             at the moon.

Lee looks at the student who is looking at the finger. He smacks the student again.

             Do not concentrate on
             the finger or you will
             miss all of the heavenly

The student bows. Lee smacks him again.

             Never take your eyes off
             your opponent... even
             when you're bowing!

Student bows again this time keeping his eyes on Lee.

             That's better.

The student walks away.

                              BEGIN OPENING CREDITS

From Enter the Dragon.

UCLA educator, Kris Young:

You can get a simple book, like one of those Syd Field books, and see if things are actually falling on these different structural places. But it’s a dangerous thing too, because I find that a lot of people wrote great screenplays without having to know all those structural paradigms, so you want to balance that with still enjoying film and writing from your heart.
You need to learn that it’s more about the journey than the destination. This is something that I teach in my lecture “Kung Fu Screenwriting,” which is based on some Bruce Lee philosophy – there’s a difference between doing and being. When you venture forth to do screenwriting, like many people do, then the moment you stop, you’re not a screenwriter. But if you move toward the idea of being a writer, then it never leaves you. And I think that’s a higher thing to aspire to – to be a writer. You keep writing not necessarily to sell a script or to get a movie made, but because that is who you are.
I look for people who are already self-motivated. People who already have a high level of interest in the subject – they’re really not gonna do anything else. They’re writing before school begins, they’re gonna keep writing when school stops. It’s not something they do, but it’s something they are. Be a writer as opposed to someone who does writing.
From Tales from the Script, Edited by Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman, HarperCollins, p. 29-31.


Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the Post:

We need emotional content.
---Bruce Lee

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Paul Schrader’s Structure: Before Syd Field, Gustav Freytag

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.



PAUL SCHRADER reaches up to a SHELF and pulls an old BOOK down.

At a TABLE, he blows off the dust, carefully opens the book, and peers inside.

Technique of the Drama:
An Exposition of Dramatic
Composition and Art

Gustav Freytag


Schrader sits at his typewriter, typing furiously.

SYD FIELD finds the Freytag book and pulls it down.

Field puts the book in a completely different part of the library, a deserted SECTION that looks like it has never been visited. Then, looking around to see if he’s been seen, he hurries away.

GUSTAV FREYTAG, at a table in a cold, ancient ROOM, opens a
BOOK that appears older than the first printing press.


The Poetics


335 B.C.

Freytag looks around and then slips the book into his
jacket. He stands, looking about, then walks away.


On display is the new book by Syd Field.

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting
A long-haired, young FILM STUDENT wearing a UCLA BASEBALL CAP, bill forward, and carrying a 16MM BOLEX CAMERA picks up a copy and ponders it.

Before them all was Aristotle. But before Syd Field, in Germany, in 1863, Gustav Freytag (Freytag, Gustav, Technique of the Drama, refined the work done by Aristotle to such an extent that Field had almost nothing to do in order to write his influential first book on screenwriting. Whether he knew of Freytag’s work is open to conjecture. But it is certainly clear that his “paradigm” is remarkably similar to “Freytag’s Triangle” (or, as some refer to it, “Freytag’s Pyramid”):

Other depictions of Gustav Freytag’s model include this one:

And this one:

Freytag's Pyramid

1. Exposition: setting the scene. The writer introduces the characters and setting, providing description and background.

2. Inciting Incident: something happens to begin the action. A single event usually signals the beginning of the main conflict. The inciting incident is sometimes called 'the complication'.

3. Rising Action: the story builds and gets more exciting.

4. Climax: the moment of greatest tension in a story. This is often the most exciting event. It is the event that the rising action builds up to and that the falling action follows.

5. Falling Action: events happen as a result of the climax and we know that the story will soon end.

6. Resolution: the character solves the main problem/conflict or someone solves it for him or her.

7. Dénouement: (a French term, pronounced: day-noo-moh) the ending. At this point, any remaining secrets, questions or mysteries which remain after the resolution are solved by the characters or explained by the author. Sometimes the author leaves us to think about the THEME or future possibilities for the characters.

You can think of the dénouement as the opposite of the exposition: instead of getting ready to tell us the story by introducing the setting and characters, the author is getting ready to end it with a final explanation of what actually happened and how the characters think or feel about it. This can be the most difficult part of the plot to identify, as it is often very closely tied to the resolution.

It is interesting to see how these structures have emerged. Despite the opening Slug Scene, I am not arguing that Field stole from Freytag. Nonetheless, the similarities cannot be denied. One has to wonder a bit how Field developed his ideas.

But even as Freytag developed his structural model intended as a model describing not contemporary (for Freytag), but Shakespearean and classical Greek plays, among others, another, distinctly Asian counterpart, was already long in place:


Jo-ha-kyū (序破急) is a concept of modulation and movement applied in a wide variety of traditional Japanese arts. Roughly translated to "beginning, break, rapid", it essentially means that all actions or efforts should begin slowly, speed up, and then end swiftly. This concept is applied to elements of the Japanese tea ceremony, to kendō and other martial arts, to the traditional theatre, and to the traditional collaborative linked verse forms renga and renku (haikai no renga).

The concept originated in gagaku court music, specifically in the ways in which elements of the music could be distinguished and described. Though eventually incorporated into a number of disciplines, it was most famously adapted, and thoroughly analyzed and discussed by the great Noh playwright Zeami[1], who viewed it as a universal concept applying to the patterns of movement of all things.

It is perhaps in the theatre that jo-ha-kyū is used the most extensively, on the most levels. In following with the writings of Zeami, all major forms of Japanese traditional drama (Noh, kabuki, and jōruri) utilize the concept of jo-ha-kyū in the choice and arrangement of plays across a day, to the composition and pacing of acts within a play, down to the individual actions of the actors.

Zeami, in his work "Sandō" (The Three Paths), originally described a five-part (five dan) Noh play as the ideal form. It begins slowly and auspiciously in the first part (jo), building up the drama and tension in the second, third, and fourth parts (ha), with the greatest climax in the third dan, and rapidly concluding with a return to peace and auspiciousness in the fifth dan (kyū).[2]

This same conception was later adapted into jōruri and kabuki, where the plays are often arranged into five acts according to the same rationales. Takemoto Gidayū, the great jōruri chanter, was the first to describe the patterns or logic behind the five acts, which parallel as well the five categories of Noh which would be performed across a day.[3]

He described the first act as "Love"; the play opens auspiciously, using gentle themes and pleasant music to draw in the attention of the audience. The second act is described as "Warriors and Battles" (shura). Though it need not contain actual battle, it is generally typified by heightened tempo and intensity of plot. The third act, the climax of the entire play, is typified by pathos and tragedy. The plot achieves its dramatic climax. Takemoto describes the fourth act as a michiyuki (journey), which eases out of the intense drama of the climactic act, and often consists primarily of song and dance rather than dialogue and plot. The fifth act, then, is a rapid conclusion. All loose ends are tied up, and the play returns to an auspicious setting. [3]

So there has been a lot of work underpinning what we now call story structure. It is interesting, then, to note that when Paul Schrader wrote his first script, seven or eight years before the appearance of Syd Field’s first book laying out his paradigm, Schrader used Gustav Freytag’s approach to story structure:

I taught myself to write it (his first screenplay, Pipeliner) very schematically. I’d never written anything (fiction: screenplays, short stories, novels, plays) before and I said, well, it’s ninety minutes long. I used Freytag’s triangle—inciting incident, rising action, climax, dénouement; it has to have these elements, as well as subplots, and certain characters revealing certain themes. There should always be a rising curve; when I lay on my curves, each character having a curve, one will always be rising. When one starts to fall, another character starts to rise, and the most interesting rising characters all meet at the climax. It was the most practical, calculated way of seeing a dramatic structure. There was a personal element, writing about things I knew.

From Film Comment magazine, March-April 1976, Paul Schrader interviewed by Richard Thompson, January 26 and 29, 1976.

And, of course, parallel to Schrader, Field, and Freytag, Joseph Campbell and his work on world myth was influencing George Lucas as he began developing Star Wars. And that, in turn influenced Christopher Vogler when he adapted Campbell’s ideas for screenwriting in The Writer’s Journey.  Then, along came John Truby, and, Dara Marks, and… well, you get the idea. # 
Lee A. Matthias 
Quote of the Post:
“Screenplays are structure,” [emphasis, The Last Reveal]
---William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Screenwriting on Steroids I

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.



A CAR drives up and stops. TWO GUYS are inside.


The DRIVER looks at his PASSENGER

             So, Jimmie said you’re pretty
             experienced. You ready to do
             this thing?

             Way it’s goin’ with my day job,


They approach a darkened house. The driveway is empty.

Driver climbs the porch steps and up to the front door. He pulls out a set of lock-picks and begins working on the door’s lock.

Passenger waits, watching, but Driver’s having trouble.

Driver is getting nowhere, so Passenger picks up a porch CHAIR and throws it through the front window. He climbs in.


Passenger opens the door from the inside.

             In a hurry?

             More’n one way to enter an
             empty house. Besides, in my
             day job, I sell windows.
In his interview from last week, author and UCLA Graduate Screenwriting Chair, Richard Walter, made it clear he believes that as they pertain to screenwriting, ideas are the easy part:

When you have a really great idea for a movie, that's all you have. What remains? Everything! Incident, anecdote, action, setting, character, dialogue. Great movies are not about ideas but stories.

It’s true that after the idea, what’s left is merely most of the job. But great ideas are often-times the factor that can hook buyers and audiences and insure a project’s marketability. Examples of films going back through history whose concepts alone could sell them, include Saving Private Ryan, The Sixth Sense, Groundhog Day, Die Hard, Tootsie, Rocky, Jaws, The Sting, The Exorcist, The Apartment, Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity, King Kong, and M 
Also, ideas aren’t limited to the story’s premise. Writers need good ideas all along the way. From the choice of compelling character(s), intriguing situations, and scenes we’ve never seen before, to how to keep dialogue off the nose, how to keep the story fresh, how to keep the pages turning, on and on. Ideas are needed in every facet, at every stage, and at every level of writing, from the macro to micro. 
I have found that creativity can be serendipitous. Some days you have the ideas, and some days you don’t. Reflecting on this, I eventually came upon a process that offered to increase the odds of getting good ideas. I’ve finished writing a book on the subject, Lateral Screenwriting: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Write the Great American Movie, and I’d like to offer excerpts in this space in the coming months. Here’s the first of them from the opening sections of the book: 
 “Lateral Thinking” is a term used to describe a thought process that is an alternative to forward or vertical, progressive, causally-based thinking, the kind used in everyday life, the kind used by science to establish its rigorous proofs. Instead, lateral thinking chooses another path, one holding surprises and oftentimes solutions to problems and questions that traditional methods never reveal. It will be quickly evident that this alternative thinking approach has been used at one time or other by most everyone. In fact, I believe it is the basis for many or most of the results we ascribe to “creativity.”

Business consultant and writer, Edward de Bono recognized this some forty years ago. He saw that if the process could be utilized formally, systematized in effect, it could be employed by the business world toward becoming more effective and thereby more competitive. He studied lateral thinking processes and eventually developed a repertoire of techniques that could be employed by executives in management at the world’s largest companies to improve their management and business processes. Over the years, de Bono taught his techniques to everyone from IBM to people at the U.S. Olympic Committee, with startling results.

When I became aware of de Bono’s work, I immediately recognized that underlying it was a process I had, for many years, (unknowingly) benefited from, myself. In reflection, I realized that it was how the process I called, “my inspiration” actually worked. Over time, I set out to study de Bono’s techniques in order to establish a system toward becoming a more effective story-teller.

Perhaps the single-most overlooked aspect of screenwriting is the process of determining what to write, determining the subject, the story. Most screenwriting books only deal with the "how," not the "what." Determining what you write encompasses screenwriting both on the overall conceptual or macro level and on the specific detail or micro level, from the choice of what stories to tell, right down to the manner of, and the details used in, the telling. Over and over, when I have worked with new writers, I’ve encountered scripts whose story-concepts amounted to pedestrian premises with plotlines we’ve seen countless times before: common concepts that failed to offer anything fresh. Their writers spent so much time and effort trying to get to having written that they blew right past deeply considering what to write. They settled for the first ideas that came to mind, wrote what they could, never asked themselves if they should, happy just to have a project, and perhaps fearing they may never have another one. In fact, they may not.

“But, wait,” you say, “didn’t Richard Walter say (in this space just last week), in effect, that great films spring from weak premises all the time?” Yes, he did. But does that mean writers should not try for great ideas? Does it mean that they should go ahead with any idea that comes to mind, no matter how pedestrian? No. It comes down to the writer’s gut. George Lucas had a hackneyed idea into which he knew he could breathe fresh new life. One of the greatest franchises in movie history, Star Wars, resulted. Orson Welles heard Herman Mankiewicz’s take on doing a bio-picture—non-linearly, told, not by the person, but  by everyone around him—and knew it made all the difference. The result was Citizen Kane. So, “gut” is a factor we must leave to the writer. But, in its absence, always try for great ideas.

Just as discovering and choosing what to write are the most overlooked aspects of screenwriting, the most common failing I have found when evaluating new writers’ works, is that, in crossing from the consumer to the producer position, the new writer immediately loses touch with the audience. This is because the inexperienced writer, in hoarding the necessarily substantial and unfamiliar creative energy and wealth of knowledge to tackle a long-form project, has researched widely, and has gone deeply inside him or herself in order to mine everything relevant and appropriate that can help to develop the work. Inevitably (almost), any original audience perspective the writer has can be (and very often is) lost. The writer, now brimming with story-universe minutia, idiosyncratic story preferences, and “writerly” interests, has allowed these to become greatly over-emphasized, all at the expense of the work and so the audience.

I am NOT suggesting writers ignore the wealth of unique information unearthed about the subject of the work, nor the deeply personal about their stories. These, in fact, give the story its uniqueness. I am merely saying that the perspective an audience person would have, the perspective the writer once had, is lost as the result of too great an emphasis on elements which tend to leave audiences behind, either for want of universal appeal, intellectual interest, or plain unfamiliarity with them.

By regaining their original audience perspective, by developing material that connects with and holds an audience, while balancing it by simultaneously mining their own unique viewpoint, writers can produce works that satisfy their own personal creative goals. And they can produce them while also resonating with and succeeding in the marketplace.

Connection with the audience, then, becomes the single-most important key to marketing writing. With the audience solidly back in place as an essential partner to story conception, writers are on track to accessing buyers of their work. For the story-buyer, after all, has never lost proximity to, nor dependence upon, the audience consuming produced stories. This is true be they novels, movies, or even interactive multimedia. Re-gaining the audience gains writers the marketplace.

So, the audience is first and foremost: “Never question for whom the story is told, it’s told for thee.”

In analyzing what I do in developing a story, I have found that when my writing has worked best, it was because, while it was in an established genre with its own niche in the marketplace, it deviated from predictable paths. It was as though, even with an otherwise conventional idea, I looked for and chose “the road less taken.” Every time I did this I found it energized the work and offered unpredictable and fresh things that made the premise new again. And yet, there it was, still squarely in its genre.

But genre isn’t enough. The market has high expectations. On the one hand, writers must provide the familiar. On the other, they must surprise. And surprise is the one element most lacking in new writers’ works. It is as though new writers have settled for merely duplicating what they like most about a type of story and have not bothered to provide justification for their own tale’s presence, nor their consumer’s precious time, by offering more. Meanwhile, the audience which has “been there, done that” is left to accept it or not. It’s no surprise to me, at least, that when the audience isn’t (surprised), the writer is: his story fails either to sell or to advance his career. 

Okay, so give, what’s the schmear?
I use an approach that is an analog to the technique used in business (as promulgated by Edward de Bono) known as “lateral thinking.” Lateral thinking is no momentous discovery. It is not some revolutionary method only now bursting forth as the result of steady progress within the neuro-sciences, the arts, or the business world, not some systematized approach to a “chaos theory” of the mind. It is, I believe, the very method all creativity is and has always been dependent upon. De Bono recognized this right-brain process at work in all things creative, and has, over decades, developed left-brain techniques to formalize its use for the primarily left-brain world of business.

Essentially, de Bono’s technique is to apply various methods to the basic lateral thinking notion of examining a starting point, recognizing the next step to be derived from it, and rejecting that for alternatives. Lateral thinking takes the position that traditional (vertical) thinking leads to common and/or predictable results. And while these results can and do make sense in many or even most cases, opening up to alternative pathways can and does offer unexpected, non-traditional, surprising, and occasionally better results. With business, the manager that is open to such pathways can find competitive edges where the competition restricts itself to the standard path. With creative endeavors, such as story creation, the writer can find whole niches from within which to build careers. Individual story creation, as I’ve pointed out, is and has always been open to the lateral approach.

It’s your perspective, you see.

So, de Bono’s message is to get lateral. Seek out new, alternative, and non-traditional paths. From there, his method is to find variants of that basic approach: recognize the need, move any way other than the standard, vertical way, and see what might develop from the new position, a “parallax view.” One takes a step to the right (or left), sees things somewhat differently, and ideas result. As this is potentially painting every picture with a very broad brush, de Bono recognizes the need for a variety of methods to accomplish what amounts to the same lateral movement. This is to keep the process lively; to find other approaches to problems to which such approaches, it turns out, are best suited; and to find methods that different people can find to work best for them. 

I recognized lateral thinking’s home back in the right-brain world of expression, and noticed that artists mostly don’t recognize nor care “from whence (or how, in this case) their inspiration springs.” It occurred to me that artists succeed to the degree they do in direct corollary to how much they allow lateral thinking into their working process. So it took little further effort to see that writers could greatly benefit from employing similar techniques specifically for story development. Let me emphasize, there is no newly patented idea here. This is how creativity has always worked. I only offer various formalized approaches in order to take it from the erratic, almost accidental manner in which it has been utilized by many in the arts, and apply it consistently for a surer aesthetic result.

So, having explored this process, I’ve developed a methodology I will call Lateral Screenwriting. Standard story-telling is a method that constructs stories vertically, or progressively, in a mostly time-forward manner, from event to event, in an obvious causal line, beginning to end. Lateral story-telling, instead, takes a left turn with a scene or a sequence (indeed, sometimes with the story-premise itself; other times, with a mere line or word of dialogue), and it resolves the progression laterally rather than in the original forward direction. It is no less causal, just unexpected, and so less obvious. The result yields a quality of surprise and, in turn, provides the work a freshness that makes all the difference.

This formalized lateral notion has parallels throughout the arts, and even in the cinema. Famed Soviet silent film director, Sergei Eisenstein designed and assembled his films using a process he called “the collision of ideas.” He related it to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s dialectics: “thesis plus antithesis produces synthesis” (the result becomes greater than the sum of the parts). This was also noticed by Arthur Koestler in his book, The Act of Creation, wherein he related such creative acts to Hegel’s concept of the dialectic.

The Russian, Lev Kuleshov, whose experiments and cinematic theories greatly influenced Russian directors Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, famously illustrated this with what became known as “The Kuleshov Effect.” Kuleshov intercut shots of the expressionless face of an actor with various other shots such as soup, a coffin, and a pretty girl. He discovered that the film audience interpreted the actor's single expression as hungry, sad, happy, etc., according to the images with which it was associated. The Kuleshov Effect was an important contribution to montage (image assembly) theory. It demonstrated that meaning was held exclusively in the audience, but, more importantly, it showed that the collision of ideas was powerful, profound. It also reveals a third component in this dialectical model: the audience, which by its presence adds the additional element making the sum of the parts greater than the combination of only the first two. Lateral construction is necessarily such a collision, as it is unexpected, unpredictable, and so, too, powerful.   

Lateral techniques include, among other things, various exercises aimed at the work that offer to open up the universe or world of the story and add dimension, verisimilitude, interest, and insight, not to mention surprise and entertainment value. In imagining a story, for example, the writer might list details from the overall concept. Then, examining the items, alongside each he would list something the detail brings to mind that is NOT part of the story. From there, the writer re-imagines the original details, incorporating the new items in relation to the details they are beside, but also in relation to any of the others in a kind of free association, searching for opportunities toward which to take the story. Such techniques tend to introduce a quality of randomness akin to what happens in life where unrelated events happen in collision rather than by conscious design. Yet the writer still maintains control by choosing what is used in the now-enlarged world of the story.

I have used lateral thinking both in my writing, and in life, even before I became acquainted with its formal application. I recall referring to it in discussion as “thinking sideways” to arrive at a better solution. In one case, when working as a literary agent, a buyer failed to make an offer on any of a half-dozen of a client’s pitched television episode ideas, claiming they just “weren’t right for the show.” They were, he said, “mostly too close to something (the buyers) were already working on.” Undaunted, the writer said, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to dig deeper.” Without really thinking about it, I replied, “No, maybe not deeper. Maybe sideways.” The idea, here, being that mining for episode opportunities based on what we’ve seen the direction of the show to this point to be will only yield ideas that the show’s own writers were inevitably heading for or considering. But, instead, if we re-examine the universe of the show, looking into the corners and closets for implied details that may have been forgotten, we may turn up the very gold that we seek: opportunities the show’s writers will receive and say, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

I did this with my own idea for a show (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). Using my lateral approach, I had been casting about for ideas implied by the show. You may recall that the show was set within the Trek universe on a space station, sort of a combination aircraft carrier, shopping mall, and casino. The casino operator, an alien Ferengi named Quark was a long-suffering everyman who juggled domestic strife created by his brother and son, with home-planet politics whenever his “President,” The Grand Nagus (marvelously portrayed by actor Wallace Shawn), showed up.

One detail about the Ferengi culture that I always found intriguing was that it was male dominant, and one of the ways that was accomplished was by legislating that Ferengi females had to always be naked. This effectively kept them out of circulation. So, I thought, what does this imply? Well, for one thing, they were effectively disenfranchised, like women, African Americans, and non-land-owners had once been in the U.S. This led me to the idea that the disenfranchised often found other ways to achieve success. Minority populations like the Irish and Italians resorted to organized crime.

So, I reasoned, what if the organized crime on the home planet, Ferenginar, was composed solely by the women? And what if one mark of a “made” Ferengi female was wardrobe? The wilder, the better? And what if three Ferengi “wise guys” show up at DS-9 and try to “muscle” Quark’s casino? And what if the Nagus falls for one of ‘em? I called my teleplay Muscle. Then… just as I was set to submit, the show was cancelled.  Ahhh, the writer’s life (does it ever happen before you write the script?).

But it was a great example of using a lateral dialogue with oneself to generate a story.

At home, once, I had a shed in my yard that was damaged three times by falling tree branches after severe storms. So, realizing I had to replace it, I purchased a new one at a local home center and had it delivered. Then, it sat in its huge carton in my garage for seven months awaiting the day when I would have enough time to unpack and assemble it. But, as time wore on, and I was able to reflect on the situation, I realized that I didn’t want another shed to go up only to await that inevitable next tree branch. The site was Ground Zero, after all! So, I decided to return it, months, now, after its purchase. But, while the store would deliver an item so huge, it would not pick up the same item if it were to be returned. And my car was just not big enough to carry it back to the store, itself. I had no truck. So, what to do? I thought and thought. Nothing suggested itself.

So, what if I let it go and just thought about my world rather than my need? The problem was still front and center, but now it had a whole world around it. Where was a truck in my world? There were LOTS of them! My friend, Hutch, after all, sold them every day at his car dealership. But those were new trucks, not rentals. And I couldn’t buy one since I had no use, nor additional place for another vehicle. But what if I tried to buy it and then found I had no place for it? Well, if I did, I would first have to test drive it. And a good test of it would be to carry something somewhere. So, that’s what I did. I called up Hutch and had him find me a truck to try out. I went over, picked it up, drove it home, loaded the shed, and returned it to the store. Then, realizing I couldn’t buy the truck, I took it back and regretfully returned the keys to Hutch. Of course, Hutch knew I wouldn’t be buying the truck. But, he also knew I might buy a car some day to replace the one I bought from him before. And I have, three times since (and my referrals have bought six others!). Lateral thinking, as Edward de Bono saw, is not just for the arts!

In classes I have taught on screenwriting I have illustrated the use of lateral thinking in story construction by describing a hypothetical story about a prison break. The prisoners intend to tunnel out of the prison under the walls, and out to a tree line, beyond. Now, traditional story construction dictates that they plan the tunnel as the shortest distance between the two points, the start and end of the tunnel. This, in turn, forces a tunnel of 300 feet, no small task. But, what if they get access to plans for the prison, and determine the location of the sewer tunnel serving the complex? Now they take their tunnel, and turn left at the showers, bumping into the sewer after only ten feet! What was a 300 foot job becomes a 30 foot job. The price? Well, it’s stinkier. But it’s also much faster. And it’s accomplished simply by turning left, in effect, moving laterally.

Lateral thinking offers new solutions to standard story-telling scenarios. While the example is now certainly clichéd (indeed, a variation was even used in Raising Arizona), the fundamental principle is sound. So my approach is to use lateral thinking when approaching a story, particularly in a familiar genre. This can take things in new and different directions, both strategically (macro-level) and tactically (micro-level). Some refer to this as “thinking outside the box.” The saying has, in fact, itself become a cliché. While the description has merit, writers should remember: the box is inside them. They, in fact, are a far bigger box, a box without walls and limited only by themselves, by their own thinking.

Using this approach, the writer seeks out opportunities by thinking deeply about a premise and his material, looking for ways to make the ideas new again. For me, without this, they hold no interest, as I won’t settle for writing a next one, just like some other one. And nor, should you.

In future installments of Screenwriting on Steroids we will return to our lateral process of creative idea-generation with further excerpts from my book, Lateral Screenwriting: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Write the Great American Movie.
Lee A. Matthias
Quotes of the Post: 
It’s just a jump to the left…
And, then a step to the right…
---The Time Warp, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show 
One takes a step to the right (or left), sees things somewhat differently, and ideas result.
---Lateral Screenwriting