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


  1. Hey Lee

    Loved this article... your comment on lateral thinking is very similar to my thoughts on 'right brain/left brain' storymaking. GREAT stories (but especially screenplays) are a blend of both sides of the brain - structure AND creativity. That's what keeps screenwriting so compelling as an art form!

    Cheers - Jana /www.wordsmythe.ca