Sunday, October 17, 2010

Screenwriting on Steroids II

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.






PEOPLE surround a WOMAN TELEVISION REPORTER (LEE CARTER). Everyone but Carter watches the parade. Carter looks directly into CAM.

             We have Senator Carroll
             with us today to celebrate
             Independence Day, and he is
             an independent politician.
             In fact, so independent that
             some say they don’t know
             which party he does belong


             Austin Tucker. ...Austin’s
             with us today as a political
             advisor to Senator Carroll.
             Austin, we hear our people
             say that there are some pos-
             sibilities that you want to
             get the nomination for Sena-
             tor Carroll.

             Oh, well, I think we’re jump-
             ing the gun, there, Miss Car-


             --He’s not running for any
             office. He’s concentrating on
             the one that he has now.

An ASIAN MARCHING GROUP passes, followed by a WAGON with SENATOR CARROLL and his WIFE.

                  CARTER (OS)
             Here comes Senator Carroll and
             Mrs. Carroll. He really looks

Senator Carroll, wearing a FIRE HAT, and Mrs. Carroll, roll

                (holding a MIC)
             Happy 4th of July, everybody,
             happy Independence Day for us
             all. Thank you.

             He is the ideal father of his
             own kids, the ideal husband,
             if you’re old enough. And he’s
             the ideal leader of our country
             if you’re any age, so says Aus-
             tin Tucker.

             Uhhh, yes, Lee, how are you?

             Senator Carroll, just fine,
             thank you. Welcome to our city.
             How do you do?
                (to Mrs. Carroll)
             How are you? You all look just
             as wonderful as in your photo-
             graphs. How do you manage that?
             Always smiling.

WE SEE JOE FRADY in B.G. In F.G. Austin listens.

             Well, I’ll tell you. We’re very
             Happy to greet smiling faces,
             and I’m happy to be with my con-
             stituents on such a wonderful
             day. Thank you very much, every-

The Band plays “Oh, When the Saints go marching in,” as Carroll and his wife go into the SPACE NEEDLE.


Joe Frady is stopped at the door by a GUARD as Carroll goes through. Lee Carter follows.,

                (to Guard)
             I’m with her.

             Ma’am, is he with you?



The Elevator rises up the shaft of the huge structure.


It’s noisy (OS). Ushered through by a SECURITY GUARD, Senator Carroll and his wife mix. He sees someone (ED) he knows.

             Ed, how are you, sir?

             Good to see you.

             You’re looking very good, Ed.
             Thanks for helping me today.
             Hello, how are you?

One of the WAITERS (WAITER 1) watches him.


Tucker talks to Carter.

             ...and I know a little bit
             about your background...

A WAITER (WAITER 2) hands a TRAY to Waiter 1.

                  TUCKER (CONT’D)
             ...your lovely family—
               (to Waiter 1)
             --I’ll have scotch and water.

Senator Carroll knocks on the WINDOW from inside. Tucker and Carter look. Carroll picks up a MIC.

                  CARROLL (OS)
             Ladies and gentlemen, my wife,
             Kit and I, we thank you very
             much for inviting us here today,
             this Independence Day. Indepen-
             dence Day is very meaningful to
             me because sometimes I’ve been
             called too independent for my
             own good.

TWO SHOTS are heard, and Carroll is hit. Blood spatters the glass as Tucker and Carter look on.


A shooter, Waiter 2, holds a pistol. 

Waiter 1 puts what appears to be a GUN in his jacket.


Waiter 2 climbs on the roof. He is chased by a SECURITY GUARD, and then TWO OTHERS. They reach him and a struggle begins.

He falls and, with a SCREAM, rolls over the edge.


Through the glass, Carter is stunned.


Waiter 1 looks at the Space Needle on the horizon, then turns and MOVES OUT OF FRAME.

(Transcription by The Last Reveal of the final film of The Parallax View.)

If you haven't read Screenwriting on Steroids I, click here.

In this post I will lay out the general approach that can be taken when using lateral thinking as described by Edward de Bono. In a following post, I’ll relate his ideas to story creation and screenwriting. First, here is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Lateral Screenwriting: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Write the Great American Movie:

For a complete understanding and explanation of Edward de Bono’s tools and techniques, I strongly recommend de Bono’s books, and in particular, Lateral Thinking, The Six Thinking Hats, and Serious Creativity. While de Bono can come off heavy-handed and proprietary at times, dull and pedantic at others, there is no denying his contribution to understanding the thinking process and creativity. As applied to screenwriting and storytelling, the tools and techniques described in his books are more general than those I offer for story creation and screenwriting, as they are designed for all manner of business, corporate, and societal application, all manner of situation and need. Some of de Bono’s methods are best practiced in group settings. But, then, some writing is, too.
The larger question, however, is “why de Bono?” That is a very important question, because de Bono advocates a fundamental change to the western thought process. He lays it out quite well in this article entitled, Away with the Gang of Three published in The Guardian, January 25, 1997, and later on de Bono’s website. In essence, he believes that humanity would be much farther ahead had it gotten past certain formal thinking practices rooted in ideas put forth in ancient Greece, and later embraced during the Renaissance. He urges adoption of notions that he has formalized in his books, and believes such adoption is vital to human progress, especially at this time in its development.
Much of his thinking, if applied here and now to screenwriting and story-creation, would result in a far different book than the one you have in your hands. The problem, however, would be that it would not apply to the existing world marketplace for stories. For that to happen, the market would have had to change first, or in parallel with, story-creation. So, while we might, idealistically, advocate for doing away with certain notions of story construction, we would be writing stories that would have little or no practical market.
Some may disagree and desire to take story in the direction to which de Bono’s thinking points. I applaud them (you?) and urge that it begin now. Story, as is, has hit a threshold: it is struggling to maintain position. That is why we hear such complaints as, “There are no new stories, everything’s been done!”
Now, we have, in this space, heard from writer/director Paul Schrader when he echoed others, saying “All plots have been done.” Indeed, Georges Polti’s book, The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, signaled it nearly a century ago! Georges Polti reduced stories to 36 recurring variations. Others reduce the number to as few as (what else?) three:
“Other common narrative themes reveal our basic wants and needs. ‘Narrative involves agents pursuing some goal,’ says Patrick Colm Hogan, professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut. ‘The standard goals are partially a result of how our emotion systems are set up.’
“Hogan does not consider himself a literary Darwinist, but his research on everything from Hindu epic poems such as the Ramayana to modern film adaptations of Shakespeare supports the idea that stories reveal something about human emotions seated in the mind. As many as two thirds of the most respected stories in narrative traditions seem to be variations on three narrative patterns, or prototypes, according to Hogan. The two more common prototypes are romantic and heroic scenarios—the former focuses on the trials and travails of love, whereas the latter deals with power struggles. The third prototype, dubbed ‘sacrificial’ by Hogan, focuses on agrarian plenty versus famine as well as on societal redemption. These themes appear over and over again as humans create narrative records of their most basic needs: food, reproduction and social status.” - Scientific American magazine, September, 2008, published online: The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn, Our love for telling tales reveals the workings of the mind, by Jeremy Hsu.
But we have also, in this space, heard from UCLA Graduate Screenwriting Program Chair, Richard Walter, that he doesn’t “…believe we've scratched the surface of available plots. There are infinite new plots.” This difference is probably an issue of terms, the rhetoric: Schrader, Polti, and Hogan talk about story or plot “types,” considering story plots in general terms, scenarios of human striving. Walter keeps to the particular, scenario minutia. He finds infinite variety in the details within the stories told, and the variety of ways writers tell them.
The Schrader/Polti/Hogan faction look at story commonalities. Walter looks at the differences. Walter’s is a writer’s perspective, the story creator’s position. His opposites consider it from the consumer side.
For purposes of lateral story conception, in the early stages, we must approach it from that consumer side. Later, we can consider it in detail and so, from the story creator side. So let’s consider it from the former viewpoint first, if for no other reason than to understand why Hollywood does what it does. Studios and producers are not story generators. They are stories’ first audience, they are its first consumers. They pre-judge stories’ suitability for audiences. So, there are…  
“…no new stories…” That is why Hollywood film studios desperately re-make even bad television shows! From Hollywood’s perspective, viable new ideas are in short supply. Having come into contact with de Bono’s ideas about western thinking, and seeing their worth to story-creation, I am faced with a choice: apply them to what is, or apply them to what could be. In the former, we have a chance to improve story creation going forward. With the latter, we risk speaking to that proverbial “empty room.” As has de Bono with his techniques for business, I have chosen the more pragmatic path, the state of story creation as it is now. I look ahead to their application to what story creation might become, but intend to focus our thinking here to the realities of today. As a result I build my ideas off of notions rooted in the classic Greek thinking of Aristotle. Make no mistake: In doing so, I am not advocating for its primacy over the potential pointed to by de Bono in his “Gang of Three” essay; rather, my intention is to subvert it by infiltrating de Bono’s concepts into, around, and beyond Aristotle. My intention, in effect, is to energize what is already underway with screenwriting theorists worldwide: the laying of a foundation for traditional western narrative’s enlargement.
We can summarize de Bono’s primary Lateral Thinking techniques, applied to screenwriting, as follows:

·         Random Entry – In which one randomly selects an object, or a noun from a dictionary, and associates it with the subject, concept, or story idea.

·         Provocation – A method of provoking alternatives to the obvious story solutions that suggest themselves by escaping the boundaries imposed by logic or causality.

·         Challenge – Where a standard scenario, pattern of dialogue, or behavioral, narrative, or cinematic trope is challenged for alternatives, regardless of whether there is a need.

·         Suspension of JudgmentAllowing for non-causal or non-logical elements or patterns to be introduced to the narrative construction.

·         Generation of Alternatives - The creation of a body of alternative ideas, concepts, or solutions, regardless of need, to enrich the spectrum of possibilities available.

One of the greatest assets of employing lateral thinking techniques such as these is that the introduction of such non-causal, random, or even non-logical elements have the effect of paralleling or mimicking real life. Just as life always has random and unrelated events occurring around us at all times, the introduction of such elements can render the world far more realistically than can a completely writer-designed, vertical plot. The use of lateral techniques in story creation makes for stories having that elusive quality, verisimilitude, the “ring” of “truth.” 
In Lateral Screenwriting, I will be adapting these and other tools and techniques for screenwriting.
I should note that various identical results can be arrived at through any (or many/some) of the techniques equally. In other words, one writer could arrive at an idea, concept, or solution via one technique, while another arrives at the same result using another technique. Lateral thinking isn’t mathematics. It isn’t restricted to classic empiricism. It is fuzzy in that way. The techniques are just various ways to get to what could be similar results for any particular goal. Therefore, the practitioner is urged to find the techniques with which he is most comfortable, and not consider them to be specific tools for specific and separate results. The tools, more than any other benefit, are intended to spark the brain’s own systems, to open up the pathways that might have been closed or dormant, and by being re-opened, to offer new results. The brain isn’t concerned with whether tool-A was used over technique-3. The brain takes over once the idea is glimpsed, anyway, so the tool at that point should be forgotten. The result is the important thing. So, the reader should not be troubled with some formal association of tools and techniques to various types of results.
Finally, it should be pointed out (as has de Bono in his books), that lateral thinking techniques do not work every time and in every situation. They do, however, offer a vastly wider range of possibilities for the generation of ideas. And, inevitably, by the end, they can be expected to offer any given work something of use virtually every time. They do, however, require that an effort be put forward. But, with use, they have been proven to pay that effort back again and again.
In the next post, I will relate some of the techniques and methods of de Bono’s lateral thinking to story creation in general, and screenwriting in particular. #
Lee A. Matthias
Quotes of the post:
I'll be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there's evidence of any thinking going on inside it.
---Terry Pratchett
One only needs two tools in life: WD-40 to make things go, and duct tape to make them stop.
---G. Weilacher
If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.
            ---Abraham H. Maslow

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