Friday, October 22, 2010

Screenwriting on Steroids III

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.



Apple CEO Steve Jobs addresses an audience of hardware & software professionals, and members of the I.T. press.

             And so, if there’s one thing
             I could tell our competitors
             as they try desperately to
             meet our challenge with iPhone,
             it would be to say: "You're
             looking at it wrong. You're
             looking at it as a hardware
             person in a fragmented world.
             You're looking it as a hard-
             ware manufacturer that doesn't
             really know much about soft-
             ware, who doesn't think about
             an integrated product, but as-
             sumes the software will somehow
             take care of itself... And you
             assume that the software will
             somehow just come alive on this
             product that you're dreaming
             of, but it won't."

If there’s one thing I could say to people interested in becoming screenwriters, it would be something like that speech. Only I would change “software” to “stories,” and “hardware manufacturer” to “film studio.” It would go something like this:

             You're looking at it wrong.
             You're looking at it as a film
             producer in a fragmented world.
             You're looking it as a film
             studio that doesn't really know
             much about stories, who doesn't
             think about an organically-satis-
             fying product, but assumes the
             story will somehow take care of
             itself... And you assume that the
             story will somehow just come alive
             in this production that you're
             dreaming of, but it won't.
But. It. Won’t.

All too often, Hollywood relies on the sort of thinking that results in choosing product that’s “just like” somebody else’s product; the sort of thinking that if one writer is good, more writers are better; that producing a re-make with “bigger bangs” will produce box-office with bigger bucks. This thinking ends up giving us films like that miserable attempt to re-make Robert Wise’s classic film, The Haunting (from Shirley Jackson’s novel, “The Haunting of Hill House”).

Carson over at ScriptShadow said it well when he recalled one of his experiences as a fledgling writer knocking on Hollywood’s door:

I remember first arriving in Los Angeles and lucking out with a meeting for a really terrible script I’d written. I’d bullshitted my way past some dumb people and gotten the script into the hands of a big agent, someone I had no business meeting with. It was the moment I realized you can trick some people, but you can’t trick the true professionals. Indeed, this gentleman told me straight up, “Your script is horrible.” He then proceeded to tell me that in order to separate myself from the glut of screenplays that land in agents and producers hands every day, you have to give the audience something they’ve never seen before. You had to give them a dinosaur theme park before there was Jurassic Park. You had to give them live-action anime before there was The Matrix.  

“you have to give the audience something they’ve never seen before”

Lateral thinking is a writer’s best avenue toward giving that audience “something they’ve never seen before.”

In this posting, I continue the discussion on Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking techniques and methods as they relate to story creation and screenwriting. If you haven’t read the earlier two posts, they are here and here. This material is excerpted from my forthcoming book, Lateral Screenwriting: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Write the Great American Movie.

“Focus” is, for de Bono, a powerful tool. He describes simple focus and specific focus, among others. Simple focus is a deliberate effort to choose a focus point. It requires a willingness to consider things that are not themselves demanding it. For writers this might enable them to generate sequences or settings in their stories that contribute to the story’s overall uniqueness. When Paul Schrader made American Gigolo, it came out of a class he taught in which Schrader was digging for a character’s job in a student’s script. He was reeling off occupations, “ he this? Is he that?” and he mentioned as an example, a gigolo. Later, Schrader was thinking about a character’s inability to express love, and the gigolo notion came back to him. For Schrader, when a theme meets a metaphor capable of expressing that theme, he has his movie. As we will see, that corresponds to a concept to which we alluded earlier that we will borrow from the great Russian theorists. It’s a concept called, “The Collision of Ideas.”
For writers, using specific focus might enable them to generate elements or detail in their stories that make them unique and real. The writer has a series of scenes at a resort hotel. While unconcerned with the action of the story, the writer wants to make the hotel a real place. The writer chooses to make a list of things that happen or might happen at a resort hotel in a 24 hour period, or during a special event. The idea is to consider it deeply, to find things rarely associated with the location, but possible or likely on occasion. From these, the writer is able to assemble a background for the action of the story that is not composed of the same clich├ęs involving hotels we’ve all seen dozens of times.
Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman applied several examples of a kind of specific focus when Lehman sat down to write what became North by Northwest. Hitchcock said that he had lots of ideas for movies, but they were disconnected. He had always wanted to do a scene in an auction, for example. He had always wanted to do a chase across the faces on Mt. Rushmore. He had envisioned a scene in which a man was attacked by a crop duster. He always wanted to do a scene where someone is murdered at the U.N. in front of the “entire world.” He wanted to do a scene where we watch a car being built on an assembly line, from beginning to end, so that we see it from the assembly of the frame to the end of the line. Right at the end, someone opens the just-installed door and a dead body falls out. They managed to get all of these except the auto assembly scene into the film. Each of them was the result of a kind of specific focus Hitchcock brought to his art. They had become illegitimate orphans of prior writing sessions for earlier films. Because he and Lehman were trying to generate a story without, at this point, even a premise, the scenes finally found a home in this one. It became a matter of finding how to connect them all in a cohesive through-line. The rest is movie history.
 A lesser-known type of focus is something de Bono calls, General-Area-Type Focus. He makes the point that this type of focus is not well-known because “most people have been trained to think only in terms of a defined purpose or objective,” in other words, for problem-solving. He points out that this reduces the scope of creative thinking. So there’s a need for general-area-type focus.
 We might say:
“I want some new approaches to the spy film.”
“What are some new ideas for westerns?”
Because we are not focused on a specific task, this allows us to think widely, to consider ideas that have no special needs bringing them into our area of focus. There is no problem to solve, no hurdle to overcome. This type of focus also allows us to avoid programming the kind of answers we might generate. If we compare two similar creative needs this becomes clear:
“We need ideas on the ways spies go about their craft.”
“We need new ideas about spying.”
Because, in the first example, we are focused on the ways of spies, our thinking is limited to spying techniques and methods. But in the second example, with the more general focus, our thinking is opened up. Using that example allows us to consider all aspects of spying, including aspects of how reality intrudes on the life and work of a spy. This, in turn, perhaps leads us to consider a spy comedy or spoof in which we show all the aspects of a spy’s day that we are never shown in standard spy films. When spies go to the airport, they always get to park right in front of the terminal entrance. They always depart at mid-day and arrive at their destination at mid-day, too! They never have bags, unless it’s a briefcase with the “MacGuffin” (the thing everybody’s after) inside it. But our thinking allows us to look at the other side of spying, the side never shown. Here we can show the sheer frustrations they must go through as they go about their otherwise extraordinary day. They are forced to fly the “red-eye” flight at midnight. They get the parking spot out at the far edge of the airport parking structure. They lug bags to the terminal by hand. They have an urgent bathroom call before they can check the bags, so they pile them up outside the men’s room stall. They watch helplessly, sitting within, as an enemy agent goes through the bags, looking for the “secret” documents, etc., etc. So, we gain all of these sorts of possibilities simply by thinking more generally, rather than toward a specific goal.   
Another type of focus is Purpose Focus. This is focus directed at a target or goal. De Bono breaks up Purpose Focus into categories of Improvement, Problem Solving, Task, and Opportunity. In Improvement focus, we consider ways to improve pre-existing ideas or, in the case of story-telling, scenarios:
“We want some ideas to show how our character improved military tactics and won the campaign against overwhelming odds.”
“We want new ideas on how a young woman might find a good man without seeming too aggressive and turning him off.”
The category of Problem-Solving as applied to story development, might approach a scene or dilemma in a story, and look for alternatives to writing it the same old way, or toward writing it under circumstances that make it difficult. For example, one might ask, “What ways might a man be killed by someone?” Director, Alfred Hitchcock asked himself that during the preparation for Torn Curtain. He had two people in a house, unschooled in the arts of killing, who are forced to defend themselves with the means at hand against an attack by an East German agent. He settled on the man being dispatched in a kitchen by having his head forced into the gas oven.
During the conceptual phase for one of my screenplays, I asked myself the question, “In what ways might someone be chased across the country?” I ended up including a car, a motor-home, a motorcycle, a train, a hot air balloon, and a barrel over Niagara Falls!
With the category of Task, we are applying our thinking toward reaching a specific goal.
“We want an opening to our suspense thriller that introduces our hero, sets up the villain, and is exciting.”
“We want an alternative to the standard scare scene where our character meets the evil entity.”
I confronted the first example by starting a thriller I was writing with a chase scene in San Francisco, where a member of the Russian mob was eluding an entire army of federal agents led by the hero. The chase was full of close calls and narrow escapes. It runs for almost ten minutes, culminating at the Golden Gate Bridge. There the hero and the other federal agents corner the Russian at the middle of the bridge. He is trapped. Then he seems to have seen something. Rather than be taken, almost nonchalantly, he chooses to jump, and it looks like our hero will lose him and his link to the entire Russian organization. But as their eyes follow him down, dropping toward the water, they see that a cruise ship is directly underneath him, and he drops into the swimming pool on the ship’s highest deck. After a tremendous splash, he surfaces, looks up at his pursuers, and waves, having gotten away again.
In the second case, in my screenplay set in and around a small town and the old movie palace (The Jupe), I needed a scene in which the mother in my story’s family is almost killed by the entity inhabiting the theater. I recalled that an old ghost story called The Changeling (the 1980 film) had made some of the audience laugh when the hero, George C. Scott, was chased by an evil wheelchair. The operative question was, “What’s it gonna do when it catches him?” And I recalled the old mummy movies where the able-bodied woman and hero were chased by the mummy, dragging his foot behind him, sidling along, somehow nonetheless, able to gain on them. I didn’t want absurdities or too-clever ideas to cloud my thinking as I tried to devise a scene that was truly eerie, truly frightening. Ultimately, I think I succeeded: my mother character was alone and asleep in her bed, her husband gone. The entity inhabiting the theater has begun to manifest physically in various increasingly odd and fantastic ways. In this instance, as she sleeps in the utterly silent house, several blocks from the theater, her door is open slightly, and a long, dark shape seems to enter the room at floor level. It approaches. A snake? We can’t tell. As it gets to the foot of her bed, it raises up and starts to stream up and onto the comforter, finally allowing us to see it. What is it? Film, streaming from a reel at the door, brought, perhaps by one of the things inhabiting the theater. It moves toward her, just like a snake. Behind, it extends down, across the floor, and out the door to the reel. It reaches her head, and slips under her neck, as she continues to sleep. Coming up, it winds around and back under, encircling her neck in loops of itself. She continues to sleep unaware... So, we see how we are able to create new approaches to familiar set pieces.      
In the fourth category, Opportunity, we have some element or factor that we can take advantage of with the right idea. I was once asked by a producer for a story designed to fit a location to which he had access. It was a closed-up mental institution. I wrote a treatment for a story about a group of students from a neighboring college that has just acquired the closed institution. The students have gone in to decorate the place for a dedication ceremony and party, only to be locked in and haunted by the ghosts of the former residents. This is an example of purpose focus utilizing opportunity, the location to which the producer had gained access.
Provocation is a tool used to “provoke” ideas. Edward de Bono uses it to influence various lateral thinking techniques. Provocations are statements that when considered and “moved from” lead to useful ideas. Except in special cases such as in stories of the fantastic, they are not the usable ideas themselves. In fact, they are almost always absurd or impossible, in and of themselves. This is because they are by nature, “extra-experiential,” or out of our experience. As a tool, provocation offers the opportunity for “hindsight justification” for an idea which might otherwise make no sense. In the parlance of mathematics, it is a deliberate effort to introduce instability into a self-organizing system. De Bono describes provocation as, “With a provocation there may not be a reason for saying something until after it has been said.” Since self-organizing systems such as stories work within the laws of logic and causality, the introduction of an extra-logical, extra-causal provocation can have profound effects upon the system.
It might be said, for example, that all of science fiction, fantasy, and horror literature functions through the deliberate use of provocation. The story proceeds “vertically” following a logical and causal path like any story. But a provocation is introduced, and this then leads to the introduction of an element such as time travel, magic, or lycanthropy. Voila´, the literature of the fantastic! 
De Bono illustrates his concept of provocation by depicting a road where, along its length, a side road joins at an angle, forming a sideways “Y.” He describes a standard causal path moving along the main road, past the side road (there’s a “No Left Turn” sign). Then he interrupts the forward movement with a “provocation,” an idea that “does not exist in our experience,” lying, in fact, outside it. Using the presence of the provocation—depicted as occupying a position between the main road and the diagonal side-road branching from it (in the crook of the “Y”), we then are able to leap to the side-road, and, in effect, open up the side road as a new idea, making it now part of the world of the main road.
How might this work? Let’s say we have a story in which a character is killed at some point in the narrative (our “main road”). However, if he is killed earlier, it would benefit our hero far more than if he were killed when the story dictates. Since benefiting our hero is NOT the stuff of escalating tension, nor good drama, it would serve the tale much more if he died as the story intends. But now, we introduce the provocation: “he dies twice” (i.e., outside the patterns of our experience, since one can’t die twice). The hero is benefitted. We, as the audience, are lulled. But if, from the use of this provocation we now add the idea (side road) that the earlier killing was of someone else, someone who only looked like the character, we can, in effect, kill the character twice. And from this, our drama is effectively supercharged when it is eventually revealed that the first killing was someone else, and our hero is threatened, now, by someone whom he believed was already dead.
De Bono shows that this new idea (the person we thought to be the character dying early, later to be shown it was someone else) is perfectly logical, perfectly supportable within the self-organizing story. Yet it was arrived at through non-logical means in the form of the provocation, “dying twice.” So this then becomes his hindsight justification, something he points out is every bit as valid as any other form of justification.
Why would we employ such means to affect our story, in effect, jumping backwards in story time? Aside from the dramatic value gained by the introduction of the idea of dying twice, it is the only way we can open the story up and gain the use of that side road. Provocation can help us to escape the artifice of a story world whose boundaries are limited to that main road. So provocation is a primary tool, and de Bono gives it its due by introducing a new word, Po, for “Provocative Operation,” indicating that something extraordinary (outside our experience) is being introduced to the system.
Ex. – “Po, the character dies twice.”
Provocations must be set up, to have a reason for being. De Bono describes one method for this that he calls the escape method, by explaining how we take for granted many things.
 We take for granted that New York cabs have drivers.
Po, New York cabs don’t have drivers.
This, in turn leads to the idea that cabs could be driven by the customer and left at the destination. This could work if a customer could use an access code purchased via subscription and the cab only operated within a certain range—thanks to a wireless connection—from its base. Another subscriber could then take it where it was left, repeating the process. So, in this variation, the lateral thinker escapes from the problem posed by the assumption taken for granted.
And how might this work in storytelling? In the comedy-thriller film Grosse Pointe Blank, a professional assassin, played by writer/director/actor, John Cusack, goes to his high school reunion. One method for arriving at a concept such as this might be through setting up an escape method provocation:
We take for granted that professional killers never went to high school.
Po, hit-men went to high school.
This, then, leads us to the off-the-wall idea of an assassin attending his class reunion.
Another method for setting up provocations is called the stepping-stone method. This is illustrated by the example of crossing a stream by first throwing a stone into the middle and then stepping on it. You then step from it onto the opposite side. So it is a pair of operations to arrive at a solution. My example from Screenwriting on Steroids I of using the test drive of a truck to return a large object to the store could be arrived at via a stepping stone type of provocation:
Po, you return the item in a truck you don’t have.
This leads to finding a truck (the stepping stone) by posing as a prospective buyer so that you can use it during the test drive (getting to the other side of the stream).
Ultimately, when it comes to story creation, provocation is a tool that can very often be used, effectively in its raw state, without the ideas they are meant to provoke. They become the ideas, themselves. Many stories, particularly fantastic stories, can contain impossibilities. Provocations can supply them.          
Edward de Bono considers movement “central to the whole of creativity.” “Without movement,” he says, “there is no sense in using provocation.” Movement is the process of using provocation to get to usable ideas. It requires a sufficiently open mind to allow for ideas to appear once the provocation is considered. Using movement with provocation is the most extreme form of movement. Movement can also be used to move forward from a weak idea to a strong one, from a suggestion to a concrete idea, or from a concept to an idea. But it must be used with a willingness to avoid judgment, as that is how creativity differs from standard thinking. It allows for the lack of judgment in order to get to a solution that could not be reached any other way.
De Bono identifies five techniques that can be used to get movement or go from an impossible provocation to a usable idea. The first involves extracting a principle from the provocation.
Po, a person can see the spirits of the dead.
Principles might include:

---The dead want to come back.

---The person doesn’t want this ability.

--The dead want to talk to the living through the person.

---The dead can finish business left undone in life through the person.
---From these we might extract the third principle and from that develop a television show. We might call it Ghost Whisperer.
Or we might extract the fourth principle and from that and write a movie called The Sixth Sense.
The next technique is called, Focus on the difference. The lateral thinker compares the provocation to the original idea or way of doing things. Each difference is then examined to see whether it leads to an interesting idea.
For example:
Po, samurai and gunfighters are identical.
A difference might be:
Samurai are warriors of one lord; gunfighters are free agents.
This leads to asking, what if a samurai and a gunfighter had to work together? From that comes the premise for the film, Red Sun, starring Toshiro Mifune and Charles Bronson.
Moment to moment is the third technique de Bono describes, suggesting that it may be the most powerful of the techniques of movement. Here we imagine the provocation being put into practice, even if impossible in the real world, and we examine it, then, operating “moment to moment.” Consider the following:
Po, a young boy must survive spending Christmas alone at home, after his family leaves him there by mistake.
We imagine the boy doing it, moment to moment, examining how it might go. From this comes the very successful franchise of Home Alone movies. Notice, also, how similar the provocation is to a potential “logline” for the movie. Loglines can sometimes serve for provocations.
The fourth technique de Bono calls positive aspects. The provocation, itself, is examined for any benefits or “positive aspects.” Working from the provocation, then, we extrapolate aspects implied to see if any ideas suggest themselves. For example:
Po, soldiers convicted of capital crimes prefer a suicide mission during wartime over staying in prison.
The positive aspects of this might include:

---Amnesty should they survive a successful mission.

---A welcome release from prison life.

---Escape from a fate they feel is worse.

---They might be able to escape while on the mission.

---They can kill again, something from which they get pleasure.
And out of these we get the premise for The Dirty Dozen.
Circumstances completes de Bono’s roster of techniques for using movement. He asks, “Under what circumstances would this provocation have a direct value?” We want to make a movie about kids and a student newspaper, but nothing suggests itself. Kid’s newspapers don’t really cover “hard” news. We consider a provocation:
Po, reporters for a high school newspaper break a major hard news story.
From this comes the idea of adapting His Girl Friday to the circumstances of a student newspaper.  
Lateral thinking as explored and formalized by de Bono is related to the left brain world of business. Indeed, it is discussed throughout his works in terms applicable to all forms of business and even society. It is true, he uses lots of examples to illustrate specific cases, but these examples span the length and breadth of human civilization. Storytelling, and specifically the art, craft, and process of screenwriting is more focused. Some of de Bono’s tools and techniques can be less applicable to such specific uses.
When it comes to his tool, Concepts, this may be the case. Most times, the writer already has an idea of his essential story concept. The writer can start in many ways: from character, situation, milieu, issue, irony, or concept (among others). In my case, it is done almost always from concept. I have observed many other writers claiming that more often than not, they start from character.
De Bono considers concept to be vague, nonspecific, blurry. He also sees concepts as existing on multiple levels from the most general to highly specific, from making a profit, through selling luxury items, to selling gold-plated pencils, and every level between. So he leaves the lateral-thinker-to-be the task of figuring out which level within a range of concepts is the right one at which to work. De Bono’s notion of concept is one at which the practitioner tries to become more effective. And he does this by recommending they break concepts into categories such as Purpose, Mechanism, Value, and Descriptive in order to home in on the specific need.
For writers, other than at the earliest stages of development, they already have their concept in mind. One approach de Bono’s work advocates is taking a concept from its most general and reducing it to the specific level at which it just feels right, and then working from there to address the need at hand. But needs, as applied to story concepts, except at the most rudimentary writer levels, don’t usually enter into it. In such cases, the writer may want the story to be more this or more that, and de Bono’s approach would then tell that writer to pull back and find a more general level of the concept so that they can re-direct it onto a more appropriate story path. In other cases, the writer might do the same thing in order to jump to another genre. For example, The Seven Samurai went from feudal Japan to American western with The Magnificent Seven, then to interplanetary adventure with Battle Beyond The Stars, and then to animated bug movie with A Bug’s Life. So, while de Bono’s notion of concept can be applicable to storytellers in search of their concept, it offers little else for writers.
I’ll return to the subject in a future post taking de Bono’s ideas and describing methods I’ve devised specifically for story creation and screenwriting. And in the months ahead I will return to the subject of Lateral Screenwriting 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:
The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.
---Sir William Bragg
Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected.
---William Plomer
Art and science have their meeting point in method.
---Edward Bulwer-Lytton

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