Friday, 25 October 2013

Creative Storytelling - I May Be Wrong

I may be wrong.

I say these words to myself almost everyday and about many things, but there is a growing, nagging, festering unease that washes over me as I get older and experience more. It is an uneasiness towards the number of people who regurgitate ideas that are learnt and not their own.

Great if they've really thought about it and decided it lines up with how they think, but many parrot what is taught without ever truly testing those ideas or asking themselves if they stand by them. They are the established ways and they are taught in a structured environment or discovered through personal curiosity from great books, then those ideas are lauded and revered as the best on the subjects - so the information is locked in as proven beyond doubt because it is thought or reported by greater minds than theirs.

Ironically I'm going to go to one of my favourite authors now - Malcolm Gladwell - who, in his new book, David and Goliath, makes note of the fact progress from great people comes from those people being unreasonable - not unlike-able or disagreeable, but unwilling to accept the current paradigm and refusing to put an idea to bed because everyone has told them it will not work. They were unreasonable in their stubbornness to give up on an idea. Of course he doesn't spend anytime on the millions of people who did the same only to discover they were wrong and the masses were right - but MG writes about things that are illustrative examples that, I believe, are chiefly examined to make you think and decide on aspects of life for yourself. That's why I think so much of his writing.

To me, at the moment, I feel I am zeroing in on something to do with the teaching of screen writing. How many books, lectures and courses I have attended I can't even begin to number. But as I hear the same structural lessons over and over again in minutely different language, I am becoming more convinced that the learning centered around the structural elements of film are inadequate and largely being taught because those elements CAN be taught.

To be clear - I am not dissing this teaching or the learning or structure, I have said before, it is like someone who wants to write learning the alphabet. Nothing is more important than the foundation. But structure is only the foundation and I have spent years being annoyed and frustrated that the higher learning seems only ever to be a more intimate and detailed examination of that structure. A million films are broken down and laid across that structure and this so reminds me of the economics degree I dropped out of in third year when I realised they could only ever analyse efficiently in hindsight.

The structure of films is taught by deconstructing it in ever increasing detail. A thousand incredibly talented academics who are fluent beyond any need with that structure then levitate to positions where they either teach or adjudicate any and every script that comes across their desk.

Good for them. All they need is a story that really connects with them, that meets all the right structural points and they'll be off to production quicker than you can say Academy Award.

But what about the content. Not the form, the content. Who is teaching that? The element which is creative, the element which is subjective is far harder to teach and to learn. And like so many things that are hard it is ignored.

We get airy fairy dismissals - you either can write, or you can't. A fact clearly proven incorrect by their structural lessons. Anyone can write - just follow the form. But they mean write well. They mean write something that will capture people's attention. They mean you can either tell a good story or you can't. They may also mean you can either write dialogue, think up extraordinary twists and turns and surprise your audience or you can't. But these things are much less innate and can certainly be learnt by learning structure and then deconstructing thousands of great films. Whether you call it stealing or learning from, it is still able to be learnt or mimicked at very least by everyone.

I am talking about pure creativity. The thousands of minute moments in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series come from a creative mind and lift a story copied from many sources to be its own story and genuinely original.

And while that is something a person either has naturally or they don't, it can be learnt by many - not all - but by many. And even more who have a creative mind can have their processes improved. In a way there are structural models to follow to refine creativity. And this is the area that I see lacking. This is the area, where if more time were spent on it at the very beginning of the creative process, far less revision would be needed at the end.

Robert McKee advocates a professional writer plans and plans some more before writing a word. He states all the hard work is done at the beginning - but even he I feel starts too late, because again he is talking about the structuring of a story and only barely touches on the creativity - where he notes you can change the creative elements to make the story fit the stricture.

In the same way that great speech writers and advertising men look at and study how every word and combination of words will create and direct an audience's emotional reactions, the same is equally true in the creation of a story and yet this is an aspect that seems to be totally lacking in the current teaching. Or am I wrong again? Are there courses for writers that inform and analyse emotive outcome of story choices?

This may sound like I am trying to formularise and limit creativity, but I don't think so. I am simply arguing that a better knowledge of the elements going into a story - in terms of the most likely reactions those elements will receive - will allow writers to be better informed and make better creative decisions at the very beginning of their process, not in order to fit the structure - which will come later - but in order to avoid the wholesale changes to stories that are forced on writers at the end of the process and often involve massive re-writes on a simple reactive impulsive decisions by whoever has the power to say yay or nay. And those people are making those decisions on issues that should be known by the writer at the very start of the process.

Recently I was throwing around ideas for a new TV show that is looking promising and we discussed giving the male lead, who is about to get married, a child from a former relationship. The producer had asked us to consider a character that would appeal to a younger demographic - and this was one solution. The problem with a child from another relationship for a mid-life male character, who has had little or no contact with that child, is it becomes a negative. We wanted this male lead to be a hero - and yes a flawed hero is often great - but he is flawed enough, so we wanted to avoid more negatives. In this scenario there are only negative explanations as to how the situation came about.

  1. He had a relationship that failed
  2. He had a child outside of a relationship
  3. He didn't want to stay in touch with that child  

Remember we are talking about a reactive negative. How information makes those receiving it feel and in this case, while there are justifications for so many issues at play here - ask yourself - if you were online and trying to evaluate someone to date and they told you they had a child in their teens who they rarely if ever see - what would your reaction be?

Our solution was sperm donation as a Uni student - so now when the child arrives, aged eighteen on 'Dad's' doorstep, there is no negative response to be awarded to our character - except from those who feel jerking off into a beaker for $50 is the lowest form of the service industry.

I was lucky enough to do a fine arts course in theater before I began studying film. I remember many classes that were insane. Pictures and written material stuck to walls in studios, where we would run around until the music stopped, no really - I did that!. Then we'd stare at whatever material we had stopped closest to. Then we would run again as the music started and for ten or twenty minutes we'd do this. Then come and sit and write for two hours whatever was in our heads. We were encouraged not to think, just to write, in a genuinely Kerouwhacky experiment in free form consciousness. Did it help? It didn't hurt, but I also remember one frustratingly angry young man, a younger me, who exploded at the lecturer, who, after I read out my offering, critiqued it on formal grounds, pointing out where my structure had failed me. My fury was vented part because the exercise was about freeing from the structure, but also because back then I lacked the knowledge of structure that any screenwriter requires - so I had missed it more than I usually would. And every one knows as a young man, when challenged - you attack!

The real problem is that teaching creativity is very hard. To me Pride and Prejudice seems like a 19th century version of the Kardashians. Yes I can see the nuance and the subtleties of an examination of the absurdity of social protocols - I've watched the Kardashians (See what I did there?) but that doesn't mean I am enamoured with or choose these stories as my entertainment. I read them with a sense of dread - occasionally I am pleasantly surprised, but often I find it hard going. But I know it's one of the most popular books on the planet - so I can work out I am out of step in this genre. My creative interests are in other areas and that's a really important part of creativity - being aware that yours is not the only voice in the room worth listening to.

I wrote an earlier blog entry about the different story telling personalities I had come across in my work - and this again seems to be the essence of this creativity problem - you cannot teach a master bricklayer and a pianist the same way - even though, the administrators of this world may quite rightly label both as people who work with their hands. Individual creativity is so lauded because it comes in so many unique forms.

But the creative art of storytelling can be taught, or at very least improved. But it has to be done individually to be valued. And if it is done individually, then others can glean like meaning and example and apply that to their own work. I believe getting to hear the individual analysis and development notes towards the creative content of other's work allows you to learn and apply all sorts of moments to your own work. Certainly not all, but some and it allows a writer to get a flavour or a feel for what should be looked for, what should be manipulated and why in order to meet the formal structural foundations and how to choose, tweak and even create the story to be told.

I have said many times, it's all about risk reward - if changing an element in your creative list makes little difference to your story or the direction you want to take that story in, and it gains you a great deal, in most cases meeting the structural paradigms of storytelling - make the change. But if it loses you more than you gain - become unreasonable and stick your heels in.

I feel you can teach creativity as a language the same way you can teach structure. Not everyone will be helped or will gain what they want. Some people truly don't have story creativity in them. Perhaps they have computer programming creativity, perhaps accounting, perhaps scientific - just not story. They cannot, as hard as they try, think of a way to tell a story that interests anyone but themselves. And that's fine, by the way - as long as they're not trying to be storytellers.

I have come across a few, very few, who desperately wanted to be storytellers and simply didn't have it in them, but they are the exception, not the rule. The laws of cumulative advantage usually help the right people stick with it and the wrong people go in another creative direction. I do feel for those people with a yearning and no tools - the Salieri's of the world. To me, as I struggle to make a living as a writer, I know and understand that tragedy. As I named this entry - I am all too aware - I may just be wrong.

But if you are a story generator of any kind, you will have more than one story to tell. And rather than having a bevy of incredible structuralists, who can tell you instantly something doesn't work because it doesn't fit the structure of a well told story, we need to start looking to a group who can help before that stage - creative ideas people, who have the perceptive ability to spot a great story and help develop it so it can be brought to life and then worked on to meet the structure.

I guess that is the central idea of my entire thought process. It comes from my experiences as a writer struggling alone at a desk and trying to create something that will be both, my own story that I want told and a story that others find acceptable and entertaining. It comes from my years of teaching and my years of practical experience as a writer working on shows, running shows and freelancing as a scriptwriter. I feel there is a whole level missing in the teaching of storytelling that comes before the standard teaching currently available.

If storytelling were a plant to grow - then we have many fine topiarists waiting to take the wild bush and finesse it into something extraordinary, but we have very few horticulturalist teachers, ready to help find the seeds and then explain the outcomes that seed, in that soil, with those supplements and climate chosen will produce. At the moment - this judgement is heaped on the writer within the ethereal 'talent' gene. But why? In marketing, public relations and human resources it is taught with an ever increasing number of elaborate tools and studies. Why can't the writers get in on this too?

I feel we are being told to go away and grow the bush and bring it back once it's mature - we'll work on it then. I think it's time we started working on the other end of the creative storytelling journey - the one right at the very beginning when the idea is formed and before it is in any way crafted.

Of course for many young writers, the bush selected at the very beginning will be weed, and then all their passion, hard work and dreams will simply go up in smoke. Nothing wrong with that either!

As a footnote - I did some terrific workshops with Laurie Hutzler about evaluating stories and characters and this is exactly the sort of writer's tools I'm banging on about that needs to be known and understood by writers BEFORE they create the story to give and allow them to make the choices that will deliver the results they are after. It's a little bit like the chicken and the egg in that you need a screenplay to deconstruct in order to understand the work fully, but the work, once understood, about what makes up the personality of character, is exactly what writers need to be aware of when making their story choices. Get one wrong, so a character does something to facilitate the story and is untrue to their character and you will end up with those pesky notes from readers evaluating your work - the sort that strike a deep ache in your stomach because you know the comment is justified and will send you back to the plotting table.

If you haven't heard of Laurie and her work check it out here. Laurie Hutzler.

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