Dynamic Screenwriting

Note: The series, Story Structure, that I’m currently reposting here, was originally posted in the discussion boards of a well-known website for screenwriters. I had a fairly rich life there, corresponding back and forth with other writers. One exchange happened with my very thoughtful friend Martin Collinson.

Martin wrote about the lack of dynamism in some screenplays, and his comments seemed to offer a way to break out of some of the cliché rules that so imprison screenwriters. One of these clichés is that movies are for pictures not words. (Yes, we obviously all know that already, but how many of you are really ready to go back to silent movies? — Or have the talent to make movies with the level of visual storytelling that King Vidor or Victor Seastrom did?)

Another cliché that they like to hound us with is that action advances movies, whereas words hold them back. The truth is that uninterrupted action gets boring soon — unless there’s story and character to give it meaning. Paradoxically it’s static.

So, even though we don’t want to make movies in which characters deliver speeches — how can we make them actually move?

One suggestion: what if words could be actions?

I don’t have Martin’s original post available, but I do have my response which indicates a lot of what he’d said. I haven’t edited out any of the irrelevant chitchat that I hope gives this post more context and humanity.

Here’s what I wrote back to him:


Martin,

I’m sorry: I moved my posting to this thread probably moments before you posted, so I inadvertently left yours marooned. Thanks for moving it over here.

I haven’t had time for a few days to do more than pop in and out to read everyone’s responses. They’ve been so enjoyable and educational that I certainly will start more threads in this series. I have artwork ready to post and have worked out ideas for a few more threads about painting, another on music, a few on movies, and one on prose style. I just need to get them written up from my mental notes.

Thank you especially for your current posting. The idea you suggest about dynamic writing is perfect — just what I’m groping toward.

You doubtless know that there’s a whole branch of philosophy centering around the theory of “speech acts.” I remember it rather dimly from my philosophy days, long ago.

Many of our ideas about the sentences we say are based on stripping them of their context — of the act of uttering them — and thinking that only the abstract, naked meaning of the words is important.

If I recall, these philosophers — starting with the later Wittgenstein — tried to redirect our attention to the way that saying something is a deed, an act with consequences in the world. They wanted to analyze meaning accordingly.

I usually think about this in terms of the dialogue in a screenplay. I think too many of us limit ourselves by seeing dialogue only as abstract meaning — as if we were taking a reading comprehension test and had to be able to identify the best verbal equivalent, the best static multiple choice, for the meaning of what the character says.

This impoverishes our reading of dialogue, and so we look to screen action. If, instead, we looked at what a character does by his act of speaking — rather than just at the words — we’d have a richer understanding of his psychology.

You seem to be applying similar ideas to what the screenwriter writes, rather than to what the characters say, as I was thinking.

And yes, that’s a rich idea: to understand each element in the screenplay — action, description, or speech — in terms of its effects as they propagate through the remainder.

Just as you say, structure is not the skeleton (or not the skeleton alone) and not even the muscle (although that would be a better answer), but the vocabulary of actions that the nerves can perform using the bone and muscle.

Fascinating, and needing further thought.

Your remarks in the ps seem perfect except that — in the way you seem so to appreciate — we should balance them against the historical reality. Art works are not created in a vacuum. Although some artists seem uninterested in other people’s art, many (like Rembrandt) are passionate collectors and admirers.

So you will get period styles — in painting, in music, in any art — where we can see common elements among different artists. However — as you emphasize — this is a long way from saying that there are “rulebooks” that they all consciously followed.

Part of the point lies in the difference between rulebooks and models.

— Bill


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