Serve the drama first

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The right set of facts are those that serve the drama of the story. We read and watch documentaries to educate ourselves. If we’re lucky, they entertain us. This surfaced during a chat about the physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson — the Carl Sagan of the new generation’s Cosmos — and how much he dislikes the movie Gravity.

But any dramatic feature that fails to entertain, because it gets busy teaching us physics — that’s a misguided effort. Listening to him on Fresh Air (especially at the 30:00 mark calculating his response time to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show questions), will give you an insight into how and why Tyson became the man he is today.

It’s hard to imagine the original Carl Sagan, who wrote the orginal Cosmos series, being so persnickety about such details as presented in a drama. Along with his wife, he wrote the novel Contact, which was adapted into a stellar movie. I doubt Tyson will be authoring novels, but everybody can learn something new. Even if it’s just storytelling basics.

Haiku Deck love most

I assembled my first Haiku slide deck today, using this subject as a starting point. (Click on the image above to see the deck, a summary of what makes writing effective.) Yes, it’s what I’ve preached since I started the Workshop: attend to Meaning, Sense, and Clarity. As artists, we make meaning. We’re driven to this mission, cannot stand a life without meaning-making.

And as readers we care the most about drama. Miss a point of technology or history and it might spoil that moment of a story. Stumble while creating the drama — because you’re too busy attending to the laws of physics — and you might as well be producing a documentary, or writing a nonfiction book.

The same rules apply to writing stories about time travel. Rian Johnson wrote Looper, one of the best time-travel movies I’ve ever seen. When I heard Johnson talk at the Austin Film Festival about writing time travel, he agreed with fellow screenwriter Robert Orci, co-writer of the Star Trek reboot. Nobody knows how the physics of time travel work. But as humans, we recognize and connect through drama.

Respect the science, sure. But revere the storytelling.

Wild about Wilder

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Movies can teach all of us a lot about story. Billy Wilder, legendary film director, won three Oscars for his screenplays in a storied career. (Two more for direction; like many great screenwriters, he took command of his stories once he got behind the camera.) The Wikipedia entry on him says he was so successful because

Wilder’s directoral choices reflected his belief in the primacy of writing. He avoided the exuberant cinematography of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles because, in Wilder’s opinion, shots that called attention to themselves would distract the audience from the story. Wilder’s pictures have tight plotting and memorable dialogue.

Wilder’s best storytelling is all over the map in subject matter, from the wordplay screwball comedy in Ball of Fire to the film noir groundbreaker Double Indemnity to the grit of Hollywood in Sunset Boulevard. Most serious? Alcoholism, in The Lost Weekend, which earned him two of those Oscars. And then there’s Some Like it Hot, where he introduced the world of 1959 to the humor of cross-dressing. A hidden gem is Ace in the Hole, where Kirk Douglas growls his way through a media circus of his own creation: he’s a reporter — like Wilder once was — trying to get back into a $1,000 a week job.

You can see a succinct 90 seconds of his story theory in a film clip on the NPR Web site (Real Player is required). Wilder died in 2002, but before he moved on to the next level of storytelling he left behind his 10 rules of story; nearly all of them can be applied to genre, literature or movies.

(As told to Cameron Crowe🙂

1. The audience is fickle.

2. Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.

3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.

4. Know where you’re going.

5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.

6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.

8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.

9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.

10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.