Monday, October 20, 2014

Writing a Better Chair: Moving Beyond The Craft of Screenwriting

This is a chair.
We all know a chair when we see it. However, if someone were to ask us what a chair is, we would all have different answers. Some of us would say that it is a thing with four legs and a seat and a back. Others might say that a chair is a piece of furniture. Still others might claim a chair to be a thing on which you rest.

We all know there are many different shapes and sizes of chairs out there yet they are all classified as a "chair." Movies today are like chairs in that sense. We all know there are many different ways to tell a story, but Hollywood would have us believe otherwise. They would prefer that all stories have the same design.

They may try to "paint" the story a different color (cinematography), use different wood (characters), make it smaller or larger (length and scope), but it's basically the exact same chair (story) as all of the others. No matter how the details are changed, the story structure stays the same; the design is unchanged (which is probably why you can watch a trailer and feel like you've already seen the movie).

When I first began as a screenwriter, I was not even aware of story structure. As a teenager I worked at a video rental store and had seen thousands of movies by then. I knew what I was doing... copying every single one of them.

Also a chair.
Not directly, but I stole concepts, story beats, even character traits from the mishmash of films that I loved. The result was an incredible Frankenstein of a story that also could have passed as a thesis from one of my International Studies classes. Go figure.

Still, I was hooked and I wanted to write another, better screenplay. So I started reading.

Google "how to write a screenplay" and within the first 5 results the two things emphasized the most are formatting and structure. To the fledgling writer, screenwriting appears more like a paint-by-numbers scheme than a form of artistic expression. Dogmatic adherence to design is preached and accepted from the start.

And like any good student, I began to focus on that design. Software took care of formatting so I dove into mastering the structure and quickly learned about the Monomyth. You know the Monomyth; aka The Hero's Journey aka The Paradigm aka The BS2.

As a beginning screenwriter, you can't miss it. The Monomyth is everywhere. It's given such reverence that I've heard stories about Hollywood execs tossing scripts without a central theme on page 5 and a "dark night of the soul" on page 75 into the trash. 


I started referring to screenwriting not as art but as a craft. Every story I imagined, every screenplay I developed had to fit within The Hero's Journey. I struggled to master the subtle nuances of it and over time I've become very comfortable with every step and stage. But I've also run up against its limits and, by now, have almost completely abandoned it.

Don't get me wrong, understanding the Monomyth is crucial for every storyteller. But it's simply a first step in becoming a fully competent screenwriter. For those at the beginning of their careers, reading books on screenwriting or taking a screenwriting course or workshop can really help you develop a basic understanding of screenwriting. And I think that collectively, we as filmmakers can agree that doing so is important. But the Monomyth only one kind of story and there are other types of stories out there. Stories from new voices that will entice and restore a trust in audiences that film isn't bereft of any good ideas -- told in unique and interesting ways.

And yet reality indicates otherwise. A cursory glance at the majority of films being pitched and sold and made today makes it very clear that the same stories are being told over and over again. This is not just a Hollywood problem either. It's across the board from indies to tentpoles. When your story follows the beats of the "Hero's Journey" then you are fundamentally telling the exact same story each time, no matter how differently you color it.

So, in my opinion, it comes down to this. Do you see screenwriting as a form of art or of craft?

Obviously, a lot has been said about the distinction between art and craft (Great TED Talk about the subject) but, ultimately, I believe that the distinction comes simply out of an adherence to reproduction. If you are making something, be it a vase or a story, in order to look and fit into an agreed upon model, then you are not making piece of art, you are making piece of craftwork.

This is not to discount the value of craftwork. It is a very honorable thing and craftsmen and women provide all manner of amazing goods that we enjoy and cherish throughout generations - like beer.

Still a chair.
But art is about putting a personal touch on the basic form. About expressing ones own, unique point of view on the world. About pushing the craft beyond and into metaphor, interpretation and meaning.

Just like everyone knows what a story is, doesn't mean that everyone's idea of a story is the same.

Yet movies remain stuck. Unable and unwilling to pry itself free from the desire to mitigate risk through reproduction of the banal. The audiences have already spoken. We just had the worst summer box office since 2006. Clearly movies are losing the war for everyone's attention.

What are you going to do about it? Meanwhile, I've got this couch I'm working on...



Travis Oberlander is a writer & producer who also has been working closely with CSI: creator Anthony E. Zuiker. Travis co-wrote the cyber-bridges for Level 26: Dark Revelations, the third installment of Zuiker’s digi-novel trilogy. In 2013, he produced Layover, the first in the LAX Trilogy with his long-time collaborator, Joshua Caldwell and in 2014 he wrote and will produce the second installment in the series Assassin.


In addition to his writing and producing, Travis has over six years of experience managing social media teams, developing digital strategy and overseeing various programs for major brands such as Unilever, Walmart and Beam Global. Prior to that, he launched the award-winning social media division of Media Temple, a leading web-host. Follow Travis on Twitter: @tobewan

1 comment:

  1. Amen. Apart from producing and directing my own films (taking matters into my own hands as you and Joshua Caldwell are so finely demonstrating), any words of wisdom for a new writer wanting to adjust the mold?

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