"Invisible Ink is a powerful tool for anyone who wants to become a better screenwriter. With elegance and precision, Brian McDonald uses his deep understanding of story and character to pass on essential truths about dramatic writing. Ignore him at your peril." —Jim Taylor (Academy Award?- winning screenwriter of Sideways and Election)
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Here There Be Monsters
One of the most common things I hear from people who object to learning, or having others learn, story structure is that the writing becomes stiff and mechanical. They are right. I will not argue with them about that.
This argument, however, is made primarily by those who have a hard time understanding and applying story structure and it is convenient to say that it makes their work mechanical.
Yet, this is true of the process of learning anything. Most people who learn to play the piano start with the simple tune "Chopsticks" and move on to something like "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." When they are first learning these songs, they do not produce anything that sound very much like music. It's more like a series of unrelated notes. But sure enough, after much practice, the notes begin to sound more and more like an actual song. And some of these people go on to play, or create, great music.
Why would this be any different from learning to structure a story? It isn't. When one is learning story structure, one's writing goes from clumsy and clunky to effortless-seeming. There is still effort, but those early lessons have moved into the subconscious. You learn these things so deeply after years of practice that you take for granted that you know them.
I remember trying to learn the guitar years ago. I remember how hard it was to make my fingers do the right things. And I had to think so hard about where to place my fingers. It was not fun and it was not music. But people who stick with it learn so well where their fingers go that it recedes to the back of their minds.
This is where you want to get with writing and constructing stories. You have to be prepared to be bad. I tell my students that they have to love this enough to be bad at it.
And that is why I can't play a musical instrument. I did not love it enough to be bad at it. I didn't like that the guitar made my fingers hurt, or that what I was playing sounded like mistakes. I wanted to make music, but I wasn't willing to do the work it takes to make music.
I'm reminded of an early art teacher for the late great animation director Chuck Jones, who was fond of telling his students that they all had 100,000 bad drawings inside them and the sooner they got them out the better.
If you have acquired any kind of mastery of some skill, chances are you did not start off great. You may have, if you were, lucky had a natural talent for this thing. But talent only takes you so far and soon enough you hit the edge of your natural abilities. I have seen many, many people stop at that edge afraid to go over. This is like an old-fashioned sailor's map which read of unknown areas,"Here there be monsters." It's the edge of the world.
But if you sail beyond that edge there is a new world. This is where you learn to appreciate the challenges that come with an opportunity to learn and to grow.
Don't be afraid to be bad at this for a while. Don't be afraid to sail off the earth you know. There are no monsters here.
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Too true! That's a tricky edge to get past. Good post thanks Brian
Nice post, Brian. But I would say that sometimes when you get off the end of that earth, there are indeed sometimes monsters there, real ones that need to be slain. Not that I would claim to have done it myself, and certainly not in a screenplay, but I think some of the good ones show the monsters in great detail. Without the craft, they wouldn't have been able to do it. Stewart would call it splat, I think. My two cents.
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