Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Uh…Did I mention that this was hard?

"A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than other people."
Thomas Mann

Here’s how an old cathode-ray tube television works: The TV picks up both the audio and video signals separately and sends each to their respective circuits. Electrons are fired in a beam down the cathode-ray tube in a side-to-side motion and creates a television image one line at a time like an electronic paintbrush.

Now that you know how a television works go out and build one. How hard can it be—I just told you how it works.


This sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Why? Because all you really got from the above description is an explanation of how a television works, but not how to build one. To build one you would have to know a lot more than most of us knows about science and electronics. It takes years of study to acquire that kind of knowledge.

I bring this up because screenwriting and filmmaking is something that people believe they understand after reading a book or two, just because they have been introduced to a few concepts. But there is always so much they don’t know.

I was reading an old interview with Larry Gelbart and he was talking about “story gurus” and how now that we have so many story gurus we have more terrible stories. He wondered why this was.

After more than a decade of teaching I think I may have an answer to this question. Before there were so many books on screenwriting one had to study films and storytelling. People had to find all of the “rules” for themselves. There was no one to tell them if they were right or wrong. They only had themselves. This made people work harder to understand the concepts.

I realize now when I (and others) take things it has taken a lifetime to learn and distill them into easily understood language it makes these things sound easy to do. They aren’t. This is hard, hard work. And all I, or any teacher, can do is point people in the right direction.

I used to think that I was failing because it wasn’t getting any easier for me to write screenplays. I see this with students now. They struggle and think that they shouldn’t be. Wrong. If you are struggling that means you are trying to get it right. Writing comes very easily to people who are bad at it.

But I see my students desperately seeking the one thing that makes this entire process easy—the magic bullet or the holy grail. Or, even worse, thinking that they have already found the thing that makes the process easy.

Years ago I read an interview with Paddy Chayfefsky where he was saying that the construction of drama was always hard for him. This was music to my ears. If writing was hard for him, and he was at the top of the field ,who was I to think it should be easy?

So what the story gurus (and whatever it is I am) are trying to do is take something that is very difficult and make the concept easy to grasp, but not to do.

I once heard a physicist talk about the beauty of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: E=MC2.  What he was impressed with was that is was simple equation that described so much. This is what I, and others, are trying to do when we simplify and idea. We are not saying that the concept is not complex; we are just trying to provide an simple way to think of a complex idea. Don’t confuse simple with simplistic. It is a common amateur mistake.

Put simply—writing is hard work no matter how easy I, or anyone else, makes it sound.


Joon Kim said...

Why wasn't this your first post ever!? NOW you tell us... Heheh

imyjimmy said...

Haha I know right? Oh well, I think I'm already in the rabbit hole. And I don't mind stumbling around as longs I'm going in the right direction.

imyjimmy said...

Oh jeez, the link on the side now says, "Cool stuff to look at while you Procrastinate!"

Obviously, Brian is on to us.

Jonathan said...


I just finished you book Invisible Ink. So, I thought I would google you to hopefully find more work from you. I can't even tell you how happy I am to have the learning continue with your blog.

Thank you

Kochise said...

Couple months ago I caught musician Robyn Hitchcock at the Triple Door here in Seattle along with former record producer Joe Boyd. They got into a side conversation about tuners.

Both of them agreed that when musicians use tuners to tune their instruments, that the instrument is often out of tune with itself, whereas when you use the guitar to tune the strings to the root note, the instrument is always in tune with itself.

I'm a crappy musician, and I use a tuner. I'm just doing what the magic bullet tuner is telling me to do. If I was ever serious about becoming a musician, I would learn to tune the instrument to itself.

My point is... books on screenwriting are tuners, whereas the films are the instruments. I agree, watch movies, and learn from what you see.

f said...

I probably don't know much, but I know this is true for me:

There is nothing more fun than feeling inspired by great art.

And there is nothing more frustrating than sitting down and trying to make great art.

Brian McD said...

Hey Jonathan,

Thanks for reading the book and blog. Glad to know the book didn't scare you off.

Brian McD said...


I like what you said here. It's perfect.

Brian McD said...

Hey Jon,

Making great art is almost impossible if that is your goal. If your goal is to be good you will sometimes be great. Look at designer Paul Rand:

Anonymous said...

The more I learn and study, the more I see there is still left for me to study. This completely resonates with me.

Also, the warning to not interpret a simple explanation as a simplistic technique is great to keep in mind. I think I'm too easily impressed with complicated techniques instead of wondering if the simple technique that are actually easier to follow might be a lot more helpful to me.

Thanks for breaking things down to a level that they're possible to grasp, Brian. :)

imyjimmy said...

I guess a book on screenwriting is like a book on how to play basketball. It makes more sense to play the game and use the book as a reference, and not the other way around.

That's why the link on the side says "Cool stuff to look at while you procrastinate!"

tosher said...

Amen to that., as I cringe and rip another draft of my story down the drain!

Dave said...

I believe that teachers like yourself are starting to write/teach more about story than previous books on screenwriting. There's less about specific page numbers or reversals and more about how characters and theme.

Screenwriting books seem more to me like how-to books for people who can already write a good story - it's just the formatting and the tempo. In the past, these books have told us the correct information, but if you don't have the required story knowledge, it's all but impossible to apply the information properly.

You must have an inciting incident by page 10. That could be anything for a new writer. However, for the experienced story teller, it's something they know is intrinsic to the character. The options are limited by the character choice and the thematic choice.

vincent mcardle said...

At age 66 have just started seriously writing. Yes, it is bloody hard. Glad to hear when it seems hard one may not actually be failing. Am suitably consoled to continue and continue and continue. Like Richard 1 (when in prison) "Yet I'll hammer it out".

Brian McD said...

Hey Vincent,

Sometimes it gets easier when you know that is difficult even when things are going well. Writing is just a series of problems that must be solved. Rod Serling, who fought in the Pacific in WWII, said that few things were harder than writing.

Thanks for writing.

Good luck,

-- Brian