"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)
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’show 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.