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Just Saw [Insert Movie Title Here]...

...or how my MFA in screenwriting ruined any chance of enjoying a movie like a normal person. If I apply what I've learned to existing films, would it have made a better film?

SPOILER WARNING: Please be advised, I plan to discuss plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.

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Location: California, United States

Friday, February 10, 2006

Screenwriting: One Unnatural Act

There is nothing natural about screenwriting.

As a mode of self-expression, it is highly restrictive, serving function over form. If screenplays were the artistic experience, then you would go to museums to look at blueprints. Screenplays use written language to suggest a visual language where the writer is not the final interpreter.

However, like any discipline, when a screenplay is executed well, it looks easy and effortless.

Perhaps the greatest disservice a writer can do when struggling with a scene is to ask, "What would I do if I were in that situation?" It's a disservice because we tend to be conflict-averse, mediating disputes before they become problems. We will often make personal sacrifices to maintain the status quo, seeking a peaceful equilibrium. This is our nature, this is who we are.

By contrast, our characters must be agitators, destroyers of the status quo who hurl themselves head first into physical, psychological or emotional danger. Characters who are so obsessed with achieving their goals that they are willing to risk everything, including their lives. Not only is this unnatural, it is contrary to the very instincts that help us survive.

A good protagonist drives the action. He must constantly be the domino that starts a chain reaction of events. Do you initiate action or do you merely react to the world around you? Are you the barbarian pounding at the gate demanding entrance or are you waiting for someone to fire the starting pistol? How many of us are the protagonist of our own lives?

Many of us aren't. Many of us need these stories of conquering heroes to feel powerful in a world where, as individuals, we are growing more and more powerless. Acknowledging the role you play in your own life is vital to understanding the role your characters assume in the stories you tell, especially if you rely on your instinct to navigate your characters through their adventures.


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