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I’m becoming a little homesick lately to the days way back when I didn’t know anything about screenwriting or storytelling. That is, from books and seminars and so forth. And all I knew were the stories that were in my head that I wanted to write and just wrote, as a 7-year-old, as a 13-year-old and on. Knowing nothing about terminology like protagonist, antagonist, inciting incident, call to adventure, character arc, act I, II, III, climax, resolution and what not. I knew what I had seen on TV, series and movies, read in books, fairy and other tales, heard on long-playing records, yes, I was already around when they were still somewhat normal. And the latter, I might add, were the greatest! Stories being told to you by professional storytellers and actors, captivating and scary as heck at times. I can still hear the voices now, thinking back to them. I still have some of the records, but don’t own a record player anymore now.
On the screenwriting group on FB and elsewhere online a lot of times people tell you to forget all the rules and books about screenwriting and just write what you want. No one knows the secret. It’s all random and ‘luck’. And I know there are movies that go against the ‘principles’ of storytelling and screenwriting and became very successful anyways. But I don’t believe there isn’t such a thing as some structure and principles that work well each time.
But lately I feel I’ve become tangled up in all that I’ve been reading about the do’s and don’ts, with about a gazillion books out there about screenwriting and storytelling, including the ways of old storytelling, from Aristotle to Shakespeare and the Greek Myths, and even more opinions on it all. It became so much that I just felt like shouting: ‘can you all just be quiet for a little while please!’. So I can hear myself again. The 7-year-old, the 13-year-old. Of course, I am doing this myself, I am diving into this myself. No one to blame but myself. Well, not entirely. Because so many give you advice that you should know a thing or two about the ‘science of storytelling’ as I like to call it now. I’ve become so confused about why something that is almost ingrained in ourselves from birth, storytelling, and what we do so naturally as well and understand so well too, all of a sudden has become labelled as so difficult. And seems so difficult, when you start taking the craft apart and try to identify the skeleton of it, what a successful story, screenplay looks like or should look like (again many different opinions here).
Perhaps the difference is then between storytelling, as in a novel or short story, and screenwriting, writing a story for the screen. I can see that. But what I then find very interesting and confusing too at the same time is how many people seem to be so very interested in the art of screenwriting and surpassing the art of storytelling entirely. Of course now I am going against what I just said about storytelling coming so naturally to us humans. Perhaps this is true only up till a certain point or length of story or complexity of story. And perhaps being a skilful storyteller isn’t all that natural to everyone, but we do understand storytelling. All of us. As I wrote about before, about the 5-year-old asking me ‘when does the story start’, when she was watching that movie with hardly a real story in it. I do feel that some are more concerned with stories that look good on screen, but aren’t really good stories at all, simply a justification or an excuse rather to show off visually. That’s not right. That to me is surpassing the art of storytelling, telling real stories, that have some meaning.
Is it then this way, that just like I feel I am a natural photographer, because I’ve been practicing it since I was an early teen, knowing nothing about any rules and by doing it, becoming a natural at understanding good composition, I was also natural at storytelling and writing, since a young age, because of all that I had been subjected to from a young age? And I don’t mean books about rules and principles, but merely the product itself, the stories in books and on screen. And have I now polluted myself with all the books about rules and principles and how to’s, no longer knowing what my instincts are in it, having buried my natural storytelling capabilities, because all the principles I feel I have to think and worry about? Please don’t misunderstand me. What I’ve read on principles of storytelling and screenwriting, and I am particularly fond of mythical structure and anything based on that, including Robert McKee, is good stuff and insightful and makes a lot of sense and feels very close to the human experience from a psychological point of view, as humans are and develop and grow (or don’t grow). I just feel like I’ve been looking at people and their stories as a surgeon and no longer seeing the outside of it, the actual ‘product’, the whole, but only the parts now. I’ve lost sight of the box of the puzzle and only try to make sense of which piece of the puzzle goes where, without looking what the result should be from the picture as a whole.
I want to find a way back to those days of innocence, but I’m not sure if 1) that’s still possible and I haven’t been indoctrinated too much already and 2) I really did know as much as I think, enough to get by now, without all that information I learned. I miss the days of when I simply was an Andy, playing with my toys and making up stories right there and then. And they weren’t that complicated, but still very good stories, usually with a good guy, a bad guy and someone to be saved. Aren’t those the stories we still love today and are still told endlessly in Hollywood? Granted, not all are told now in a way that is captivating, but still. I’m beginning to see how indeed there might be only 7 basic plots and 36 dramatic situations. Told in many variations. Is that the key? Have I made it too complicated in my head and need I go back to the basic stories of yesteryear? Need I shut up all the books and principles of ‘today’ for now and just read the ‘simple’ stories of Shakespeare and perhaps also what those 7 basic plots seem to be?
I’m thinking of the quote by the character Inigo Montoya in the classic The Princess Bride (1987): ‘You told me to go back to the beginning, so I have’, at a point when all seems lost for him and he doesn’t know what to do anymore. I’m not sure if for me that means shutting out even Shakespeare and Aristotle and trying to remember the stories I used to write when I was really young or simply read the classic stories and fairytales and get inspired by those simple stories again for now and look at their basis. Of course in a few weeks the free screenwriting course is starting, so who knows what that will bring or what that angle is. And perhaps I can put all of these thoughts aside for now, although I can’t imagine inspiration for stories won’t be important still.
Had I kept writing from young, I don’t think I would’ve had this ‘problem’ now. But there’s no point in dwelling on that, since I can’t change that. What I can change is ‘go back to the beginning’ and try to tell the story as a simple story, as simple as I did back then. And perhaps the rest of it will follow naturally. I think that’s what I’ll try for now.