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Doing nothing, when a deadline-clock is ticking, the one for the final phase of the Immersion Screenwriting Course, isn’t my strong suit. Like sitting in this desert of no ideas. And I almost literally hear that clock telling me ‘hello, deadline approaching of writing your own screenplay, nothing’s happening, no words on paper yet! Do something!’ So, apart from diving into Lajos Egri’s The Art Of Dramatic Writing (1942), which of course is something, and I told you about in the previous post, I figured it might also help if I know which movies and kind of stories I myself like and watch a lot, am drawn to. It’s not very difficult to come up with a list, but it is key to understand why I like them. What is it about them that I like so much? And I keep watching many of them over and over? Because the answers to that question surely will lead me to what Lajos talks about in his book: what lies close to your heart, and your convictions, your beliefs. How on earth do you expect to write anything convincingly, if you don’t know what it is that you belief? Not about a story or an idea, but in general, in your life, which will influence the stories you want to write.
From what I’ve read in the book so far, I not only recommend you read it yourself, I almost urge you to, because it goes to the core of you, the writer, and the understanding that in order to write good stories, thou must know thyself first. Skip that step and no good stories will come out of you, I promise you. I won’t tell you all that I’ve read in his book so far, but I will share some of what Lajos writes and he starts off with the concept of ‘premise’. And before you think ‘oh, yeah, I know what that is’, make sure you truly understand his definition and explanation, because there are about a 100 opinions about it and everyone gives it a different label. Most of them, the wrong one. He explains that many also “have had different words for the same thing: theme, thesis, root idea, central idea, goal, aim, driving force, subject, purpose, plan, plot, basic emotion.” (p. 2). But, I dare say, these things are not the same, not all of them anyways. If I have a theme, let’s say love, then that won’t get me anywhere in a story. Neither is it with an emotion, e.g. anger, if we don’t know what driving force sets that emotion going. According to Webster (as stated in Lajos’ book), a premise is: “a proposition antecedently supposed or proved…a proposition stated or assumed as leading to a conclusion”. In other words, it is something that has to be proven in the end. A statement. It’s like you’re a lawyer in court and you have to prove your case. This means that whatever you do, whatever arguments you make, story you tell, will have to lead to that conclusion you want to make. The conclusion will guide you. That premise is your guide home. Like a rope in the fog, keeping you on track. You can’t swirl off the path too far, because the rope doesn’t let you. It will give you a tug and you will know you’ve gone far enough, otherwise you won’t be able to get to your destination. Do you see that simply ‘love’ or ‘anger’ is not enough to write a story about, to guide you home? To get you to the destination of your story? Because what about love? Or anger?
As examples he looks at different plays (as this book was originally written for plays) and gives for instance the premises of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: great love defies even death, King Lear: blind trust leads to destruction, and Othello: jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love. Do you now see from these examples that love, trust and jealousy, on their own, are not enough? Or even the description of the story of Romeo and Juliet: a love story between two opposites and they die in the end, that even that is not enough. Why? Because your audience will have to be convinced that the outcome of the story and the reason for it, is the only possible outcome of the play. You have to prove your case, remember?
Do you now also see that it is pointless to try to come up with such premises, unless they stem from your beliefs, your convictions? He says about this: “It is idiotic to go about hunting for a premise, since as we have pointed out, it should be a conviction of yours. You know what your own convictions are. Look them over… A good premise represents the author” (p.16). How else do you plan to convince a judge or a jury in court aka the audience, of your statement you want to make, if you yourself do not believe in it? (And if you don’t know your convictions by heart, like myself, more questions are coming up to help (re-)discover them.)
Write what you know, comes back here again. But most of all, what is close to you. The story of The King’s Speech (2010) for instance, is great, but just ‘I want to write it, because I had a stuttering problem too’ was not enough (the writer himself had a stuttering problem when he was young and was encouraged by the story of King George VI and him overcoming the problem). It helped that it was based on true events, which were a guide as well, but the writer had to have a goal, a destination, a believe, a point that he wanted to bring across in the end. There was another script in phase 1, that was written solely out of the writer’s conviction, something he heard in a speech and he disagreed with 100%, so he decided to write a story about it. Not about the speech, but the statement that was made in the speech. He used this as the premise. He knew which point he wanted to get across. And the whole story guides towards that. It is one of the clearest premises I remember from the 20+ scripts in phase 1. That is what you want. What I want. Not necessarily to write a story that sells, but then gets a bad rating (that still happens, a lot!), but to write a convincing story, one that the audience will believe, that you will have proven in the end. That I dare put my signature on, instead of being ashamed to own up to it. Now, who wouldn’t want that? And that does in fact lead back to the topic of truth I talked about in my previous post.
How I would’ve loved to sit down with Lajos and talk with him, because everything I’ve read so far makes so much sense to me. And I now understand the reason for my fruitless search for ideas, or better said the failure to launch those ideas and stories. It’s not that I don’t have convictions or beliefs, but I failed to make them the starting point. Or at least have them ready to consult them, when looking at an idea or understanding why I am drawn to an idea. Because as he also states, it’s not necessary to start off with a premise at first, you can start off with an idea as well, or even a character, someone you know or have invented, but you will have to get that premise, or else your story will go nowhere, will have no destination, you will have no case to prove and you and your audience will know it. If only I had started to read it sooner! But no point in regretting, I am reading it now, and already with such fruitful discoveries! And as they say: better late than never. When I think about the short stage plays I wrote in my 20s, I realize now I did have premises for them, and convincing ones too, but they were much easier to flesh out, because they were very short, not even the length of a sitcom. A feature film or the pilot of a series really is a whole lot more story to fill.
Since I find it hard to spontaneously whip up all of my convictions just like that and what is important and close to me (especially under creative pressure), I came up with several other questions (apart from the one about which movies and stories I like and watch) that will help me get closer to them and the premises that will flow from those, and among them also practical questions about what kind of stories I want to write (e.g. set in future, present or past, live action vs. animation, time-span). And since I know I am not the only one struggling with this, seeing the many articles online about it, I will share the questions here, as next week’s post, so they will be easier to find again (for myself as well). I have dubbed them: 25 Questions Before Trying To Write A Story.
I haven’t answered all of them yet, but just coming up with the questions, I already feel that they give me a much clearer sense of direction. And in a dry place like a desert of no ideas, any fruitful vegetation is most welcome.