Prisoners of our own device

I’m zeroing in on the theme for my feature film project. And I can tell you, it’s been a headache.

That’s what happens when you naturally gravitate towards political ideas – at least for me. It means that I often come at a story with social commentary or a moral in mind. Unfortunately, deciding upon a theme in a story isn’t always what comes first. More often than not, a theme is discovered. It kind of pops out from somewhere in between the characters, the conflict and the setting. So what starts off as a clear idea about what I want to write, morphs into something entirely new.

There is a lot of letting go in this process. It hurts to have to put aside an idea and admit that perhaps this time, the story isn’t about x, y, z.

Originally, I started out wanting to write a story that said something about class-ism. While I haven’t deviated very far, I’m realising that the theme for this story is more about prisons – those that are imposed on us and those we devise for ourselves. It is about authority and how easily we hand our power over to others – often to our own detriment. And it is also about refusing to see the truth of our prison.

All of us live in prisons. There is no such thing as true freedom. It doesn’t exist. What do your prisons look like?

My Brain Hurts

Really. It does.

You see, I have just finished listening to the audio version of Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. And now my brain hurts.

Life experience and a talent for words does not a writer make. I knew this. Deep down I’ve always known that the act of writing is not only about honing an ability to turn a good phrase or write a vividly, poetic paragraph.

And there is only so much we can learn on our own. Mentorship, formal classes, informal groups and study are necessary if one is to take a born aptitude for writing and turn it into a craft. Listening to Story is like a slap in the face – a reality check and a reminder that storytelling is much more than being able to string words together. Storytelling is much more than regurgitating our personal experience of literature, television or film. It is having a story to tell and then telling that story well, as the saying goes.

It has given me a lot to think about. Perhaps most significant is that it has made me think about the way I work. I found myself reacting quite strongly and almost defensively to some of the statements made in this book. I am one of those people who dick around with ideas for weeks on end before ever putting pen to paper. I’m also one of those people who sits down and starts to bang out scenes that have caught my imagination without thinking about where the story is headed. It works sometimes. I have been able to produce stories this way. And yet the most successful story writing experience that I have had so far was after I’d forced myself to write an outline.

In hindsight, if I’d not had a deadline to meet (or if I’d been more diligent) I’d have gone back over my outline and worked and reworked it within an inch of its life before beginning my story.

Then there are all the intricacies of plot, substance, structure, rhythm, pace, characterisation, turning points, acts, rising and falling action, action/reaction, values, conflict, crisis, character revealed under pressure, inciting incidents, subplot, subtext, revelation, dialogue, the list goes on. Perhaps I might blog about a few of these things in the next little while. It might help me to marry my instinctual understanding of these aspects of story to what I am studying and practicing consciously. Like vocalisation, writing things down helps me to process. Yes, that sounds like a good idea. We’ll see how that goes.