#ThinkpieceThursday – Einstein and Writing

AlbertEinstein ETB ScreenwritingThe German-born theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, is best known for his theory of relativity and his Nobel Prize in Physics.  His keen observations apply to writing as well as science.  His concise quotes are invaluable and timeless.

Here are five of my favorites.  I’ve commented on them as they apply to the creative process and writing compelling stories.

1.  “A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem.” What specifically are you trying to achieve in telling your story? What do you want your audience to feel?  Who exactly is your audience?  How well do you know them?  Is your character’s emotional struggle well defined?  How well does it reflect your audience’s struggle?  Perfection of everything else (setting, acting, production values, etc.) is meaningless if you don’t know where your characters are headed.

2.   “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” This is an ideology of humility and authenticity.  You are here to serve the audience.  Your story must add some kind of value to their day.  What value are you adding to your audience?  What is it that the audience needs and how are you filling that need.  Too often we believe we are creating television shows or feature films for our own artistic fulfillment and satisfaction.  In reality, we create to fulfill and satisfy our audiences.  It is only when we are of real value to others that we find true success as artists.

3.   “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.” The buzz word these days is “edgy.”  Often what is termed “edgy” is simply vulgar, inappropriate, crude, gross, aggressive or destructive. None of these things is truly edgy.  It is quite common to encounter the gross, the vulgar or the destructive.  In fact, what is riskiest, the most dangerous and what really pushes the envelope is– to simply tell the truth.  Tell the truth about who you are and tell the truth about who your characters are.  Nothing takes more courage.  Nothing is as a daunting.  Nothing is as surprising or as shocking.  Nothing is more rare.

4.  “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Plots should be very simple.  They should be clear and uncomplicated.  You should be able to communicate the plot of your story in a few quick sentences. Fable, parables or fairytales stand the test of time because their plots are simple and easy to remember.  The most memorable stories are very simple ones– but ones filled with deep, rich, complex emotions.

5.  “Most people say that it is intellect which makes a great scientist.
They are wrong: it is character.”  The same applies to writers and storytellers of all kinds.  You cannot write authentic characters if you are not authentic yourself.  You cannot write vulnerable characters unless you make yourself vulnerable first.  You cannot write from the heart unless you are generous and open up your own heart.  The character of the writer to a large extent determines the quality of the writing.

#ThinkpieceThursday – McCain and Obama: Character Consistency in Storytelling

Obama Mccain ETB ScreenwritingThe U.S. election drama has me riveted.  It is an amazing opportunity to see two Character Types play out their roles on the world stage.  Here are two articles that demonstrate how consistently Character Types are viewed.  The same basic qualities are highlighted in nearly every analysis and review of the candidate’s campaign performance.

Here is what the co-author of McCain’s memoirs said about the stories McCain loves and how they connect with his own story:

The John McCain (as he describes himself in) “Faith of My Fathers,” for example, bears more than a little resemblance to the fictional Robert Jordan of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Mr. McCain later celebrated (this Hemmingway hero) in another book (about himself) with Mr. Salter, “Worth the Fighting For,” which was named for a line of Jordan’s dying thoughts. (Jordan) was “a man who would risk his life but never his honor,” Mr. McCain wrote with Mr. Salter, a model of “how a great man should style himself.”

Each book is heavy with premonitions of mortality. Robert Jordan and John McCain each confront great tests (the temptation to escape a doomed mission for one, the offer of early prison release for the other) in the service of a lost cause (the socialists in the Spanish Civil War, the Americans in Vietnam). And in accepting his fate, each makes peace with his father and grandfather.

Mr. McCain’s admirers, like Mr. Timberg, have often puzzled over what drew him to Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” It is a convoluted psychodrama about a young man with a club foot; he seethes with resentment over his disability and nearly ruins his life in the thrall of a waitress-turned-prostitute who rejects him. But the character’s final realization could fit almost as well near the conclusion of Mr. McCain’s memoir: “It might be that to surrender happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.”

“That explains it,” Mr. Salter said when he heard the line. “Perfect McCainism.”

The full New York Times article can be found at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/13/us/politics/13mccain.html?hp

Power of Idealism characters have a sense of doomed destiny.  They reject the offer of ordinary escape (and a happy life) in favor of the valiant, but doomed attempt.  They embrace glorious defeat (or death on the battle field) in order to live out their own scenario of courage and personal honor.

Here’s what a recent article by a conservative New York Times columnist said about Obama:

“(O)ver the past two years, Obama has… shown the same untroubled self-confidence day after day. There has never been a moment when, at least in public, he seems gripped by inner turmoil. It’s not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious (or I might add the collective unconscious). Through some deep, bottom-up process, he has developed strategies for equanimity…

They say we are products of our environments, but Obama, the sojourner (on his quest), seems to go through various situations without being overly touched by them. Over the past two years, he has been the subject of nearly unparalleled public worship, but far from getting drunk on it, he has become less grandiloquent as the campaign has gone along.

…It could be that Obama (as a president) will be an observer, not a leader. Rather than throwing himself passionately into his causes, he will stand back. Congressional leaders, put off by his supposed intellectual superiority, will just go their own way. Lost in his own nuance, he will be passive and ineffectual. Lack of passion will produce lack of courage. The Obama greatness will give way to the Obama anti-climax.

We can each guess how the story ends. But over the past two years, Obama has clearly worn well with voters. Far from a celebrity fad, he is self-contained, self-controlled and maybe even a little dull”

The full New York Times article can be found at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/17/opinion/17brooks.html?hp

Power of Imagination characters are humble and self-effacing quite naturally.  They seek greatness from others and draw their inspiration and power from the bottom up (rather than display it from the top down like John McCain does).

Obama’s grass roots campaign and masses of small individual donations also displays this Character Type’s bottom up view of things.  The danger is they are always collecting allies and consensus and avoid stepping out decisively or with passion on their own, ahead of the crowd, to really lead.  They can be a bit dull and do seem quite ordinary.  Their leap of faith is to move away from the unity of the crowd and make hard decisions that could be divisive.

#ThinkpieceThursday – Mamma Mia: We Need To Laugh!

mama-mia-meryl-streep-etbscreenwritingOkay, I confess.  I LOVED Mamma Mia.  I am not a big Abba fan, although I like their music well enough.  I admit the movie premise is a bit thin but the casting is wonderful.  Everyone on board seems to be having a fantastically fun and silly time. I needed a good laugh that day and got one.

As the US moves into deeper financial straights, I wonder if audiences aren’t headed toward a Depression Era mentality?

The 1930’s filled movie houses across the country with silly comedies.  It was one of the few ways audiences could forget their troubles.  One of my favorite films around that era is Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941).

In the film, John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a wealthy young Hollywood director who has had a string of successful but light-weight comedies.  He wants to direct a more sober masterpiece: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Yes, this is the film that inspired the Cohen Brothers’ film).

Sullivan describes his serious opus as an exploration of the plight of the destitute and downtrodden. Not surprisingly, he is pressured by studio bosses to make another, more lucrative comedy instead. Sullivan refuses and goes on the road to research his film incognito, dressed as a homeless vagrant.

What he discovers is that humor is what saves us when time are tough.  As times get tougher around the world, audience are going to need to laugh.  Maybe you should dust off those comedy scripts you’ve got in the drawer.  Now might be the time to sell something silly but inspired.

Also, if you’ve got a serious piece maybe you can take to the next level and make it a black comedy.  Dr. Strangelove started out as a drama.  Seeing the absurdity in the horror of nuclear war, Stanley Kubrick decided to turn it into a black comedy instead.  It is considered a classic while the competing drama (on the same subject) Fail Safe, never got as much traction or acclaim.

Check out both films as a master class in comedy.