Happy 1 month Elijah!
With today’s release of Ender’s Game, a whole shitstorm’s been a’brewin’ about what a terrible person Orson Scott Card is. His virulent homophobia has been recently widely publicized, leading to people calling for a boycott of the movie so as not to support any project Card is even tangentially involved in. I’ve fallen on both sides of this argument before. For example, when the Tom Cruise being crazy stories were breaking left and right, and people were up in arms about his beliefs in Scientology and his treatment of Katie Holmes, I was able to differentiate between the man and his work. It helped that A.) he’s really never been in a bad movie, B.) he’s always seemed like a genuinely nice guy, regardless of his beliefs, and C.) most of the rumors seemed unfounded or inconsequential.
That may be a poor example because Card is a homophobic activist, which can be argued is much more harmful than Tom Cruise and his Scientology beliefs. So where do I fall on this spectrum? I think Card is an awful person. I think his beliefs stem from a place of ignorance and fear, and that actively trying to prevent people from expressing something as pure as love is absolutely ridiculous.
However, as it relates to Ender’s Game (or the Ender series as a whole, extending to the Shadow series) I’m torn. I very much enjoyed what I’ve read of both the Ender series and the Shadow series, but I do feel a little icky reading, and supporting, something from such an awful person. What it comes down to, for me, is how much of Card is in his writing. This is tricky because every author leaves a lot of him or herself on the page. That’s just how it works. But the truth of the matter is, neither the Ender series or Shadow series have even hinted at anything homophobic. The themes and messages in the books I’ve read up to this point have been centered on the morality of war, and the way children relate to one another as well as adults.
The conflict, then, lives in a gray area for me. While I wholeheartedly disagree with his believes regarding gays, I don’t disagree with his views on wartime morality. I find his writing engaging, and his ideas interesting enough to make me think. If I were to pick up a book that was laced with his intolerance, I wouldn’t read it. But I would drop a book preaching intolerance from any author. It is well within any person to have beliefs both good and bad. For Card and his writing, I’ll choose to focus more on the good beliefs than the bad ones until I read or hear something that convinces me otherwise.
Even though there is a lot of an author in each thing he or she writes, I think that any good author (and Card is a good author) can separate themselves enough from their perspective that a reader can afford them the benefit of the doubt.
I realized recently I have a bit of an issue with my writing: I keep conceiving of characters that hurt the potential of my stories. I don’t know if this is a problem other writers have, or if it’s something that writers often think about, but I’m beginning to realize it’s very important.
The best storytelling is the opposite of life: It’s clean, tight, and closed-ended. Of course there are exceptions, but from a strictly technical standpoint stories that have those attributes tend to have a more lasting impact. Why this is, I’m not sure. Maybe because a strong structure allows a reader/viewer to more easily follow the emotional peaks and valleys of the story. Regardless, there is a two-way street in these stories. One in which the story serves the characters (these events can only happen to these people) and the characters serve the story (the story can only play out the way it does because of these people). Spiderman only works because Peter Parker is the type of kid that would be in a position to be bitten by a radioactive spider, and his personality was such that he used his powers in that specific way. If he were a bit dumber, no spider bite. If he were a bit lazier, no superhero. If he were a bit bigger of an asshole, he’s a villain instead.
This leads me to my problem. I’m having an issue creating characters that fit well into my stories. Because of this I’m not maximizing the potential of the stories I want to tell. For example, in The Time Bubble I wanted my character to be an everyman. Someone not too smart, not too strong, not too interested. An unbiased bystander, so to speak. But when I wrote the story that way, my themes got lost. There was supposed to be discussion on the Government’s role in people’s day-to-day lives, but the character wasn’t the type of person who would have those types of discussions. And if he did, he wouldn’t have the capability of speaking about it intelligently. All of this led to my breaking one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting: Your protagonist should be proactive, not reactive. If he’s reactive, he’s boring. He’s not the one doing anything, things are happening to him.
On more recent rewrites I’ve changed the character to fit in better with the world I created and the story I want to tell. He’s become someone that was in the military, giving him reason to be away from home (theme – homesickness) and have an opinion on the Government (theme – how much is too much Government?). The story is stronger for it, but I lost the everyman I conceived the story with.
The lesson is to be sure that your characters are married to your story, and vice versa. Otherwise you’ll run into a lot of problems delving as deeply into the story as is necessary for it to be most effective. Then you’ll have lots of rewriting to do.
As part of a freelancing gig I recently had to write an essay about the techniques Quentin Tarantino uses in Pulp Fiction that makes Pulp Fiction a neo-noir film. Here’s the thing, Pulp Fiction isn’t really a neo-noir film. Not by technique, anyway. It’s essentially a gangster film, and can only be considered neo-noir insomuch as gangster films and neo-noir films often share the same themes and stock characters. While researching and writing this essay, it got me thinking about artist’s intent and how often people looking for deeper meaning in film, or literature, or art find what they want without it necessarily actually being there.
Pulp Fiction has a perfect example of this phenomenon with the “What’s in the briefcase?” debate. Tarantino has gone on record as saying that the briefcase is essentially a MacGuffin and that there was never really any intent behind it. Yet the theories abound. Is it Marsellus Wallace’s soul? Is it the gold from Reservoir Dogs? It’s neither. Tarantino said as much.
I’ve had several experiences with these strange occurrences in college and with Granted. Sometimes people would give me their theories on things in my stories that I thought were better than my actual intent. Other times I was dumbfounded at their theories. Personally, I don’t believe in trying to guess an artist’s intent, regardless of the medium.
That’s not to say there is no room for meaning in ambiguity. That’s the fine line Pulp Fiction walks that Tarantino ruined with his candor. I think artists should leave certain aspects of their work ambiguous so patrons can find their own meaning. It’s the overthinking that bothers me. Some works are meant to be enjoyed on a certain intended level, and overthinking or overanalyzing something can harm one’s overall enjoyment and the overall enjoyment of the artwork for other people.
Understanding intent takes context, which is something people lack for most artworks. To properly appreciate artists’ intent, you should also understand when it was made, how it was made, and why it was made. In most cases, these are impossibilities. I think that’s why people ascribe meaning to things they shouldn’t. They are adding the context of their own lives to the artwork. Again, it’s hard to find fault with this. We should all be able to enjoy our favorite movies, books, or artworks because of their personal meaning to us. I think where it becomes a problem for me is either when that meaning is no longer personal, or the artist reveals their intent and people ignore it in favor of their interpretation.
This does beg a certain question, though: Is there a wrong interpretation? Because any form of artwork can only be enjoyed within the context of personal experience, would that make an artists’ intent wrong if it doesn’t match with Joe Shmoe’s interpretation because the artist lacks the context that Joe Shmoe is viewing the artwork in? Or is the original intent of the creator the final word on the subject?
In many ways, this debate is similar to religious exper… Shit, I fell into my own trap.
Welp, I guess overthinking is a part of human nature. My arguments are invalid.
The director of Granted posted on his Facebook wall today that he would trade half of the actors and directors currently populating Buffalo for just ten talented writers. This got me thinking, what is good writing? How do we recognize it? What standards are there for good writing?
While he didn’t specifically use the word “good”, nor did anyone in any of the comments (except me), that for some reason is the word I latched on to. I think it’s a solid starting point, simply talking about why one thing is good as opposed to something else. Why is the script for The Godfather good, and the script for From Justin to Kelly bad? “Apples and oranges,” you might say if you were the type of person to use such a cliched remark. My point is, though, is there a way to break down the elements of a script, regardless of genre or intent, and label it in such a way?
Grammar – One of the first things I’ve read in each screenwriting book/blog/forum/contest I’ve frequented is that scripts are frequently judged on the grammar and spelling of the author. This is understandable, as it is a mark of professionalism and can be a solid indicator of quality. If someone doesn’t care enough to make sure the grammar and spelling of their baby is close to perfect, then why would they care about their story or characters being close to perfect? However, there are exceptions to the rule. Tarantino is often pointed to as someone with imperfect grammar and spelling, and I think it’s pretty generally accepted that he’s a spectacular writer. For amateur screenwriters that don’t have such clout, easily fixed mistakes can really hurt.
Format – There is a bit more lax in this than grammar and spelling, I think. Amateur screenwriters routinely get away with mistakes in this area simply because they’re amateurs and are (assumedly) still learning the craft. One of the Nicholl Fellowship Award winners, and eventual Black List scripts, was like this. The story was unique, characters well drawn, but the formatting poor and sometimes hard to read. Again, if a story isn’t formatted properly it can work against a script from being considered “good.”
Marketability – I hesitated to include this, because many of the best scripts are ones that aren’t considered “marketable,” but I think it’s also an important concept to understand for screenwriters. Who are you writing for (yourself doesn’t count as an answer, because then you would be keeping a diary and not writing screenplays)? If you hit you hit your target, is your script automatically good? If you miss is it automatically bad? It’s tough to say any of the Transformers movies were very good, but they were certainly popular and (mostly) achieved what they set out to achieve. In some circles, that would make them very good.
Structure – Stories in general, but especially screenplays, are supposed to have a three-act structure. But most screenplays with perfect structure probably aren’t considered good. Nor are screenplays that shun a three-act structure necessarily bad. Shane Carruth’s latest, Upstream Color, I heard plays with structure. Tarantino’s own Inglourious Basterds had a five-act structure that he helpfully outlined for his audience. Perhaps that handholding is what made his rule-breaking acceptable.
Story – Are the stories that are unique and well-thought out better than those that are familiar? Was Inception better than True Grit because Inception was a more unique idea? Writers are often judged on their loglines alone, so it would make sense that amazing stories have been skipped over because they sounded too similar to things that were already out there.
Characters – Is it better to write characters that are unique, or characters that are familiar and relatable? What makes a character that is, say, an FBI agent relatable to a farmer? Sometimes I can’t get into stories just because I can’t find anything relatable in the main characters. Evil Dead is a good example, as they tried to give you an emotional attachment to the characters by giving them intense flaws. It’s just, the struggles those chose for these characters were struggles I couldn’t relate to and I never found myself attached to them when shit went bad. Can we judge a screenplay based on how well-developed the characters are? Do we learn their backstory? Are the relationships developed? If we check yes for these, is it an indicator of how good a script is?
Intangibles – Football ranks players with “intangibles” sometimes. Extra little things that a player does that increases his worth to the team. Leadership skills, strategic knowledge, field awareness, things of that nature. Each script is also judged on certain intangibles. Turn-of-phrase, metaphor, emotional impact – these are just a few of the intangible thing someone reading a script might take into account without even realizing it.
Now that we have an idea of how a screenplay is made up, can a determination be made? I would still argue no. Writing is too subjective, I think, to be sure. While all of these parts are good indicators of the whole, it’s hard to judge a screenplay by just one, two, or even a few of these criteria. This is why looking for “good” writers is a difficult thing to do. Judging talent is a talent unto itself, and one that isn’t quantifiable.
So, I guess, good luck to my friend back in Buffalo. Judging talent and what’s good or bad is an unenviable task.