Backstory: How Much, How Far?

Eck 2The Christmas celebration is meaningless without the backstory. Trimming the tree, placing the wreathes, decorative lights, candles, brightly wrapped gifts lying beneath green branches are more than hollow traditions. The foundation upon which the festiveness of Christmas rests is its 2000-year-old backstory.

Traditionally, families of the Christian faith take time out from mirthful celebrating to starrecount how it all began. If I were making a movie with a Christmas motif, I’d probably, at some point, film a mother standing on a ladder placing an aluminum star on the pinnacle of a Christmas tree while her children look on. When she descends and claps the ornament’s year’s worth of dust off her hands, her cute-as-a-button 6-year-old daughter looks up and says, “Mommy, why do we put a star on the tree?”

What’s a Mom to say? Because it’s pretty? Because everyone else does? Because that’s what we always do? Because it guides Santa to the tree? No curious little inquisitor will be satisfied with that. Little ones have a keener ear than we might think when it comes to discerning truth. Except, of course, when it comes Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny − fables that we so painstakingly perpetuate.

And so, Mom calls Father away from his session with the nightly news and presents him with the star issue.  (I do not apologize for holding to this ancient view of family.) We cut to Mom and Father seated on the sofa with the Spiritual-Family-Timechildren gathered around. What’s Father to do? Merely going back to how Christmas traditions developed in Medieval Days will only generate more questions and confuse the issue. An over-simplification such as, “Because it reminds us of the first Christmas,” leaves a dissatisfying vacuum. Nothing short of visiting the beginning will answer the question at hand: “Mommy, why do we put a star on the tree?” So, Father blows the dust off the family Bible, turns to the Book of Matthew, and begins reading, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise…” He doesn’t read the entire Book of Matthew. Too tiring and unnecessary. He draws out only the first eleven verses of Matthew Two.

When Father comes to the part that tells of the Wise Men following the star to the manger where they present their gifts, the curiosity of the little inquirer is rewarded. “Oh, so the star giftstold them where to bring their presents.” She lifts her eyes to the star atop the tree, then scans the gifts strewn around beneath it. “And we put our presents where the star is shining, too,” she says while clapping with glee.

Christmas in this humble abode now assumes a texture that mere tinsel and lights could never provide. Backstory. It was necessitated by the occasion, and reached far enough back in time to provide a reasonable explanation of the matter at hand.

In this case, no fancy flashbacks were necessary. The action is in the reading, and telling; the intent listening; and the star, ablaze with reflected light from camera man operatorthe fireplace. The camera works closeups of each family member that catches their sundry expressions as the story progresses; a wide shot of the whole scene; a tilt-up shot of the tree which comes to rest on the sparkling star; a close shot of Father’s index finger tracing the words in the book as he reads, etc. Without leaving the present scene, we see a quiet and profound transformation effected by a powerful backstory as it unfolds through the telling and listening, while enhanced by a setting rich with ties to the past.

How far and how much? As used in the Christmas scene above, one must reach wise menback far enough to extract just enough information to answer the implied or expressed question at hand. Flashbacks that cut to a reenactment of the backstory are more often than not cheap and ineffective. A skilled writer and director find ways to utilize the elements of the “now” to effectively draw up water from the depths of the “then.”

FADE OUT/FADE IN: Beginning the Screenplay before it Begins

Eck 2We are what we are due to the shaping influence of a host of earlier events. Decisions we have made. Uninvited intrusions into our life. The influence of others. Successes, failures; ups and downs. We are also shaped by our genetic code, our psychological makeup, and physical features.

These molders of one’s character and station in life sometimes seem to work against us; other times for us. At the very least, our backstory makes us unique and interesting and dictate much of our future journey through life.

And so, I must buttress the characters in my screenplay with believable backstories. This is particularly true of backstoryour main characters. A character without a driving backstory is a figurative ship without a rudder, doomed to wander the sea without a port of call.

We should probably zero in on traumatic events like loss, betrayal, and wounds (physical, mental, and social). Elizabeth Lyon, in A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, outlines three outcomes of a wound that one should consider in character development:

1. The wound should leave the character with a need so intense that he or she will be driven to fulfill it.

2. The wound should leave the character with a weakness, a character flaw that seems out of control or beyond the full awareness of the character.

3. The wound may also gift the character with a heroic strength that increases his or her determination to fill the need and reach the plot goal.

Often the wound is self-inflicted. Sometimes the character won’t see the event as a wound at all, as when one commits a negativity formative act that seems perfectly logical at the time. A criminal commits a crime because he thinks button_their_storyit’s the right thing. But in so doing he self-inflicts a wound that sculpts his character from that day forward.

Now, I’m not saying one must go this far, but I have discovered that for me it is beneficial to begin writing the screenplay before the screenplay begins. In other words, before the FADE IN.

Prior to writing and bringing into preproduction, “Some Glad Morning,” AKA “When the Angels Sing,” I wrote a short play in which I introduced the main characters’ lives before the main story begins. The short play actually became an award-winning short film entitled, “The Last Pedestrian.”

Without boring you with the details, let me say that I created an event so momentous that it revealed the state of each character before, during, and after the short episode. We discover who they are, what they do, and how they behave when confronted with a given experience.

This was only about ten pages of manuscript, but those pages flowed smoothly into my feature-length screenplay, preventing me from getting bogged down with why characters behave as they do. Then, at opportune times, the story reaches back and draws a present conflict out of the past.

Well, you say, that’s awfully time-consuming. Yes, it is. But how much time do we waste tryinglogo Happy Writer to invent things as we go along that should have been firmly nailed down before we begin? Another advantage of beginning the screenplay before it begins is that, like any play, one must iron out the wrinkles. Another advantage of beginning the screenplay before it begins is that, like its big brother, one must iron out the wrinkles. So the inconsistencies one has to deal with are pretty well smoothed out in advance. Besides, it’s fun. You might even develop the stuff of a good short film. At the very least you might earn the “Happy Writer” merit badge.

Tribute to America Short and Film Competition

Please enjoy this short entitled My America produced by Guiding Star Cinema. Then consider voting for “The Last Pedestrian” in the Tallenge International Short Film competition by clicking on the link below. Select “The Last Pedestrian” and follow the 3-step instructions. Thanks!

voting

Voting for The Last Pedestrian

 

THE POWER OF THE PRINTED WORD — THE SCREENPLAY AS A LITERARY ART FORM

Eck 2We laid a dear friend to rest this week. But his legacy is alive and well in the hearts of those who knew him. He instilled in us all a deep appreciation for the value of the printed word. Jim preached to any who would listen something to the effect: “Modern digital gadgetry can never replace an open book.”

I have a ton of books on shelves throughout my house. My office is cramped with loaded bookshelves. I can find the Kindle version of nearly all of them, but in no way would it be the same. When taking one of my books off the shelf and opening the front cover, the first thing one sees is a sticker beginning with, “This Book Belong To…” But why isn’t the same claim of ownership true ofbookshelf digital editions? Well, it’s not just the text that makes the book especially mine, its the margin notes; the underlines; highlights; and page references scribbled on the blank pages following the back matter. I open a text I purchased in 1973 and find notes scribbled everywhere that bring the volume to life once again. The thoughts that made the writing important to me at the time are revived decades later because they’re preserved in a printed book.

I’m looking at a book now that I once thought would make a great screen adaptation. I still think it would. But what were the ideas that surfaced as I read the book years ago? Open the book, and there they are—notes preserved through the years. Just waiting to be discovered again.

So now I’ll specifically address the screenplay genre. What is sometimes overlooked is that we’re not just writing movies between FADE IN and FADE OUT, we’re writing a literary piece that stands on its own merit. screenplay bookThis is why we pay close attention to grammar, construction, spelling and the like. Of course we take shortcuts and write incomplete sentences. Sure we write concisely with exacting precision. But that’s what separates this genre of literature from all the rest.

I had aspirations of being a novelist earlier on. I made several submissions, receiving, in return, nibbles with less conviction than minnows around an empty hook. I came to the conclusion that something was missing. I needed to sharpen my writing skills. So I started attending the writing workshops. It happened at a workshop at Arizona State. A reader told me point blank, “You’re writing screenplays, not novels.” There it was and that led me down a less traveled road that I have not regretted. It’s kinda like the story of the Ugly Duckling. The little creature wasn’t an ugly duckling at all, but a displaced swan. Among its own kind it was ugly no more.

So, screenplays are a genre of literature that read like none other. I recently read a screenplay by one of my moviemaking heroes, Yasujiro Ozu. The play is “Tokyo Story” which he wrote with Kogo Noda. The movie Tokyo Storyhe directed is brilliant. It is, of course, subtitled and that gets in the way just a tad. When looking away from the screen one risks missing an important piece of dialogue. The published screenplay fills in the blanks and is a book on the bookshelf that matches any other great piece of literature.

The same holds true for a volume by Mike Leigh containing Naked and other screenplays. I’ve seen his movies, but reading the plays brings as much pleasure as Melville or Joyce.

I’m sure you’ve heard someone remark about a movie, “It wasn’t like the book at all,” or “I enjoyed the book much more.” There’s a reason for that. Being spoon fed on the big screen is entertaining, but seldom wholly satisfying. Words in a good book, however, suck the imaginative juices out of the very marrow of one’s soul. I’m looking at an example right now. Raintree County. Listen to this:

“I didn’t exist before or after. I exist always. It’s a riddle of Time. Time was when Time was not. Man doesn’t live in Time, but Time in man, eternal conjugator of the verb To Be.”

I read that while in “the field” with my Army unit. I got to that paragraph and had to close the book and think. I thought about it while riding in a jeep over rough terrain. I thought about it while shoveling down C Rations. I guard dutyraintreethought about it as I stood on guard duty in the middle of the night. I thought about it when snuggled in my sleeping bag. It wasn’t until our convoy wound its way back to the base that I finally, somewhat feebly, understood Lockridge’s words. No movie has ever plunged into the depths my my mind in that way. Certainly not the 1957 film by the same name starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. That’s the power of the written word. It accesses all of the senses.

While reading Ernie Pyle I can actually smell the gun smoke and feel the roar of the Howitzer.

As we write a screenplay, we are contributing to an endless body of literature that never dies. The only electronic gear one needs to enjoy a good book is a reading lamp. With a bound screenplay in hand, one can read a scene, then stop, digest it, read it again, and make notes in the margin. Try that with a DVD.

Of course we must conserve words and nix the flowery descriptions to eliminate wasted space. But the genius of our genre is that we write tight without sacrificing story. An able screenwriter writes on a page that which would perhaps take a whole chapter in a novel. And, by the way, it’s perfectly O.K. to wax eloquent now and then.

Here’s a snippet from scene 108 on the printed page of Ghost World by Clowes and Zwigoff.

“She continues walking. The sun has set and there is a calm stillness to the city. She turns a corner ghost worldand is startled by her reflection in a large window made of one-way glass. She stops and looks at herself. Everything about her looks perfect for once. No need to change a thing.”

Now, in the context of what’s gone before, that’s a literary jewel. That’s the power of the written word. Try as she might, a director is hard pressed to capture with the camera that which the mind captures from the page.

Nothing can replace the written word, and you, dear writer, though you write for a visual medium, have the grand opportunity to contribute to the body of literature stories that pass on from generation to generation; stories that in time may well fall in among the classics listed on a College sophomore’s reading list.

A SCREENWRITER’S DOWNSITTIN’S AND UPRISIN’S

Eck 2No work compares with that of a screenwriter insofar as the height of the highs and depth of the lows. Members of our profession spend more time making repairs than General Motors. For most of us, unfortunately, the lows outweigh the highs. By that I mean the probability of not selling our product is staggeringly greater than making a sale. Sure, just the writing of a good story has its own reward, but lets face it, that pony can only be ridden so far before it’s exhausted.

The old Psalmist knew something about highs and lows. King David took great comfort in knowing that his God was with him during the down sitting and downsittingagain in the uprising. (“Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising, thou understandeth my thought afar off.” Psalm 139:2) I love that phrase. I was in the hospital once and my cellmate was an elderly African-American preacher. His health was rapidly failing. His family had forsaken him. He was dependent on public assistance for his welfare. “But through it all,” he’d say, “The Lord He knows my downsittin’s and my uprisin’s. He knows when I’m up, and, thank Jesus, he knows when I’m down.”

A screenwriter may not have that kind of faith to draw from, but there is within our fraternity some satisfaction in knowing we’re not alone in our passions. From Quentin Tarantino to the unknown writer who might line live just down the street, the mind wars are all the same. Up is up, and down is down.

Perhaps the downer of downers arises out of a writer’s fear of rejection. If someone rejectiondoesn’t like my work, they don’t like me. If flaws are identified in my script, I am flawed. If I can’t sell a screenplay, then my self-worth is zero. Our psychiatrists are quick to point out that one should not tie one’s well-being to the opinion of others. But in our business it’s unavoidable. We are our work, and our work is us. The words on the page are extensions of the thoughts, the ideas, and the inspiration of my inner being. If my second act is flawed, I am flawed and to fix it I must fix myself. I must rearrange the index cards in my cerebral cortex before anything significant can be achieved on the cork board.

We’re the only profession that spends ninety percent of our time fixing our product. recallEven General Motors has fewer recalls than a screenwriter. How does one deal with that? I think, if nothing else, it lifts one’s spirit to rehearse the following:

1. The ups and downs are the norm.
2. I am not in this thing alone.
3. I’m doing what I want to do.

I love the old spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” It’s all about down sittings and uprisings.

Sometimes I’m up, and sometimes I’m down,
(Coming for to carry me home)
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
(Coming for to carry me home)

The spirituals were about hope in the midst of tribulation. Our tribulations are infinitely smaller than those of the workers on the cotton plantations, but the words speak to us nonetheless. Do you know what one of the greatest sources of courage was for slaves in the field? Each another. Generally, no one was alone. One sang his song and others joined in.

Here’s the deal, fellow screenwriters. Yours is a life of downsittin’s and uprisin’s, but you do not, I repeat, you do not sing the song of your struggles alone.

Here. Sing along with this. I’ll join you.