Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Writer's One Job

Write something? Us?
Libraries are packed with books on how to write. I've even listed a few in a prior post. You should absolutely read and read and read some more if you want to write. After all, if you want to build a house or a car it's helpful to see a final version of one so you know what yours should resemble. At the very least they should both have doors and windows.

There are plenty of great teachers out there, many of whom even disagree on certain tenets. I once attended a lecture with two UCLA professors in which one of them encouraged those aspiring writers in attendance to write from character desire while the other implored his students to write from theme. Both professors had successful students. Who's right?

I encourage my students to read as much as possible and fixate on the points of agreement. Every writing teacher will tell you to include conflict, a protagonist, an antagonist (or antagonistic force), and an ending. Can't argue with that.

I have over 40 single-spaced, typed pages of notes with writing wisdom and advice I've collected from storytelling heavyweights like Hal Ackerman, Richard Walter, Tim Albaugh, Mari Kornhauser, Michael Arndt, Pete Docter, Joe Gilford, Kelly Fullerton, Barbara Chapman, and Blake Snyder, among others. However, what if I were to sum up all of the best advice I've ever received with a single statement? Impossible? Hardly.

In true writer-ly form, a writer's single job can be summed up in a sentence:

Create an amazing character.

That's it. Create an evocative, astonishing, surprising, relatable protagonist. If you do that, the character him/herself, by virtue of who they are, will create the story. Pixar's Andrew Stanton says, "Stories are inevitable if they're good, but they're not predictable." What makes stories inevitable? The character. What makes it unpredictable? How the character changes.

Walking into any Indiana Jones film, we know that Indiana will inevitably recover the artifact. In Star Wars, we know that Luke will rescue the princess. In Inside Out, we know that Joy will assuredly save Riley.

But we don't know how they'll do it. That comes down to character. How Luke would do it is very different from how Indiana would do it, which is very different from how Joy would do it.

Could The Big Lebowski have been as memorable without The Dude? Could There Will Be Blood have been as kinetic and catastrophic if Daniel Plainview was someone else? Would Clueless have become the cultural touchstone it did without Alicia Silverstone's Cher? As if! Character is everything.

Of course, this is easier said than done. An amazing character is many things: flawed, wounded, fearful, courageous, powerful, weak, wise, silly, jealous, lazy, bright, slow, talented, and far more. An amazing character is us, in other words.

The character creates the story. To put it even better, the character is the story. Who is yours?

Write on.

Jared teaches screenwriting at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.

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