On Screenwriting – Part 2 – Economy

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A screenplay is a blueprint, a technical document, that many people have to use – the producer to sell the film, the director to make the film, the actors to perform the film and the editor to piece the director’s footage into something sensible.

Every word on the page matters; if can be removed, remove it. Adverbs, redundancies, repetitions, passive tense. Get rid of them all. The more white space on the page, the better. As a writer, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can show off your fancy prose chops. If you want to do that, write a novel.

When writing action think in terms of shots. One shot per paragraph.

Don’t use unnecessary crap like, “We see…” or “We hear…”. Keep it simple. Just describe what is happening. Also, avoid using technical jargon like “Medium-close up on…”. It’s the director’s and, later, the editor’s job to decide on shots. You can influence this with the one line per shot rule, as more often than not the description and context of the shot will be obvious.

Keep action to active, present simple tense. There should be very little ‘is – ing’. ‘Paul walks towards the shop,’ is quicker to type and has more impact than ‘Paul is walking towards the shop.’

Only use a parenthetical (wryly) if absolutely necessary. Actors like to have a little bit of leeway to choose how to deliver a line, and quite often I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the choices they make, which is different to how I imagined it when I wrote it and usually a vast improvement.

Dialogue should be sparse. The old adage, “show, don’t tell”, will never die. If you can find a way for an actor to act a beat, rather than spout dialogue, go for that every time.

Always read your dialogue out loud. It may sound amazing in your head, but quite often comes across as cliche or simply hard to get your tongue around in real life.

If you need to have Basil Exposition in the room, at least have him do something interesting while he’s doing his thing (this is a fun way to get subtext into the mix, where what the character is doing is contradictory to what they are saying). Make sure it’s more interesting than eating a peanut butter sandwich. If nothing else, it’ll keep the audience interested while you bore them with facts they need to know.

Tomorrow – How to improve…

On Screenwriting – Part 1 – Structure

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For Tom. Play by these rules and your screenplays will always be top class.

There are two key watchwords with screenwriting: economy and structure. Structure is the bedrock of any good screenplay, and there are several you can choose from. The classic is the three act structure (read Aristotle’s Poetics and Sid Field’s Screenplay or Robert McKee’s Story). Within that there are useful guides that can help; Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat is useful, if a bit overused these days. Todd Klick’s Something Startling Happens is also very useful, particularly for editing. Chris Soth’s six act structure is also fun, but ultimately it’s a subset of the three act structure.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the three act structure is passé. It worked in Aristotle’s time and it still works now. It creates a nice emotional arc and paces the story well. The second act is normally twice as long as the first and the third. Be careful not to rush into the second act before you’ve properly set things up in the first.

A good story starts at an end and ends at a new beginning.

Tomorrow – Writing the damn thing!

On the Extended Order

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I keep waffling on about the Extended Order, but what on earth do I actually mean by that?

In my mind, following on from Hayek, who developed the idea extensively, the Extended Order is the laws, traditions and rules of society. More often than not these rules are deeply ingrained within us through our parents and family from birth, and we play by these rules primarily at a subconscious level.

This order is controlled by no-one; it could never be because it is vast and complex. Within it there are groups of often competing sets of beliefs; religion, trade, economics and politics all emerge within the extended order. I read recently that once a population reaches a million it starts to develop notions of religions. I’d say that you probably don’t need that many people for them to start figuring out how they can work and live together, and a fledgling extended order starts to develop.

As Hayek likes to point out, these rules and traditions exist develop somewhere between reason and instinct. By this he means that if we based the rules purely on reason or instinct alone, the logical and primal aspects of our brains would negate much of the positive good that comes from the extended order.

The extended order is irrational and evolutionary. As culture changes, so old ideas drop away and new ideas (that work) come to stay. It’s interesting to watch recent developments in regards to gender and feminism and multiculturalism, as people push and prod at our long held beliefs. Over time, the order will change to either accept these newer ideas, or they will drop away from lack of use as newer challenges come along.

On Creativity

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Yesterday I mentioned in passing my definition of capitalism involved the element of creativity. This is another of my fundamentals of life.

We are, as human beings, creative. It is a result of, and in our integrative worldview – a cause of, who we are. The biblical scholars understood this, even as they attributed the mystery of creation to God, they understood that it is in the process of creation that we are made in the image of God.

We naturally like to create, whether that be for a living or as a hobby, the state of flow that comes from creating something, for me, indicates that it is what we are meant to do. The integrative nature of how both our brains work and how we work together, will always bear creative fruit if allowed to. In fact, the greatest pleasure and most fulfilment I’ve ever had in life has always come from creating with other people.

When people create together, whether it be making music or making films, the results are always far greater than the sum of its parts. If you ever want to see the origin of the extended order in action, make a film or write a song with other people. It’s incredible.

Even in the workplace and in society, we are always creating, even if it’s a bit less fun. Laws, traditions, products all emerge from the efforts of many people, who rarely could produce the result by themselves. And so the extended order grows, a constant dance of creation and evolution, never controlled or owned by anyone.

Stories and Beliefs

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What we choose to believe and the choices we make are, by and large, controlled by our subconscious, based on the stories we tell ourselves and those that we’ve been told by our parents, our friends and those we respect and admire. These, along with our life experiences, the autobiographical information and memories we store about ourselves, and many other factors are all integrated into a whole in our heads.

There is often no rational reason why we choose to believe some things; it’s a blend of so many factors. This is why in some respects debates around politics and, topically, Brexit are circular and fruitless, and we’d be better off finding our common ground and moving forward from there.

Rationalist thinking that beliefs are somehow malleable when subjected to scrutiny is not helpful. We have to accept that the choices we make are often arbitrary and nonsensical, and trying to put them into words is more often than not, incredibly difficult.

Our beliefs run deep, and it takes a long time for anyone to change their minds on deeply held beliefs. I would argue that Damascene conversions are more likely people finally letting go of old viewpoints, where their new ones were either a bit scary for them, or they just didn’t realised they’d moved on, and then something has given them the excuse to drop the old beliefs – a shift in perspective of the group around them or a move to a new group of friends/colleagues etc.

This is why a second Brexit referendum is pointless. Very few people will have changed their minds. If anything, I think a lot of people felt bullied into voting to remain, and have since seen that, while there were blatant lies on both sides of the argument, the lies on the remain side were malicious and designed to put fear into people. Not a good way to build trust.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography of Voltaire wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is a hard premise to live to, but as a libertarian I truly believe this to be the core of society and getting along. We will never agree on everything – how dull would life be if we did? But to rationalise and dig your heels in and point fingers on a wave of Noradrenaline and say, “You’re wrong!” is to miss out on the magic of life.

The Chemical Brothers

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Continuing on from yesterday’s post, there’s one other interesting thing about the brain that has deep implications for storytelling.

It would seem that to get someone’s attention fully, we need to show or tell them something that does two things to their brain.

First off, it must interest them. When their brain becomes engaged with something that arouses curiosity or some kind of emotional response, it releases the chemical Dopamine. This ensures that their attention will remain on what you are telling them.

You might assume this would be enough, but to really get someone’s attention, you must also get their brain to generate Norepinephrine (or Noradrenaline as we Brits refer to it). As you might guess from the UK version of the name, this is generated in situations of stress or danger.

The most effective state of attention can be attained when these two neurotransmitters are found in the brain in equal amounts. The good news is, because of the brain’s ability to behave the same way in both real and imagined situations, both chemicals should be released when someone experiences a good story, well told.

Why do I Love You?

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Having studied Religion and Philosphy at University, I’ve always been fascinated by stories and storytelling. In fact, from a very young age, I have always been trying to either write my own, or find ways of presenting other peoples’ (for better or worse – my efforts in the late 1970’s, aged 6 or 7, to put on a stage play version of Star Wars never materialised).

I knew that, in terms of societal control and religion, stories are always the bedrock. Stories about the good guys and the bad guys; the locals and the people from other parts or religions. Good stories need conflict, so what better way to keep a community or country all pointing in the same direction than to tell stories about them vs. everyone else?

But it wasn’t until I discovered Simon Synek’s little tome, ‘Start With Why,’ that I began to understand just why stories are so powerful. It’s all to do with how our brains are structured, specifically two key areas of the brain – the limbic system and the neo-cortex – and their one big difference.

The neo-cortex, the outer part of the brain, deals with self-control, planning, reasoning, morality and abstract thought. Most importantly, it deals with language. It’s the bit that chatters away incessantly with words, ceaselessly analysing everything that is happening to, and around, you as you go through the day.

The limbic system, which some assume to be the older part of the brain as it sits inside the neo-cortex, deals with emotions, motivations, and memory. It also deals with the choices that we make, and, crucially, does not have any capacity for language. This combination of factors is why story is so powerful.

By telling someone an interesting story, the analytical neo-cortex is bypassed, and we start talking directly to their limbic system. The neo-cortex shuts up for a while as we become engaged with the story. Brain scans have shown that when a person hears a story or watches a film, the same parts of the brain fire that would fire if they were experiencing the events for real. The limbic system processes all this information, and stores these ‘experiences’ as explicit memories.

This is why film/TV and stories are so engaging. As far as your poor limbic system is concerned, you might as well be there. You really are facing up to the Empire, being chased by a horde of the undead, or waving goodbye to your new, beloved, Extra-Terrestrial friend.

This is powerful stuff, and something quite hard for us to comprehend, as the lack of language capabilities in the limbic system makes it hard for us to articulate how something has an emotional impact on us. As Synek points out; try expressing to someone why you love your partner. It’s incredibly difficult to put those emotions into words.

On Rationalism

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Before I worked in London, I always used to hear about ‘the elite’, those who worked in London, leaned somewhat to the left, and seemed to hell bent on doing something to upset the rest of the country, whether that be remoaning or trying to put the kibosh on some grand scheme or other.

“It’s the bloody elite,” the cry would go up. “Always trying to ruin things.”

I wondered who these people were and why they would be so different to people outside of the M25. Since I’ve been working in London these past two years, I’ve discovered them and realised a few things.

Firstly, they are for the most part normal humans with normal daily problems like families and shopping and housing to deal with. So far, so dull. But I would hear them talking, and find them reading the Guardian website, and it made me wonder why these people from diverse backgrounds all thought the same. And then, after much pondering, it hit me. Rationalism.

Rationalism is the great enemy of freedom, and it’s ever so easy to fall into the rationalistic way of thinking. Just surround yourself with intelligent, intellectual types and a sort of hive mind grows. And it seems to have long been endemic in London.

Intelligent and intellectual people like to think that they know things. Aristotle’s wise words of wisdom are rarely found in London. There is an opinion and an answer for everything. And they are, more often than not, very good, intelligent answers. But not always well informed or even correct.

These people consider themselves liberals, but the problem is that they’ve gone down the wrong path. If a true liberal is one who puts liberty as the highest value in society, then you have to accept a certain amount of uncertainty in life, and understand that we do not have all the answers as individuals, and never will. This runs counter to the intellectual agenda of ‘knowing best’.

Rationalism has snuck in and embedded itself into our culture, thanks to the likes of the great thinkers of the past few centuries – Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein etc. (even though I suspect they noth themselves would be the first to admit they don’t know it all – but perception is everything) and so where we find a high percentage of the intelligent population all gathered together in one place, so rationalism has festered. It’s there in our universities too for the same reasons.

People have taken the facts as they see them and formed their opinions, not understanding (or be willing to admit) that the information they have is a tiny fraction of all the information out there needed to really form a valid opinion (if one could ever be properly formed).

I’m not saying everyone who works in London thinks this way, but I do see a lot of it. And most of these people do seem, underneath it all, a little muddled (not that they’d admit that) as I don’t think true liberalism can truly square with rationalism.

The Argument for Faith

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Yesterday I talked about how society/the extended order is always evolving. This, I think, is linked to the ideas that Daniel J. Siegel explores regarding emotions in ‘The Neurobiology of We’.

His key argument is that our brains, our minds (which he considers two separate things) and our relationships with each other work in a kind of permanent feedback loop. Emotions, he argues can only be formed when we express our need for something (i.e. from a parent, a lover etc.) and they respond. At this point we integrate the need and the response into what we would call an emotion. Emotions by themselves can’t really exist. The danger here is that if we don’t have anyone to feedback to us, our brains can work overtime to second guess those responses and develop emotions – and if you think the worst, so depression can spiral out of control.

In the same way, societal systems, values and traditions can only develop when people interact and relationships develop implicitly around often unspoken acknowledgement that something feels right. A person has an idea, and shares the idea or acts on it. Only when he gets feedback from others on it can its worth be appreciated. The idea in and of itself is valueless.

Over time the weaker ideas die off, and the good ones are strengthened, developing into laws, traditions etc. So society evolves. More dangers exist when those with a conservative mindset fail to see the bigger picture, which is just as difficult as trying to plan society, and try to push back against the changes without fully appreciating what they are doing.

And it’s here that I think the concept of faith comes into play, because society is big and complex, far more than our somewhat irrational, anthropomorphic ideas about God. If we need some kind of faith, it’s in trusting society to sort itself out and not trying to interfere too much, if at all. If you can do that, then I believe magic happens, and things far greater than any of us could ever imagine will occur. But only if we let it.

Social Evolution

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I’ve mentioned already my love for the sheer magic of the extended order – the traditions and unspoken rules that we all obey, from the grand to the minutiae of specialists. One of the most exciting things around this is the idea that society is constantly evolving, ever changing.

Adam Smith and the great Scottish economists of the 1700s understood this and their ideas around economic evolution were taken up by Darwin, who applied them to the natural sciences and introduced them to the mainstream.

I think social media is a great case in point that demonstrates this. Just the other week I was having a discussion with some colleagues at work, and one made a passing comment about, ‘those people who invented social media…’.

This clanged about in my brain, and travelling back on the train it struck me that no-one invented social media. Various companies developed websites for specific purposes (rating other people at college, new ways for taxi drivers to communicate), and over time these sites grew and morphed and the users drove them in unexpected directions as the companies themselves struggled to keep up and develop the sites while keeping them commercially viable. At no stage did anyone sit down and think, “I know, I’ll invent social media today and it will be one of the greatest developments of the Internet of the 21st century!”

This never, ever happens, because nearly always the good things in life evolve over time, shaped by many people, not just the people that invented them. This is why socialism will always be doomed to fail. The extended order can never be controlled or predicted by individual minds, the great planners of the world will never second guess society.

I think there is a key aspect of life that explains this, that I’ll explore tomorrow.