Monthly Archives: September 2013

The power of dilemma


Which is more important: plot or character?

Everyone will tell you that both are equally fundamental in a good story, or state that it depends on genre – action movies can do without complex characters filled with inner conflicts because said characters must save their asses and get off that plane which is about to crash, while romantic comedies are more about the characters and the particulars of their inner search for love.

Personally, I’m not so sure it depends on genre. I actually think you can do without character if your character is faced with a very strong dilemma.

I came to this hypothesis after reading the work of a fellow screenwriter who is attending, just like I am, the workshop The Essence of your story (starting September 20th at the Binger Film Lab here in Amsterdam). He managed to place his central character, a woman in her late twenties, in such a terrible dilemma that she really doesn’t need any characterization. She is that dilemma. Since I cannot discuss the particulars of the story here (I’m looking forward to doing it during the workshop), I tried to find another example of this kind of story design.

Cloud 9, by German director Andreas Dresen (see the New York Times critic here) is one. Inge, a 67 year old woman, falls in love with Karl, who is 76. The problem is that Inge is married; she has been happily married to Werner for 30 years. She starts having an affair with Karl. What is she to do? Leave her husband, the husband of a lifetime, who will be heartbroken and probably lonely for the rest of his life? Continue cheating, which is ugly and destructive? Or stop seeing Karl and throw away her passion, which is a gift that no woman of her age can expect to come across?

You don’t really need to know who this woman is. She’s old – that’s all the characterization that matters. The story unfolds slowly as she battles with her dilemma and finally makes her choice, and suffers the consequences.

A powerful dilemma is a very elegant thing. It allows you to tell a story with the bare minimum: a choice to be made, and the making of that choice.

Feedback abuse is bad for you


I recently came across this article on The New York Times about the dangers of getting too much feedback. The author argues that during the first stages of writing, what is there on paper is more than probably confuse, immature, plain bad. We may be tempted to ask for feedback – to get both reassurance and some tips to help us with this hard, painful job of creating worlds from scratch – but the outcome is seldom worth it. What we’ll probably get is a few well-meant lines about how our stuff makes little sense, and a severe crack in our ego.

Don’t get me wrong: feedback is essential. But it should happen at the right time and be given by the right person.

My second feature script was written throughout a very intense workshop in which we would get feedback all the time. I have no doubt this feedback help me improve my writing and get the job done. But I also believe some of my personal imprint, some originality of vision, was lost along the way. I ended up throwing away certain elements that weren’t working properly, but had a spark of uniqueness, and replacing them with more efficient, but bland, storytelling. My main character was a shy 60-something that created automated puppets that performed contemporary music. I was told he was passive and weird, impossible to relate to. This certainly was true. But I could have reworked it. Instead, I replaced it with a womanizing TV producer. I was proud that I was able to rebound so beautifully and fix my story. But I wonder what the script could have been had I kept my character.

More recently, after finishing a treatment, I asked a scriptwriter friend for feedback. I knew it had gaps and incoherencies, but desperately needed something to propel me forward. She was blunt: there’s no story here. What is the story you want to tell? Nothing happens to your characters and nothing can ever happen to them. This sentence haunted me for months. I kept working on my story, going in circles and getting nowhere. I got blocked. She was and is a good friend, and a good writer, but she unknowingly trashed me and my project with a bulldozer. Giving feedback, I later learned, is not just about assessing the work; it’s also about protecting and stimulating the writer.
(the story emerged from the ashes and is now at draft 1 :-))

I believe we should let the work mature and not seek feedback too soon or too often. Instead of “be honest”, we should ask of (trusted and competent) critics: be nurturing. We should if necessary spit some parts out, digest the others, and then get back to work. (On her book The Artist’s Way Julia Cameron has some good insights on the topic of criticism).

Spinal control


In writing a story it is easy to get lost. I’ve experienced it many times, the worst case having happened just a few months ago. I lost all pleasure in what I was doing and longed for an office job. I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t know what I wanted to say. Toiled at it all day long and nothing happened.

While the causes (and later, solutions) for this block where manifold, I believe one important thing to help us focus is our primitive intention. The words are mine but the concept isn’t, really.

Lajos Egri, the author of the classic The art of dramatic writing, speaks of premise. In Romeo and Juliet, the premise is, famously, “great love defies even death”. “No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise”, he writes. The premise is about the forces at stake and how they connect: “Ruthless ambition leads to destruction”. Robert McKee, the author of screenwriting bible Story, speaks of controlling idea. He describes it as “the purest form of a story’s meaning, the how and why of change”. Again, it should be expressed in the form of a connection, cause and consequence: “happiness fills our lives when we learn to love unconditionally” would be the controlling idea for Groundhog Day.

The thing is, this clear vision of meaning, expressed in such absolute terms it feels stupid, rarely comes to you at the beginning of a story. McKee actually says that you cannot dictate meaning to a story. You must write it to discover it, draw idea from action. If you’re lucky, maybe this very clear statement will reveal itself in the early stages of development, guiding you even while remaining unconscious. But sometimes it fails to appear. I’ve questioned fully developed stories and come up with half a dozen different statements. Which is the good one? For, according to these authors, there can only be ONE meaning to a very good work. Only mediocre works treat more than one theme and try to convey different messages. I guess I didn’t have a masterpiece in my hands.

If the true purpose of what we are writing will only emerge when we are far into the writing process, how can we avoid getting lost, how can we ensure that clear meaning, a powerful vision, will drive the story?

I bealieve we can turn to the origin of our project in order to get direction. I’m reading a book called The Creative Habit by choreographer Twyla Tharp, in which she shares her vision of creativity and her tools as a creative person. She doesn’t refer specifically to screenwriting, and maybe that’s why it seems easier to fit into her broader approach. She talks about spine, saying it is not the message, but it keeps her on the message. She exposes different ways of determining the spine of your work, but they all come down to the spark of your project, what originally motivated you to start. “Make them laugh” was her first goal when starting a certain piece.

I think the term primitive intention captures it better. I’m now starting a new story about parenthood. “Parenthood is destruction” is really what set me going. So I should look back to this when I get lost. Explore this primary, unpolished idea, question it. And keep writing, so that “real meaning”, a dynamic statement, may eventually emerge. It sounds obvious, but as we stand clueless in the middle of the maze, it is easy to forget.



During my summer vacation, two of my reads were the screenplays of “Gummo” and “julien donkey-boy” by Harmony Korine. I didn’t see these films. “Gummo” is brilliant as a screenplay, and fulfilled me as such; of course I’m curious to check out how it finally translated into film, but there’s already so much in paper. “julien donkey-boy” felt less strong, and I rushed through the final pages; it felt like it was going nowhere. Maybe this lack of clear purpose doesn’t show so much on screen, if the visual ride is worth it.

There’s a scene in “Gummo” that made a strong impression on me. There’s this 14 year old boy, Solomon, who is supposed to look like a cartoon, “like no other boy in the world”. He’s taking a bath, scrubbing himself and playing with the dirty water in the shabby bathtub. Here’s what happens after a while:

Solomon’s mother walks in holding a tray with a big bowl of spaghetti and tomato sauce in the center. There is also a large glass of milk and a silver fork.

She sets the tray down in the middle of the tub. It is long and it fits perfectly.

Solomon scoots back.

He picks up the fork and a stream of water falls onto the tray.



Solomon’s mother puts the toilet lid down and sits.

Solomon twirls the spaghetti around his fork and then puts it in his mouth.

He takes a big gulp of his milk, which leaves a stain around the top of his lip.

Solomon’s mother silently watches.

She picks a roll of toilet paper and quickly wraps a few layers around her hand.

She hands it to Solomon and he wipes his lip off.


Hand me the shampoo.

Solomon puts his fork down and leans over the tray of food and grabs a bottle of shampoo from the corner of the tub.

Water falls off his arm and onto his plate of spaghetti.

He hands her the bottle.

That’s the conditioner. Hand me the other bottle.

He puts the bottle back and gives her the shampoo. Solomon’s mother begins to wash his hair.

Solomon continues to eat his spaghetti, while his mother massages the soap into his scalp.

The scene goes on for a bit and is then broken by the door bell.

There are several things that strike me in this passage. It conveys a lot while very little happens. We can assess the intimacy between Solomon and his mother; the banality of eating in the bathtub, which tells of a certain degree of marginality; their ease with it all, which sketches them as assertive, free-minded characters; and yet they seem trapped in this shabbiness, performing those bodily tasks with minimum effort (but cleaning a dirty upper lip).

The writing is simple, crystal-clear. You can see it happening in front of your eyes.

Dialogue is unnecessary.

The scene created here is one of those great ones, because you can read so much – love, freedom, hopelessness – in a tiny moment of banality. And yet, there are layers of exquisiteness in there: that soapy water falling into the food as he eats… Isn’t it wonderful?

“julien donkey-boy” is preceded by a kind of manifesto, which Korine names the “Mistakist” declaration. One of the 19 (often opaque) points reads: “Jokes without punchlines”. This one echoed something I’m trying to achieve on my current script. Korine certainly achieves it in his. I interpret it as writing dialogue that is almost funny, that could be funny but isn’t quite so, and yet a smile forms upon your face, but there’s never a licence to laugh. What I like about it is the idea of erasing the intentionality behind the story, having the characters go about their business with no particular aim to impress you as a spectator.

Also from “Gummo”:

My friend Kenny used to play games with whoever was around. Sometimes he would play too rough and injure his friend. When he got older he had a weight problem, and I could tell he was embarrassed because he wouldn’t take his shirt off at the beach. His grandfather sent him to an abandoned island and told him to get skinny. He told me he had fun on the island. He said there were lots of things to do.

(the boy lets go of the sheep and begins to swat it with the rake)