This post first appeared on the wonderful Author Allsorts site, here.
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OK. So I signed up for an online writing course. Screenwriting to be precise. The whole thing was beautifully put together; forums to introduce yourself to other students, introductory videos shot super-professionally, downloadable pdfs of helpful resources, links to screenplays and so on. Best of all? The whole lot was free. So yeah, I couldn’t be more positive about the whole set-up and design of the experience. Top draw, folks.
But as I worked my way through the materials and completed the tasks, I found my enthusiasm waning. Nothing new there, right? Anyone who knows the psycho-emotional experience of building something new is aware we move through different phases of engagement with any project. So I was expecting a petering off of energy and sure enough it happened.
I pushed on, but it got me thinking about rules. About hard-and-fast versus soft-and-slow, if you like. Here’s what I mean, using screenplay writing as my example. Imagine a continuum with one approach at one end and the other at… well, the other.
Hard and fast = You wanna write a screenplay? Here’s how. There are rules – you do this, then this, then this. Here’s an example of it working in practice (insert clip here.) See how the hero refuses the call? Here it is again (clip.) And here (clip.) Now make your hero refuse the call. What precisely do they say? Why? How? What happens to change them? Good. Next…
You get the picture. First principles, rules and regs, examples to illustrate. Basically, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
The course didn’t go for hard and fast. Nowhere near. It went for soft and slow.
Soft and slow = Everyone’s got a different way. There’s no formula. I’m gonna hint at or imply the existence of rules, sometimes openly discuss them, then contradict, criticise and ridicule them. I’m going use the phrase, “…it all depends,” as often as I can. Then you get to slowly figure out what’s important.
For example, in one video-discussion the four contributors explored the importance of character. One told us an engaging character needs a clear motivation and goal. “Or… perhaps not,” a second said. “Some characters want nothing but stasis.” Characters’ decisions drive the plot forward, one said. “Or maybe not,” said another. “In some screenplays, the protag makes no decisions. Everything happens to them.” Begin your planning by scoping out your characters, one advised. “Or not,” said another. “Begin with theme or place. It’s up to you. It all depends.”
There are advantages here: you get nuance and subtlety, for one. But on the other hand holy cow, folks just gimme the basics so I can figure out how to use and subvert audience expectation.
I guess it comes down to rule and exception. If every rule has an exception, what I need to know is three things. Just three.
Answer those and I’m happy. That’s it.
Oh, wait. One more thing – you can’t tell me it all depends.