Monday, June 25, 2018

Screenwriting 101: Liar, Liar Pants on Fire

By Brian Price, author of Classical Storytelling and Contemporary Screenwriting

Any decent screenwriting program will tell its students that the very first writing manual was Aristotle’s Poetics, in which he examined the Greek tragedies of his day in meticulous detail to discern the patterns and recurring elements in the most successful ones.

These programs usually have their students read it, discuss it profoundly, and then summarily forget about it as they deal with more contemporary filmmaking realities.

Which is why, during speaking engagements, I’m constantly meeting screenwriters who say: “Yeah, we had to read Poetics, but couldn’t ever get through it. But it’s really just about Greek tragedies, right? Well, I don’t write those. I write superhero body swap serial killer comedies.”

Which is a shame.

Because what’s most interesting about Poetics, for writers today, is not what Aristotle had to say about Oedipus Rex. But what he had to say about Star Wars and Some Like It Hot. Because those observable patterns and universal principles he identifies and explores are not at all specific to Greek tragedy—but to EVERY successful dramatic narrative that’s ever been told.

But for a full accounting of those principles and how you can utilize them in your own creative work to make it more successful (warning: shameless plug), you’ll have to read my book. In the meantime, I wanted to mention one of my favorite observations.

When discussing history’s most successful stories, Aristotle defines the craft of dramatic writing as simply “the art of telling lies skillfully.”

His point is that, as writers, we must embrace the artifice of our craft. We tell lies—but we tell them to reveal a bigger, general truth, a truth about the human experience.

I think about this whenever a student comes to me with a “brilliant movie idea” based upon some experience they had in their real life. They often think that if they can just get it down on the page precisely as it happened, it will make a great script.

It won’t.

That’s because movies are not life. Though the best ones certainly illuminate something interesting about life.

For Aristotle, dramatic writing is of a much higher order than historical writing since the latter is simply concerned with the particular, while the former is concerned with the universal.

So a good story cannot simply be a depiction of events in another person’s life. It must show our lives reflected back to us in the experiences of that other person.

And for Aristotle, a story cannot accomplish that when it is strictly bound to what HAS happened. Instead, it must dramatize what MAY happen—what is POSSIBLE according to the same laws of probability and necessity that govern all our actions and outcomes. Only then can we relate the events to what COULD happen to us.

That is why the first rule in my writing classes is “…but that’s the way it happened” is barred from ever being spoken. I don’t care what actually happened. Your audience doesn’t care. The only valid reason for any choice you make in a story is that it makes the story BETTER.

For no matter how well it is written, it will matter to no one but the writer and those who participated in that history. It will have no resonance beyond the particulars, since it is just concerned with recounting the facts, not getting at the universal truths that transcend those facts.

But before you dream up some wildly fantastical movie premise, know that the opposite of this observation is just as true.

For every real-life TRUE STORY OF MY CRAZY COLLEGE ROOMMATE, I’m pitched THE ROBOT HOBBITS OF NINJA ALLEY, a story far too removed from real life to accurately reflect anything of it.

If we are looking for LIES to tell a GENERAL TRUTH then we must find a balance, a sweet spot between reality and artifice that allows truth to be spun from fiction, the universal from the particular.

I’m reminded of that movie written by that guy who grew up in Modesto, California with dreams of becoming a racecar driver while all his friends spent their dead-end lives simply cruising around the Malt Shop. His dad wanted him to join him as an office supply salesman and never quite understood his son’s wanderlust, leading to increased conflict between them. As a student at USC film school, this writer actually got to write about that experience growing up. What do you think he called this deeply personal work?

If you answered Star Wars, gold star to you.

George Lucas made a very personal film by taking his real feelings and concerns, and placing them within a fiction. By doing so, he made those experiences universal, by dwelling not on the facts of his adolescence, but on the truth of it.

As screenwriters, we must find that proper proportion of CREATIVE INVENTION and PERSONAL TRUTH. That balance allows an audience to laugh and cry and scream, and say, ah, that is my experience up there on the screen.

The personal truth makes it real, authentic, and believable. But the creative invention makes it universal, relatable, and accessible.

So while screenplays may contain lies, the spark that creates them must be a truth. A truth about YOU. Not just your experiences, but your passions and interests. Your fears and obsessions. What you dream about. What repulses or consumes you. But above all, the idea must be predicated on something personal that you care deeply about—or you will never have the necessary investment to devote the blood, sweat, tears, and time required to see it through to the end.

That then is the most basic and essential quality of a solid movie premise: If a screenplay is made of lies to get to general truths, then its foundation must be a truth about YOU that has been transplanted into a fiction, allowing it, through your experience, to relate a universal one.

And if you don’t believe me, go ask Aristotle.

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Brian Price is a screenwriter and screenwriting professor who teaches at UCLA, Yale, and Johns Hopkins. His new book Classical Storytelling and Contemporary Screenwriting, an examination of the universal patterns and recurring elements found in the great dramatic narratives throughout history, from Oedipus Rex to The Incredibles 2, can be ordered at:

Monday, June 18, 2018

Interview with Ryan Habermeyer, author of The Science of Lost Futures

By Zach Powers, Communications Manager, The Writer’s Center

One of my favorite literary topics to discuss is weird fiction. Why are some writers drawn to the fabulist, the speculative, and the strange? I’m certainly one of those writers myself, and so is Ryan Habermeyer, author of The Science of Lost Futures, which won the BOA Short Fiction Prize and was published earlier in 2018. My own story collection was also published by BOA Editions, so though Ryan and I hadn’t met before this year, we’re literary brothers of a sort. When he’s not writing, Ryan is Assistant Professor at Salisbury University on the nearby Eastern Shore, where his specialties include, among many others, “Monster Studies.” Ryan joins us now at The Writer’s Center blog to answer a few questions about authoring far-fetched fiction, his influences, and the writing life.

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ZP: I’m going to start with the big, broad question: why weird stuff?

Ryan Habermeyer
RH: That’s a little like asking why someone is left-handed. I’m not sure we choose our aesthetic obsessions. There’s a mysterious instinct to it, or so I want to believe. Weirdness is something I feel innately drawn to. That’s not a very satisfying answer, though, so I would add that since I was a child I always wanted to be elsewhere. Someplace different. I daydreamed considerably. I found relief in odd things, grotesque things. My friend and I, for example, used to snap Polaroids of road kill and turned it into a photo album. We were very popular with the girls. Somewhere along the way, subconsciously I think, this leaked over into my sensibilities as an artist. I decided the purpose of art—whether it’s literature, music, painting, sculpture, whatever—is to make life strange. Depict real things, familiar things, but strangely. Estrangement. That’s the key. Estrangement pulls us away and brings us closer in the same breath. I love seeing things, reading things, that wrench me out of my routine. You look away but you can’t look away. Isn’t that what literature is supposed to do? Make us uncomfortable while simultaneously desperate to see the object of our discomfort. That’s what weirdness does for me. The weird is the real. Or in the least it’s what lies behind the fa├žade of realism, of normalcy.

ZP: There’s a certain dark logic to fairy-tales, and I think I see that in your writing. Instead of moving forward through cause and effect, I feel your plots are often driven by cause and comeuppance. Many of the stories are about paying a price for actions or desires. Is this something derived from fairy-tales? How does a fairy-tale differ from, say, contemporary realist fiction?

The Science of Lost Futures
RH: You’re not the first person to point out the lack of cause and effect in my writing. Which is odd because I think of my stories as very much contingent upon cause and effect. What throws people off, I suppose, is that the effects in my stories are quite random, sudden, inexplicable, chaotic, without any correlation to the cause in question. A giant foot washes ashore in town. What do we do? Well, we clean it, of course, and try to assign it an identity, and empathize with it to come closer to this monstrous tragedy. But the one thing that can’t happen in that story (the most natural and normal instinct) is to dispose of it in a biohazardous-friendly manner. You can’t pursue that rational impulse if you’re going to have interesting speculative fiction. Or, in another one of my stories a woman wakes up and discovers her womb has fallen out. Quick—call the doctor? Nope. That story is D.O.A. So you’ve got to pursue a sideways logic. And, yes, you’re absolutely right: such tangential cause/effect relationships are very much a fairy tale motif. It’s the strange logic of fairy tales to defy our rationalist, scientific perspective of cause and effect, which is why I think they’re so lovely. There is a beauty to the randomness of fairy tales, a harmony to their chaos I find satisfying and truthful. With realist stories you're tethered to existing reality. If you write a story set in, say, Iowa, then you had better depict Iowa flawlessly. Those are the rules. But I think there’s more to learn about life, about ourselves, when we deviate from realism by following that unconventional thread of cause and (illogical) effect. Like going down the rabbit hole.

ZP: What drew you to the fairy-tale form as an influence for your writing?

RH: Well, I’m not a fairy tale revisionist. I’m not Angela Carter (but I love her work!). Fairy tales manifest obliquely in my writing. I’ve always been drawn to the imaginative quality of traditional tales. I love the imagery, the narrative leaps, the grotesqueness, the playfulness of the genre. I love how fairy tales invent reality and make it seem as if what happened was historical fact. And they’re instructive for writers, stylistically. Fairy tales are not all magical indulgence. They teach us something about creative restraint, which I think is incredibly important for those of us who are fabulists. Magic is used sparingly in fairy tales, and often comes with a price so if you use it, beware. Lately, though, I’ve been attracted to the form of fairy tales more than their content. The flatness of characters. Lightness. Brevity. Compression. The elegant simplicity of fairy tale language. Eschewing showing for telling. My current projects try to capture a mood, an ambiance of fairytale-ness. One of my incredible former professors, Kate Bernheimer, talks about these very elements in an essay she wrote: “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tales.” It should be required reader for anyone serious about writing, especially those aspiring to be fabulists.

ZP: What other writers of the weird would you recommend to someone who may not be familiar with speculative literary fiction?

RH: Before I go on endlessly about great weird writers, let me say I benefited considerably from reading realists. Weirdness, fabulism, magical realism, slipstream—whatever you want to call it, is grounded in realism. It’s not a complete abandonment of reality. Writing weird fiction is about inventing reality. Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Amy Hempel, and Joy Williams are wonderful realists. As far as literary weirdos…there are the obvious choices: Calvino, Borges, Kafka, Marquez. Bruno Schulz is one of my favorite writers ever. On this side of the pond: Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Helen Phillips, Kevin Brockmeier and Steven Millhauser do a particular kind of American fabulism. Should I keep going? Read Russians. Nobody does weirdness better than the Russians. Gogol, Bulgakov, Nabokov, Kharms, Krzhizhanovsky, or someone more contemporary like Ludmilla Petrushevskya. She’s amazing. There are times when I lament I am not a Russian—but probably because it is my dream to ride shirtless on a horse reminiscing about my time in the KGB.

ZP: Let’s talk publishing. If I recall correctly, some of the stories in your book are over a decade old. Can you talk about the long haul of writing and compiling a story collection?

RH: I wrote the oldest story in the collection in 2004. So, yeah, it took a while. I’m not bothered by that. Hats off to those people smarter than me that figure it out quicker. To be honest, I’m not sure I could have arrived at the collection sooner. I’m slow. I’m meticulous. I’ll sit on a single word in a sentence for two days before going on to the next one. I want the right words in the right places. It took me a while to find my voice, find my aesthetic comfortability. And then it took a while to puzzle out the collection. Compiling a story collection is a strange beast. You want stories that resonate with each other, build off each other, but also dissonance; stories that feel incongruent, stories that clash thematically or stylistically. It’s all about finding balance. I kept plodding along for years, publishing pieces here and there, waiting for the right combination of stories to manifest. Writing is a long, lonely process. It might take me another decade to get the next book out. So be it.

ZP: What keeps you writing?

RH: Somewhere, I read Toni Morrison said something like this: if there is a book you want to read that has not yet been written you must write that book. That should be motivation for every writer. It’s hard to argue with Toni Morrison.

ZP: What’s one piece of writing advice you’d give to an aspiring author?

RH: Read. You’ve got to be in love with words if you want to be a writer. Otherwise, don’t bother. Read old stuff and read new stuff. And when you read pay attention. Writing fiction is not just about plot and characters. It’s about structure, it’s about form, it’s about style, it’s about voice. Read, because the more you read the more voices you’ll discover and then you’ll borrow and steal from all those writers to create your own voice. So, read voraciously. Oh, and stop writing fan fiction. It doesn't count. Whoops. That's two pieces of advice. Feel free to disregard me entirely.

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Order Ryan's book »

Monday, June 4, 2018



But I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches…
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
Not the month’s rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear. 
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment. 
- Jack Gilbert

We know this much: after Helen Clarke died in 1926, Charlotte Porter left Boston and moved north to their old house on Isle au Haut, where they used to spend summers. There were the old familiar hills and pines, rocks leading to the sea and sharp-eyed gulls for company. Maine’s coast-line was visible but only reachable by boat, and that was fine.

Sixty-some years early, three years apart, the two had been born in Pennsylvania and, improbably, were both named “Helen”—though Charlotte later shed the name and took “Endymion” (after the Keats poem) for herself. Maybe Helen (“bright one,” “torch-bearer”) better suited her partner. Charlotte Endymion Porter: her names meant “free man,” “diver,” and “gatekeeper,” respectively. There was irony for a woman holding these identities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when laws were being debated and passed above her head, out of reach. But Charlotte must have known what all overlooked people know: that there are subterranean worlds—that there are ways to outlive surface dwellers.

I don’t know if they met in autumn, but I picture it that way, the frost of breath and collegial intelligence of the season cutting through summer’s haze. They met first, fittingly, in words: Helen had written an article about music in Shakespeare’s plays that Charlotte admired published in Shakespeariana, the journal she edited in the mid-1880’s. I can see her reading at her desk, pen poised above Helen’s paper. Did she recognized this stranger’s voice even as she read?

They loved the same writers—Shakespeare, Robert Browning—before they loved each other, and they loved each other, in part, because of this shared passion for art: a sign, perhaps, that it might be safe to land, that friendship was possible. And so they became friends, and within a few years formulated and founded the journal Poet Lore together as a way to share the art they admired with the wider world.

Porter and Clarke launched the magazine in January of 1889 in Philadelphia as a monthly “devoted to Shakespeare, Browning, and the Comparative Study of Literature.” The comparative aspect of this work was essential: art, to them, lived in exchanges, in the folding over and combing through by multitudes of minds: in community. The magazine quickly drew an avid readership from among the nation’s many literary clubs and societies, though it was not particularly lucrative. Porter and Clarke actually moved the operation three hundred miles northeast when, in 1891, a Boston publisher offered them free office space in exchange for advertising. They continued to edit the journal for more than 30 years after that, publishing their own critical essays and commentary alongside featured artists.

They wanted art to pierce the ordinary. They thought that if enough Americans absorbed literature into their lives and then discussed it with each other, the broader culture would evolve, and so they made Poet Lore a vehicle for introducing new, often foreign, voices to their readers. They encouraged subscribers to respond critically, both in their own private literary clubs and in written letters to the magazine. Charlotte and Helen believed it was not enough to read literature, though that was the starting point; they felt that culture would not change if people kept their thoughts to themselves. Through their journal, they succeeded in engaging literary communities across the nation.

I can’t help wondering how much of Poet’ Lore’s continuing legacy—its culture of aesthetic openness, its willingness to take risks in pursuit of discovery—stems from their imperfect, entirely human, flesh-and-blood love. Having never started a magazine, or stayed with the same person for more than a few years, I can’t help romanticizing their ability to build a life and an enduring literary institution together.

Like me, most of the women I know write alone, on the couch or bed of a modest apartment. If we share our work, it is often with outer women writers—those rare friends scattered near and far—rather than with our partners whom we love with tender ambivalence, with parts of ourselves. Our lives are often fractured, not because of indifference to connection but, more likely, because of the difficulty we’ve had maintaining it. We move through the day, navigating our various duties. We speak quickly and sometimes forget what we’ve said, or typed, moments later. That is the pace at which we live now; that is the level of distraction. Was there more time to think—more time to focus—for Helen and Charlotte

When they met, they were in their twenties. Helen would live another four decades, and Charlotte six. Helen would die in Massachusetts, and so would Charlotte, years later. And many years after that, I would stumble upon their magazine, when I was close to the age at which they met. I would publish my first poem in its pages.

It occurs to me that to see myself as isolated, a lone writer working sporadically in the quiet of her home during the short stretches before and after work, would be to miss the truth that Helen Clarke and Charlotte Porter devoted themselves to making clear: that we are all part of an ongoing conversation, connected by a mutual love and admiration for art, the language that flows beneath all language. My writing—everyone’s writing for that matter—is the product of an old and ongoing interplay of minds, of voices, and the best thing we can do is to pick the conversation up when it flags. The best thing we can do is to keep it going.

Volume 109, No. 3/4


MEGAN FOLEY works as a producer for FoundTrack creative and 522 Productions. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University, where she also taught creative writing. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Freerange Nonfiction, Thought Catalogue, Canteen Magazine, The Village Voice, Poet Lore, and others. She lives in Washington, D.C.