I read very little fiction. High school and college scared me away from prose by making me read stuff I didn’t want to read. And worse, I had lame teachers who couldn’t explain how something that happen in 1813 England had any relevance to me and my dating life. So no…I never read Jane Austen, although I hear she’s quite popular.
Kidding. My wife has seen every movie version of “Pride and Prejudice” ever made…at least three times.
Speaking of movies…some of you know through reading my blogs that in another universe I exist as another guy and that man is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I’m on the executive board of my branch and was asked five years ago to annually judge the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. The contest this year received 7251 entries from all over the world and I feel honored to participate in this influential endowment. It’s a major break for the finalists. Many have become famous directors and screenwriters.
For those of you who have never read a screenplay, I’ll explain what it is NOT. It is not a literary form. It’s an outline using minimal words for description. Dialogue and the character names are printed down the center of the page without “he said” or “she said.” Everything we learn about the characters and their intentions must be conveyed through action and dialogue, as if we were watching a film. If a screenwriter describes her character’s thoughts on the page, that’s cheating. In a theater, we don’t have a narrator telling us what a character is thinking.
Well, sometimes we do, if the story is told in the first person, but that’s not common.
Scripts are scanned with their format arranged for a fast-read. A 120 page script can be finished in 120 minutes. A script page is roughly equal to one minute of screen time.
With this screenplay, I covered each page in less than thirty seconds. I was totally sucked into the drama. Nothing felt phony about it – not the action, intentions, reactions, not one word of dialogue. There was NO cheating.
- NO characters discussed back story.
- NO one overtly explained their intentions.
- NO adjectives and adverbs told me what to think.
- NO quick flashbacks filled in missing information (although that can be effective if not overused).
What I DID read, were scenes of interaction or repetition that delivered hints as to what these people were about. Here’s a scene from the script. I hope this is okay. I’m changing names in case it’s not.
The story revolves around a forty-something mother/housewife named Dana. Her professional, long-days-at-the-office husband is named Howard. They have a twelve year-old daughter named Elise.
All breakfasts follow a routine: No one talks to each other. Dana blends her protein drinks and pops vitamin pills, Howard is lost in his iPad, Elise is always texting.
This particular morning, Dana starts a conversation at the table.
Dana: “Does anyone want some?” They don’t. “When can we all do something together? As a family? Go out to dinner?”
Elise: “You don’t eat.”
Dana: “I eat. Or a hike? A family hike–”
Howard: (to Elise) “I don’t think I have the coordination to hike with her.”
Elise: “You’d have to smoke crack to keep up with her.”
Dana: “Stop. No one smokes crack anymore.”
Howard stands to go. (to Elise) “You ready?” Elise grabs her toast and knapsack.
Elise: “Can we drive with the top down?”
Dana: “Why didn’t you tell me you were taking her to school?”
Howard: “I’m taking her to school.”
Dana kisses Elise. They exit, leaving Dana with the mess.
What was revealed in this short scene? Everything: Attitudes, back story, a communication deficit and the family cold war. This is stellar writing.
The first sentences of the script shows Dana finding a long red hair on Howard’s back as he continues to sleep next to her. Dana says nothing, lets him snooze and goes into the bathroom for a melt down. From that point on, I felt like a voyeur watching a distressed housewife/mom come apart as she barely copes with her dysfunctional family and another one she discovers and adopts.
No one’s life was physically threatened and yet all characters faced severe emotional jeopardy. I could identify with every family member, even the twelve year-old daughter and her fifteen year-old boyfriend. It all felt absolutely true but I had no idea where the story was taking me or even what it was about. A theme? Couldn’t find it. Didn’t care. Every page was a new discovery. With so much subtle info and nuances of character to process, I had no time to think ahead.
This is very rare for me. I’m almost always ahead of the writer.
So I got to the end, and yes, the script emotionally resolved. But I still wondered, just what was it about? Twenty minutes later, after I had submitted my score and report and was getting into bed, I again churned over the story. It didn’t make sense that a writer this good would have no intention of a message…and then it occurred to me what had changed in the last fifteen pages.
The characters in conflict finally began to communicate with each other. They found the courage to speak and the patience to listen, giving the two families a safer space for healing and coming together.
And then I thought, was this script autobiographical? There was no standard structure, no three acts, no major plot points, no secondary characters, just a riveting story. Every screenplay rule was broken yet the pages burned into my brain.
The writer did her job, if it was a her. I understood her character’s demons and I supported their battles. In the end they became my friends. I have never read anything this gripping in a screenplay before and I’m waiting to see if it winds up in the finals and wins one of the three grants.
Why did this work affect me the way it did? I think it’s about my age and experience. We live each day trying to get by. We encounter thousands of situations and people over a lifetime. Most of that gets memory-dumped. But really it doesn’t. All experiences are stored as impressions which build our personal realities and social truths.
Whoever this writer is, he or she observes the world the way I do and our shared reality gave me a connection and more stuff to ponder. This is what successful fiction does: It emotionally affects us and prods us to think.
The question remains: How universal was this story and the “reality” it painted? If I were younger with fewer experiences, would I still have resonated with the material? Would a Syrian twenty-four year old get wrapped in the matrix like I did, or a sixty year-old grandfather from Angola? How universal were the characters and their psychology? Or was it just a White, urban American story.
I don’t know that answer to that. I hope this movie gets made. I hope it’s a hit here and abroad. If it is, that affirms the human race shares much in common. I’d like to believe that. I’d like to believe that defining emotional truth and getting it right can bring the world together.
Originally published on Curiosityquills.com.