When I first started thinking about writing screenplays, my friend Austin suggested I pick up some books on the subject -- a few of the standard screenwriting textbooks that "everybody" uses. So I found the recommended books, bought them, and started to study. Like, really study. Read, re-read, outline, and summarize.
When I had practically memorized those books, I took the lessons I had learned and sat down to write The Perfect Screenplay. It was called STAR STRUCK. It was an anti-romantic comedy. It hit all the story beats, covered all the bases... and it didn't really work.
What had gone wrong?
Had I been lied to?
Oh, sure, each of the books I'd used had earnestly reminded the reader that there was no actual formula to writing a good story. But at the same time, hadn't they each also claimed that if I worked really hard and followed their steps, I'd end up with a super-solid screenplay?
So, what was the problem?
Was it me?
Did I just plain suck?
Desperate to learn more, I started reading screenwriting advice online from people who were making a living by actually writing screenplays, rather than by telling others how to write them. These people all said pretty much the same things. That art didn't work as a formula. That people who knew how to write screenplays actually did write screenplays. And, finally, that the only way to really learn how to write screenplays was to read and write a lot of screenplays yourself.
One dude said you should never think about writing a screenplay until you'd read at least a hundred. Don't worry about finding the perfect structure, he said, pay attention to what moves you. Pay attention to the stories that grab hold of you and just won't let go. And listen to what doesn't work, as well.
So I read a hundred screenplays.
I wrote another screenplay.
Then I read another hundred screenplays.
I read a few more screenplays, as I wrote another five.
And as I did all this, I learned.
I learned that I have no idea what that magical element is that makes a screenplay work. I learned that formulaic screenplays are boring, stupid, and ugly. I learned that cleverness and facility with language means nothing, if it isn't all wrapped around a story that's true, and makes me feel something deeply. I learned that the only way I'm ever going to write a feature film worth shooting is if I dig down deep into the most vulnerable parts of myself, and then spill the honest truth of what I've excavated out into the light of day.
And I learned that the only way this fool's errand is going to be worth the blood, sweat and tears it was going to cost is if I could also find joy in the process.
Yesterday, I thought about the Marriage-Formula-Industry, and how similar it really is to the Screenplay-Formula-Industry.
I thought about the millions of dollars spent on books and retreats and seminars, and the way everybody works so hard to avoid the unavoidable truth that there is no formula for a "perfect" marriage, whatever-the-fuddruckers that might be.
There are only stories.
One story after another. Lived and intertwined with other stories. Perhaps you'll get to have your story intertwined with one other story for a lifetime... but you just don't know. There are no guarantees. No step-by-step to success. Just people loving people: sometimes well, but most times not.
I do think I benefited from those screenwriting textbooks. I learned proper formatting. I learned the basic structure of a story. I learned to think in terms of structure, and I learned what it was that I was supposed to be trying to do.
So maybe it is worthwhile, sometimes, to go to a teacher-of-marriages -- a person who's spent his or her life studying patterns. Perhaps you'll find the kick-in-the-butt you need as you head off down an intertwined story-path of your own.
But that is all it will ever be -- a kick in the butt as you start.
For real, ongoing inspiration, open your eyes to the stories around you. Pay attention to what works in them, or doesn't. Find hope and pleasure in others' success. Be forewarned by the pain of others' failure.
But just remember: when the sandal-rubber meets the road, no textbook will carry you. Only the mysterious joy to be found in the act of walking with another, sharing love as you go.
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