‘Being in the moment’ may be a way to keep your mental sanity; it is not where you want your audience to be during the film. If they start enjoying the music or image, fair chance they’re out of the story. In cinema there’s no place for zen.
The Dept Revisited – A rerun of the best of the Story Dept.
I believe that the cinematic poetry of that floating bag in American Beauty is really an exception in the storytelling flow. It offers a momentary breather, when the story has effectively stopped and two characters Jane and Ricky experience a moment together. It is much less about us (the audience) losing ourselves in it. In any case, this can never last for very long. Get your audience into the ‘now’ for too long and your movie is dead. Storytelling for the screen is not about what is NOW but about what comes NEXT.
It is mind-boggling how many filmmakers still don’t get this. A couple of weeks ago I overheard a conversation between a government funding agent and an eager filmmaker.
Storytelling for the screen is not about what is NOW
but about what comes NEXT.
She was explaining to him what a wonderful movie she had seen. She also explained how the movie had bombed at the box office.
Wonderful style, fabulous photography. No word about the story. She maintained that it was a “really good movie”.
It was such a shame the stupid audience didn’t get it.
She didn’t literally say this but it was in the subtext.
Many writer/directors and people outside the commercial reality of the film business struggle with this essential aspect of storytelling for the screen. They want the audience to admire what is on the screen NOW rather than worry about what is coming NEXT.
This is one of the key aspects that set film apart from other media. And it is exactly where disasters happen when visual art lovers meddle with movies too much.
Screen emotions are about ANTICIPATION.
Antipation means: hope for a good/better outcome, fear over what might happen to the hero, curiosity over how things will turn out. Nothing of this has to do with the NOW.
Once an audience starts enjoying the beautiful picture, the great music, even an amazing performance (“the actor was really in the moment”), your audience has stopped worrying about what is happening next – and you’ve lost them. Zen is about being content in the now. Screen story is not.
Zen is about being content in the now.
Screen story is not.
It’s rather about being unhappy. About wanting to know, see, experience what will come next. If your audience is content about what’s on the screen NOW, paradoxically, there is no reason to continue watching. On the contrary they will happily leave the theater and go home.
(Two good screenwriting books that deal specifically with the power of anticipation are THE TOOLS OF SCREENWRITING and Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach)
[this post was originally published on July 7 2009 and selected for rerun by Adrian]
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.