Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The virtue of 'Not Wrong'

We have a tendency to look for the right, the best or even perfect choice, also when we are creating drama. Obviously there are good reasons to do that, but the mindset of the right and perfect also has a number of creative traps. As many creative people have realised, the mistake, the error, is a rich source for new developments.

In my work I utilize a category called 'not wrong'. In my process material which might not seem or feel absolutely right or perfect, I think of as 'not wrong' while I let it stay in the mix, until at some later point, the final material is ready to manifest itself.

The 'not wrong' material often end up in this category because I can see value in it; in some ways it is not wrong, but it lacks that special something, which cannot always be found in the first or even ninth take. I examine and ask questions to the material. Looking both for the qualities which makes it 'not wrong' and 'not perfect'.

The major trap in the mindset of perfection is the notion of only one, single perfect solution. And either-or-mindset. That its either perfect or wrong. Even if your way of thinking is not that extreme, most of us are in some degree conditioned by our culture's and society's mind-set about perfection. Practicing the discipline of 'not-wrong' helps avoiding the traps of perfection.

Speaking of perfect and mindset, after living in Greece, I integrated their version and understanding of perfect in mine. The word for perfect, Telios, also means final or in a variant, the end (as seen in the end of Greek films). So for the Greeks perfection is not necessarily the sublime, but that which finalizes a process.  And in that light, the 'not wrong' is a step in the process to reach the final expression, which might not even have the quality of perfection.

Allowing ourselves to avoid the trap of perfection, gives us the possibility to stay in a process, ask unbiased questions to the material and leave room for the kind of answers, which could surprise both us and our audience.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Stop building castles in the sand

People who have worked with me, know I'm often using the sandpile-metaphor in relation to the creative process or to the script or performance itself. Especially as a correction of perception when people get stuck, get anxious or get too eager to determine the outcome. This metaphor comes from the scientific experiment made by Per Bak in 1987, which was the first discovery of self-organizing criticality in a complex system. In my eyes this is one of the later years major breakthroughs in science, as it has far greater implications on our perception of reality than most are aware of. When I encountered this research in 2004 through two books, Per Bak's "How Nature Works" and the more popular scientific "Ubiquity" by Mark Buchanan, it radically changed my approach to my work in the dramatic arts. Or it gave me the solid foundation to implement, what I had already been toiling with the last four years. It delivered the framework of understanding, which confirmed many of my own notions about dramaturgy, drama and the creative process.

Ordinary physics and much of our modern way of thinking rely on a Newtonian understanding of the world. The cause and effect; the idea, that if we know enough about a system, we can control it. The sandpile experiment was an extremely simple experiment, which would undermine the Newtonian paradigm. Under the Newtonian world view, the world, and within it, the human beings, are all like a machine. Know enough about the machine, and you can master it. This realisation freed us from religion and superstition; allowed our culture to find belief in ourselves to shape our destiny, instead of a remote God. That was great and much needed, but the other truth, the part of the world, which doesn't operate like a machine, has been left to superstition and the irrational.

In dramaturgy the Newtonian outlook gradually helped us develop the many models for how a play or film script works. They are all linear, they all rely on a cause-and-effect-thinking. They're all driven by the idea of a perfect form. And they fitted perfectly with the Hollywood-movie-making-machine's control-freak-mind-set.
As I read the two books about our complex world, mentioned above, I had reached a point where I understood the models, but was beginning to doubt they could be anything but a superficial truth. I was looking for the DNA behind the outer forms, thinking that the dramaturgic models had to be like the drawings the early biology-researchers, who went out into the world and drew pictures of how an oak leaf looked, or should look, ignoring the fact, that all leafs look very different, even though there are basic similarities. Later with the discovery of DNA biology found the simple code, which gives rise the multitude of forms.

So back in 1987 Per Bak, Chao Tang and Kurt Wiesenfeld made the sandpile experiment, which is a computer simulation of the creation of a sandpile. One by one grains of sand fall from above to a flat surface. In the beginning everything that happens can be predicted (by laws of gravity etc), but eventually as a pile forms, and the slopes of the pile becomes so steep, that avalanches can occur, what was a predictable, newtonian system changes into an unpredictable, complex system. All the grains of sand in the pile are in essence connected. A new grain of sand landing on the slopes can send a multiplying chain reaction throughout the pile and trigger avalanches – but if, when, how many or how big is impossible to predict. A Newtonian mind might say; "Well, it's only a matter of knowing all the interactions in the pile", but it isn't – what Per Bak proved that day in '87, was that when a system becomes complex, it is also unpredictable and thereby uncontrollable.

It shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone who lives in reality. We know inherently that life is unpredictable, we see the meteorologists get it wrong again and again, we see the stock markets crash, revolutions spring up when least expected, earth quakes happen – all events that not only seem unpredictable, but which Per Bak proved actually are so. And so is the human system in itself, and so is the creative process.

This is what I want you to take away from the lesson of the sandpile – you can't control it, so stop trying – you can't predict the outcome, so stop trying – instead what you can do, is to make sure the grains of sand land in a pile – where they'll pile up, and eventually avalanches will occur – which in this metaphor is the ideas or even the great idea. And if you stop worrying about predicting and controlling, you'll be much better able to catch that idea, when it breaks loose from the pile.

So stop building castles in the sand and just pile on instead.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Wanna surprise your audience? Surprise yourself!

Often we think of plot twists, when it comes to surprising an audience. And some writers will go far out of their way to create a twist, perhaps even so far, that they will inadvertently have left their good senses behind. Twisting the plot is just the most obvious, but not only way of keeping your audience on their toes. Surprising material exist at many levels, from the way a character phrase a question to the grand dramaturgy in your arrangement of scenes.

It all comes down to striking a balance between repetition and development. We want to repeat patterns, because it establishes recognition and awareness. Both comedy and tragedy relies on the repetition to establish a motif and then on a surprising development to exact the laugh or the tears.

Often I find that the balance is off in many dramatic productions. Either there's too little development. The pattern is being established, but in the most predictable way, and in the worst cases, so the pay-off is seen miles away. The other extreme is when the motif is not established properly, because the creator is simply afraid to repeat himself or afraid to bore the audience and jumps all over the place with new ideas. For me the key is not to be afraid of repetition, but instead have a bit of fun with it – by creating variations along the way. This also helps to keep the audience guessing and hopefully not see the pay-off before it arrives.

In my own work, I keep challenging myself to create small surprises in everything. It's not about being clever, but about opening your senses; feel if you are boring yourself a bit with the stuff you come up with. And if you do, surprise yourself by choosing a different path. No, they are not going to kiss, even though the moment is perfect. Instead he asks her, if she thinks, he is that easy to get. She has been wearing dresses in different colours – but suddenly she's in a grey, dirty coverall. You are your own audience – are you surprising yourself or just keeping ourself busy by putting words together, painting-by-numbers-style?

It's both far more difficult and far too easy to second-guess an audience, you'll most probably never even meet. Can you master the discipline of being your own audience, then you have the best test at hand, to see if you are being trite or surprising – just surprise yourself.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Don't answer that question

Writing dialogue many writers have a habit of making their characters answer every question another character may ask. You'll also often see this habit in improvisation with actors. It's not a very good habit in a dramatic context.

I'm not saying questions shouldn't be answered at all, but often – also in real life – it becomes interesting, when questions are not answered – for the very simple reason, that it generates a conflict. 

Character A wants to know, what Character B had for dinner, but B ignores the question and talks about the weather. Even in this very ordinary situation, as an audience I will begin to wonder if B is hiding something, how A feels about getting the question ignored, and what A will do to get the answer; I'm engaged in the conflict and it's outcome.

This little trick is also something which could save any of the unbelieveable many exposition-scenes, where only information is being narrated. Come on, dear writers, it's easy to add a conflict. Just have A make a question, and then B doesn't answer, but delivers a bunch of information.

What was your question again? Well, see you later.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Wanna think outside the box? Stay inside it.

Obviously this metaphor holds a value, in the sense that you shouldn't allow yourself to be boxed in by conventional thinking. Viewed from my principled design-based approach to the creative process, it doesn't really make a lot of sense. Recently I was reminded about this by my old teacher, Ingolf Gabold, who is both a wise and gifted dramaturge.

One of the fundamental aspects of the principle of unity is that a piece of drama is one system, and a system is defined by a set of borders. So if you go outside those borders, you will undermine your system.

This happens quite often, when people write, direct and perform drama. We will always get ideas and notions, that are outside the box, the system of the drama, and perhaps include them. One or two might actually be working for you and for the system, because of the old adage – the exception that proves the rule. Or you might, if your are disciplined and experienced, come to realise, your system has a different set of borders. But often its not working, and just weakens the material, because it doesn't add to the complexity of meaning.

Working as a consultant for others, or working in groups with devising, I have often seen a pattern in behaviour, when people begin to get the un-useful outside-the-box-ideas. Very often it happens as a reaction to difficulty with the existing material, the system as it is, and there might be real problems, that needs fixing – but instead of confronting those problems inside the box, people tend to jump outside the box to find a quick fix, or even being drawn by the allure of the grass is always greener..

And this is not a very productive behaviour, you'll waste time, energy and only find new material, which at first looks great, all new and shining, but will also present difficult problems later on, as it needs to be developed and incorporated into the system – something which might not even be possible if it is foreign to the system – and again, there's also a time factor in our design process – we need to go over our material and refine it. If you bring in new material late in the process, it may end up never being properly developed.

Instead we need to stay inside the box and confront the problems we have, because often the answer is there, hiding in plain view. We need to dig deeper and ask the difficult questions and the very simple questions to our material – what is the conflict, who is this character, what are the needs, the intention? And we need to be truthful with ourselves in answering – why am I bored with this? what do I really want as a creator? And we need to be patient and wait for the right answer to arise from the questioning.

And this can difficult because it can challenge our faith in ourselves as creators, our faith in the material we have chosen to work with – and even in the worst cases our faith in ourselves as human beings.

And when you find yourself in such a crisis of creation, you can either run or stay inside the box, in the zone.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The African Ploughing Method

Way back when I went to the National Playwright Education of Denmark, we had for a short while a guest teacher, Erling Jepsen, one of Denmark's most productive playwrights, and in his later years also a successful novelist. Two of his books have been turned into successful feature films, "Terribly Happy" and "The Art of Crying", that's really worth your time, if you don't know them. Erling Jepsen is one-of-a-kind with a unique dark tone and good ear for dialogue and conflict. In person he can seem shy and is never boastful of his accomplishments.

Back in '94 Erling Jepsen taught us one very simple thing, which I've been applying to my work ever since. Many writers probably do it. He called it The African Plough Method and explained that in Africa, when the farmer wants to plough a field, it's a great challenge, because the soil has been baked into a hard shell by the merciless sun. The first day of ploughing the farmer can only manage to get through a small corner of the field. When he returns the second day, he will again plough the same small corner, but now, because the soil is softer, he can manage to go a bit further and extend his corner of the field – and so he continues day by day – always beginning by ploughing the soil, he has already softened, extending the ploughed area every day.

This is also a great way of doing your writing, especially when you are working your way through a full script. You begin every new day by reading and editing the pages, you've already have written. You correct small mistakes, you consider and vary language, you find opportunities you missed in the first write, you erase unnecessary lines of dialogue, you connect dots begging to be connected and you get into your fictional universe and warmed up for the moment when you reach the part, the fully unploughed field, you haven't written yet.

In context with my own principles, The African Plough Method is great, because it helps you to build the unity of your drama. Every day as I begin from the top, I keep most of my attention on the elements I have already put into play; are they 'talking' to other elements, can I enhance their exchange; the way they 'speak' to each other – create new connections. The standard technique in scriptwriting is about set-up and pay-off, which is the most obvious version of doing this. On every level of you drama, you should be setting-up and paying-off. And by meticulously ploughing through your script every day, from the top, you can manage to do that – make every detail count, and every detail relate to other details.

So get your horses out, get ploughing and always begin from the top. For your procrastination, here is a trailer for "Terribly Happy":

Saturday, June 15, 2013

You're not a writer..

This is what I often tell novice students at courses, I do on scriptwriting. And it is not to belittle their talent or aspirations, but to adjust their understanding of what it is, we are actually doing, when we create drama.

We are not writers in the sense a writer of novels or poetry is a literary writer. For them the words on paper is the final work of art. The words, we put down on paper, are just a means to communicate to our collaborators, who will be making the film, tv-show or theater performance. What we make is more like  a blueprint for a building or the score for a piece of music. This is also why, at the top of this blog, it says "Principles and tricks for creating scripts.." and not writing.

The fundamental construction of a piece of drama is also much more important, than the actual lines of dialogue. It's great if you write brilliant dialogue, but don't despair if you don't, because it's not the main thing. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, was hailed for his great and witty dialogue on that show, and at some point this came to frustrate him, because was that really the only thing, he was good at, and the only thing that made the show great? He decided to challenge himself by making an episode with very little dialogue – "Hush" – which became one of the best episodes in all 7 seasons of the show.

Directors and actors will be able to improve on your dialogue quite easily, but it is much more difficult to fix the construction of a piece of drama, while in the midst of rehearsing or shooting it. Your main responsibility is to get the construction right. This is all about the premise, the structure of the acts and in staying on target with your main conflict. If you don't get this right, your clever dialogue will only serve as window dressing for a drama, which will collapse somewhere in 2nd or 3rd act, and leave audiences frustrated in a bad way.

Drama is more like music than like literature. The rhythm, the timing, the weaving of themes, motifs and the build of crescendo is so much more important for drama and music, than for literature. The simple fact, that our works of art are played out in real time, second for second, moment to moment makes it so. Our audiences experiences it in a flow of time, so each second counts, the rhythm matters, the timing matters. And you need to be very precise in your communication, because the audience can't re-read a line or a page, or turn back a page to see, what the character was named – no, it happens now, and it happens in a flow.

You're not a writer. Don't feel bad about it. Enjoy creating drama, be proud of it. Or stop and become an author of literature instead.