The Difference between Screenwriting and Personal Writing

Human drama has been dissected, crafted and coded for centuries in countries all over the world. In the twentieth century Hollywood has made formulas out of dramaturgy, so that expensive, splashy productions are grounded in the essentials of catharsis and resolution. Students spend so much time analyzing films and learning rules that their scripts are often unoriginal and formulaic. Originality comes from what is unique about our lives and our imaginations. The difficulty comes when one tries to convert life experience, memory, fantasy and dreams into very structured drama.

Many dramatists-- Jeffrey Sweet et al.-- feel that drama should never be autobiographical because there are too many unconscious wish fulfillment and victimization obstacles to overcome. We see the story from OUR point of view instead of orchestrating characters who can fight equally and fairly to resolve the conflicts. In real life our objectives change everyday-- we usually want too many things all at once. We fantasize about something, create a dream for which to strive; yet most of us know, especially as we get older, that this is an illusion, a rainbow, a frontier that becomes a mirage as we approach. If we try to live in the mirage, it often becomes a delusion. Most of the things we work for-- a good education, an interesting career, money, a loving, supportive marriage, healthy, happy children, a comfortable retirement-- have their downsides. Memory picks the best of the past and constructs an impossible future with our imaginations. Whenever we try to live a dream, we find something wrong with it.

But audiences come to the theatre to pretend their dreams are real and valid, that there is substance to the rainbow. The minute the audience feels that the dream is mundane, tawdry, too small, pathetic, they lose their sympathy for the journey. Most love affairs eventually end with the realization that the loved one's shit smells as bad as one's own. Human imperfection is necessary to drama but the climax can't be anticlimactic or the audience will just stay home and deal with their personal misery.

The hero must also be more of a hero than in real life. This doesn't mean that she can't have excessive faults and imperfections, in fact, the more excessive the better, but that her struggle never wavers. In real life, when we start to encounter too many obstacles, we back away and either give up the dream or try something else. In drama, the obstacles must be overwhelming to test our courage and focus. So the hero must have extraordinary courage and focus, even though they keep making enormous mistakes and suffering from grievous shortcomings.

The journey is also much more relentless than in real life. No one would have the patience to keep hacking away at something that long and that inexorably. This applies to individual scenes as well as the spine of the story. Yet in real life, when the frustration, desire, ambition, jealousy and forbidden lust become too strong, we withdraw and suppress our feelings. You can never do this in drama: you must stay with each scene until it erupts into the most passionate love, hate, anger or sadness that it contains and then use this emotion to change the characters' moods, plans and decisions enough to weave the story forward.

Although we live in a more multifocal, hypertextual world now with cyberspace, we cannot let this diffuse drama. Instead we can construct multiple story lines, all with their own kind of catharsis. We can make the story more complex and multifaceted to challenge more sophisticated viewers but we must understand the essentials of drama, which are to place human behavior in a pressure cooker until it boils over and to let the heat make people pursue dreams with more passion, hope and courage than they would in real life. It's good for the hero to have more than one dream but only because we have to pit the dreams against each other-- force her to choose between them.

When we create drama out of our personal experience, we are often manically motivated to work on the story because it's a kind of wish fulfillment. Unconsciously we want to change our own lives, to be more heroic and special than we are, to fulfill our dreams and to make sure that that rainbow isn't a mirage. We also don't see our antagonists objectively. We might not see their vulnerability and their objectives clearly. In real life we often perceive ourselves as "victims" of other people, bad circumstances, bad genes etc. We rarely take complete responsibility for our actions.

As dramatists, we must make the hero responsible-- otherwise the story is just a mosaic of unfortunate circumstances. We must see the depth, goodness, vulnerability in the people who thwart our dreams. Another problem with characters in real life compared to those in drama is the transformation. In real life we try to grow and change, but rarely do. Or we change a bit with changes in time and space, and then regress to our former selves. We may occasionally "learn" from our mistakes, but we rarely overcome our faults completely.

Audiences like to see characters transform as a result of their trials. They want to see characters do what they can't because otherwise, they can just stay home and stew in their own dirt. When we create objectives, characters and scenes from real life, there is a spontaneity, unique quality that gives the script a special energy and style. Yet Shakespeare kept his characters fairly achetypal, and while the emotions may have come from his own life to some degree, the circumstances were always disciplined in a dramatic way, and the stories were even plagiarized from old myths. This is one reason, besides his beautiful poetry and depth of psychological insight, that make his plays transcend time and space, language and culture. But screenwriting isn't the same as classical stage drama. It has some of the novel and the documentary film because it is so naturalistic. It records specific people in a very concrete, detailed world.

The screenwriter doesn't WRITE this world the way a novelist does-- that's the job of the cinematographer-- but the screenplay must provide the blueprint for a unique, concrete world. Therefore when the script comes from personal experience, empirical observation, memory, fantasy, then this world has an immediacy, a freshness, a reality that doesn't come from classical archetypal drama. A good screenwriter can hear the dialogue in real life and make it dramatic; can see the humor and incongruity in our everyday activities and tighten them into plot points; can stay with the pain of personal experience long enough to imagine what would happen if it erupted in a catharsis.

But the hard thing is to rip one's dreams apart and to see ruthlessly into one's imperfections. Then the hardest thing is to pull back and give all the characters equal focus to fulfill themselves, even if it goes against one's deepest wishes. It also takes tremendous endurance to stick with a screenplay based on a personal experience you have outgrown or are forced to forget or abandon. In real life, we forget and move on when things get too painful. Writing a screenplay about it makes us stew in our own juices when we would rather flush them down the toilet.

That's why most dramatists say it's better not to take drama from real life. Most people lack the psychological profundity, the courage, and maybe even the masochism to mutilate their dreams. Then the other problem is that most people's lives are fairly boring compared to what's demanded on the screen. Either boring or dramatic in such a chaotic, episodic way that all dramatic cause and effect relationships are destroyed. So while the screenwriter can draw from real life, she must make sure that the events are exaggerated enough to be interesting and then structured enough to follow the hero's journey.

This means changing real life with imaginative fantasies such as: "what if the opposite were true?" "what if she got what she wanted?" "what if the worst thing happened?" "what if she said what she really felt?" "what if she had to choose between two really wonderful things but lose one of them forever?" "what if she had to choose between two really awful punishments?" In real life we rarely make ourselves take these decisions to the end. We usually let fate and victimization share some of our responsibility. Once the story is created then, it's best to seal it off from reality, and to live in that world enough to write a final draft that has cinematic thrust and immediacy. This is similar to giving birth and should have the same kind of pain and separation.

Nothing is sacred in a dramatist's life: everything must be surrendered to imaginative mutilation. To take drama from personal life, one must be in the habit of writing a personal journal so confessional, so deep, insightful, incriminating and provocative that the screenwriter would be terrified if a loved one got hold of it and read it literally. Then one must have a thorough, meticulous knowledge of the craft of screenwriting. To construct a dramatic story from personal experience, one must then take a knife to one's soul and sculpt away. That's why so many dramatists advocate constructing drama from observation of and empathy for others made unique with personal emotion and imagination, rather than dramatized autobiography.

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