Daily Dojo

Rapping on Writing - More on Goethe Criticism

I’m swamped with work and writing and family, and happy to be so, but I wanted to take a quick minute to expand a bit more on a thing I referenced in the ScriptShadow Interview last week.

Some time ago, a friend (it was on an alumni email newsletter thing, we were all exchanging ideas and whatnot) wrote something guided him in literary criticism, which was:

Goethe asked three questions:

1) What was the author’s intent?

2) How well was it done?

3) Was it worth doing?

Which for me has been some of the most helpful advice I’ve ever been given or read anywhere. The above is meant for plays, of course, but I think that it can be utilized anywhere. Let me expand a bit on each point as it relates to screenwriting.

1) What was the author’s intent?

Intent is key, in other words what was it that you, the author, were trying to achieve with this script? Were you trying to scare the reader, make them laugh, make them cry, comment on American Justice, war, life and death … what were you trying to do?

Think of the great movies you love, and thing about what the intent was behind it … just off the top of my head …

The Godfather was an exploration of family, at its root, the father passing the torch of responsibility he’s no longer able to handle to the one son who can.

When Harry Met Sally was a comic exploration of whether or not men and women can be friends.

Taken was about a man trying to rescue his daughter from something terrible, an exploration of the extremes one would go to, to save a family member.

In each there’s a simple (meaning clear) core idea being explored, that’s the intent of each movie and story … When Harry Met Sally is a perfect example … the intent is to examine, can men and women be friends (and it’s the very first discussion Harry and Sally have, and the one they end on) or not? One clear intention, one clear question, explored to its fullest without distraction.

In a lot of beginner scripts, there are often TOO MANY stories crammed into the 100 pages or so of script, it seems like it’s a coming of age script, but it’s also a war story, no wait, it’s a drama, no wait, it’s a broad comedy.

It’s not that you cannot have subplots and other things going on, you can and should … but at its root, what is your movie about? Is it a tragedy? Is it a comedy? A satire or a gross-out? Is it an exploration of man’s first foray into space?

Identify the DNA of what it is, then commit to that intent …

There’s a lot more to discuss behind intent, too much to go into today, but it’s important to think about … what are you doing with this story?

2) How well was it done?

This is where lots of talk turns to structure, which to my ear means, how efficiently have you told your story?

A shorthand way of thinking about this, if you think of a person you know who is really good at telling jokes, even if he tells one you already know, you still laugh … he hits the moments, the setup and the punchline all perfectly.

Now think of a person who is terrible at telling jokes (we all know at least one) and why they’re so bad … usually it’s because they get in the way of the story. They go off on tangents, they jump ahead, they lag behind …

Bad screenplays do the same thing. They’re all over the place and off-focus.

The good news is, you can learn how to do this right, learning about scene construction, character construction, screenwriting structure, you can learn craft … it’s a lot more work than telling a joke, but basically it comes down to the same thing.

Telling your story in the most efficient way possible.

3) Was it worth doing?

And this … is the million dollar question. Is it worth doing, this story?

There’s many ways it can go, this question. Is the story worth telling?

Is it worth the two hours of my life to watch this movie? Or reading it?

A lot of this gets caught up in commercial sensibilities and there is nothing wrong with that, I like commercial movies as much as I like indies, most people do … what we all love are good movies, regardless of scale.

So this harkens back to something I mentioned in the interview … do you have something to say with this story?

in other words, if no one buys it, if it NEVER gets made as a movie … is it still worth your time to write it?

Because you won’t get those hours back, you know. It has to be worth it, on some level. Write something worth it to you.

I’ve written things that I had to write, stories that felt important to me to share even though I knew they may have limited commercial appeal … but it was worth it, for what they meant to me and to those I knew it would resonate with.

They may never get sold or made, but they were totally worth writing, if only for what they meant to me as the author.

Now, we don’t and shouldn’t live in a box, as authors, we need to connect to our audience … this is true.

In the end, while we strive to be professionals and write things that appeal to a wide audience (which is not, I repeat, not a bad thing, reaching people, it’s a very good thing, reaching your audience should be one of your primary functions) there is also something to be said for writing something that appeals to you, that moves you, that resonates with you, as a starting point … because if it doesn’t resonate with you, how can you expect it will resonate with you audience?

To me, that’s the answer in terms of worthiness … does it resonate with you and will it resonate with your audience, whoever they may be?

Is it worth your time, in the end? If it’s worth yours, it will be worth someone else’s, and I’m not talking about money, I’m talking about time and energy … make it worth a person’s time, and yours, in terms of story substance and worry about financial worth later … is the story … worth telling?

Words to think about.

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