Tag Archives: character development

Can writing be taught?

#wpad blog challenge, day 19.

Can writing be taught? Yes.

But storytellers are born.

What can – and indeed ought to – be taught?

There is a lot that aspiring writers ought to learn about structure, plot and character development. Going back to Aristotle: beginning, middle and end including reversal. The basic categories and their elements – comedy, tragedy, satire etc. Know your format and its rules – this goes especially for screenwriting (yes yes, once you know them, you can break them). Do I have to mention good grammar and orthography?

You can learn – at least to a degree – to write good dialogue. You can learn about George Polti’s 36 dramatic situations or the seven basic plots (or three, or eleven, whichever taxonomy suits your writing). You can read (and hear film people talk forever) about “The Quest” or “The Journey” – and by the way, I do recommend Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” as essential storytelling wisdom.

Born to tell stories

But if you know all of the above, if you have mastered various tools and techniques, you still need the one basic ingredient without which there are no books, films, plays etc. You need to be a storyteller. And that, I believe, cannot be taught. You have to be born that way.

This is more than a knack for telling funny or enthralling stories to entertain your listeners / readers. It is not just a question of “talent” or a certain “gift”. To be a true storyteller means you want to tell stories. It means there are stories inside you clamouring to be let out.

It does not necessarily mean you want to offer your stories to the world at large. And without the skills and knowledge described above you may be too shy or embarrassed to tell them. But they are inside you and want out. Even if “out” is a folder stashed away in the depths of your computer, or a piece of scrap paper in the bottom desk drawer. I have met people who would never consider themselves “writers” but oh how I wished they would apply pen and paper to their stories!

So this is my humble opinion: writing can be taught. But storytellers are born.



Filed under screenwriting, writing

The Screenwriter’s Lens

Screenwriting, or perhaps rather learning about screenwriting, has spoilt a lot for me.

For one thing, it has spoilt watching mediocre films. Well, that’s no great loss, you may say, but actually – there’s a certain type of film I used to enjoy watching, just to chill, rest my brain after a hard day at the office. I can’t do that any more. I get too annoyed by underdeveloped characters and badly structured stories.

I also find it difficult these days to find a book or other prose that holds my attention. I keep wanting to say “get to the point” or “cut the verbiage!” even in books that I used to like. We had an interesting discussion about this in the Forum over on TwelvePoint.com – seems that many screenwriters feel the same – we spend years honing our skills to convey a maximum of action and emotion with a minimum of words, and thus quickly get bored with pages and pages of inner ramblings or minute descriptions.

So I can’t help but look at everything through the screenwriter’s lens – I weigh, I measure, and I usually find wanting by page 20.

Last night, however, I had an interesting experience. I went to the premiere of a friend’s play, a piece for six women entitled “The Gentle Sisters”. Within minutes I was drawn in completely by the actresses and their skilful handling of a very well-written and moving script. Afterwards I talked to an actress (who was not involved in the production). She liked the play but thought the staging was a bit static, and to my surprise I realized she was right.

How odd that I hadn’t noticed this lack of movement, of visual action on stage, when I’m so used to the scriptwriting mantra of “make it visual, use action to express emotion, show don’t tell”! But then I realized what had happened.

I aim to build my screenplays from the inside out because I hold that stories must grow from the characters and their development. In this play, the characters and their emotions were so well crafted and so genuine, both in the writing and in the portrayal, that I was completely captured. Perhaps after several viewings I would have started shifting actors and scenery around in my head, and a different director – not the author, as in this production – may stage it quite differently. But it did not and does not matter because the material was so good. It was all there, in the characters.

So the screenwriter’s lens made me not see a minor “fault”. For once, it did not spoil the show but enhanced it. Thanks, Stewart, and good luck with taking this play much, much further still – it’s worth it!

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Filed under screenwriting