Balancing Form and Function in the Screenplay

April 23, 2010

I recently added a Rod Serling quote to my Writer Quotations collection—a quote passed on to me by my writer friend Jeff Schnaufer—that I find both inspiring and cautionary:

“Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.”  (Rod Serling)

I purposely sandwiched this new addition in between the two following quotes on my On Narrative and Storytelling page because of their connected theme:

Good screenwriting plays against the grain, plays against the obvious, plays against the way you would expect things to happen.”  (Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

In art, the obvious is a sin.”  (Edward Dmytryk)

Here’s the thing though…

How do you balance these harmonious, complementary words with this seemingly antithetical advice from an equally esteemed individual:

Don’t write so that you can be understood — write so that you can’t be misunderstood.”  (William Howard Taft, U.S. President)

Sure: since President Taft isn’t known for his creative writing, you could write it off (pardon the pun) as being less relevent advice.   But here is why I do not disregard it;  what writer has not experienced the frustration of finding that their carefully crafted message—which seemed sufficiently clear when they wrote it—confused the reader, or generated an unexpected and undesired response?  

Whether you’re writing a story or just a simple e-mail message, you know what I’m talking about here, right?

And you KNOW that misunderstanding can happen easily with creative writing in particular.  Words have different meanings.  Phrases have different meanings … potential subtext, for instance … that a writer must continually consider.   That’s part of the appeal of creative writing—that words have so much potential to carry meaning and symbolism and emotion, and it’s a ton of fun to play with it, to mold it.   But those very possibilities also invite misinterpretation. 

So, while “the obvious” in a screenplay may be a sin … 

The inobvious or misconstrued is a cardinal sin

… because a screenplay is only sorta’ kinda’ art, Mr. Dmytryk.  It is also a blueprint.  An instruction manual.  So, I try to write the screenplay to entertain, as you advise, Mr. Goldman (“Executives read a guh-zillion scripts on the weekend.  It would be idiotic for me not to have him try and enjoy the ride.”), but a screenplay can never sell if it is just artful.  Writing the screenplay artfully is a great goal, but it must also be written so that it cannot be misunderstood.  It must also communicate, initially to production company execs and then, if sold, to production technicians and artisans. 

To write a screenplay effectively, I try to step outside myself and consider my audience’s frame of reference.  Then, with that perspective firmly in mind, I hope to write in a way that I will not be misunderstood, even as I work to make the reading of it a fun ride.

We’ll see.

Anyone else struggle with this balancing act between form and function in creative writing?  Let’s talk about it.

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