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WHERE'S THE DRAMA?

The stuff that dreams are made of

  GROPING TOWARDS A VISION

 

“Love is the ability of not knowing.”

(John Cassavetes)

The only dramatic stories that are important to us are the ones that start and end in our own experiences. 

Examine your values. What do you believe and disbelieve? What do you love and not love? What is admirable in human life, and what is not so admirable? Find, enact, and tell those stories that are true to your self and your community, and tell them completely, and they will travel the world. 

A dramatic story is a reply to the unseen, the unheard, the unknown that gnaws in the darkness of ignorance. A person that refuses to ignore, ridicule, or falsify the gnawing is "an artist", whether s/he makes her/his daily bread as a writing, a farmer, a laborer or the CEO of a big corporation.

The best dramatic story-makers are creative and courageously so. They apply creativity to every significant dramatic action they encounter. 

Creativity is one of the core elements of a healthy community. When merged with story that speaks to the hearts and minds of one's audience, it inspires tolerance, responsibility and leadership.

Essentially, creativity is the art of relinquishing control. We relinquish control every time that we enter a story-in-the-making, either as a creator or as an active member of an engaged audience. This is what allows the story to make us as much as we make it.

The most powerful stories are dramatic stories.

Dramatic stories are powerful because they are about PEOPLE like us confronting PROBLEMS and managing CHANGE.

Dramatic stories involve characters that want something, and whose desire provokes suffering and the actions necessary for over-coming the suffering.

Dramatic characters ACT in order to bring about a "healing".

Dramatic action is always goal-oriented action. Its ultimate goal is to resolve the problem that has created the suffering.

Dramatic problems require real change - in both the character and his/her world - in order to be solved or transcended. Without real change, the strategies tend to make the problem worse.

Change is almost always frightening because its outcomes are usually unpredictable, and because characters frequently equate change with loss. 

Dramatic characters navigate this human predilection of fearing change by actively and persuasively pursuing needs and goals with which an audience can readily identify. By virtue of emotional identification, an audience becomes a participant in the evolving story of change.

The actions of dramatic characters ARE the change that leads to the story’s ultimate resolution.

Great story-makers understand that they are but one character among many characters, that they, too, are going on a journey, guided by a clear objective and propelled by a credible plan of action that might be changed at any time to accommodate the changing circumstances of the story.

Drama, in the form of story, is humanity’s way of contextualising its experience of change in terms of living, human experience with all its suffering, hope, risk, faith, conflict, fear, growth and love.

Characters in dramatic stories are revealed by their actions and the impact that their actions have upon the other characters..

Dramatic action - by definition - either propels a character closer to or further away from their ultimate goal.

As story-makers and audience we must be aware not only of what the characters are wanting to communicate, but also of what they are trying to hide.

Dramatic storytelling involves both creative exposure and creative hiding.

The story-maker, like every other character in the story, is also in hiding.

The story-maker is also a character.

To understand any character’s story, you need to view it from the inside out. Short of an intimate understanding, there can be no emotion, only emotional cliché.

We don’t necessarily know – or need to know - the story we are trying to tell. If we did, we wouldn’t need to tell it.

Knowledge, for the most part, is useless. Finding “the story” requires ridding yourself of everything you know.

What you know usually stands in the way of what you might discover.

Finding the story is a voyage of discovery – self-discovery.

Understanding drama = understanding yourself.  

 

     “Everyone  has  talent.   What is  rare is  the  courage to follow it to the dark place where it leads."

(Erica Jong)

 

To be is to be anxious. To be creative is to endure the anxiousness – to use it, shape it, transform it, into something that transcends anxiety.

As story-makers we are custodians of a “dreaming”, which we are obliged to attend to and work with and birth, in order to share the dream with others in all of its potency. The ultimate meaning of the dream resides in its shareability.

An appreciation of the inspiration and obsessiveness of the story-makers, finders and tellers that have gone before is itself a story – the awareness that one is operating within a timeless tribe of storytellers carries a sense of responsibility that is freeing insofar as one begins to realise ever more vividly how all storytellers speak through every storyteller. Those who have gone before have drawn from the same pool that you draw from, and those who come after you will do the same. We are family. We are part of a tradition, whether we know it or not.  There is courage to be found in this understanding.

Acquaint yourself with different kinds of stories from all sorts of oral and written traditions, including short stories, autobiography, letters, and oral histories (e.g.: Idries Shah’s Sufi Tales and Studs Terkel’s Hard Times, Dickenson, Robert Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, etc.).

Know what it is that you do not know.

The art of the story doesn’t begin and end with a book or a poem or a screenplay or a keynote address. It is a way of being in the world; a way of seeing and hearing the world; a way of letting yourself be touched by the world. (i.e.: by yourself).

Every person, place, memory, image, dream, song, smell, and shadow, is potentially a story, or the beginning, middle or end of one.

The expression of “modernism” in poetry is the materialisation of the idea that the power of art resides in what is not stated or shown, but implied. In business, it is called walking the talk. It is no different for good dramatic story-making. 

It is often what you leave out – what you don’t express (overtly) – but that is implied by the emotional logic of what is shown that has the power to move an audience and conduct the energy that makes the experience of transcendence possible.

We prize our poets because they are the most economical of storytellers - their poems, the most succinct form of the story: the brief-but-vivid image, the relationship of one image to another, the implied comparisons, the particularity of voice, the exactness of phrase, the thumbnails of dramatic structure – it’s no accident the world’s greatest dramatist was a poet.

The inspired story-maker is alone but seldom lonely. His/her characters have more substance than the strangers posing as cut-outs in the queue at Cole’s, and yet even the characters in Cole’s are potentially important characters, or characters-in-the-making, poised briefly on the threshold of a checkout counter waiting for some catalyst that might suddenly transform them and us into another story.

Great stories always speak – not only for the story-maker but also for the voiceless ones. Justice comes into it. The carriers of the wisdom (read: stories) of any tribe are courageous beings. Without courage where does one find the strength to confront the unknown? Lacking courage and the inspiration of creativity where does one find the impetus to consider something from a unique or unexpected point of view? 

 “The world is made of stories, not of atoms.”

(Muriel Rukeyser)

 

So, what is your story?

What is your obstacle?

What is it that you can’t get over?

Talk about your characters and their stories as if you know them. Talk to them! Gossip, embellish, fabricate. Don’t simply write them down. Become them! Live them, Breathe them, dream them! Eat them!

Leave your ego at the door.

No one has power unless the story itself has power.

Only the story can empower you. You cannot empower yourself. Nor can you humbly or otherwise bestow your power upon the story. It is the story that baptises you, not the other way around.

The only reason to make choices for your characters is to enter into a relationship with them that is vivid enough that makes it possible for them to choose for themselves; at which point it behoves the story-maker to let them do as they will and simply manage the time it takes them to do it.

A story progresses according to a character’s needs, fears, plans, and obstacles (i.e.: what stands between the character and his/her goal).

A successful story structure reveals both a character’s strengths and weaknesses. These can only be authentically revealed when a character is faced with drama. A dramatic story is the presentation of creative action aimed at overcoming a problem that threatens one’s well being or one very existence. Adversity BUILDS character!

The onset of creative thinking/feeling is signaled by the arrival of problems. It is the problems that forge the initial relationship between the story-maker and his/her characters.

The business of telling a story is working through the problems that result from wanting to tell it.  

You cannot solve all the problems and then proceed to tell the story; the problems are the story you are trying to tell.

The more you seek an intimate relationship with your characters and their story, the more you flee from them and it.

You do not choose your story. It chooses you.

So long as you don’t become discouraged and give up, you will eventually discover that in working as a character with the other characters to solve problems that are common to both of you, you have developed a level of intimacy, respect and a competency in collaborative problem solving you wouldn’t have thought possible.

Story-making is essentially about catching not pitching. It is about listening, and keeping open. It is an illuminating dance of relationships in transition.

As much as possible, learn to convey stories without employing words. Focus on the non-verbal and the imagistic. Whilst the voice is an important story-making tool, remember that the voice of silence carries an eloquence all its own. Speech is tango – both movement and stillness.

Become familiar with the nuances of your own voice…

and begin to discover those other voices that live within you. 

 

 

Drama is fundamentally about RELATIONSHIPS - the connections and disconnections of everything, from the characters' interactions and conflicts to the compositional tension that exists cinematically in between shots and scenes. The relationships of words, in dialogue, text and subtext, the ironies inherent in what is said and what is done; the relationships of images, the final image of one scene and the first image of the next. Every "CUT" in a well-made screenplay or film creates a relationship that conveys meaning, that is possessed of a charge of emotional energy. The relationship of ideas - how one set of actions influence or promote other actions, the way in which the relationship of one image with another produces images in the mind. The relationship of feelings evoked by the all the other relationships. The writer's relationship with the characters, the audience and the writer's tribe or tribes. You can't produce a viable and powerful story short of your involvement in and commitment to the experience of relationship and the disconnections (tensions) that threaten it.

N O N - A C T I O N   &   T H E  M E D I U M I S T I C   S C R E E N  S T O R Y T E L L E R  -  The Tao of Dramatic Action

“Coming to meet halfway is possible only between people who are mutually  honest and sincere in their way of life.”   I Ching

"The way to write a story is not to try to write a story." - Stoneking

 

I gave up reading books about the craft of screenwriting a long time ago. The two or three I actually dipped into made my head ache. Forget about inspiring vision or even a modicum of passion; they simply reduced the process of dramatic narrative to a manipulation of beats, events, turning-points and positively or negatively charged actions.  Fair enough, I guess, if you’ve managed to actually get past the 100 or so blank pages that go into the writing of a feature screenplay.

In 2001, when Robert McKee came to AFTRS  (the Australian Film, Television & Radio School) to present his legendary “medicine shows” on writing the thriller, comedy and feature drama, he managed to do little more than bequeath a lexicon of jargon that would colour and create a semblance of communication and knowledge where in fact there was almost no understanding at all.  For a fortnight after his visit the school’s corridors, cafeteria and conference rooms were alive with buzzwords. “Story-arcs”, “turning points” and “inciting incidents” enlivened the discourse, or at least provided a type of delicious gravity and sophistication that had not been there before. The old language game had been renovated into a new language game – somehow more relevant and profound than what had been there before. Armed with this new jargon and encouraged by the dramatic power of a forceful and charismatic speaker, the students attacked the scripts that were being written and rewritten, produced and directed, shot and edited with a renewed sense of creative dedication. But it was just another language game, or rather a differently worded version of the old game with a sense of sophistication that was merely symptomatic of the malady of  the usual mind-set in which ego, unmanaged fear and manipulation continue to inform the values of the ambitious, blind and deaf.

The screenwriter working as a medium can find no solace or encouragement in the pronouncements of those for whom story is reducible to what the writer DOES to the story and the characters. This sort of creative chauvinism is anathema to the mediumistic screenwriter and filmmaker. What is important is not so much what you do, but what you don’t do, or rather what you allow the characters to do to you.

Consider for a moment the Chinese concept of Wu Wei  (无为.).  Wu Wei is an important tenet of Taoism that involves knowing when to act and when not to act. “Wu”  may be translated as “not having” or “not possessing”; and “Wei” (2nd tone) may be translated as “action” or “doing”.  The literal meaning of Wu Wei  is "without action"  or “no action” – a strange concept to be introducing into a dicussion about dramatic storytelling, in which action is central to its movement and meaning.  Paradoxically, the application of Wu Wei to dramatic screen storytelling (or story-finding) is expressed more directly by the concept of  “wei wu wei” : "action without action."

The practice of wu wei and the efficacy of wei wu wei are fundamentally the achievement of a state of perfect equilibrium, or the alignment of action with intention. In practical terms this alignment manifests as spontaneity, resulting in an irresistible form of "soft and invisible power" over things  (the self, others, a country).

Spontaneity is a quality of performance - what sports people refer to when they speak of a player or a team as being “in the zone”.  Mediumistic screenwriters write “in the zone”, and they do so not by force of will but by learning to act without acting.

Confucius once compared a virtuous prince to the North Pole, saying that he did not move; everything turned around him. There are magical, occult justifications behind this idea of a power obtained by 'inaction'. In the ancient Taoist texts, wu wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature. Although water is soft and weak, it has the capacity to slowly erode solid stone. Water is without will (i.e.: the will for a shape), opposing wood, stone, or any solid material that can be broken into pieces. It can therefore fill any container, take any shape, go anywhere, even into the smallest holes. When sprayed in thousands of small drops, water still has the capacity to reunite. Eventually – as is its nature – it returns to its source, to the eternal sea. Furthermore, while always going downward, water rests in the 'dark valley'—where biological life is regenerated. The creative vision of the correspondence of birth with death, youth with age, strength with weakness – the yin and the yang of our being – the situation of irony that is the story of human history – that  makes truth out of existence and existence out of the irony inherent in good and evil – enlarges our understanding of the story that we are telling, which is also and equally the story that is telling us.  

 Several chapters of the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao Tze, allude to 'diminishing action', or 'diminishing will', as the key aspect of the sage's success. Taoist philosophy recognizes that the universe already works harmoniously according to its own laws; as a person exerts her/his will against the world s/he disrupts the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a screenwriter/filmmaker should not exert will. Rather, it is how s/he acts in relation to the natural processes already extant that is critical. In terms of a story the natural processes involve more than the writer, the writer’s knowledge and the means of notating the writer’s ideas. A story’s natural processes are the actions of the characters and the sources of these actions – and the characters here referred to are not simply those characters that inhabit the screenplay, but also the character that is the story’s audience and the characters whose tribe or tribes are being dramatised by the actions of the dramatis personae.

Wu Wei has also been translated as "creative quietude," or the art of letting-be. It is evidenced in the spontaneous gestures of artists and dancers, sports persons and musicians, acrobats and actors, indeed anyone that instinctively understands the value of getting out of the way of the creative energies that move in and through them. The act of letting go or relinquishing control does not mean sloppiness or any dulling of the mind; in fact, it is the very liberation of thought, an effortlessness that does not strain to be either open or closed, interested or disinterested – it is akin to pure consciousness – a being INSIDE THE MOMENT, inside the drama, naturally open, available and responsive to one's own multifarious nature and the natures of those with whom one shares the finding that is the dramatic story played out in the actions of all of the characters.

As one diminishes doing, one diminishes all those actions committed against the Tao (read: the natures of the characters and the nature of the story itself), which already exists like the sculpture inside the uncarved stone - the already present natural harmony.  As one begins to cultivate Tao (or Being), one becomes ever more in harmony with it and, according to Chuang Tze, attains a state of Ming, or 'clear seeing'.

It is in the state of Ming that the Taoist is in full harmony with Tao, and 'having arrived at this point of non-action, there is nothing that he does not do.'

It is upon achievement of this Chinese equivalent to 'enlightenment' that both the sage and the truly original and revolutionary filmmaker begin to perform wei wu wei, or 'action without action.'  Thus the filmmaker – like the sage - will work in harmony with Nature to accomplish what is needed and, working in perfect harmony with the Tao, leave no trace of having done it.

“Coming to meet” is best understood as a contract made between two people.  If one is indolent in performing his part, or has mental reservations about what he is willing to do, the contract may fail.  Although such a person may have entered the contract without any immediate objections, his attitude may contain objections which arise only at the time his obligations are to be performed. Such a person may secretly feel that contracts are not to be taken seriously, or, on seeing how difficult it is to fulfill his part, he may hedge on doing it because of some idea that all contracts are subject to fitting into his concept of what is “reasonable.”

We must avoid egotistical enthusiasm when we think we are making progress, or discouragement when the dark period ensues.  Throughout the cycle we learn to remain detached. Holding steadily to the light within us and within others.  The instant we strive to influence, we “push upward blindly.”  If we insist on accomplishing the goal at all costs, our inner light is darkened and our will to see things through is damaged.

Inner withdrawal is an action of perseverance that has its own reward, but only when it is modest perseverance, not an attempt to impress others by getting them to notice our withdrawal.  In many situations the problem is resolved, not through any external action that arises spontaneously on our part, but by simply “letting it happen,” through letting go of the problem. Our “action” is to “let go".

 

 

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DRAMA : THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE ON EARTH

When Jackson Pollack spoke of a painting as having a life of its own he underscored  the central insight of every artist that works as a medium. For the dramatic screenwriter/filmmaker,   this   means  forming vivid and intimate relationships with ALL of the characters necessary for finding the story, including those chararacters whose lives are not exclusively bound up in the world of the story that is wanting to get itself told.  

The actions, interactions and creative non-actions that operate in the realisation of fresh and compelling  dramatic characters are conducted not only by the writer and the characters internal to the screenplay, but also by the writer's conception of "to whom the story is addressed" (audience) and "who or what is addressing the writer" (tribe/s)?  In character-based screen storytelling, audience is also a character, as is tribe. Both play important, if not mostly overlooked, roles in the process of finding the story.  

In truth, audience is always an act of the imagination, at least until it is seated in front of the screen, and even then it might be sleeping!  Nevertheless, as the writer/filmmaker forms a relationhsip with his/her audience, he/she begins to hear and see what the audience actually needs in order to enter the drama. And likewise, as the writer, allows the tribe/s to speak ever more authentically through the characters, he/she feels less inclined to explain.The act of discriminating between the tribal  circumstances and emotions that drive the characters inside the script, and those by-products of experience founded on the writer's own prejudices, insecurities and fears, which often find their way into the lives and actions of the characters in the script, and invariably confound or bore the audience, is haphazard at best. So long as one relies exclusively on intellect, the emotional complexity that informs and provokes the actions of dramatic characters are so unwieldy, so enormous in their possibilities, that one is often forced into the reductionism of formula. That is, unless one conducts the energy mediumistically, from inside the characters, inside YOU. This is a scary idea for many would-be screenwriters, whose bravery often hides behind film school degrees and the death-list of a CV.  

Unfortunately - or fortunately - fear is elemental to every human endeavour involving risk and change, which includes ALL creative endeavours. To be creative is to be anxious. To endure the anxiousness - to face it and work with it, to allow it to lay bare what has been hidden - is the beginning of faith, which, in a certain sense, is the courage to become, to become present, along with all the other characters, tribes and audiences whose actions move the unfolding drama that is the world. 

 

 

"Art is a sense of magic" - Stan Brakhage

 

"Everyone talks about "the magic", but no one knows anything about it. The secret/sacred act by which the story-experience transforms itself into something that impacts on the emotional life of others defies formula. Spend a lifetime enquiring about its nature; no one will be able to tell you what it is. Though its presence might be obvious, its appearance is unpredictable. One experiences it as a disarming freshness - an enduring "newness" . Whatever it is, you can't cook it up. 

"If you want to become the kind of storyteller/filmmaker in whose actions the magic lives, then you must enter into the most intriguing and challenging set of relationships you have ever encountered,  relationships in which the essence of the characters intersects and mingles intimately with your own essence, so that you no longer meaningfully distingush these essences or see and hear them as separate. 

"Only when your characters' essence (or origins) merges with your own essence (or origins) does the magic, which is ORIGINALITY, become possible."   - Guillaume Marichel 

“There are no geniuses. It’s just a lot of fucking hard work and trying to get it." - John Cassavetes

 

VISIONARY FILM-MAKING

Working on films is like hitchhiking; you need to know when not to get in the car. Truth is something you have to work for, cos otherwise you don't appreciate it. The problem with money getting mixed up with art is that it tends to undermine your confidence in  your innermost thoughts and feelings. Money is the last refuge of people that have been scared by life. The more you have the more difficult it is to find what really matters and get it for yourself. I'd rather work in a sewer than make a picture I didn't like.  (some quotes from the film, A Constant Forge)

                     M A K I N G   T I M E

The biggest obstacle to writing a story is all the stories we tell ourselves about why we can't write it. Indeed, the stories we tell ourselves about our writing have a subtle but powerful effect on what actually happens in our writing lives. The more frequently we tell ourselves a story, the more likely it is to become a reality and to persist as one. And because very often those stories have to do with Not Writing the first thing many writers need to do is challenge the stories that are stopping the writing from happening.

The most common story - and one I hear repeated by countless writers enough times to make me wish I had a buck for every time I've heard it, is "I don't have the time". This ridiculous 5-word story is suppose to explain the it all - and in many ways it does. This is the five-word story that stands between mediocre drudgery and... well, mediocre drudgery if you haven't any talent- BUT - if you do, then this five-word story might be cheating you out of a life, or at least the life of a screenwriter.

Screenwriting is a creative art, but what most would-be screenwriters fail to understand is that the first thing you need to create as a screenwriter is TIME.

So, how do you write when you’re too busy to write? - or when that's the story you're telling yourself.

If that's what you're tuned in to, you need to take a good, hard look at what’s really going on in your life. Are you coming home and collapsing in front of the television every day at the end of an exhausting day? Or going straight to the computer for a virtual evening right here in Facebook? If you are, then STOP IT. Get serious about your soul’s mission.

Set your alarm clock for 15 minutes early tomorrow, and when it goes off, get up. Mean it when you say you’ll write. Follow through. Let the other stuff come later. It will.

So get up, get out your computer, turn on your timer, and start writing.

Just write for 15 minutes. Then call it. Go on and go to work or all the other things you’ve got to do.

But notice how it feels to have met your muse FIRST in the day.

Notice how that sense of freedom, hope, inspiration and possibility permeates the rest of the day, because you’ve done your soul’s work first.

Then do it again tomorrow. 20 minutes... and so on... :)

           MYTH - Its Subjects & Heirs

Myths are oral and/or written narratives involving human and/or human-like characters or creatures whose actions and modes of being and becoming dramatise recognisable and recurring forms of transformation that are embodied in the vital activities of the tribes for whom these stories are the source of their values, hopes, fears and potentialities. Myths operate within a cultural context as both a source of the meaning of the world as well as an affirmation of the life, beliefs and actions of all those entities that inhabit that world.

Myths are particularly pre-occupied with the nature of the contrarieties, paradoxes and ironies that inform the world and the lives of those that inhabit it, as well as the perceivable and imaginatively possible practical consequences that characterise human belief and disbelief as expressed in deliberate action and non-action. In its function as an illuminating and instructive narrative, myth inhabits those tribal intersections where human commerce and order is most susceptible to conflict and disruption, operating as a metaphorical, cosmic cop directing the metaphysical traffic that is eternally at cross-purposes with the fortunes of the Tribe; and by its telling and re-telling evokes a communal relatedness as well as awareness of the secret/sacred nature of the interconnectedness of one’s being to both the one’s fellow humans as well as the world in which one lives and dies.

Myths speak to us of our essence, of our origins. Each of us shelters round a campfire of myths, adrift in an infinite wilderness, as frightening as it is full of possibilities. In such a wilderness a myth is not so much a spiritual path as an eternal reminder of what lies within and behind the phenomenal realm of our senses, a place divinely invisible and internal, and yet everywhere present – a force bodied forth in trees and rivers, boulders and clay pans, in the crops and animals that feed us, and in seasons and multitudinous energies of the natural world, which we discover by means of that most ancient of human occupations: wandering.

Humanity’s active participation in the creation and re-vivification of a mythic consciousness is also an act of wandering – psychic wandering – that provides modes of becoming, which dramatise and evoke recognisable and recurring forms of being and transformation. Such transformations are not necessarily positive or constructive. Indeed, history is littered with the records of those that exploited myth for the purposes of base propaganda or worse. Like anything of genuine power and value, myth can be turned to the selfish needs and goals of anyone clever enough to tell a good story, or at least the :”right” story at the “right” time.  Even so, the myth that works merely to serve the narrow power and purpose of political dominance and manipulation also harbours within itself the seeds of its own irrelevance, and is likely to be supplanted by a seemingly more relevant and fashionable myth, just as it supplanted the myth that came before it.

In acknowledging the double-barrelled nature of myth to both narrow and enlarge the scope of human experience, and its allied dual tendencies of enslaving and/or freeing human consciousness, one does well to remember that myth, like all language, is metaphorical, and that metaphors are in their essence duplicitous.

By conceptualising human action in the form of stories that dramatise the interactions occurring between what is knowable and unknowable, a myth participates in a narrative adventure that is invariable associated with some form of journey. Every myth – like every story – is said to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Likewise, the quest of every mythic character involves change brought about by action and conflicting agendas. The narrative line is almost always a progression of events that move us down a ”story road”, yet there is also something timeless about mythic stories, something eternal and omnipresent.  In myth, the path is a place, and the place is every place, and its time, every time.  It is a becoming-present (not-yet), where the children of the great mystery confront the masks of themselves, where the deep-seated understandings that are held in common by the tribe are personalised and played out by our metaphorical kinfolk - heroes, heroines and gods.

When looked at symbolically, mythological characters are manifestations in human or human-like form of both the harmonious and the conflicting aspects of the multifarious forces of nature that possess both an in-dwelling, psychological quality, and an out-dwelling “otherness” that manifests as a resonant relationship with the physical and supernatural world. Through the conscious and subconscious energies and activities of human or human-like characters, as embodied in myth and validated by lived experience, human communities imagine and vividly re-create the relevance and power of the the merging of the inner and the outer, as well as those opportunities, obstacles and changes – both visible and invisible – that affect the actions and reactions of ALL of the characters operating within the ambit of “metaphorical reality”.

Though the energy presents as two aspects it is essentially one Nature to which all that participate in myth are both subject and heir. As such, it is steeped in irony, an irony that is inherent in myth.

In the struggle of mythological characters to regain what has been lost or to seize what has never been possessed, in their striving for salvation in whatever form it takes, whether it be justice, beauty, tranquillity, or even to become as powerful as God, mythic characters enter into relationships and dynamic situations steeped in irony that, even if they don’t confound the gods, cause the gods to sit up and pay attention.

Movement – or change – stimulated by the primordial question, “what if?” – is in its essence, ironic, for it simultaneously acknowledges both completeness and incompleteness, both strength and weakness. The command, “let there be Light” attests to more than mere light, just as freedom is ultimately meaningless if it doesn’t include the freedom to choose not to be free.

These provocative dichotomies stand at the beginning of Western literature in the form of two trees in the Garden of Eden, one the Tree of Life, and the other, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil with its promise - fused into the DNA of humankind - that to grasp the dichotomy of Good and Evil is become like God himself. Alas, nothing so much disturbs the Void as the frustrated desire at the heart of every story.

The metamorphosis so common to stories in general, and mythical stories in particular, is, at its mythological extreme, a metaphor for invisibility. Mythological characters undergo change, are transfigured, transformed so that they are no longer recognisable and, therefore, no longer nameable by those inherited vocabularies and concepts enshrined in the books of those still enslaved by metaphor – as we all are.

Myths employ metaphor to point to a place beyond metaphor. It is not unlike Picasso’s notion of art as “the lie we tell to make the truth a little clearer”

The art of invisibility has a long and distinguished career. Eroded by scientific, technological and aesthetic ideas emanating from the walled cities of the Holocene, the notion of invisibility has fallen into virtual obscurity. What was once understood by all is now the specialised domain of the few that dabble in esotery. In a situation of irony such as this presents, myth is the universal antidote, or the principal means by which one might escape the formal educations of the Cave, where one sits chained to a rock staring at shadows. Alas, a good education is more often than not a significant handicap, and the task of overcoming it even more monumental than the challenge of remedying a bad one. One too easily becomes a bank of second-hand ideas, a collection of end products of other people’s journeys. One lives vicariously through the inherited comparisons of fashionable tastes.

The potency of myth, when undistorted by the cravings of a fascist, is that it tells the story of every tribe simultaneously, and operates at a level deep enough to speak from a place that is original to each of us. Myth favours no tribe over any other and, when vital, presents in narrative form the instinctive, ingrown wisdom of all tribally centred people, which is what all people are even when they are not altogether conscious of it.

By “tribally centred”, I mean any people whose sense of itself is ontologically connected to a community whose identity is grounded in the shareability of values and truths that their myths portray. A myth is the dramatic, narrative presentation of these values and truths, couched in metaphors peculiar to the tribe or tribes in which those myths are current and negotiable. The major difference between myths and other types of stories and histories is that they are trans-cultural. They remind us of what we, as humans, hold in common, and that to be is to be not only part of a tribe but also to see and understand that in our tribal identity we share a resonant connection with all tribes.

In Central Australia, the Aborigines sing a Tingarri song cycle recounting the story of a patjarta man (a native bush-cat) who discovers that a mamu (evil spirit) is planning to come and kill all the creatures that live round the dry lake at Warlawarlara. Wishing to protect them, the patjarta man musters all the creatures into a place called Tjukula, a small claypan east of the Robert Range in the Northern Territory. “Come on, you mob!” he sings out, and they all come, from every direction; and listen, frightened, as the patjarta man tells them about the wicked mamu and his evil plans. And as they listen, they wonder among themselves: what will we do? How will we save ourselves? “You mob gotta lissen to me,” the patjarta man says. “We have to leave this place and go up north. We can’t sit down. We have to run away. If we hurry we’ll be safe.”  So when the sun set, that mob set out, travelling at night, moving north, going, going, going, long way, til they came upon two giant women at a place called Pinari. At Pinari, they realise that the evil mamu has been following their tracks, and that they are still in danger, so they are invited by the women to hide inside their vaginas. There is no place else at Pinari to hide. No rocks, no trees, no caves. Nothing. The land is flat, tree-less. So, the creatures go inside the giant women, one-by-one, and after a spell, the mamu arrives. But he’s different now. He no longer looks like a mamu. By some kind of evil magic, he has managed to transform himself so that he looks exactly like the patjarta man that came to save them. And he can see from the tracks in the sand that the creatures have not left Pinari. So he sings out in his best patjarta voice: “Hey you mob! It’s okay; that evil mamu is gone. It’s safe to come out now.” And one-by-one the creatures come out, and one-by-one the evil mamu kills every one of them. Every one except for the good patjarta and three others that stayed inside the women and didn’t come out til the evil mamu was gone. But later, when the mamu was gone, they came and returned to Tjukula where they lived long enough to pass on their story to those that came after.  

TO BE CONTINUED...

"The prison-warder mentality of many screenwriters really comes down to this : seeing the characters as agents of the writer’s private agenda and unexamined prejudices. The characters don’t have an entirely free hand to become what they have it in themselves to become for fear on the writer’s part that they just might expose something about the writer that he/she would rather keep hidden. The choices you allow them to make often have more to do with what you think is right and proper rather than what the characters might do when left to their own devices. This is the essence of playing it safe."

                    - Billy Marshall Stoneking

 

 

A WORLD WELL TOLD

Three hundred years ago, most people on the planet were largely unaware of any reality other than the one into which they were born. Now, owing to the global spread of electronic technology and the speed by which we are able to navigate physical and virtual reality, we are ever more cognizant of other "readings" of human experience. Turn on your television or computer and you immediately invite the possibility of a  cultural confrontation. The "culture wars" that Fox celebrates and warns us about are symptomatic of  a psychical claustrophobia, a disquieting xenophobia that infects and terrorises all those who are either unwilling or unable to navigate the drama arising from the apparent disconnect betwen "us and them". In light of this, one's resilency and openess to change is a strong determining factor in how well one manages the fear as well as the intolerance that arises from the myriad cultural confrontations one encounters on an almost daily basis.

The novelist, Chaim Potok, speaking to a fledging writer, once remarked: "If you know how your story ends before you write it, why write it?" 
For Potok, one uncovered a story in a way not dissimilar to the way in which one journeyed through unexplored territory. This is particularly the case for the screenwriter.  Anyone that has made the emotional journey demanded by a dramatic screenplay understands the role character plays in the finding of an original, surprising and emotionally compelling story. A rigorous honesty lies at the heart it, an honesty that admits one's own ignorance. It makes no sense to undergo the travail of all that suffering (writing) if you already know where all possible destinations are located, and what they mean. When scriptwriting becomes nothing more than target shooting, why bother? Unless you like target shooting. Unfortunately, when screenwriting is redued to hitting plot points the resulting action is usually predictable and stale. 

As for cultural confrontation, the kind that impacts on us the most is the one that strikes us at our core – the kind of confrontations that Huck Finn continually experiences when he and Jim pull their raft over to the bank and head up towards the lights of civilised society – a society that has very little in common with the meandering dream of the river. It is in the nature of this kind of confrontation – when it occurs in our lives – that it sometimes promotes a herd or mob mentality - as witnessed by the lynching party in its confrontation with Colonel Sherburne in Twain's timeless novel. It also, occassionally,  provides the impetus for Huckelberry Finn. And notable acts of sellessness and bravery within human societies.

Such confrontations are quite often an inspiration to the telling of great stories. Indeed, it is this kind of confrontation – a core confrontation – that informs the action of almost every enduring dramatic screenplay and play.

Great stories are the outward manifestations of outer and inner journeys - and, when dramatic, present the invasion of one world by another, of one belief system by another, of one value system by another. What we so carelessly refer to as DRAMATIC CONFLICT is the enactment of a core confrontation - the sort of conflict that necessitates deliberate and immediate action and defines and confirms the identity of the characters and the significant meaning of their actions..

Dramatic screenplays are neither blueprints nor maps. Borrowing an idea from Ezra Pound - they are instances of "periplum" : wanderings in which one sights land "not as it looks on a map but as sea bord seen by men sailing."  One does not so much write a drama as ENTER it. You walk around in the story world and when the going is good, its characters walk around in you. You find yourself intersecting with them at the same emotional level at which they intersect with each other. 

Dramatic screen stories that work are possessed of character. The actions of the characters (as expressed in a screenplay) have voice, as do the words that the characters speak. The "voice" of the screenplay is itself a character. It has attitude. Its phrasing either brings us closer to the emotional lives of the characters or frustratingly impedes a more intimate involvement.  Language is character because the "languaging" of every dramatic screenplay is conducted solely by characters - the writer as character; the audience as character, and the writer's tribe or tribes as character. One might say it's characters all the way down.
 
 
 

As storytellers we act and interact as one character among many, mostly by listening to them. At times what we hear gives rise to a successful (i.e.: emotionally compelling) screenplay.  In snatches of speech and image, we work in concert with them to imagine and plot the actions, mutually playing out the "what ifs" and the "how comes", testing and exploring our incipient understandings of the dramatic problems and questions as well as the obstacles, beliefs, needs, fears, and values that drive us all. The ultimate outcome of this is a story, which on one level is simply the illumination of the nature of a process of transformation, the death of one state of being and the birth of another. If the story has a happy ending, it invariably involves a healing; if an unhappy ending, the recognition that loss is mitigated by the nobility and the awareness that someone fought the good fight, and that there was nothing more that could have humanly been done. 

The interactions of ALL the characters are played out both within and outside the script. The community of characters set within space and time and focused on a central problem gives rise to the story world. A dramatic story is a world that binds these characters together and lends meaning to their actions and discoveries. The telling and receiving of stories is akin to the Aboriginal notion of "walkabout" – a journey of initiation, a quest – the leading out of childhood (ignorance) into adulthood (wisdom, awareness). A dramatic story - framed in the form of a screenplay - is about movement, it is about walking the territory - the outer and inner territory of character as conducted by a camera in the eyes of a poet. It is about the storyteller becoming present to the characters just as the characters become present to the storyteller. It is about making that world PRESENT - a journey in the divine sense, where travel means to see, to hear, to change. 

"Travel makes distance possible.

"The inspired traveler realises – intuitively – that to partake in any genuine odyssey is not to travel through a hundred lands with the same pair of eyes, but to see the same land through a hundred pairs of eyes.
 
"By way of story we come to understand what travel really is.
 
"Genuine traveling is not the overcoming of distance, but the discovery of distance, which is really the discovery of difference."  

                                                                                (James Carse from Finite and Infinite Games)

 

It may not be immediately obvious, but all men and women are brothers and sisters in a world well told. In a world well told, whether it be the outer world of society and culture, or the inner world of spirit and mind (or both), we, along with the characters, are provoked into making a journey that lies beyond the circle of the known, beyond the boundaries of what is immediately past - to hear, to see, to FEEL, to re-member ALL those worlds that have contributed, will contribute and are contributing to making us what we are. In the experience of adversity and the need to defend or fight for what they believe in, or value or love, dramatic characters - including the screenwriter - come face-to-face with their own doubts, and guilt. They reach out touching death, touching nothingness, and in the reaching discover an antidote for the meaningless that might otherwise overwhelm them.

It is not the business of a screenplay, let alone film drama, to lecture its audience, though one can always find examples of cinema-as-propaganda  (e.g.: Triumph of the Will, Birth of A Nation). In seeking to effect an emotional response in your audience you must first of all engage emotionally with the characters, eschewing all acts of manipulation. One cannot employ a story's characters merely as mouthpieces for imparting one's personal grievances, especially when the information concerns issues to which one's audience is not emotionally tuned. The internet does a much better job of that. Fact is, finding dramatic stories has almost nothing to do with knowledge. Only a screenwriter that is not threatened by the possibilities of his/her characters and is not persuaded to take refuge in cliche and formula, can achieve the degree of openness that permits the full and thoroughly credible participation of the characters in the story that wants to get itself told. The acceptance of the characters and one's respect for their essential integrity is required if the story-finder is to discover those actions through which the story invades our being.

 

A story has power. not because it tells the audience what it doesn't know, but because it expresses something that the audiences knows all too well, but had never thought of expressing in just that way. Every dramatic story that works its magic, that effects significant and surprising changes and discoveries both inside the narrative and between the narrative and the audience, does so by cultivating and promoting a sense of identification, a sense of belonging, in which love is never completely absent. This cannot happen unless this sense of connectedness - of resonance -  has first occurred in the relationship between the writer and the characters. When a story works, the emotional energies that it generates causes us to care about what is happening, and to  empathise with, or at least understand, the strivings of the characters. This caring is fundamental if the story is to matter.

Our acknowledgement and appreciation of difference is both the beginning and the end of all our discoveries. It is only by virtue of the characters' differences, laid bare by their actions and interactions that we come to see the ironies that are at play below the surface of ehat is visual and audible. The differences that exist among the characters are echoed in the contradictions that exist within them. Without such contradictions subtext is impossible.

In our emotional involvement with a diversity of characters, pitted not only against one another but, at times, against themselves, we - screenwriters and filmmakers - come to see and accept (or tolerate) those untold, hidden aspects of ourselves, and the contradictions that we too must struggle against or imaginatively conduct if we are to be an energetic and ingenious contributor to  the unfolding drama. Swept along by a compelling story, initiated into the emotional life of other tribes by characters that embody aspects of ourselves, the experience of  I-LIKE-YOU becomes possible. 


Great screenplays take the chaos of human experience and illuminate it, shaping it into an emotional logic that sub-rates our prejudices and whatever mean-spirited pettiness it might enshrine. Through the vivid dramatisation of core confrontations (drama)  a screenplay inspires that quality of vision that is synonymous with respect - the act of "looking again", of seeing rather than merely looking.
 
The core confrontations that make us US are the stuff of drama, and when we experience such confrontations in a well told screen story or film, far from being mesmerized by the vision, we and the audience find courage and strength and renewed hope. In short, we are moved. Hearing and seeing what is true is invariably moving. Someone has actually presented something that speaks to what is alive in us, and is itself alive. The freshness of such an experience, the boldness of it, renews and encourages a sense of genuine connectedness - a feeling that in our alone-ness we are not altogether alone.  Truth made new - perhaps this is the ultimate goal of every dramatic story, not to mention every work of art.   
 
 
 But what is it that we actually care about when a story makes us care?

I would submit that it is a clearer vision  of ourselves. Certainly, conflict - or disconnection - is the life of dramatic action. But conflict only has meaning within the context of the possibility of belonging, and a struggle to belong, to heal, to overcome. Fragmentation lacks poignancy unless there is both the possibility of, and a desire for, change, which is the journey - the odyssey from disunity to unity, from sickness to health, from death to life.

Our encounters with other, seemingly different worlds, began at an early age. Most of us were most likely bombarded with alternate ways of thinking [about] what it means to be human. In the some times violent and blind interactions that took place, we began to wrestle with the first great personal question of our lives: what does it mean to be "me"? or "What am I?"   It is a question sourced in everything that is most comforting and most painful to us, it derives from everything that fills us with dread and horror, and is at the same time the basis of all our freedom.  It seems too glib to say there is nothing to fear, but in one's better moments  - when one actually tastes the freedom - one suspects it might be possible, or even true. Nevertheless, there is a strange and unexpected good fortune in confronting and questioning those ideas we have held as sacred, unassailable truths. Indeed, such action is essential if one is to avoid stagnation and a life of opaque routine. This is particularly the case if you are to live and work creatively. If one is to become a relevant and courageous storyteller and filmmaker it must become second nature. To cultivate a  passionate and inspired doubt is the essence of faith. For unless we find constructive and creative ways of remaining ever open and enthusiastic about whatever it is that challenges our carefully constricted and ever-so-safe sense of what it means to belong, we will surely die a slow and melodramatic death.

Enduring screen stories cannot be told from the perspective of a perfectly secure and familiar world. They might start there, but the journey you must make as a myth-maker - as a carrier of the wisdom of one's tribe or tribes - by dramatic necessity must take you far beyond your comfortable habits of thought and self-satisfied prejudices. Making it new does not mean coming up with new-fangled ideas about how to format a script, or devising novel and clever templates for structuring dramatic action.

Dramatic action drives the emotional energy of every successful screenplay. But a screenplay or script is not the only field of struggle. The action that plays itself out inside the script is also being played out in the relationships that are external to the script, namely in the necessarily adversarial relationship taking place between screenwriter and audience. The changes that occur as a result of the interactions and emotional experiences of the characters in the script are echoed in the interactions occurring among ALL the characters, including the writer's relationships with his/her tribe or tribes. 

Ironically, the story experience is the "mutually assured construction" of all of the characters necessary for finding the story, a construction that ultimately transforms both the writer and the audience. The sense of empathy that is built through the writer's identification with and participation in the struggles of the characters inside the story, works to initiate the audience into the emotional life of the tribal world or worlds inhabited by those characters, including the writer that is disguised as "the screenwriter". Only then does the vision that "I am LIKE them and they are LIKE me" become possible.

To experience this vision is to apprehend, as if for the first time, the seemingly strange and ofttimes unsettling fears of a screenplay's characters, and to realise that their anxieties  are intimately connected to our own. That what is hidden in them is hidden in us, and that the source of their Being is in some mysterious way connected to those aspects of our own secret origins. To experience this is to begin to understand how the source of our BEING is not ours alone, but what we hold in common, not only with the characters but with all human beings. This understanding is the work and the outcome of myth, and the struggle to create and recreate myth is the drama that informs all those activities and actions by which myth comes to life.  

We inhabit and are inhabited by characters that speak with a thousand different voices. To find them YOU must make the inner and outer journey. The writing of the script is a finding more than a making. One makes the journey (with the characters) in order to find oneself in that world. The process itself is both the Grail and the Fleece, and more. The journey is the dramatic search for the sacred stone upon which the particular legend and truths of the storyteller's tribe or tribes are eternally enacted - what the Aborigines have called a "tjuringa", a dreaming. The quest to find it is a vision quest that calls us beyond the chalk circle of self, that requires us to open ourselves to the possibility that we inhabit and are inhabited by other selves, other worlds, other realities.

The vision of what we possess and what we don’t possess, of what is ours and what is not ours, of what is and what isn’t, is essential to the becoming of any story-finder; it is the essence of what it means to be human. That, and the courage and fortitude to reach into the unknown and let the unknown reach into us, is what story is all about.

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"Some times I wonder if the prevalence of passive characters in so many of the screenplays I have read is due in part to something more dramatic than laziness or lack of talent. Perhaps the presence of such characters is an expression of some kind of misguided strategy for explaining oneself into the hearts and minds of one's readers. On one level, they might indicate that the writer simply hasn't done the work, but on another level, perhaps the passive character is symptomatic of some raw, unmanaged fear, the unwitting embodiment of some personal neurosis that vicariously seeks to avoid failure by avoiding being anything at all."
 
- Billy Marshall Stoneking

      WHO IS IT WHO KNOWS THERE IS NO SELF?