Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #26: Don’t Count Your Liabilities As Assets

If asked, could you write the 200th book in the “Sweet Valley High” series? Could you write an episode of “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers”? Could you write an episode of “The Young and the Restless”? No? Then why would you try to write an episode of “House”? Writing a “House” requires all the same skills as writing an episode of a soap opera, but with more sophistication. It takes more skill, but not different skills.

A lot of my friends in film school said, “Oh, I could never write for most TV shows, they’re too shallow.” But you don’t prove that you’re a top writer by being unwilling or unable to do unsophisticated work. Just the opposite. Here’s the terrible secret of great writers: they know how to be unambitious, too. Yes, they craft ingenious, organic twists whenever possible, but they also know how to contrive a totally artificial plot turn when they need to. They know how to tell a fundamental truth and they also know every quick trick that can manufacture an emotional response. They know how to challenge the audience and they know how to flatter them, too.

When Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were writing “Nash Bridges” fifteen years ago, they flattered their audience 95% of the time, and challenged them 5% of the time. Later, when the same duo were writing “Lost”, they would flatter their audience half the time and challenge them the other half. That’s the difference between one of the cheesiest TV shows of all time and one of the best. Even a work of art that seems “uncompromising” does a lot of shameless audience manipulation.
An inability to play on the audience’s heart strings isn’t an asset. That’s a skill every writer needs. 

Godard knew how to manipulate an audience. Bergman knew it, too. So do David Chase and Matthew Weiner. The difference is that they have the courage to ask the audience to meet them halfway, most of the time. Don’t tell yourself that you’re on your way to greatness because you’re not learning the tricks. The banks crashed because they were allowed to count their liabilities as assets.


Amy K said...

I've been waiting for your professional opinion on Lost! Can we get an entry on the final episode? It's still pissing me off.

Unknown said...

Bravo for being willing to tell a vital but "un-cool" truth. I've seen many a manuscript founder because the writer was so busy trying to be intellectually impressive that there was no energy left for creating a connection with the audience. I love a challenging book or script, and I con't mind doing a lot of the heavy lifting, but only if the story has let me in/made me care/convinced me (however subtly) to invest.