Sunday, November 11, 2012
Storyteller's Rulebook #164: Ideas are the Enemy of Observations
And that’s one reason I became a screenwriter: so that I could spread those ideas to others. But now I realize that ideas are actually poison for a screenwriter.
Breaking myself of my addiction to ideas has been a big struggle. As with any other withdrawal, you gain the ability to see what you’re doing wrong long before you learn to stop yourself…
A while ago, it was announced that there had been another mass shooting that seemed vaguely political in nature, but none of the reporters could figure out what the shooter’s ideology was. This was increasingly annoying to me throughout the day, because I needed to know where to slot this in my brain: if the killer was on “my side” then I had to prepare my explanations for why this was one bad apple, and if the killer was on “the other side”, then I couldn’t wait to launch into attack-mode, tarring the other side with this guy’s brush. Finally, they announced that the guy had no ideology, but he was just home from fighting in Afghanistan. I felt a great weight leave me, and I announced to Betsy, “I’m not surprised, the incidents of PTSD for those guys is a lot higher than anybody’s reporting.”
As soon as I said it, I realized what an ass I was. I had desperately searched for some pre-established narrative in my head until I found one that could explain the horror away, so that I could stop thinking about it. I had waited all day for the chance to say, “I’m not surprised…” because if I was surprised then I might have to learn something.
An idea is a set of smug certainties that allow you to stop looking, listening and learning. Observation is the antidote to those certainties. Ideas are rigid, observations adapt. Ideas make you seem smart, observations make you smarter ...But for a writer, the most important distinction is this: Ideas are generic, and observations are specific.
Everyday, try to write down ten observations. Then re-read them and make sure that none of them carry the tainted whiff of your ideas. Write down what you see and hear on the street, not what you expected to see and hear, and not what you presume is actually going on. This is really hard. At first, all you will see are things that confirm your pre-conceived notions.
But wait, isn’t this an overly conservative worldview? After all, to have ideas is to be active, but to merely observe is to be passive and complacent, right? That’s what I used to believe, but now I feel the opposite.
When it comes to changing the world, nothing is more powerful than a truthful observation. If you want to take on the meat industry, you don’t write a healthy-eating manifesto, you write “The Jungle”. If you want to say something meaningful about race, don’t pile up a bunch of high-minded, heavy-handed parables, like in Crash, pile up a ton of true-to-life observations, like on “Homicide” or “The Wire”.
Ideas, I now see, are the true recipe for passivity, and observations are the true spur to action. But you can’t observe anything if you’re using your ideas as an excuse not to pay attention. The worst bias a writer can have is confirmation bias.