Make Chaos Central to Your Storytelling Process
The ability to wade into a new story with reckless abandon is a key part of your job as a story creative. Any tendencies to make safe choices and stay inside the yellow line should have been vaporized soon after you became a writer. Now I’ve been one of Hollywood’s top scriptwriting teachers for many years, and I’m huge on craft and structure, but that is entirely distinct from WHAT you’re writing about. Your job as a scriptwriter is to come up with a story that blows the damn doors off, and then to make it work dramatically. So you need storytelling chops as big as you can get them, and you need substantial, deep craft as a dramatist.
But well-structured crap is still crap. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean) said that the biggest mistake most writers make is that their original premise is weak. So unless your story is really, really strong to start with, then everything you do thereafter can end up being what in the industry is called “polishing a turd.” So yes, craft and technique and structure are absolutely crucial—as necessary to life as food and water—but if you’re not swinging for the fences with your story choices, then you’re hobbled from square one.
So getting in over your head with your story is a central part of your job, as is playing with explosive chemicals. Nobody wants to see the same old lukewarm stories trotted out yet again, so crashing headfirst into dangerous territory should be a normal day at the office. Take a lesson from the astonishingly great science fiction writer, Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination, and The Demolished Man) who talks about “attack as a storyteller” and about how he “starts at white heat and builds from there.” If you’re a writer or want to be one, then your imagination is your rocket engine, and if you don’t know how to redline that sucker then you have no earthly business being a writer.
Now that doesn’t mean that you have to torture a nice little romantic comedy out of its natural orbit, and you have to know how to maintain the tone of your story, but you must be able to tackle big questions at the nucleus of your idea. Challenge everything in your potential story as you rough out its basics. How can you go deeper, get clearer, break the cliché that’s inherent in the material, violate your own storytelling rut, disrupt the audience’s comfortable voyeurism in their velvet seats? The problem with all this, of course, is that the more you get off the beaten path with your story, the harder it can be to make it work. But that’s where having substantial craft as a dramatist comes in. Do you think Einstein had to throw away potential ideas because they were too complex, too daunting, too seemingly insoluble? That was his bread and butter. He did say that the first two years of learning theoretical astrophysics was “stupefying” because it was so incredibly hard to learn, but once he got it, he was off to the races. In the same way, you want to gain real mastery as a dramatist, and then go out there as a big game hunter in the storytelling world.
Everybody’s heard the saying that all the stories have been told and that there’s nothing new under the sun. Now part of me agrees with that and knows it’s true, but another part of me just sees red when I think that nothing new can be created. It makes my blood boil! How dare you tell me that I cannot possibly come up with something entirely new? That’s what you frickin’ think! I absolutely refuse to sit still for that hog-tying for one second, and neither should you. I recently heard some film critics talking about the best films of the last decade and they used terms like “unlike any film you will ever see” and “startlingly original,” “unique,” and “absolutely groundbreaking.” You can bet the writers of those projects did not sit back and meekly accept that they dare not try anything new, that safe choices are the way to go, or that they should follow the pattern that all the other stories are cut from. So I’m saying: Get in Trouble! Play Mad Scientist with Dangerous Chemicals! Shatter the Limits in your Story! Get Crazy! Use Chaos as a Central Component of your Storymaking Process!
They say that a show horse is not happy unless it’s trying to get over a jump that might kill it. The more craft you have, the deeper you can go. And remember that your job as a writer is not to answer questions, but to raise them. Sam Shepard said that he doesn’t use story as a way to transcend or vanquish the dark parts of his psyche, but to shake hands with it. Be a bull in a china shop. Attack! Violate! Disrupt! Don’t make your job easier. Whenever I’m starting a story there comes a point when I say, “Uh oh, I’m getting in over my head.” But then another part of me says, “Great, now you’re getting somewhere.” Bob Marley grew up on the ocean in Jamaica and for fun, he and his brother would swim out to sea as far as they could go, completely exhausted, and then turn around and see if they could make it back to shore.
Structure and technique and craft as a dramatist don’t limit you, they give you wings. They are the hard rocket science that allows you to dream big and think laterally and shatter preconceptions. It allows you to execute whatever you can dream up. Craft and structure are the fins on the rocket that make it fly straight. Remember, your job as a scriptwriter is to dream up the strongest story possible, and then to make it work dramatically—meaning that it can be performed by actors in such a way that it grips the audience and emotionally transforms them. So master your craft, and then be a bull in a china shop. Don’t be afraid of chaos—use it like a miner uses dynamite.