Know Thyself, or How to Avoid Becoming a Hack

SocratesSomewhere, in the midst of all of this talk about format, plot, dialogue, pitch meetings and million-dollar deals lies the real core of our profession — the story.

What are your stories, why do you choose to tell them, and what do they mean to you? If any of your answers to these questions are determined by market forces beyond your control and your craven greed to pursue them, then you already live in a materialistic hell which I hope to never share. Because I’m talking about the innate human desire to create — to pursue subjective, flawed, truthful analyses of human desire, experience, motivation, and idea via the art of the motion picture screenplay.

While treading the harrowing waters of the stormy flood of pop culture and media that constantly threatens to drown our fragile creativity, how do we separate ourselves from the viral information which infects our private thoughts to discover what it is that we want to say — for ourselves, about our own hopes and fears, and viewed through our own eyes and perspective on life?

Granted, screenwriting, more than most branches of the arts and media seems utterly beholden to vast forces of capital, which in this case are needed to finance the enormous costs of film production. But if one approaches a creative act solely from the perspective of profit, then any artistry inherent in the process in killed from the outset. Art and commerce are uneasy bedfellows, and the bastard children produced of their ugly couplings are often stillborn, grotesque mutations. Yet the occasional success, financial and/or artistic, keeps them at it.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The best films start from somebody’s rock-solid conviction that they have a great story to tell. When a person is utterly convinced that they have an idea so powerful that it threatens to boil over within them, and they feel as if they want to shout it from the rooftops, then such a person is going to fight to get that story heard — money be damned.

This urge to share our concoctions of fancy and philosophy is as old as human communication. The need to hear and tell stories drives social interaction, and causes us to seek out conversation as well as to consume stories through numerous forms of literature, art and media. Stories want to get out, and people are addicted to hearing them.

When staring at the proverbial blank sheet of paper, the first thing that should pop into your mind should not be a thought akin to “Action films make bank — I should write one of those.” Rather, begin from yourself and work your way outward. Try to examine your values, your worldview. Ask yourself: Who am I? How do I perceive the world differently than those around me? What is my philosophy, my way of living, and how can I express that through my writing?

Once you finally have a grip on yourself, so to speak, you can then relate that to any genre, any kind of story. A story is merely a vehicle for self-expression. If you don’t know yourself, or haven’t had much life experience upon which to base your art, then it is impossible for you to write a truthful, deep examination of human motives and behavior. Self-knowledge is not only the essential to good art, but it is the springboard for all ideas of worth. All great drama stems from the struggles of its characters to resolve dilemmas of morality, philosophy, conduct, and emotion. Thus, in the most direct fashion possible, you are your stories. Art is inherently subjective, based upon personal experience, and thus autobiographical; not autobiographical in the literal sense, but in the sense that your work expresses who you are on the deepest level. If you never allow you work to well forth from yourself, to become a careful scrutiny of yourself and your life, then you’ll never create anything of lasting value. If you know who you are, then you will always know what you want to say — and your stories will reflect your living, breathing point of view.

Ofttimes this process of self-examination is mostly unconscious. You don’t have to kill somebody to create a believable character of an assassin, but you should be willing to create that character from a realistic, searching point of view, if necessary. Why does a person kill another person, and especially, as a profession? What moral or philosophical resolve did such a person make to justify their job? What kind of skills and training does it take to become a hired killer? How do you feel about hired killers? Is their ever a case where assassinating somebody is justified? Action films are often thought of as two-dimensional in their exploration of their characters, yet there are several wonderful character studies of assassins on celluloid: The Mechanic, Le Samourai, and The Professional all come to mind. All of these films have a distinct point of view about the world, and all of them have completely different takes on who their assassins are and why they do what they do. Because of their underlying philosophies, they all transcend their genre to become greater works. And surely, the writers of these works weren’t necessarily always conscious of the fact that their works were a mirror of their own values. Each of these films end with the killers being killed, as if to reinforce the idea that what the protagonists did was wrong, and are thus reflections of their writers’ values against cold-blooded murder. Certainly, there exists no rule that says that these films had to end this way, just as there was no rule to tell Shakespeare that Hamlet needed to die at the end of his quest for vengeance.

All of this is a roundabout way to say that via self-examination and self-knowledge, you can write work that is memorable, deep, and worthy of your time as a writer and an audience’s time in the theater.

Your stories are you. And who are you?