As of the date of this post, according to IMDB users, here are the top 15 movies of all time:
1. The Shawshank Redemption
2. The Godfather
3. The Godfather: Part II
4. The Dark Knight
5. Pulp Fiction
6. Schindler's List
7. 12 Angry Men
8. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
9. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
10. Fight Club
11. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
12. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
13. Forrest Gump
15. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
This has me thinking: What is the commonality here? What sticks out?
How many of these films were not based on novels or stage plays? The Dark Knight (whose characters were developed in comic books). The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (which was based off a story by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Leone), Pulp Fiction, The Empire Strikes Back, and Inception.
Of those exceptions, how many screenplays and productions were not ultimately in complete control of the director? Zero.
Today, most film stories are written by many people in a long tortured process (Chris Nolan & Quentin Tarantino movies being notable exceptions), Screenplays are found by production companies (many of which have first-look agreements with the studios). The screenplays are rewritten, and rewritten again (by different writers-for-hire). Top talent is attached, as is a director (both of whom may make script changes). The film is then pitched to the primary studio, and if passed on, to other studios. The studio that bites orders rewrites and puts in its casting requests. A banking company or another studio may be called in to co-finance, and may make changes as well. The film may languish in development hell for years, and come out rewritten many times over by even more writers.
Eventually, a film is shot. The studio(s) request more changes. At some point the project is completed. The only guarantee is that the script, and more importantly, the characters, are probably significantly different than those of the draft that was initially optioned.
What we tend to see from the films that audiences rank among the greatest of all time is that they're based off of novels that were written by one author (and improved by an editor), or that they're made with one person in control, usually a writer/director that could veto any change requested by the various powers that hovered above and around.
This isn't surprising. As the old adage goes, the Mona Lisa could not have been painted by 1,000 artists, each doing one brushstroke at a time. Instead it was painted by one person—perhaps one of the most brilliant and talented minds in the history of humanity. But that one person, Leonardo da Vinci, was in complete control of his work, and mankind benefited greatly from that fact.
It's not that art-by-committee can't work. Casablanca, a film that I would argue is better than any on that top fifteen list (with the possible exception of #15), was largely made by committee in the old studio system. But films like Casablanca are the rare exception.
I believe part of the reason why we're in such a golden age of television is that many showrunners are given significant control over their series. This results in narratives that range from bad to superb, but to me that's better than what happens with committee work: a range that typically goes from bad to good.
I often wonder what terrific scripts were written by very talented writers over the years that were destroyed by people downstream who didn't have much writing talent. I wonder if there're any professional screenwriters out there that haven't had their work diminished by the Hollywood rewrite process.
Most of the greatest writers that we know of happen to be novelists. I wonder how many writers had the potential to be as good as Nabokov, but didn't get there because they chose to become screenwriters. I'm not suggesting that rewrites are a bad idea. It's the fact that almost everything in Hollywood is rewritten so many times, often by people who aren't talented writers, that I'm complaining about. Too many films follow a very boring and non-creative standard paradigm and it's made going to the theatre a chore instead of being a fun experience.
If Hollywood produced an ample number of terrific films that were loved by most, it wouldn't be such a big issue. But one often has to wonder after stepping out of a theatre: how the hell did that script get locked for production?
I rarely go to movie theatres anymore. The risk that I'll waste my money and time on a substandard product is too great. I believe this is a result of a process that leans too heavily on rewrites and not heavily enough on the original screenwriter's story and characters. There are plenty of great scripts out there. They're just not being found, and when they are found, they're being destroyed.
One of the unique aspects about being a writer is the focus that we put on observing human behavior. When we interact with other people, our minds often have dual processes going on: the actual interaction, and observation of the interaction—to be stored away and potentially used in future characters that we create. The observation activity might be turned on or off at any given moment, but if you're a true writer, it's probably a significant part of your life.
Sometimes it can be something as small as what we overhear when other people interact with each other. A couple of weeks ago, I went for a hike at Runyon Canyon in Hollywood. Besides the hundreds of young, pretty, want-to-be actresses saying the word 'like' five times in each sentence, I overheard some pretty intriguing stuff (most of which had to deal with the desperation that young actresses have as they struggle to gain traction in an overcrowded career field). It wasn't so much what I heard that hooked me, it was how it was often stated. Many tend to linguistically dance around the actual thought they have, especially when it comes to negative things such as the anxiety being realized by those who know they have a limited time window in which to reach their dream occupation—which seems to be light-years away from their current reach. Understanding the motivations behind why people use such language choices is crucial in using such observation experiences to enhance development of our written characters.
I have a friend who is generally a nice guy. He has some issues, however. One of the big ones is that he's a habitual liar. He tells whoppers, again and again. When he tells me something that is obviously untrue, I observe his delivery. I pay attention to the little things: the intricacy of the wording, the gestures, the pacing of the twisted language. If it's written, I look at his word choice. It's greatly intriguing to me. I can't imagine that he doesn't understand that I know he's lying. Perhaps he does think I believe him, however. Perhaps he's just gotten so used to lying to so many people that he can no longer differentiate between those who buy his false word and those who don't. If that's true, he's certainly not observing me with the same level of understanding of human behavior that I use while observing him. He's obviously not aware that I'm recording every clunky misstep he takes in order to use such traits to develop a future character. Liars are often great at committing their falsehoods, but not too bright when dealing with people who understand social interactions to a greater degree than they do. This is an important building block of many real people, and as such should be used when developing certain characters.
In order to write believable, intriguing characters (which is the absolute bedrock of good narratives), we must understand how humans work. The best way to accomplish this is to observe. Because human beings are so incredibly complex, the net we cast in this crucial gathering exercise must be wide and focused at the same time. Lying, for example, is but one of many behaviors, from one set of human beings, committed only during certain times. We must understand that behavior, but all other relevant behaviors as well. From observing our closest friends, to people we'll only glance at once in our lifetime, the more information we store away (cognitively aware of the motivations at play—at least those we're aware of), the better off we'll be when dealing with that blank first page.
One of the best parts about being a writer is that we've submitted ourselves to be lifetime students in the study of human behavior. The longer we do this study, the clearer the world becomes, and the better our writing gets. This is one of many crucial reasons why, we as writers, tend to get better at our craft (and, therefore, happier in our lives) as we age.
I'm using Grammarly to go through my novel one last time before sending it to a final proofreader. The program does catch a lot of errors I've made (missing words, for example). I've read my novel dozens of times, have had an editor read it, and there's still many errors that I (or Grammarly) catch. How the creative brain works is pretty frustrating at times.
One of the errors that Grammarly red flags consistently throughout my novel is the ending of sentences with prepositions. This has to be one of the oldest rules in the book. I guess it has to do with the idea that prepositions are used to describe relationships between other words. If you don't have the second word there, it's inherently confusing.
Grammar Girl does a good job at explaining when it's okay to use prepositions at the end of sentences. I'd guess that most grammar experts would agree with her exceptions to the rule. I'd take it much further, however.
You're not supposed to write: "Where is she at?"
It's supposed to be: "Where is she?"
I'm okay with both. Either way, the meaning is easy to understand. As long as it doesn't jolt you out of the read, I'm okay with it.
Whether oral or written, rules regarding how sentences are constructed are made organically, by the culture using the language. They're not to be dictated to us by some intellectual sitting in an office on some Ivy covered campus.
When writing fiction, this focus on the minutia of the grammar rules takes away from where the real focus should be: on the characters. If 1,000 people go to school to get English degrees, odds are not even one of them is going to ever become a great fiction writer. Good writers, yes. Even very good writers. But not great. That's because learning all of the rules of structure is nowhere near as important as learning how to write an engaging story. Few people do it well regardless of if they have in-depth knowledge of the rules of structure.
"What are you looking for?"
Is there any reader, outside of an outright grammar nazi, that's going to read that sentence and feel jolted out of it because it ended in a preposition? The power of this sentence is its intrigue. That trumps its structure because for that vast majority of readers, its structure is completely acceptable.
Art trumps structural rules. I don't believe in steadfast writing rules, but that's as close to one as I'll ever get.
What structure fits well within the pace and flow of the scene? What structure feels right for this particular moment? What structure conveys the feeling you're trying to give? These are important questions.
Grammarians be damned, I love ending my sentences with prepositions. I wonder what that's about?
Having worked at Warner Bros. for over a decade, I've witnessed the global transformation away from physical media. Having forever changed the music and movie industry, the shift is now changing the model in which people receive the content they read.
I realize that most people still prefer to read a physical book. I had my doubts when I bought my first Kindle. Now it's frustrating to read a physical book because it's so much harder to look up a word you don't know. You can't just point to the word to get the meaning.
If we look at what is happening to film and television right now, we see that box office numbers are declining (DVD sales are plummeting) and we see that people are starting to give up on cable tv. I now watch Sling TV, which gives me several channels (like ESPN & CNN) to my television, from the internet, via an Amazon Fire Box. Besides watching regular TV channels, I get movies via Netflix and other movie apps. There's an app for PBS, for Western movies, for PopSci. The future of television will be apps, not channels bundled via cable. Right now, I'm listening to a rock station from Switzerland, through my TV, from an app. Once you immerse yourself in this new paradigm, you quickly realize that it is the future.
Which brings me to the all important question at hand: what is going to happen to all the book publishers that dominate the scene today? In ten years, there's not going to be a great majority of people still reading physical books. The dominant distribution method, like in the music, tv, or film industry, will be the internet. An author doesn't need a distributor to upload a novel to Amazon.
I feel that large publishers will still have a role to fill. They'll have the marketing muscle to push their product. They'll be able to get physical books onto shelves in the limited space where they are still needed. Besides that, I'm not sure what their purpose will be.
What I'm pretty sure of is that Amazon won't be as dominant in ten years as it is today. There will be a selection of viable options (like apps) in which we'll gain access to our books. Publishers, in most cases, will die off, because their middle-man purpose will be no more. Authors will have control of where and how they sell their books.
We're already seeing this. This is just one of many ways in which the internet has reshaped the world forever. The content producers are still needed. They will be forever needed. It's the content delivery specialists that are becoming dispensable.
We all only have so much time on this Earth. This concept doesn't tend to sink in until one reaches middle-age. I think like anything else, the less we have of something, the more we appreciate it.
A similar concept (but in reverse) is what economists call The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility. If you love something-let's say it's cars—you'll tend to have a greater increase in happiness when you've bought your 3rd car, than when you've bought your 250th. Instead of buying more and more items with our amount of time (or life), we're constantly losing our supply of what's valuable to us. The later in life we get, the more it hurts when we've wasted what time we have left.
I've noticed something about this concept. As I've made my way through life, I see that there's a certain section of people who have reached middle-age who don't mind squandering time. It's not as precious to them as it is to me. People waiting in a doctor's office, or at an oil change station, will often sit, for an hour, and not do anything. Someone who has available time might spend hours dinking around the internet. People spend time at the beach, just sitting, doing nothing, for hours.
I can't relate to this behavior. It's torture to me. Time is far too valuable to just sit around and do nothing.
Fortunately, I love to read and write. I read when I'm waiting somewhere (thank God for the Kindle). I write when I'm home. I've recently added podcasts to my work commute. Now I can learn (mostly about writing) as I'm stuck on the freeway. It's actually made my commutes enjoyable at times and has reduced my anxiety over wasting so much of life locked in a car, sitting on a crowded freeway.
Here's my revelation: The more you love doing certain things in life (such as a craft), the more valuable time becomes to you. As you're stuck doing things that aren't what you love to do, you feel as if you're wasting incredible amounts of precious life. If you don't love to do much of anything, your value of time isn't as high as it could be.
I know when people sit around, they're often relaxing or thinking, and those are behaviors that hold value. But I don't think there's quite anything like performing an active behavior that gives you a deep sense of fulfillment.
We're all unique in many ways and love doing our own different things. If you're approaching middle-age and you don't know what your life's passion is, I'd suggest expanding your search. As life goes on, our free time diminishes, and how you spend it will in large part determine how deep of a life you'll live.
One of my favorite podcasts is Scriptnotes, hosted by John August (@johnaugust) and Craig Mazin (@clmazin). I listened to the latest episode on my morning walk yesterday: episode (#186) entitled The Rules (or, The Paradox of the Outlier).
In the episode, the two seasoned screenwriters list a couple dozen rules of screenwriting and then talk about the ones they agree or disagree with. It turns out they don't agree with a single one. All the rules that have been drilled into our heads—never write camera movement, never use v.o., always make sure your act breaks take place on this or that page, etc.—it's all stuff that is not in anyway a hard-and-fast rule that mustn't be broken. Great writers can break all the rules.
I'm glad that seasoned writers (on rare occasion, but not often enough) step up to the plate and admit this. Quantification of art can help guide us. When you go to art museums and look at various paintings from different centuries, you'll see how The Rule of Thirds developed over hundreds of years. It's still labeled a 'rule.' Yet it's broken every single day, and if it wasn't, our compositions would look entirely boring because they'd all be the same. Great painters, great photographers, great directors of cinematography—once the rule developed, they've all learned it, but they also learned that they can break it if they do so in a way that works for that particular moment.
The same goes for writers. When people read our novels or watch our movies, they simply want to be engaged and moved. That's it. They don't care about, and probably don't even know about, the rules of writing.
Imagine a world in which hard-and-fast writing rules really existed. How stifled would writers be? Wouldn't every narrative feel the same? Well, in the world of film, it kind of does. The fact that so many people within the industry buy into artistic rules and equate them to quality has hurt the entire film industry. Why would you want to spend money and time to keep rewatching the same thing?
I'll get into specific rules in later posts. Some bother me more than others. Some are so absurd I can't imagine how they even formed in the first place. If only we called them 'guidelines' instead of 'rules,' they'd make much more sense.
You're a good writer if you can tell a good story on paper. That's the only rule.
After doing some recent Los Angeles exploring, I thought I'd write a post about must-see LA art museums.
I'm sure you've heard of The Getty Center, and all its hype. Well, the $1.9 billion center that opened in 1997 is well worth the visit. Located right off the 405 Freeway, The Getty has become a prominent part of LA's landscape. Its architecture is impressive (over 1.2M square feet of travertine was used in its construction). Yet, the real beauty is on the inside.
Some of the most renowned pieces at The Getty are Van Gogh's Irises, Rembrandt's An Old Man in Military Costume, and Portrait of an Halberdier by Pontormo:
There are countless wonderful pieces of art at The Getty, and as is par for the course with major art museums, several pieces that are old but that aren't really that impressive. My favorite piece is The Grand Canal in Venice from Palazzo Flangini to Campo San Marcuola by the very talented Canaletto:
I love this pieces' compositions and incredible detail. You have to stand before it to truly appreciate it. Grand Canal alone is worth the price of admission (which is free, except for parking).
The Getty Villa is The Getty Center's older, smaller cousin. The 64-acre facility is located right off the ocean on Pacific Coast highway. While it doesn't have the enormity of the larger Getty, The Villa has all of its charm, and then some.
All of the really old stuff—we're talking around 7,000 BC to 500 AD—is at the Villa. There's a tremendous amount of Bronze work there, and wine jugs. I can't imagine how much wine was drank back in the day, but it must have been a significant amount.
There's a couple of tours at The Villa you should take as well: agriculture and architecture. Like the Getty, it's free except for parking and lunch.
The Norton Simon Museum, just off the 134 Freeway in Pasadena, is another exceptional place to visit. Some of their noted pieces are Rembrandt's Self Portrait , Van Gogh's Portrait of the Artist's Mother, and a beautiful Canaletto, The Piazzetta, Venice, Looking North:
The grounds around The Norton Simon are beautiful as well. It's a pleasant afternoon visit for any art lover.
Last but not least, is the sizable Los Angeles County Museum of Art, otherwise known as LACMA. The art on display runs the gamut from Asian, to African, to European, from ancient to contemporary. There's a large display of Picasso's. several Warhol's, Degas's, Rembrandt's, etc., but none of these are my favorite.
There's a gem at LACMA, one from a slightly lesser known artist, but someone I feel pushed art in a Pablo Picasso style in his same era. Here's my favorite LACMA piece, the incredible Landscape, circa 1913/1914 by pioneer Neo-Impressionist Jean Metzinger:
Needless to say, there's an incredible amount of art on display in Los Angeles. If you're visiting the area, or if you're a Los Angeleño who hasn't gotten to the local art museums yet, please do. You'll be impressed.
Especially if you're a writer. The magnificent collection of works in this city will inspire you! Soak them up as much as you can.
The revelation I had as a fiction writer is that at the core of almost all great stories are great characters. That's not to say that everything else isn't important. It's just that everything else is less important. Characters trump everything.
They're so key, in fact, that it often makes sense to start a narrative by developing characters first, before throwing them together into various spaces to see what happens.
The most prominent character tends to be the protagonist, who through the course of the narrative chases a goal and changes along the way via a character arc. The antagonist attempts to prevent the protagonist from reaching his goal, and the conflict between the two creates the core of the drama in the narrative.
The conflict is what keeps the reader or audience interested. Which brings us to our lesson: the more developed and interesting the characters are, the more interested the audience will be in their conflict.
An often stated example of this is the comparison of the Star Wars trilogies. When Episode IV: A New Hope was released in 1977, it captured world-wide audiences arguably unlike any movie before it. Talk to any person who saw Episode IV, and they'll be able to give rather extensive descriptions of who Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, C3PO, R2D2, Ben Kenobi, and Darth Vader are. The characters are developed to the point where they catch and keep our interest. Ask the same person to describe characters from the Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon Jinn? Padmé Amidala? Jar Jar Binks? It's hard to care when those characters are engaged in conflict because we don't know who they are. The characters in Episode 1 are flat. In fact they're so poorly developed, it's hard to even remember their names. The major difference between the Star Wars trilogies, why one works so well compared to the other, is that one has highly developed characters and one does not.
With few exceptions, the best narratives of all time have some of the best-written characters of all time. Casablanca is not primarily a story about a town on the Moroccan Coast in the midst of WW2. More significantly, it's a story about a nightclub owner named Rick, a hardened man with a strong shield over what we know is a good heart. What made him that way? Can he find his former self? The amazingly well-developed, written, and acted character Rick, and the conclusion of his character arc, is what makes the last scene in Casablanca one of the most iconic of all time.
The Godfather isn't so much a mob movie, as it is a story about Michael Corleone and his incredibly fascinating arc as he takes over the family business. Citizen Kane is the story of Charles Foster Kane and his rise to power—but most importantly about what caused his soul to strive for that power. Lolita, one of the most beautifully written novels of all time, isn't so much about a man's obsession with a nymphette, as it is about that man, Humbert Humbert, and his intriguingly strange mind. Take Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With Dragon Tattoo and drop her into any story, and that story instantly becomes more interesting.
All the other dimensions of writing are important as well. What I've learned as a writer though, is that the foundation of any great narrative isn't story structure, or even conflict. It's well-written characters. That is what we as writers should be primarily focused on as we develop our narratives.