PODCAST - Second Challenge Check-In
The Second Challenge Check-In!
By Jacob Krueger
The 2017 Screenwriting Challenge!
Greetings from Thailand! You can probably hear the sounds of the jungle and of rushing water around me. It’s been raining here for the last 12 days, and pretty much every path has turned into a river.
Nevertheless, it’s been a pretty magical experience.
As many of you know in addition to my own little writing retreat, I’ve been here for the last couple of weeks studying yoga and meditation. And I recently participated in a life-changing meditation, created by AUM Humaniversity, that I wanted to share with you with this 2017 Screenwriting Challenge check-in.
The meditation was nearly three hours long—12 stages of 12 minutes each. And each stage focused on experiencing an emotion that is normally feared or repressed.
It occurred to me, of course, that this is a lot like writing.
Writing takes courage. It takes a willingness to look inside that most people do not have. And even more courageous, it takes a willingness to look inside ourselves and put what we find there on the page—even the parts of us that we don’t very much like, the parts that make us feel exposed, or vulnerable, or weak, or unacceptable.
There’s a myth about writers that we are in the fiction business. But actually the opposite is true. We are in the business of telling the truth through fiction: the emotional truth of our experience.
As those of you who have taken my Write Your Screenplay class or Jess’s Meditative Writing class know, writing is like a dance between these two parts of your mind: the part that wants to create something that others will understand, and the part that has something it desperately needs to say. Something that may or may not be socially acceptable. Something that may or may not fit your career goals or your plans for your story. Something that may or may not be in a form that others will understand.
This is where our characters come from. Not from an idea, not from a formula, not from what your conscious mind thinks is necessary for your story. But from somewhere deep inside. Somewhere we don’t normally access.
Your characters are simply a part of you that you don’t normally show to the world.
Jung called this idea the collective unconscious. His belief was that in our daily lives, we only experienced a very tiny bit of the universe—a very tiny bit of who we really are.
But in our dreams, he believed, we could tap into the full universe that already existed within us. Not an individual experience, but a collective one—the metaphors we all share. The things that make our stories universal.
In other words, he believed that the whole universe already existed inside of you. That every script you’ll ever write, every character you’ll ever create, every line of dialogue. Every possibility. It’s all there, in this part of your mind you don’t normally go to in your waking life.
I remember when I was first starting out as a writer, how much work it was to write.
I remember listening to famous writers talk about how they saw themselves not so much like a writer as like a scribe, that they weren’t actually “doing the writing,” but rather simply transcribing what their inner writer, their muse, their instincts—choose your word for it—simply transcribing what that force inside them was telling them.
I remember thinking, what a bunch of horse shit.
I didn’t have a muse like that. If I want to create something, I sat down and wrestled with it, and forced it into the shape I wanted it to take.
Then I was lucky enough to study with a brilliant writer named Peter Parnell. At the time, Peter was a starving playwright, though he went on to become one of the biggest writers in Television.
And what Peter taught me was that writing didn’t have to be so much work. That the answers I was looking for were not in some formulaic book, or even in my own conscious mind.
That they already existed in my subconscious mind.
And the work of a great teacher was not to teach me “how to write,” but to teach me how to access what was already there.
Many people would say that Peter taught me how to find my voice. But actually he did so much more. He taught me how to find not only my voice, but also the entire structure of the story I wanted to tell. How to stop wrestling with my characters and start listening to them. How to stop puppeteering them through the twists and turns of some predetermined plot, and instead start letting them lead. And most importantly, how to stop manipulating the feelings of my audience, and turn writing into a process where I actually experienced the emotions myself.
When I made the move from playwriting to screenwriting, I took Peter’s teachings with me. But I also ran into a problem. Screenplays were so much bigger than plays. They had so many moving parts.
Plays have something called unity of place. They all take place on one stage, and usually in one or just a handful of locations. And the scenes go very long. Most of the action happens through dialogue, so it’s really easy to dive deep within a very simple structure.
Movies, on the other hand, have much shorter scenes. And they have a lot of them. In just a couple of pages, you can jump to 10 different locations and many different storylines. And most of the action happens in action, which means you don’t get to linger in any scene for very long. Everything is always moving, moving, moving!
You end up with so many moving parts, that you can’t hold them all in your head at one time. It’s easy to lose track, not only of where you’re going, but also where you’ve been. It’s easy for all those parts to get jumbled together.
To answer this problem, I did the same thing everybody does. I started reading screenwriting books. Screenplay by Syd Field. The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Campbell… and many others, all suggesting a different answer to this fundamental problem of structure.
But, no matter what approach I took, I found myself returning to the same bad habits– once again manipulating my characters through the structural architecture I’d built for them rather than allowing them to exist as real people in the universe. Thinking with the conscious part of my mind– what I wanted my audience to experience– rather than the subconscious part—what my characters were experiencing, what I was actually seeing, feeling or hearing when I went inside and watched them.
I was writing with the conscious brain rather than the subconscious one. The editing brain rather than the writing brain.
And what I found was that while my writing did become clearer it also became totally boring.
People were no longer quibbling with my structure. But they also weren’t moved.
I had turned myself into the worst kind of bad writer. The kind of writer who wants an emotional reaction from his audience, but is shut off from the emotions in himself. The kind of writer whose obsession with craft becomes so all encompassing that he loses track of his art.
This not only took away the magic of the final product. It also took away the magic of the journey by which I reached that product. It took away the magic of writing.
So I thought back to what Peter Parnell had taught me, and I realized that all these “principles” that seemed so important in all these screenwriting books had never even been a part of the conversation.
Then I started researching the people whose books I was reading. And what I found was that unlike Peter, most of them weren’t actually screenwriters at all.
Most of them had never even sold a screenplay.
Later, I’d come to understand that there’s a very simple reason for this. Unlike playwrights, who are all starving, successful screenwriters make money. Want so study with your favorite playwright? Guaranteed they’re teaching somewhere.
But successful screenwriters don’t have to teach. And even those who love teaching, or who have reached a point in their career where they are ready to give back, are rarely writing screenwriting books, and rarely teaching at Universities, where Phd’s (which very few screenwriters have), are often so much more valued than experience. It’s simply a matter of numbers—to write a screenwriting book, you’ve got to desperately want to do it. Because you could spend a third of the time writing a screenplay, and end up with ten times as much money.
I realized at that point why I was having trouble. I knew I was a talented young writer . But I wasn’t learning screenwriting from writers. I was learning from critics and academics, people who had been trained to analyze and deconstruct a finished product. Not how to create one from the blank page.
And suddenly things made sense. This kind of outside-in approach could teach me how to look at a great screenplay academically once I’d finished it. But they couldn’t teach me how to put it on the page.
I knew I needed to get back to the approach Peter had taught me. And at the same time, I knew I couldn’t simply write a screenplay as if it were a play.
I needed an approach that would help me make sense of all these disparate visual pieces—that would help me organize and shape the creations of my subconscious mind into a structure that I and others could understand—to dip subconsciously into the collective unconscious, and then find a way to come back outside and create structural value for what I found there.
That’s how I created the 7 Act Structure that I now teach in my Write Your Screenplay classes. Not as a teaching tool for my students, but as one for myself, to help me grow my structure organically, as a dance between the conscious and subconscious parts of my mind.
It was my way of letting go of external formulas, and instead recording what I saw, heard and felt when I went inside to discover my characters. And then trusting that I could break that subconscious information down organically, to discover the structure that already existed there.
You can see that this is also part of the idea of the 2017 Screenwriting Challenge. To help you get in the habit of reaching inside, without judgment or plans, and recording what you see, hear and feel. Suspending the need to create a finished product until you’ve discovered the beauty of the parts. Trusting that the structure is already going to be there waiting for you—that all you need are the tools that can allow you to unearth it.
If you’ve been doing the challenge, you’ve probably noticed that there is often fear attached when going inside like this—even if it’s just for one page.
You may experience this fear as inertia, a feeling of sluggishness, or just not wanting to. You may experience this fear as disconnected writing—feeling that the stuff you’re putting on the page doesn’t capture or reflect what’s really going on inside of you. You may feel like a part of you is locked up, and you don’t seem to have the key. Or you may be enjoying the heck out of the writing, but finding yourself fearing afterwards that the pieces aren’t going to come together.
If you’re experiencing that fear, it’s a good sign. It means you need to keep writing. It means that you are digging in places that actually matter to you. Places that you don’t usually go, or parts of you that you don’t normally show.
Life, unfortunately, teaches us to wear a mask—makes us fear our individuality, the parts of us that make us who we are.
From the time we are old enough to talk, we’re taught to think before we speak, think about others before we think about ourselves, behave appropriately at all times.
And because these lessons begin when we are children before we even know what the rules are, and because they are often are taught in such scary ways—a parent screaming, a teacher making us feel bad about ourselves, a classmate mocking us, a bully beating us—wearing that mask at all times starts to feel necessary for our survival.
Your body is built to survive, and it’s not going to take that mask off easily.
Not until it knows it’s safe. It’s not going to show you what’s underneath until it knows that you’re not going to repeat the abuses it received as a child.
In fact, at the beginning, it’s likely to push back against you with everything it’s got. The closer you get to writing something real, to exposing that hidden part of yourself, the more it is likely to push back.
The resistance itself is a sign that you’re doing something right. That you need to keep looking, keep digging, in this same place. Until that lock opens, and that true part of you is revealed.
Because that’s the part of you that’s going to make you a writer.
And that’s also the part of you that is going to make the process of writing so cathartic—that is going to release the parts of you that you’ve tried so hard to repress, not in the dangerous real world, but in the safety of the page.
At the beginning, the desire to put the mask back on is going to be strong.
And the desire to fall back onto external methods, to copy the approach of others, rather than learning the tools to grow that structure for yourself, may seem tempting.
Resist it. Keep going. Write that one page a day. Write it without judgment, whether it’s good or bad. Tap into that part of yourself you don’t normally put on the page, and record exactly what you see, hear and feel. Not wondering how it’s going to work, but trusting that it will.
Writing without judgment in this way helps create the safety your subconscious mind, this very young part of you, needs to take down the mask.
And it’s vital that you do. Because, though that mask may protect you in the real world—may keep you from fighting with your boyfriend or girlfriend, getting beaten up by the other kids on the playground, or telling your boss exactly what you think of them—though it may allow you to survive in our society, it will not allow you to survive as a writer.
Because the thing that makes writers great—the thing that makes readers, producers, stars and audiences pay attention to a new writer is not writing that hides under the same mask everyone else is wearing. It’s not writing that plays the game appropriately that captures our attention. There are hundreds of Hollywood writers with much better resumes than yours they can turn to for that.
As a new writer, it is likely the parts of you that make you feel the most vulnerable, the parts of you of which you are most terrified or ashamed, the parts you most judge in yourself, that will actually lead to your success as a writer.
That’s where your voice and your talent lies.
Exposing them is like exposing a raw nerve. Like speaking a word of truth in a world dominated by lies. It grabs people and makes them pay attention. Because it taps into the repressed parts of them. The words they want to speak, but are not speaking. The truth they want to express, but are afraid of expressing. The part of them that makes them feel strange and alone, unaware that all around them are people feeling the same way. That everyone else is just wearing the same mask they are. It becomes their own personal link to the collective unconscious, just as it becomes yours.
Which brings me back to the AUM Humaniversity meditation. One of the most interesting things about this meditation is that it takes place in a group. Most meditation, as you know, is a very private experience, conducted with a certain amount of ritual and preciousness.
This meditation isn’t precious at all. And it’s not conducted while sitting in lotus position. At times you are sitting, and at times you are flinging yourself around the room, screaming, crying, behaving in ways that would fill you with shame or embarrassment or vulnerability if doing them in normal circumstances. It works, because everyone makes the choice to expose themselves together.
You become part of a community in which it’s safe to be all aspects of yourself. Not just the ones that are socially appropriate.
And this is one of the things that screenwriters need so badly.
TV Writers have it easy in a way. They work inside of a group, as part of a writers room, in which everyone is experiencing the journey together.
A big part of the challenge of TV writing is learning how to express yourself artistically (and also professionally) in a group. This is one of the reasons why our TV Drama, TV Comedy and Web Series classes are conducted like actual writers rooms, with professional TV writers playing the role of showrunners, and student staff writers collaborating on each others shows, just like they do in the real world. The idea is to help you learn to express yourself in a group because that’s what you need to succeed as a TV writer.