A screenwriter’s purpose is to connect.
“Only connect,” E. M. Forster tells us in Howard’s End. He meant it as a rule to live by. I see it as a rule to write by. The best screenplays—long or short—are written by those who know how to connect—to themselves (their unique vision, material, process), to what drama is, and, most important, to others.
In his beautiful review of Roma
on rogerebert.com, Brian Tallerico reminds us that the late Roger Ebert “considered the role of great cinema” to be “an empathy machine.”1
As Ebert said when he was awarded a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 2005 for his extraordinary career as a film critic:
Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live at a different time, to have a different belief. This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I’m not just stuck being myself, day after day. The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.2
So your overriding purpose as a screenwriter should be to create short or long screenplays that create empathy—identification, understanding, compassion—in the hearts of your audience.
“You must never forget the umbilical cord is to real life, real people,” Oliver Stone says in Linda Seger and Edward Jay Whetmore’s From Script to Screen.
“I think of the medium as a people-to-people medium,” Frank Capra says in Eric Sherman’s Directing the Film, “not cameraman-to-people, not directors-to-people, not writers-to-people, but people-to-people.”
“You know,” Jean Renoir agrees, “if art doesn’t take us as collaborators, art is dull. We must be in communion, the artist and the public. Without the collaboration of the public, to me, we have nothing.”3
Like Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai, Defiance), they make their films with their audience in mind.
The way to make a movie is to understand that you’re speaking to one person at a time, in the dark. You’re telling them a story, gauging their reaction, watching in your mind’s eye as they lean forward, making it as personal a telling as you possibly can.4
Only connect. Write it down on a Post-it® note or a three-by-five card and stick it on your computer, desk, forehead. This deceptively simple advice is the heart of the art of writing good screenplays.
It is also the impulse to write. “When talented people write well,” Robert McKee says in Story, “it is generally for this reason: They’re moved by a desire to touch the audience.”
Thomas Jackson described this desire when I asked how he came up with Slow Dancin’ Down the Aisles of the Quickcheck:
I was driving back [from Bainbridge, Georgia, to Tallahassee] and I was thinking about a character, a grocery store manager who had a crush on his head cashier. You know, when I worked in this grocery store I had crushes on all the cashiers, you know, in some way or another, because I was very shy and I didn’t speak to them so I always had crushes on them. But I was thinking about this guy and I was thinking that, because I’m a songwriter, too, what if he played … I could just see this guy playing this woman a song, and it’s not something that he normally does, and it’s like he’s pouring his heart out and it’s just so un-him. And I’m describing this into a little tape recorder I keep with me all the time, and I got choked up. You can hear me get choked up on the tape because I’m getting emotional about this. And I say on the tape, I said, “Man, if I can just make people have that feeling, I’d feel like I did something.” I thought, If I can get people to feel that way, I would feel like I did something.
You may have a different purpose in mind. If you’re anything like the ambitious students I teach, you may well want to write the script for that short film that will open Hollywood’s doors. And that can certainly happen, but it won’t happen unless your screenplay connects. Connecting with others is what you must do to succeed as a screenwriter, and it will also be your greatest success.
Ask any dramatist—playwright or screenwriter. They’ll describe the sheer wonder—and joy—of seeing an audience connecting to a story they’ve written. People lurching with laughter (in the right places) or staring rapt at the screen because they’re so moved by the story they’re seeing. And the worst times are those when an audience doesn’t connect. Groans. Sighs of impatience or boredom. Bad laughs.
Years ago, during the intermission of one of my plays, I overheard two young men in the lobby discussing a dog. I like dog stories, so I sidled over to listen. The “dog,” I found out, was my play. That’s what is so terrifying about writing plays or screenplays: Failure is so damn public.
Okay, you’ve been warned.
But even an evening of My Play as a Dog cannot cancel the incomparable pleasures I’ve had connecting to others, seeing—to my everlasting joy and amazement—an audience stand up and cheer for a short play I wrote, Propinquity, which Actors Theatre of Louisville produced five different times. And, yes, that play opened doors—terrific reviews (“offers hope and humanity,” The Irish Times said—my personal fav), my first agent, and publication—but I promise you that nothing—nothing—equaled the sense of achievement I felt when that play connected to others. When I keep that in mind, I’m a much better writer. Maybe that’s why Fritz Lang says:
I asked myself—why is the first work of a writer or a screenwriter, or of a playwright almost always a success? Because he still belongs to an audience. The more he goes away from the audience, the more he loses contact, and what I tried to do my whole life long was I tried not to lose contact with the audience.
But even Fritz Lang—for all his magnificent films such as Metropolis, M, The Big Heat—wasn’t always successful.
Why? Because connecting to others is one of the hardest things that we do. As Bruno Bettelheim observed in his book Surviving, human beings are like porcupines trying to stay warm on a cold winter night: We want to be close to one another for warmth, but we don’t want to be too close for comfort. We’re distinct—and we’re not. We want to remain distinct, unique—and we don’t.
Imagine a screening room full of strangers waiting to see the short film you’ve written—young, old, male, female, different ages, professions—a bag boy, a film buff, a dentist who’s had a bad day, an attorney who’s just realized she hates practicing law. Put yourself in their place; this shouldn’t be hard; you’ve been an audience member longer than you’ve been a writer. Like you and everyone else on this planet, they’re preoccupied. Yet, somehow, the story you’ve written must engage—catch and hold—their attention. If it doesn’t, they’ll think, “So what? Why are you telling me this? Wasting my time? What the hell does this have to do with my life?” They’ll daydream or rattle cellophane wrappers or get up and walk out.
“The first business of the playwright is to keep the audience from walking out,” William Gibson says in Shakespeare’s Game. This goes for screenwriters, too.
Luckily, audiences want to connect, though this desire may be unconscious, buried. “It is true that America is a high-tech, speed-driven, ‘Gimme-the-fax/facts-and-get-on-with-it’ society,” Marylou Awiakta says in Selu. “Few can escape this dynamic. But it’s also true that most of us, deep down, yearn for relationship, connection, and meaning.”
Good stories satisfy this deep yearning. Once upon a time we shared stories around a fire—sometimes we still do—but now we usually share them in movie theaters, and the flickering light on our faces comes from the images up on the screen. The stories we see may take place in a galaxy far away or in Mexico or in a rough neighborhood in Miami or New Orleans or a posh country home, but stories like Star Wars, Roma, Moonlight, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Get Out (to name just a few) not only entertain us, they make us more human. They show us in fresh and wonderful ways that we’re not the only fools on the planet struggling with this godawful difficult business of being alive. They “induce a moment of grace, a communion,” Lewis Hyde says in The Gift, “a period during which we too know the hidden coherence of our being and feel the fullness of our lives.”
As audience members, we spend a good deal of time and money in this culture to feel that sense of communion, to be fully engaged, to feel so tied to a story we’re carried away.
“I want to be transported by the screenplay,” actor Peter Strauss says in From Script to Screen, “to go to the movie, to be in the dark and have magic happen.”
I think it helps us as writers—I know it helps me—to think of a screenplay as a magic carpet ride, to ask these questions: “How does my story lift an audience off the ground? Take them on a journey? Return them to their seats?” And, perhaps most important, “How does the ride make them feel?”
“I look for passion, aliveness, hatred, rage, fear, pain, joy, bigness,” Strauss continues. “I want to feel big, I want to be angry big, feel sad big.”
Look at the language he’s using: I want to feel big. I want to be angry big, feel sad big. He isn’t content to see characters having emotions—he wants to feel those emotions himself.
Paddy Chayefsky (Marty, The Hospital) put it bluntly, “Drama is concerned only with emotion.” And, in interview after interview, even Tarantino insists that a story must work on an emotional level. “A play”—or, in this case, a screenplay—“is the shortest distance from emotions to emotions,” George Pierce Baker says in Dramatic Technique.
The stories we tell must create shared emotions, those golden threads that connect the audience to the characters up on the screen. Or on paper.
When Alan Arkin came to Tallahassee to direct a short film, I asked what he looked for in a screenplay. “I just want a good story,” he said. “I want to be moved.”
I just want a good story.
“You can’t involve them with gimmicks, with sunsets, with hand-held cameras, zoom shots, or anything else,” Frank Capra says in Directing the Film. “They couldn’t care less about those things. But you can give them something to worry about, some person they can worry about, and care about, and you’ve got them, you’ve got them involved.”
Involved. Engaged. Connected.
At the 59th Annual Academy Awards in 1987, accepting the Thalberg Award for his contributions to the industry, Steven Spielberg admitted he was more culpable than any other director for the popular practice of supplanting story with the camera and special effects. He pledged to inculcate in the next generation a greater interest in writing and to develop that interest himself.
It was this realization, this rededication to story, that led Spielberg back to that same stage to receive an Oscar for a film that connected to audiences worldwide with its wrenching disconnections and on...