The Psychology of Screenwriting
eBook - ePub

The Psychology of Screenwriting

Jason Lee

  1. 208 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

The Psychology of Screenwriting

Jason Lee

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About This Book

The Psychology of Screenwriting is more than an interesting book on the theory and practice of screenwriting. It is also a philosophical analysis of predetermination and freewill in the context of writing and human life in our mediated world of technology. Drawing on humanism, existentialism, Buddhism, postmodernism and transhumanism, and diverse thinkers from Meister Eckhart to Friedrich Nietzsche, Theodor Adorno, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze, The Psychology of Screenwriting will be of use to screenwriters, film students, philosophers and all those interested in contemporary theory. This book combines in-depth critical and cultural analysis with an elaboration on practice in an innovative fashion. It explores how people, such as those in the Dogme 95 movement, have tried to overcome traditional screenwriting, looking in detail at the psychology of writing and the practicalities of how to write well for the screen. This is the first book to include high-theory with screenwriting practice whilst incorporating the Enneagram for character development. Numerous filmmakers and writers, including David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, David Cronenberg, Pedro Almodóvar, Darren Aronofsky, Sally Potter and Charlie Kaufman are explored. The Psychology of Screenwriting is invaluable for those who want to delve deeper into writing
for the screen.

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The psychology of identity
The major thesis of this book is that all writing needs to appear as if it was meant to be, that is, predestined. The symbiotic relationship between written narratives and life is analysed and a plethora of paradoxes examined and extrapolated. The best screenwriting asks open-ended questions about the human situation. Mediated Fate, the final part of this book, lays bare the central paradoxes of the human situation. Through an exploration of the psychology of screenwriting, including theory and practice drawn from a wide variety of cognate disciplines, there is a focus on meaning and identity. An eclectic range of thinkers are utilized, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Erich Fromm and Gilles Deleuze, amongst others. Overall, this book should be of use for readers reflecting on screenwriting psychologically and philosophically, for the writing of screenplays, people interested in the psychology of narratives in general, and those who want to understand the human situation. I understand screenwriting as a discipline to be: a growing and diverse body of knowledge that can be studied as an entity in and of itself; plus a practice, a craft, that hopefully produces new and original screenplays.
Chapter 1 explores practically and philosophically whether a script is actually necessary and examines the historical development of film, psychology and writing. Chapter 2 focuses on the fundamental practices of screenwriting. Chapter 3 concerns the important area of character in relation to psychology, utilizing the Enneagram along with other tools such as myth. Chapter 4 is on writing good dialogue. Chapter 5 – Individuation – brings together important elements in the psychology of screenwriting. The term individuation is used in analytical psychology and, in this sense, the screenplay achieves its goal when, like the psyche, all important elements are individuated. Chapter 6, the conclusions, while incorporating essential practical elements on rewriting includes the wider philosophical analysis, summed up in the final part, Mediated Fate.
There is theory about the craft of writing and theory that is more philosophical and reflective, that is often called Theory with a capital, and various branches have their zealots. Students can be turned off by theory because it can be challenging, which is a good way to put it given it should challenge traditional thinking. Those outside academia, or who may have a myopic view of reality, have a tendency to dismiss it as mere ‘mumbo-jumbo’.1 Good theory enables us to question our thinking. While I do have running themes that I hope will be useful, I do not claim to have one indisputable theory or take and recognize with Gilles Deleuze that all theory should open up discourse rather than shut it down. With this in mind, screenwriting studies is combined here with more general writing studies, philosophy, film and literary studies, enhancing reflective creative thinking and practice.
The examples utilized are American, European and British which has its limitation and benefits. In an age of globalisation, where funding streams for films may stem from a variety of places and artists from a plethora of nations, these divisions can be contested. But I hope this Western film bias is in some ways compensated by an engagement with Eastern thought. And what are these examples exactly? Can we see films and fictional characters as actors, a type of aesthetic idealism, or would this make us fall into ‘the abyss of a retrograde religion of art’.2 Has the theorizing, practice or the product of art become a religion, the unholy or even holy trinity?
Along with the missionary zeal concerning theory, figures such as Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard since the 1980s have been high-priests of literary and cultural theory, with Christopher Vogler and Robert McKee being the gurus of practical theory. Similarly, it is hard for those writing about the actual practice of art, in any form, not to take a missionary zeal and claim that art is about changing the world or our humanity in some form. This then makes the endeavour worthy, with a capital W, as if the art cannot exist for its own sake. Humanity must be improved by art to make it worthy, goes the dictum.
Defining what humanity actually is in the first place is a difficult task, although it is easier to speak of the ‘human condition’ today than it was in 1500 due to globalisation.3 We may not agree on one definition of what it is to be human, but to see fictional forms as dynamic actors might not be so far-fetched. Thinking about scripts as dynamic actors as well enhances both the critical engagement and theorizing of them, their development and final product.
Creativity concerns breaking boundaries, stepping outside normal restrictive frameworks, transgressing established boundaries. For originality the rules need to be turned on their head. The problem with some books on screenwriting is that they offer the established framework, the rules, perhaps a step-by-step guide which can be useful, but that is it. Hopefully this book offers something more philosophical, reflecting on psychology and its relationship with on-going issues connected to choice, free will, ideology and elements of theology. Some of these areas might seem less important than others, particularly in such a relatively recent discipline such as screenwriting, more relevant to the Middle Ages than the contemporary world. Despite this, numerous popular feature films contain what can be termed salvation narratives, where a character who is psychologically wounded gains some form of wholeness. Through the stages of the narrative they come to be aware of their wound or, dare I say it, their ‘sinfulness’ and this may instigate heroic action, as in ages-old myths. The notion of a metaphysical wound is complex, but it concerns what alienates us from our deepest nature and stories can re-engage us with this.
There is a need to transgress to create, so it is easy to see the necessity of transgression. ‘Sinfulness’ can be interpreted to mean transgresson of a divine law. But when it is acknowledged this divine law is actually just the authority of society the question arises why conform to this. As Thomas Aquinas put it, ‘God can never be insulted by us, except we act against our own well-being’.4 The classic, anonymously written, fourteenth-century text The Cloud of Unknowing claimed that while initially nobody can meditate without looking on their sinfulness (woundedness), the key was to ‘submerge meditation under the cloud of forgetting if he is ever to pierce that cloud of unknowing between himself and God’.5
Psychotherapist and philosopher Erich Fromm explained true hell is absolute separateness and this is overcome momentarily ‘by submission or by domination or by trying to silence reason and awareness’.6 Long term, however, this does not work, for overcoming is only reached through moving from egocentricity to oneness with the world. Only through psychological awareness can this movement take place. This is the situation all of us face. All of us are simultaneously in the world and yet alienated from it. Whenever there is a screenplay that concerns characters, and inevitably popular screenplays do in some form, then there will be a concern with psychology and identity. These are in turn concerned with moral choices, and these choices will concern oneness or separateness. This desire for unity can, of course, itself be seen as an illusion.
Thinking and doing are often separated in many cultures, viewed intrinsically as binary opposites. It is as if a separate mind does the former (thinking), with the body doing the latter (doing). This can be viewed as a hangover from the philosopher Descartes, although there are multifarious spin-offs. Some belief systems separate the mind from the body and also, mysteriously, position a soul in there, somewhere. Questioning these systems can be difficult, as they are innately tied up with the way people see themselves, their fundamental ontological essence. Often these apparently separate identities are difficult to define.
Once these zones are questioned the errors in this way of thinking are obvious. Even the body can now be extended out from a physical human form through technology and virtual means, so nothing is clear-cut. In the Western world the mind and body are continually thought of as Janus-faced, conflicting heads on diverse coins, as if one does not thoroughly involve and integrate with the other. Merely analysing what ‘thinking’ is leads to the conclusion that this might not be a purely mental process and binary oppositions need to be avoided between body and mind. As the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius put it:
In fact, we often see people collapse in consequence of the mind’s terror. It is a simple matter for anyone to infer from this that the spirit is intimately linked with the mind, and that the spirit, once shaken by the mind’s force, in its turn strikes the body and sets it in motion.7
This division is ultimately unhealthy. There are some other unhealthy divisions, such as in theory practice follows theory and in practice theory follows practice. In other words, you think about doing something then do it, which is the theory model. Or, you do something and think about what you have done, which is the practice model. Intuitively, deep down, it is easy to realize these two behaviours do not merely relate but co-exist and are entwined. Practice can be a form of theorizing just as theorizing can be a practice.
This book should be useful to those who want to write a screen ‘play’, as well as those who want to think about screenplays in a theoretical and philosophical sense as a work of literature and art in its wider context. I have used inverted commas above around the word ‘play’ as I want to emphasize this idea of play. I am not saying that the screenplay composed in images in your head appears magically without any effort whatsoever, or that large-scale filmmaking is not an industrial process full of hard work. But without imaginative play screenwriting becomes writing by numbers, devoid of creativity.
Both work and play have been thought of as activities that set us free. Free from what exactly is an interesting question. As Douglas Kellner has explained, Jürgen Habermas utilized Husserl’s phenomenology to come up with the term ‘life-world’. This consists of culture, society and personality, which are intruded upon by the ‘system’. That the detrimental wielding of power will have an impact on psychology is not just an ideological or political position, but an empirical fact.8 How art tackles this disruption is important for its deeper success. These themes are not new. Tolstoy tackled them in Anna Karenina, published in instalments from 1873 to 1877 in The Russian Messenger.
This story concerns the damaging impact of power and money, as the 2012 film version (directed by Joe Wright and written by Tom Stoppard), also shows. A bold assertion is to maintain that within the psychology of screenwriting, writers need to counteract psychopathologies. Societies and the conception of the arts and culture have metamorphosed since Theodor Adorno condemned the culture industry outright for promoting the ideas of purity and chastity, as if it was the same as religion. Adorno was here primarily referring to television, but with the popularity today of television channels such as Sky Movies, the World Cinema Channel, and so on, the separation between cinema and television is less clear-cut, not to mention the myriad of mobile devices for viewing films.
For Adorno, mass media’s aim is to achieve ‘integration’ but he admits this is nothing new because conformity and conventionalism were elemental to early popular novels. What is new is that, ‘these ideals have been translated into rather clear-cut prescriptions of what to do and what not to do’; and this moral framework is anathema because society always wins the battle between society and individual, and the ‘outcome of conflicts is pre-established, and all conflicts are mere sham’.9 Adorno made this point first in 1954, in The Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television 8, and was referring to an especially American form of mass media.10 American film has been the most commercially successful globally. Centrality, as Edward Said called it in the early 1990s, still reigns supreme.11 This virtually blocks any marginal discourse, with any difference in the mainstream political and media elite being spurious.
In the seven decades since Adorno was writing, while dominance in general is still there, so is more diversity and the society does not always win. Certain filmmakers and screenwriters have formulated an approach more akin to liberation. Even prior to the release of JFK (directed by Oliver Stone and co-written with Zachary Sklar, 1992), about the assassination of president Kennedy, the director Oliver Stone was attacked for altering ‘reality’.12 The fact that people think some fiction films are documentaries is disturbing. As T. S. Eliot put it in the poem Burnt Norton, ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality’. Surely ‘reality’ is not scripted, and any script will be false?
Is a screenplay necessary at all, or is it part of our psychology to always stick to a script, a believable narrative, for the sake of continuity, to develop a self out of many divided selves? This may seem like an absurd question, but it is certainly not ridiculous to ask if there is a need for a screenplay as it is traditionally known, given their restriction to and on artistic experimentation. Behind the psychology of screenwriting is a basic human need to tell stories, to fantasize, but it can be easily argued that more honest fantasizing can go on when nothing is written down. What this is also really addressing is the power of the unconscious, an area we shall be exploring in more detail.
Ban the script?
The classic Mod film Quadrophenia (directed by Frank Rodam and co-written with Pete Townshend, Martin Stellman, and Dave Humphries, 1979, based on the rock opera, 1973) did not have a traditional script written prior to casting. This is partly why the film seems so authentic, the writing taking place organically, there being a dynamic two-way process of development between the actors and their characters as they grew. Even blockbusters such as Minority Report (directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen, 2002, from a short story by Philip K. Dick, 1956) allow for improvisation and experimentation in the making of the film.
Early films did not have scripts and there have been many attempts by filmmakers to get back to what could be termed ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ filmmaking. One was the Dogme movement, founded in Denmark in 1995, which attempted to work against the grain of the ‘pre-formed, the premeditated, and the commodified’.13 Even with unscripted work, a larger philosophical question is whether it is ever possible to move away from the premeditated, something that Minority Report tackles and predictably confirms. This is a major Hollywood message – there is always a choice.
The Dogme movement aimed to take people back to the ‘core’, and ‘back to the essence of our existence’.14 This was an explicitly psychological aim as if somehow audiences had all been duped by the very medium they used to seek to take them back to this essence. Part of the idea was that film and television ‘reality’ had become so manipulated by editors, directors, and technicians, and this had to be subverted. Much of the new Dogme code was grounded in a sense of openness, of splitting open the illusion that surrounds the subversion of disbelief. Importantly, however, it was in the area of script-writing that there appeared a large conflict within the movement and nothing dogmatic.
There is nothing explicit about losing the script in the official manifesto and many Dogme films follow a clear-cut script. But for Lars von Trier, one of the movement’s four founder members who swore an allegiance to a ‘vow of chastity, the philosophy was initially to get totally away from the script’.15 A set script that is religiously adhered to may thwart some of the spontaneity, but if the writer is of the quality of say David Mamet then there should not be a problem. A good writer can step out of their writ...

Table of contents

Citation styles for The Psychology of Screenwriting

APA 6 Citation

Lee, J. (2013). The Psychology of Screenwriting (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)

Chicago Citation

Lee, Jason. (2013) 2013. The Psychology of Screenwriting. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Harvard Citation

Lee, J. (2013) The Psychology of Screenwriting. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Lee, Jason. The Psychology of Screenwriting. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.