Don’t be so Linear: A Lesson Beyond the Page

This is my response (linked to the reading from “The Status of Writing) as to whether only reading, not writing, can morally or ethically enlighten you. Instead of arguing with the statement, I’m telling a story that does the argumentation for me:

 

While coaching his writing staff for HBO’s Drama, Six Feet Under, Alan Ball would tell his writers to not be so linear. He didn’t want a clear cause and effect that would play into the viewer’s expectations. He wanted surprise, and more importantly, a truthful way to show that humans are more complex than a matter of actions and reactions. Any developing screenwriter, however, would take this advice as jarring. Linearity is to screenwriting what the first law of thermodynamics is to scientists. You start with a sympathetic character, and then send this hero on a linear quest of escalating obstacles. Their journey looks like a line graph, vertically extending to a pointed peak. Everything operates upon cause and effect. Every action has a reaction. It all follows a plot structure that builds from the base of the ordinary world to an explosion in the extraordinary.

I knew all of this before I walked into my first day of screenwriting. I had already read the assigned “Screenwriter’s Bible” over the summer, and came prepared with a firm know-how in linear structure that was sure to make my screenplay a success. I began to craft an edgy story about a high school teacher (a failed writer) who is pushed to desperation after her writing is rejected from publication for the last time.  In need of a story that will gain her success, she begins an affair with her delinquent student (don’t worry, he’s eighteen). The world her secret affair takes her into is filled with dangerous obstacles that she must overcome in order to gain inspiration to write the edgy book publishers want.  After finishing the story summary, I was more than impressed and expected the same from my teacher; however, his feedback was underwhelmed. “You’re being too plot-based,” he explained. “I want to see you focus on how these two people make choices that change each other, not the whacky obstacles this woman faces in order to meet her goal.” Basically, he stated, a good idea was present in my story, but I needed to be less Hollywood.

“He simply doesn’t understand,” I thought to myself while fidgeting in the chair across from him. The story was about a person with a life goal that they’d do anything to meet. She’d do anything to succeed as a writer—she was like me. I had even already written the first twenty pages, putting me three weeks ahead of schedule. How could I turn back? It was after this meeting that my story began its slow decay into uncertainty. Not only did my story descend into the murky waters of the unknown, but my life began to take the same downward path. After a depressing lecture from a visiting Hollywood director and producer, who told the tale of his Hollywood-induced almost-suicide, I wasn’t too thrilled on the prospects of working in the industry after I graduated. I began to explore other life options, following a new passion for nutrition and sustainable agriculture. I no longer felt like a hero with a goal to meet against all obstacles. I felt like an all-over-the-place loser going to therapy and career counseling to calm his boiling anxieties.

As for the hero of my story, she wasn’t doing so hot either. I simply didn’t know what to do with her. How could I make a story that was so incredibly plot based into something, as my teacher put it, “character based?” So, as any good student does, I avoided the assignment until the last minute. I didn’t rewrite my first twenty pages, and I fell further and further behind while writing merely enough to maintain participation points. And, like any good student, I found a perfect distraction from my work and dying ego. I found this distraction in a boy. We met through OkCupid, so I thought our end goal was clear. At least mine was: if I couldn’t succeed at writing a screenplay, I could succeed at snagging a boyfriend.

But this was not the fairy tale you see on ads for online dating. Don’t get me wrong; my prospect was quite promising. But the anxiety of the dating game weighed on me. I was constantly evaluating my level of investment compared to his, and I was constantly assessing whether or not we’d reach the finish line of commitment. I became a character in a movie, seeing everything as a stressful obstacle while attempting to reach a goal. This was a recipe for disaster, and my discomfort led to my downfall. “If you don’t have a clear plan for where this is going, I don’t think this will work,” I told him. And he agreed.

So, I went home for thanksgiving break dismayed at my failure. Even worse, I was basically fifty pages behind on my screenplay. My anxiety was filling me like a balloon and I was about to burst. Two days passed and no writing came. I paced back and fourth in my home like a caged cougar at the zoo, but no productivity followed. Finally, I spoke with my mother about my fears. I told her, “This story was supposed to be about a person who would do anything to be a writer. But after from what my teacher told me, it’s not supposed to be about that. And even worse, I’m not that character anymore. I don’t even know if I want to be a writer. So how can I write this story?” And then it hit me—I couldn’t. I really couldn’t. The only thing to do was to really, deeply change it.

I started by looking at myself. What had I just done? Well, I was going through writer’s block, and I turned to a boy to free me from this prison. What was my character doing? The exact same thing. We were both turning to the idea of someone to keep ourselves going. But the idea of someone isn’t sustainable. The abstract becomes the concrete, and the story you planned on telling simply isn’t manageable. And that, I realized, was what this story was really about. It didn’t matter if this woman got her story published, it only mattered that she learned that you couldn’t mold a person into a story or mold a story into a person.

With this realization, words began to fall into place on the page. I started from ground level—rewriting from page one. It was clunky at first, but gradually I began to fall in love with the story and with what it meant to the characters. I began to feel the theme of the story giving me rhythm while typing. It gave the characters a reason to speak. It gave them something to learn. Within two weeks, I wrote one-hundred-and-twenty pages. I had a week to revise, and then turned the screenplay in a day before the deadline. I was thrilled, and was sure my teacher would see how I focused on the characters and their change and, most importantly, how I changed as a writer.

To my disappointment, my teacher’s opinion was merely decent. I got an A-minus with no acknowledgment of how changed my script was from the original outline. But for the first time, I felt like the grade wasn’t nearly as important as what I learned in the process. The end goal wasn’t anything compared to the way I changed. I had made my script and myself less linear. I realized you that can’t force linear progression on a relationship. You can’t force yourself to be totally linear in what career you will take at the age of twenty. You have to explore and learn. If I wouldn’t have lost my certainty of being a writer, and if I wouldn’t have failed at dating, my script simply couldn’t have changed. And seeing the story summary now, I realize how much that original idea needed to change, because it was pretty shitty.  From struggling with a script, I learned that life isn’t about cause and effect or goals and obstacles. It’s about choice and change. I realized there was more to gain in a flawed story than a perfect one.

One thought to “Don’t be so Linear: A Lesson Beyond the Page”

  1. Having confidence in your work despite grades is one of the most difficult lessons I’ve had to learn in college. High school was easy – I always got good grades, my teachers loved my writing, and I never struggled for a topic idea or story plot. When I got to college, however, that changed completely. I’ve had to work harder than I’ve ever had to for results far below what I was accustomed to. And I’ve been discouraged on far more than one occasion at the disparity between my reaction to my work and my professors’. Even, for example, during the peer editing session for our Why I Write drafts: I became so frustrated with the different opinions I heard that eventually I just decided that I only have to fulfill my personal requirements. And I think that’s the beauty of the gamefication system; we are forced to meet our own standards above anyone else’s. Because we’re not given a grade based on professor-assigned merit, it is up to us to decide what we want to do with our writing, and ultimately, with the Minor as well.

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