“The key to a great story is not who, or what, or when, but why.” – Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), Tomorrow Never Dies
Our stories are an attempt to make sense of the human experience, to assign order and meaning to what can otherwise seem to be a random sequence of events. The best writers, and indeed the best minds, are those driven by an insatiable curiosity about the great mystery, wanting to figure out the reasons for things being the way they are. There is a story for every human being who has treaded the earth, and the stories that endure are the ones that touch the common humanity at the centre of each soul. They recognize our uniquely human longing and they try to captivate us by inviting us along on their journey to sate it. Indeed, what applies to the story applies as equally to its creator – the writer behind the words.
I spent this past weekend in a course taught by British writer-director Alan Denman called “Unleash the Screenwriter Within.” Denman’s approach to the craft is novel and surprising in that he spends very little, if any time on the mechanics of how to format a screenplay – something that bothered a few of the over 160 attendees who seemed to want to learn page length, font size and quick tickets to massive success. Denman recognizes that the siren call of fame and money has resulted in far too many films with nothing to say, their scripts cobbled by committee using overly familiar, focus group-tested tropes. He understands, and attempts to impart, that while passion without talent can lead to mediocrity (see: the collected works of Ed Wood), all the talent in the world will still result in failure if there is no passion driving it. The author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek, in his studies on how leaders spark inspiration, notes that those who are the most successful are the ones who focus on the why of the question. Why do we write? Is it because, like a Warner Brothers cartoon character, our eyes turn to dollar signs at the successes of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer? Sinek shares the tale of Samuel Pierpont Langley, the American aviation engineer you’ve never heard of, because his motivation for achieving man-powered flight was based largely on acquiring wealth and fame – the what. Working with the best minds and the best budgets, covered daily by the major American press, Langley was still eclipsed by the underfunded, unknown Wright brothers, whose unbridled enthusiasm gave both metaphorical and literal wings to their pursuit of taking to the skies. Their why was an expression of the universal longing, the most human of dreams.
Denman’s course is a series of exercises whereby he challenges students to get out of the linear restrictions of the left brain and into the flights of fancy of the right. He advises you to throw away the script (sorry) and work on fleshing out character and theme – who is your protagonist, who is your antagonist, and what are you trying to say – before even thinking about typing your first FADE IN. Those who felt disappointment after what for me was an exhilarating two days likely did not pay attention to the title of the course. It wasn’t “How to Write a Screenplay,” after all. It was instead a challenge to reach down deep and locate that why. Denman doesn’t simply want to give his students the tools to write a screenplay – ten dollars at your local bookstore gives you any number of options for paint-by-numbers manuals. He wants them to write great screenplays; works that will challenge, entertain, endure – and give rise to the next why, igniting a chain of inspiration to light the world. Most of the people sitting in that room won’t ever achieve that; they’ll lose their way in crises of structure, confidence and patience and join the ranks of the Samuel Pierpont Langleys of the world, the never-weres. But a few may, someday, find their own why, and translate that passion into something brilliant. The potential lies within all of us – we just need to ask why.