Things I Learned From My Wife's Screenwriting Education, Part II


More of how I learned to be a better engineering manager from USC's Screenwriting for Film and Television MFA program...

Sudden Events Require Foreshadowing

As much as we like to think that we're open-minded people who are ready for the upheaval of change-is-the-only-constant, it turns out that the human mind simply cannot take actual sudden shifts in events or barrages of unexpected information.

When I was younger, I learned about foreshadowing in English classes and I thought, "This is so dumb. This is such an obviously false thing - why in the world is it in literature when sudden events in the real world are never foreshadowed?" Well, the answer is that if the human mind has been exposed to a certain set of stimuli for an extended period of time (certain ideas, certain patterns, certain strategies), when presented with a sudden departure from those patterns or a radical disruption, the typical reaction will be to pretty much ignore them and figure out the quickest way to "not see" them because they're so incomprehensible that the mind can't get a handle on it, so it just doesn't.

Literature (and film and television) have realized this - if you have a sudden plot event in a movie and don't foreshadow it in some way, thus mentally preparing the viewer (either consciously or unconsciously), the viewers will just be utterly shocked and fail to comprehend what is going on, and you'll lose them in the storytelling.

The same goes for presenting radically different ideas or conclusions, or simply something that could be shocking: for people to be able to grasp what you tell them, some elements need to be foreshadowed so that concepts will be familiar. Otherwise they'll spend all of their initial time trying to work out the initial set of concepts needed to even make sense of what you're saying - and that's the open-minded people. The less open-minded (or busy, or lazy, or overworked) people will just sort of ignore what you're saying and try to get back to what they were doing.

Connotation Is Key To Conciseness

Describing complex, multi-faceted ideas is not best done using a lot of words.

One of the interesting things about words is that short words have more power. Unlike long words, short words are often older and have been in the language a long time, and thus have accumulated layers of meaning and implication, through history and use in great literature. They have more cultural richness and weight. Therefore, using lots of long words and highly descriptive sentences conveys variegated meaning in a shallow way, while using sparse, short words conveys emotions and key feelings.

If you have a complex idea to explain, figure out which shorter words have the connotation you want, and describe your idea in fewer sentences. Leave out key details that you might feel like you need to point out and instead try to pick words or phrases that imply those details. Your reader will hear what you've said and then know the details you wanted them to know.

Backstory Is The Key To Understanding And Predicting Behavior

Kimberly told me that when you create a character for a screenplay, you write up a huge, multi-page backstory about them. Who they are, what their life was like, what kinds of things they did - all the stuff leading up to the present moment. This stuff doesn't end up in the screenplay. Instead, it provides a realistic character sketch that informs the later writing of how the character will react in certain situations - if something happened to them in the past, it may cause them to choose a particular course of action, even if it's never revealed what that thing was (i.e. the main revelations of the screenplay just don't center around that character).

Managing people is similar. In order to understand how people will react under stress or adverse circumstances, it's important to know them well. How have they reacted under stress in the past? What sorts of things drive them? What causes them to break down or behave poorly? What are their desires behind them being in this line of work or having chosen this particular project or area of interest? These drives imply certain things about how people will react given various choices and when things go well or poorly. Just as an engineer needs to know their systems well enough to predict how it'll react given certain inputs and stresses, a manager needs to know (beforehand!) how people will react when confronted with certain choices and stressful situations. Much of this is determined by finding out backstory and talking about past experiences and how the person felt about it or reacted, and the rest of it lies in determining their self-identity.

Originally posted here on 2009 Apr 21, by Yishan Wong.