Marketing, Drama, and Tension

Ever since reading This is Marketing by Seth Godin, I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between marketing and dramatic storytelling.

There’s a flatness to a lot of marketing. It doesn’t move anyone. It looks like marketing (or advertising), but it’s not really marketing. It’s not engaging. It fails to create tension.

(I’m distinguishing here between advertising, which is one form of delivering a marketing message and marketing, which is more akin to persuasion and not necessarily commercial in nature)

Stories can be this way too. Have you ever read a screenplay that just. feels. so. hard. to. get. through? It’s not just “I’m not enjoying this”, it’s “my brain does not want to keep reading and I don’t know why it’s so hard to just keep reading.”

If there’s no tension, then you don’t want to know what happens next. A story without tension, without forward motion, is worse than nothing at all. I’d rather stare up at the sky and watch the clouds pass by than sit through a movie with a story that I don’t care about.

Anyway, it feels like there is something important here, that stories and marketing both rely on the same mechanism to capture attention or to propel action.

Tension moves a story forward. It makes us want to turn the page. It makes us interested in the product or an idea, it makes us want to purchase something or learn more about a political candidate or change our mind about something.

And it feels like discovering a secret, because once I saw it, I could see something that had been hidden all along.

Marketers get caught up in tactics, without thinking about how to move people. Dramatic writers (i.e. screenwriters and playwrights) create series of events that may be connected, but have no propulsion. No reason to care, no reason to want to know what happens next.

So they look like a screenplay but they’re empty in a way. Just because there’s a series of scenes doesn’t mean there’s drama. Just because an ad is displayed on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s marketing.

But we don’t talk about how to create tension. Sometimes we talk about structure or acts, but rarely about “how do you keep someone interested?” (more on this later).

Tension is value-neutral, an essential component of these practices. It can be used to sell harmful products and it can be used to keep you watching an empty TV show.

We’ve all made a purchase we regretted or finished a TV show or movie or book and felt empty at the end, propelled by tension to an unsatisfying or cheap ending.

Drama / melodrama / comedy / farce

I love this definition of the big four genres, by Sidney Lumet in Making Movies:

In drama, the characters should determine the story.

In melodrama, the story determines the characters. Melodrama makes the story line its highest priority, and everything is subservient to story.

For me, farce is the comic equivalent of melodrama and comedy the comic equivalent of drama.

Travailler, toujours travailler.

Roding then took Rilke outside for a tour of the grounds. As they walked, Roding began to tell Rilke about his life, but not in the way one might speak to a journalist on assignment. He understood that Rilke was a fellow artist, and so he framed his stories as lessons that the young poet might take as examples.

Above all else, he stressed to Rilke, Travailler, toujours travailler. You must work, always work, he said.

“To this I devoted my youth.” But it was not enough to make work, the word he preferred to “art”; one had to live it.

That meant renouncing the trappings of earthly pleasures, like fine wine, sedating sofas, even one’s own children, should they prove distracting form the pursuit.

— from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett

Sociological vs. Psychological Storytelling

From The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones by Zynep Tufecki:

At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.

What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.

This is an important shift to dissect because whether we tell our stories primarily from a sociological or psychological point of view has great consequences for how we deal with our world and the problems we encounter.

Reading this article made me realize why I love about my favorite TV shows, The Wire and Deadwood, and why I find it so hard to find any shows in the modern landscape that I connect with on the same level.

It also made me realize that the stories I tend to write have a tendency towards the sociological instead of the psychological (I don’t think any story is 100% on either side of the spectrum).

It’s hard for me to limit something to just one or two main characters — I usually get bored and want to bring in more characters or throw a couple characters into many different situations where they interact with people from different parts of society or with different POVs. Or I start with a collection of ideas that I want to work through comedically or dramatically, and then map the characters or the situations to those ideas.

And I honestly get kind of bored just thinking about a single character overcoming their demons or whatever, and the typical screenwriting advice of “put your character in a bad place and then make their life hell” kind of bores me as well.

So it’s really refreshing to have someone put a name on a different kind of writing that I knew existed but had never seen put into words.

And come to think of it, my love for sociological storytelling probably also explains my love for The Office, which inspired the amazing series of sociological essays, The Gervais Principle. And it’s probably why I love Buñuel so much.

A Review of Highland 2 (vs. Final Draft)

This isn’t meant to be an in-depth review of every single feature. I’m going to share some of the things that I love about Highland 2 (just going to call it Highland from here on out) and a few things that I don’t love.

As background: I’ve been using Final Draft since 2011. Last year, I upgraded from version ~71 to version 10. Final Draft was never a joy to use, but it got the job done and I could ignore all the clutter and work around the idiosyncrasies and get my writing done.

And while I am pretty critical of Final Draft, I should say that it has been a big part of my life and work since I started using it. It helped me write hundreds of pages of scripts, including all of my films, several plays, and many many sketches. I’ve used it for over a thousand hours (maybe a few thousand?) and it has served me very well. I hope they can improve the user interface and modernize the software, because I want there to be multiple great choices in the marketplace.

For the past week, I’ve been using Highland every day, working two-three hours per day on the first draft of a comedy screenplay. I’m using the Pro version but the free version includes most of the features of the Pro version.

(more…)
  1. I honestly can’t remember what version I was using. 

Screenwriting as a professional fascination

Screenwriting, as a professional fascination, is built on desires for personal approval that can be as fruitless and full of wish-thinking as gambling-addiction. Screenwriting is not filmmaking, it’s a part of filmmaking, it’s one of the blueprints, but it is not a good litmus test for the quality of a movie, clearly; Studios sign huge checks to great screenplays to then receive the worst Rotten Tomatoes scores in history. The Thunder Road Screenplay received multiple 3/10 ratings on The Blacklist. Yesterday, The Academy’s screenplay library reached out to have it added to their collection. The screenplay for Dunkirk is 70 pages. The only thing (Academy Award Winning Screenwriter) Diablo Cody knew about screenwriting when she wrote Juno was that “the dialogue is in the middle.” It’s ok to suck at writing screenplays if you know what will make a great movie and if you want to understand how people engage with movies in 2018, don’t study the script for Seabiscuit, get a Reddit Account like a normal person.

Jim Cummings

Shout it from the rooftops!

I really like what Jim has to say about independent filmmaking. It’s refreshing and intelligent.

The crap +1 fallacy

Another gem I picked up at Austin Film Festival: the crap +1 fallacy.

The fallacy is that you see a bad movie and think that all you have to do to succeed is write something a little better. 

It’s a fallacy because you can’t see the myriad reasons why the movie didn’t end up well–the missteps, the studio interference, actor problems, mistakes, and concessions that made a bad movie out of a good script. Your screenplay isn’t competing with the crappy final version of a movie — it’s competing with the good script that got mangled after it was purchased.

I get this completely, but I have seen films at festivals where I thought “oh, I can make something better than this” and that has been an effective motivator for me at times. 

The Not Actually Crap corollary: the movie was bad but made a ton of money. Sure, to your refined taste it was an artistic failure, but to the fat cat investors it was a resounding success.

Also known as You Are Not the Audience (YANTA). Hint: the audience is probably teenage boys or Chinese moviegoers.

Everyone is writing TV pilots

One thing I noticed at AFF was that a LOT of people are writing TV pilots. It seems like every aspiring-to-be-professional writer I met had entered a pilot into the screenwriting contest or was working on a pilot or was trying to break into TV with their pilot. 

I had a conversation with a woman who was developing a pilot for a show that was an autobiographical story of how she found love later in life. I liked the story. I think it would be a good rom-com.

I asked her if it wouldn’t be better as a movie. As someone who lives in Austin, she has virtually no chance of that pilot getting made. First it has to be a great concept. I like the idea but it’s not like earth-shattering and the audience is somewhat limited. 

Second, she has to get the idea into the hands of people that can make it a reality, which is basically a few different studios or Netflix or Amazon or Apple. 

She doesn’t really have connections there. And it’s very rare that a first-time writer just gets a show made like that.

I told her that it would be much easier to make as a movie. You just have to find a producer that wants to make it. It’s much easier to find an indie producer than a willing TV executive, especially since there are so many possible budget ranges. You could do her idea for $200k, $500k, $1 million, or $20 million. 

It’s still hard; it’s still a longshot. I just see a better path there. And it’s her story. She wants it to be told. You can make a movie through sheer force of will. You cannot make a TV show that way. There are just too many factors outside of your control.

She could also write a play, a really funny play. All of these strategies hinge on the material being really good, although honestly, the indie feature route has the least reliance on having a good script.

A lot of the people with pilots in Austin were people that lived in not Los Angeles. It’s pretty damn hard to break into TV if you’re not in Los Angeles. I’m not really sure what their career strategy is. Maybe it’s submitting to contests, hoping to win one that gets them a manager? There are many ways in but I know that if my main goal in life was to write for television that I would have moved to L.A. years ago. 

I went to a panel with the director of filmmaker labs at Film Independent. She said that comedy features are very much underrepresented in their submissions for the screenwriting lab.

I think everyone who wants to write comedy went over to the pilot side, which in one way makes sense because there are more writing jobs in TV, but then again, there’s only a loose connection between the jobs and what gets you the job. 

Why not zig when others are zagging?

Two kinds of writing advice

Sometimes I will find myself yelling in my head, in response to some writing advice I read on the internet. 

It goes something like this: “you idiots! you don’t need writing advice! you just need to write! sit down and fucking write! do you really think that reading what Hemingway said about the bullshit detector is going to help you, you lazy fuck, when you’re not even putting in the time!?”

That’s a lot of yelling, but I’m yelling at myself.

The first kind of writing advice is designed to get you to sit down and actually write. To create space in your day or your life to do the work. To get words on the page, no matter how not good they are. This advice often has an inspirational or self-help feel to it, and for good reason. You want to write, but you’re afraid for any number of reasons and you haven’t started to put in the time.

I listened to The War of Art once and that more or less rewired my brain to write every day. It’s a powerful book.

The second kind of writing advice is more practical or technical. It’s for people that are already doing the work, putting in the time, pumping out the words. Advice of this variety has to do with how to write an outline or develop a character or create suspense or write better dialogue.

Type II advice doesn’t really mean anything if you haven’t created a space to work within. 

Rules for work

Reminders for myself as I return to daily work (writing):

  1. Work every day. Compound interest. The Daily.
  2. Work with purpose. Deliberate practice.
  3. Work deeply.
  4. Process over results.
  5. Take risks. Stop playing it safe.
  6. Dream big.
  7. Ship your work.

What am I forgetting?





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