Premise versus premise

Over the last few weeks I have read both Robert McKee’s Story and John Truby’s The Anatomy Of Story. While reading these two books I have also been working though some ideas for redraft of Carrion. Not sure if it is a good idea to try and assimilate both treaties in quick succession while still writing, but as paid work has cut my writing time in half, I feel the need to keep pounding the keys, or lose whatever momentum I have trained into myself.

Prompted by what I have read, I started to think about the premise of Carrion. Truby assert that the premise “is your story stated in one sentence. It is the simplest combination of characters and plot and typically consists of some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character, and some sense of the outcome of the story.” On the other hand McKee asserts that the premise is simply “an open ended question: What would happen if… ?” For example. “What would happen if a shark swam into a beach resort and devoured a vacationer? JAWS.”

What Truby calls premise, McKee calls the controlling idea. “A controlling idea may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.” What McKee calls the controlling idea Truby calls the designing principle. “The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole. It is the internal logic of the story, what make the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

While both notions of premise make sense, Truby’s version sounds to me like the logline, and seems too detailed to be what McKee describes as “the idea that inspires the writer’s desire to create a story.” If Truby is right when he says “if your premise is weak, there is nothing you can do to save the story” I need to seriously rethink the foundations of Carrion.

When I first started work on Carrion. The initial inspiration came from an idea that they, the government, the powers of prohibition, genetically engineered insects to eat drugs. The whole script was written from that starting point. Characters, plot, dialogue, I now realise were built on shaky foundations. With insights I gained reading Truby, I now realise that drug eating insects was too nebulous an idea, and lacks any notion of what’s at stake in the story. With some work, and the help of McKee, I have come to another “what if” question, what if the war on drugs escalates into civil war?

According to Truby this is still not strong enough, and needs to be expanded to include the event that starts the action, some sense of the main character, and some sense of the outcome of the story. While I still have the character of Carrion’s previous draft, I know this draft has a different outcome. What it is I don’t know yet, but I do know I have a lot more work to do.

The thing I’ve realised while writing this is that while both Truby and McKee offer invaluable insights into the craft of screenwriting, neither has the definitive answer, but they are both useful as tools to clarify my own understanding.


Fear of facebook

I’m not on facebook. People keep telling me I should create a profile but I’ve resisted. There’s something about the whole thing that makes me very uncomfortable.

I know it’s a completely irrational prejudice, fuelled by something I read, claiming that among other things, an investment company set up by the CIA owns shares. A bunch of multinationals like Coca Cola also have shares.

Facebook is essentially a massive marketing tool, allowing companies to harvest information about its patrons, and target them with direct marketing, or use the information as free market research, or keep tabs on them in some Big Brother kind of way.

Putting the paranoid conspiracy theory away for a second, what company doesn’t harvest information about individuals likes and dislikes. I posted on twitter recently about my frustrations with EDF Energy. I’d been overcharged, and wanted a refund. EDF contacted me through twitter offering to help. I didn’t reply, I didn’t trust that it was EDF, so ignored their repeated advances.

This highlights something for me. While Twitter is a very public arena it feels very private, I hadn’t given much thought to the notion that a company like EDF would be monitoring the twitter timeline. Truthfully I felt a little stalked, and I think that’s another of the things that makes me feel uncomfortable with facebook.

While facebook is a great tool for connecting people, it also gives access to those who you would rather not have in your life. We all have them, that work colleague you’d rather not talk to, or the long lost friend who is better staying lost.

Social networking sites like facebook allow the kind of personal access I’m reluctant to give to anyone but those closest to me. At some point I know I am going to have to hand them my details, join the club, for professional reasons as much as anything, but for now I think I will stay clear of the microscopic spotlight that facebook exposes you to.

Drugs as a tool

I’ve been reading John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the intricacies of giving meaning to their story.

For those who haven’t read the book, Mr. Truby approaches story as if it were a body, and dissects it as if her were doing an autopsy. He has a chapter on technology (tools). In it he observes that within a story “tools are an extension of the human form, taking a simple capability and magnifying its power”. Why do I mention this? Because while reading Truby’s book, I have also been working through some ideas for major redraft of Carrion.

One of the ideas at the centre of Carrion is that insects have been genetically engineered to eat drugs. Within my story they are physical manifestation of prohibition. A tool that takes the ruthless unrelenting enforcement of prohibition to its merciless conclusion, the physical destruction of anyone who takes drugs. With that in mind, I started to think about drugs as a tool, and asked the question, what kind of tool are drugs?

This quickly becomes more complicated than you think. It’s all too easy to view drugs simply a tool to alter your mood. I’ve written before about the link I see between drugs and prohibition. In a previous post I outlined a paradigm that uses drug prohibition as a tool for social control.

Certainly that is one function drugs play within society, but it’s not the only one. I read a paper recently by Tammy L Anderson that points to A Cultural-Identity Theory Of Drug Abuse. The paper differentiates between drug use and abuse. “The theory proposes that drug abuse is an outcome of a drug-related identity change process featuring three micro-level (personal marginalization, ego identity discomfort, and lost control in defining an identity), two mesolevel (social marginalization and identification with a drug subcultural group), and three macro-level (economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and popular culture) concepts.”

Without getting into the intricacies of a theory that describes twelve hypothetical relationships that lead to drug abuse. It does point to another way drugs are used. As a tool of cultural identity. From my own experiences I can say there is certainly an identification between those have used drugs, and those who have not. You only have to look at the way those who drink alcohol view those who do not to see a shared identity works.

Conversely in this instance, because alcohol is a socially acceptable drug, those who do not drink are the ones viewed with hostility. This binary polarisation of “us” and “them” points to the dynamics at work when looking at the way illicit drugs are viewed. Cultural-identity theory argues that drug abuse is a consequence of a multitude of marginalizing experiences. “The greater the number of marginalizing experiences… the greater the risk for drug abuse.”

If that is the case, and drug abuse is a consequence of an accumulation of negative experiences both personal and social, drugs become a consequence of negative forces that define those who eventually abuse drugs, and not the other way round. This perhaps accounts for the vicious way in which the sober world treats drug users. There’s a sense of guilt felt by the sober world, a guilt that recognises drug use is not simply people being somehow weak willed, a guilt that can not be solved, and ultimately elicits hostility.

There is a scene in David Mamet’s film The Spanish Prisoner that explains the psychological origins of human cruelty.

Steve Martin explains the psychological origins of human cruelty in “The Spanish Prisoner”

The key line comes at the end of Steve Martin’s speech, when Campbell Scott asks him why his employers will start to act cruelly toward him, Martin replies. “To suppress their guilt.”

For me, and certainly within the context of Carrion, I’m starting to see drugs as a tool of guilt, and motivating forces for both protagonist and his antagonist.

Exquisite corpses

I came across Channel 4’s The Random Spoken Word Competition today. It started me thinking about exquisite corpses. For those who don’t know, an exquisite corpse was Surrealist André Breton’s attempt to introduce chance into his artistic practice.

Exquisite Corpse

Breton described it as a “game of folded paper played by several people, who compose a sentence or drawing without anyone seeing the preceding collaboration or collaborations.” The now classic example, which gave the game its name, was drawn from the first sentence obtained this way. “the-exquisite-corpse-will-drink-new-wine.”

The judges of Channel 4’s competition “are looking for one piece of writing that imaginatively explores the theme “random” by using language in a rhythmically original and instantly engaging way.”

I wonder if it’s possible to write something that resonates using the exquisite corpse technique? I’ve experimented with the technique on a number of occasions, with varying degrees of success. As a writing technique, problems arise because the form is by definition a collaborative endeavour, you need several people to make it work. It then becomes about the collaborative process, and not what is written.

I once wrote an outline entitled “Exquisite Corpses Of Soloman Bishop”. In it Solomon Bishop speaks entirely in exquisite corpses. To circumvent the need for several people while writing this, I produced Solomon’s dialogue using Tzara’s technique for writing Dada poetry. I cut words from newspapers and magazines, put them in a bag, drew them out at random, and created sentences from the results.

  • Squad more robots forced adoption.
  • Lock-in sleeper defend green letters.
  • Trial bombers nylon contamination.

Interesting statements, full of jarring juxtapositions, that are random enough to be called an exquisite corpse. It’s very easy for this random selection of words to be ignored as meaningless. The question then arises, how do you give the randomness meaning, or more precisely, how do you control the randomness’s meaning?

One way is to give the words context. How do you give them context, by giving them a title that starts a story. “Once upon a time” gets the ball rolling, propelling the resulting exquisite corpse forward sequentially. Another way is more abstract, but grounds the exquisite corpse to something, an idea. Open with a title like. “The exquisite corpse of twenty first century sin” and all that follows refers to something tangible.

More work is needed on this, but that’s a start.

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