Several years ago, at the encouragement of friends at church, I read Story, Robert McKee’s guide to screenwriting. My friends and I did so not with the idea that we were going to start producing screenplays, but rather as an illuminating exercise in thinking of our own lives as a dramatic narrative.
It is hard not to perceive our ordinary existence in terms of action. We careen from event to event as life reveals itself. While there is much to be said for simple perseverance, Story allowed me to look at my life not through the unique series of completed tasks and experiences, but rather, as the screenwriter would, through the narrative of the character change brought on by living through them. For McKee makes it clear that, in storytelling, activity alone is not enough to sustain interest:
“If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful happens. The scene has activity—talking about this, doing that—but nothing changes in value. It is a nonevent.”
There is nothing wrong with buying detergent, clocking in at work, picking up the kids at carpool time. Accomplishing tasks brings happiness. We should admire those who quietly and consistently contribute as citizens, parents, spouses and friends, day in and day out. Most of my life is lived within this realm of the ordinary where, if I am honest, my values and character remain largely untested. But at some point we all experience unexpected challenges, internal or external opposition, which disrupt a “normal” life. According to McKee that is precisely where a screenplay gets interesting:
“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”
While we naturally focus entirely on the actions required to overcome our obstacles and reinstate equilibrium, those around us (our audiences) pay attention because of how our choices reveal the state of our true character. Our fascination with great movies is stoked by character change. The same is true for our fascination with each other.
“From the worst of experiences something positive can be gained; for the richest of experiences a great price must be paid. No matter how we try and plot a straight passage through life, we sail on the tides of irony.”
Of course, most of us don’t go around seeking out adversity. But no matter, it finds us all anyway. The abiding lesson in thinking about your life as a screenplay is that it is precisely our response to opposition that makes us interesting people at all. We “sail on the tides of irony” when negative events create positive changes in our character. Were movies really made from our lives they would be about little else.
The folklorist J. Frank Dobie wrote, “well, I have gone in one canyon and come out another,” and it is a good line to consider at the beginning of a new year. Things happened in 2015 that I just didn’t anticipate as I was riding into it last January. It is easy to regret the bad things and venerate the good. And I’m sure I will be grateful for many unanticipated blessings in 2016 as well. They will make me happy. But here’s hoping someone will remind me to be grateful for the challenges and dilemmas as well.
For they will make me interesting.
Happy New Year from The Stubborn Glebe.