There's an age old question in writing circles that has never been - and probably will never be - answered. This question is: "what's better: good characters or good stories?" Writers have argued over this question for centuries. Shakespeare delt with this issue in every one of his plays. One could argue that Hamlet is impossible without the central character and that it is his unique characteristics and questioning of life and the motives lying behind people and their decisions that drive the story. In a similar vein one could argue that a Midsummer Night's Dream is driven entirely by it's unique characters. The counter-example that throws a wrench in this is: what about Romeo & Juliet? That is a story where the power lies in the story itself. There can be no alternative to the ending of that story given the quagmire that it's central characters face. Romeo & Juliet thus is one of the greatest example of great story and great characters driving the plot to conclusion. There's a reason we teach Shakespeare, folks.
I wrote my first screenplay when I was a Sophomore in high school. I remember three things from that year in school. The first thing I remember is the election. The year was 2000 and one of the most ferocious elections ever fought was being waged that year. I remember guys who had just turned eighteen voting for George W. Bush because "his daughters are hot." I remember that election well because back then I was a Republican. I was one of those "fiscally conservative" people. I didn't care much for social issues. None of them really affected me. Why I was a Republican then is as much a mystery now as it was then. I know I had my reasons though. I remember showing up on Election Day and seeing the school packed with voters. Most of the voters were old - something I took to be a bad sign for my choice - George W. Bush.
I wasn't a big fan of George Bush, though I had read several books by his father. I was a McCain supporter back when McCain stood for something more than personal animosity towards a man who denied him his chance to be President. The 2000 election could have been such a transformative election for our country, but instead is one of the worst wounds our republic has endured. My dad was a Bill Bradley supporter. I remember watching the debates with him and wondering why the government needed to hang on to so much money. What's ironic in a sense is that it was the Bush tax cuts that allowed my parents to move us out to the country - to a place I love - and away from a community that was quickly deteriorating.
The second thing that I remember from that year was meeting two of my best friends in high school Matt and Brian. We did almost everything together. It was our combined passion for movies that led me to the decision to write a screenplay. Why this responsibility fell on me I'm still not entirely sure. I may have volunteered myself for this assignment or I may have drawn on earlier experiences writing plays in middle school. Whatever the reason behind it, I wrote scripts all through high school and we often spent our afternoons after school looking for optimal shooting locations. I had every scene perfectly timed in my head. We drove around and watched movies. We were inspired by the work of Stanley Kubrick and Federico Fellini. We had debates about film in our speech and debate classes that ended one day with my teacher sitting us all down and explaining why Citizen Kane was the greatest movie ever made. I still disagree with him about that, but I must admit he made a very compelling case.
The third thing that I remember about that year was the writing process itself. I didn't write then how I write now - perhaps a better way to put that would be that my writing style has changed and how I think about the process of writing a story has changed - though I still use some of the same methods for putting together scenes. One of the first ways that I put scenes together was by listening to classical music and timing my scenes to the music. I noticed that in most art house films the director usually did that with at least one scene in the film. I timed an entire sequence to the Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, and not the short version, the full length version. It's a poorly written scene looking back on it. There is voice over all over the place and in reality the scene is just a combination of shots establishing the place that the story takes place. You don't learn anything about the characters until Act Two, something that I see today as a very serious problem. I have not and probably will not ever attempt to re-write that script. It is almost completely beyond repair. I do like the ending that I came up with though. I thought about all the movies that have as their worst case scenario the end of the world and then I thought about how few films have gone through with that as an ending. Therefore my script called for a mix of Dante's Inferno, Milton's Paradise Lost, and the Book of Revelation from the Bible. I still love the idea of people coming to grips with the end of the world, it's just a really difficult concept to put into reality and it's also quite difficult to get the audience to care about something that seems almost impossible to them.
In 2000 and 2001 there was a good deal of musical interpretation in mainstream Hollywood films and I remember being impressed with the ideas, but disappointed with the products. I remember seeing A Knight's Tale and thinking how clever the story was and how interesting it would have been had they used instrumentals of popular songs instead of the popular songs themselves. I also liked Steven Soderbergh's use of Clair de Lune in Ocean's Eleven. Overall, I thought it was the directors that made the best use of music and movement in certain scenes but at the same time I needed to come up with the scenes myself because it's not like there's a surplus of students writing full length feature scripts at a high school in Wisconsin. I decided to combine the role of director and writer and as I traveled around, usually in the back of Brian's very old blue station wagon, I thought of scene ideas and ways to incorporate music into a scene. I had a vision then of what I wanted everything to look like and as a writer it is critical to have a vision of what you want your end product to look like. Even now I try to picture every scene that I write so that I can write down all of the movements that I want the characters to make and all the subtleties that make my characters who they are.
Writing is about so much more than a story and it's characters. Writing is about the small stuff, the little details that go into constructing a great scene. I always tell writers that if they want to see how to build a scene all you have to do is watch a scene from the Wire. Every scene starts with a problem and ends with another problem. It's the perfect way to write (at least for syndicated television.) In every scene they are giving you the fulfillment of some small plot resolution, but they're building up the main story, giving you something to think about and creating another conflict at the end so that you have a reason to keep watching. Writing isn't about building great stories, it's about building great characters and putting those characters in great scenes that drive the story. It might sound like I'm coming down on the side of characters are more important than story side of this argument, but the argument is more complicated than an either/or solution can accommodate.
The truth is that you cannot write a story like the one you see unfold in The Wire for anything but television. If it were written for another medium the amount of obstacles that the protagonists have to overcome would seem absurd. It is only because the writers need to drive home a story for close to sixty minutes that the obstacles keep mounting. These kinds of things often come across as even more ridiculous on network television because writers have to build up tension to drive towards commercial breaks.
Ever notice how if you're just a few seconds late in getting back to your TV when the show returns from commercials you miss something quite significant to the story? That's the problem that writing to breaks causes. It's actually designed by networks to work that way. They think that having a plot device right after a commercial will make you stay in your seat through all those commercials. How well does that work on you? Chances are you'd rather miss that part of the story than sit through all those commercials and this is why commercial TV is such a problem. Not only are you the viewer getting shafted by missing parts of the story and having your programming interrupted, but the network doesn't understand that it's not a fair trade off in the process.
If you're a prose writer then looking at movies and television often seems like another world. That's because it is. When you write for these mediums you're not writing optimally. You're not driving the story entirely by your characters and story because there are other factors that you have to take into consideration. In television those factors are commercials and overall length of your show. In film you have to write towards act breaks and moderate the b-story, make sure that the crucial shifts in structure are all there. Screenwriters write based on structure not based on characters or story and this is why many commercial Hollywood films feel flat. If you want to see a classic example of what Hollywood does wrong watch any of the Transformers films. There are no plot devices at play here, there are no real characters to root for or against, there is no real story. You're just watching things unfold and you're supposed to be taken aback by the effects taking place on screen. It's a ploy, but most screenwriting is a ploy, the only difference is that most times this ploy is better executed.
If we want to truly change Hollywood we need to write freely so that what we write makes for the best possible story not the best possible commercial structure. What Hollywood gets wrong is the belief that we care more about being entertained than we do about what is entertaining us. We need to write strong characters in order to escape this trap and these characters must drive a well thought out story if they are going to be successful. We need to write not so that it fits into a one size fits all structure, but in a way that what the character is doing on screen actually means something. If the writing feels flat that's usually because it is. Prose writers understand this because their writing is all instinct. Commercial film and TV writers don't have this instinct because they get paid whether their writing is flat or not. It's not about the writing, it's about selling the product and businesses no just as we do that if you're selling a product that you don't believe in then you shouldn't be selling anything at all.