WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

LISTEN. OBSERVE.


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When you were having that private conversation with your lover at a restaurant, I was in the next booth listening. What you said, how you reacted, even the words you used - gave me a glimpse inside the life of someone other than myself. An idea of the way you live your life, see your dreams, try desperately to hang on to a bad relationship because the thought of being alone really frightens you. I was listening to every word. I wish I could see right inside your brain, but that's both impossible, kind of creepy, amd more than a little gross.

When you finished your meal and surreptitiously rubbed your teeth with the napkin, I was watching. Your lover didn't see it, but I did. From the way you handled the napkin, I know that you do this all the time. I wonder what other little actions you try to hide from your lover, and I follow you into the street... watching everything you do.

Taking notes.
Writing down patches of your private conversation.
Bits of actions that give me a feeling for the private you.

My friend Penny says that people are who they REALLY are when no one is looking. When we think that we are alone. When we think that we have that smidgen of true privacy in this NSA-is-reading-your-e-mail age. Guess what? I was watching, and I saw the private you! The one you hide from your lover, your family, and sometimes try to hide from yourself...

By now some of you are probably phoning the police, but I swear I'm not a stalker, just a writer. Part of my job is to listen and observe.

An important part.
If I listen, I learn.
I learn about other people, other lives, other problems.

I may be the center of my world, but the world I write about has a much larger (and nougat filled) center. My experiences only go so far, but with observation and listening I can get a glimpse at other people's experiences. I can take what I know and expand on it, writing about people and worlds that are outside of my specific experience. Though all writing is autobiographical - yes, even action movies filled with explosions - we don't want to be limited by our experiences. We don't want to write only about people exactly like us who do things that only we would do. Part of our job as writers is to jump intro the skin of others, to see others lives through *their own* eyes and then pull the reader and audience into those lives with us so that they can see the world from a different perspective.

BE A REFUGEE

One of the problems of modern life is that the powers of observation are no longer critical to our survival. In caveman times, seeing that rustle of tall grass that indicates a predator lying in wait was the difference between being able to tell a good story at the campfire that night and being some animal's dinner. But today we have machines that do almost everything for us, so we don't really need to pay attention. I worry that all of this is creating a reverse-evolution - that the device that warns you when you are about to accidentally back over something in your car is making us less likely to look first... and eventually that "be aware gene" will just vanish from our DNA. We drive to work every day and never notice our route - we are asleep at the wheel. We get to our destinations and then wake up. How did I get to work?

Add to that the distractions we have created for ourselves - music, texts, Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones, etc. We have all of these things going on - and miss the world around us. We drive the same route, but don't see any of the details. And, as the creators of worlds, the details are important.

One of the interesting things that happened durring the World War 2 period in Hollywood is that a flood of immigrant film makers came to the USA to escape Nazi persecution... and saw America with different eyes than Americans did. American writers and directors were so used to looking at America that they no longer could see it. They had stopped actually looking - because they had seen it before. These refugees had their eyes wide open, and were seeing America for the first time. They made some amazing movies focusing on aspects of the American life that seemed invisible to us. Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, Ernst Lubitch, and many others came to America and saw the country without filters... saw a world that Americans were no longer paying attention to. We were sleeping, and they had their eyes wide open. They made some of America's greatest films. Now we have new immigrant directors with their eyes wide open, often seeing the things in our country that we no longer see.

OPEN YOUR EYES & EARS!

As writers, we need to take ourselves off autopilot and open our eyes to the world around us. Take that route we travel every day and notice the details we have long ignored. Notice things. Really listen to life around us. Get out of our self-imposed shells and be part of the world. Writers are often introverts and social misfits, but writing about life requires that we *live it* and be cognizant of that experience. That we keep our eyes and ears open and see the world around us, instead of sleep walk.

I know a couple of writers who are too busy talking to listen. They want to be the center of attention, rather than "the fly on the wall". Instead of observing others, they want to be the ones who are observed. That's not only a little strange, it makes for bad writing. When you read a script where every character sounds the same and thinks the same, and the protagonist is 100% right all of the time, it's usually the work of someone who is focused on themselves instead of observing the world around them. Though all of our characters have their roots in ourselves, they shouldn't all seem like clones of us. By grafting behaviors, attitudes, vocal mannerisms and other external characteristics onto our creations they will become individuals. Noticing these characteristics requires that we look at the world outside of ourselves. Leave our offices and work spaces to experience the real world, and keep our eyes and ears open.

Those small moments of behavior, those unusual turns of phrase, the way an individual does something that is different than any other individuals is the stuff that good screenplays are made of. The reason why so many movies and screenplays often seem by-the-numbers today isn't some screenwriting book that provides the broad strokes... but the eyes and ears closed writing that eliminates the details that make a work original. All people are born, have childhoods, become adults, have relationships, get old and then die - the broad strokes of the brush are always the same. But the details are what make one story different than another - the details that are found through close observation.

I always carry notecards in my pocket and often write down some interesting and unusual phrase or line of dialogue. Sometimes the pattern of someone's speech is what is interesting. Or the way they inject some word or phrase from a different era or language. Or maybe the way they see the world is different than mine, and listening to them helps me see the world as they see it. The key is to get your head out of your head, and into someone else's. To realize that the world is much bigger than you are, and to begin to see that larger world. Hear that larger world.

On my notecards I also jot down interesting actions that I observe - writing this in a coffee shop I just watched a woman completely wipe down a table and chair, then carry the used napkin to the trash as if it might be toxic, before going to the restroom and washing her hands and then sitting down at the table. Okay, there are some great character questions this asks - is she a germaphobe, was there really something gross spilled on the table and chair, is she just overly tidy? Does she do this at home? If I decide that she's a germaphobe, my next step is to imagine how this affects her life... and why she came to be this way. Though the core motivations may never come up in the story, it's important for me to know them as a writer - because every character *is* an individual and no two germaphobes are the same. Each individual character will be slightly different and it's important for me to know *how* this character is different... to make sure they are consistent throughout the story.

One of the things I like about writing in public is that you can look up and see amazing things. Overhear lines of dialogue you could never come up with on your own. Watch how relationships change and evolve from moment to moment. Find those things that identify us as human beings. Then those things end up in my screenplays and in my characters. I can write *and* overhear and spy. There are times when I've been stuck for some element of character and taken a break - where the real world around me provided the solution. But that can't happen unless my eyes are open.

When was the last time you really listened to what was going on around you? When was the last time you stopped talking and really listened to what other people said? When was the last time you thought about the other person in a conversation - what they were really trying to tell you? When was the last time you watched other people? Wondered why they did that?

When was the last time you listened.... and learned?

Your Assignment: Take a walk in your neighborhood with your eyes wide open and look for the details you have never seen before. Write them down.

Your Assignment #2: Go out in public and observe some people - listen closely to what they say and how they say it. Look for clues to their lives. You are a spy - write a dossier on your subjects.



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