Links to the week’s most notable posts:
THE BLACK LIST BLOGS
Lisa Joy got her start as a Hollywood writer working for the ABC television series “Pushing Daisies,” then as writer-producer on the USA series “Burn Notice.” She wrote the spec script “Reminiscence” which made the 2013 Black List and sold to Legendary Pictures for a reported $1.75M. In addition, she co-wrote with her husband Jonathan Nolan the pilot for the HBO series “Westworld.”
Here are links to the six installments of the entire interview:
Part 1: “I started reading a couple screenplays just to see what it looked like. It kind of struck me that there were some similarities between poetry, which I’d always loved and screenwriting. You don’t have that much space. You have to convey things very compactly.”
Part 2: “To me, I really never thought that it was possible I would become a working writer. It’s truly, if you told me I was going to become an astronaut who colonized Mars, that would be about the equivalent feasibility for me.”
Part 3: “I’d say that the thing I learned from him [Bryan Fuller] the most is to be bold and to try to stick to your vision as much as possible because no one else is going to do it and you can have death by a thousand cuts with an idea.”
Part 4: “But the thing that is first and foremost to me is, ‘Do I love the character? Do I empathize with them?’ I even think you have to love and empathize with the villains you write, especially them, in a way. Otherwise it just becomes caricature.”
Part 5: “The fact that ‘can you have it all’ was the question posed to women specifically – was complete bullshit. It makes everything a binary all or nothing choice. And if ‘all’ is impossible – then we must settle for ‘nothing.’ The paradigm itself is messed up.”
Part 6: “At the end of the day just sit down in front of that blank page. It’s terrifying, the tyranny of the blank page and all the expectations you put upon yourself. But then you turn off the naysaying voices in your head. And you write. Just write.”
Lisa is repped by UTA.
As I’ve been interviewing screenwriters, I typically ask what some of their influences are. One book title comes up over and over again: Aristotle’s “Poetics”. I confess I’ve never read the entire thing, only bits and pieces. So I thought, why not do a weekly series with a post each Sunday to provide a structure to compel me to go through it. That way we’d all benefit from the process.
For background on Aristotle, you can go here to see an article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
To download “Poetics,” you can go here.
Part 24: Tragedy and Epic Poem
Again, Epic poetry must have as many kinds as Tragedy: it must be
simple, or complex, or ‘ethical,’or ‘pathetic.’ The parts also, with
the exception of song and spectacle, are the same; for it requires
Reversals of the Situation, Recognitions, and Scenes of Suffering.
Moreover, the thoughts and the diction must be artistic. In all these
respects Homer is our earliest and sufficient model. Indeed each of
his poems has a twofold character. The Iliad is at once simple and
‘pathetic,’ and the Odyssey complex (for Recognition scenes run through
it), and at the same time ‘ethical.’ Moreover, in diction and thought
they are supreme.
Epic poetry differs from Tragedy in the scale on which it is constructed,
and in its meter. As regards scale or length, we have already laid
down an adequate limit: the beginning and the end must be capable
of being brought within a single view. This condition will be satisfied
by poems on a smaller scale than the old epics, and answering in length
to the group of tragedies presented at a single sitting.
Epic poetry has, however, a great- a special- capacity for enlarging
its dimensions, and we can see the reason. In Tragedy we cannot imitate
several lines of actions carried on at one and the same time; we must
confine ourselves to the action on the stage and the part taken by
the players. But in Epic poetry, owing to the narrative form, many
events simultaneously transacted can be presented; and these, if relevant
to the subject, add mass and dignity to the poem. The Epic has here
an advantage, and one that conduces to grandeur of effect, to diverting
the mind of the hearer, and relieving the story with varying episodes.
For sameness of incident soon produces satiety, and makes tragedies
fail on the stage.
As for the meter, the heroic measure has proved its fitness by hexameter
test of experience. If a narrative poem in any other meter or in many
meters were now composed, it would be found incongruous. For of all
measures the heroic is the stateliest and the most massive; and hence
it most readily admits rare words and metaphors, which is another
point in which the narrative form of imitation stands alone. On the
other hand, the iambic and the trochaic tetrameter are stirring measures,
the latter being akin to dancing, the former expressive of action.
Still more absurd would it be to mix together different meters, as
was done by Chaeremon. Hence no one has ever composed a poem on a
great scale in any other than heroic verse. Nature herself, as we
have said, teaches the choice of the proper measure.
Homer, admirable in all respects, has the special merit of being the
only poet who rightly appreciates the part he should take himself.
The poet should speak as little as possible in his own person, for
it is not this that makes him an imitator. Other poets appear themselves
upon the scene throughout, and imitate but little and rarely. Homer,
after a few prefatory words, at once brings in a man, or woman, or
other personage; none of them wanting in characteristic qualities,
but each with a character of his own.
The element of the wonderful is required in Tragedy. The irrational,
on which the wonderful depends for its chief effects, has wider scope
in Epic poetry, because there the person acting is not seen. Thus,
the pursuit of Hector would be ludicrous if placed upon the stage-
the Greeks standing still and not joining in the pursuit, and Achilles
waving them back. But in the Epic poem the absurdity passes unnoticed.
Now the wonderful is pleasing, as may be inferred from the fact that
every one tells a story with some addition of his knowing that his
hearers like it. It is Homer who has chiefly taught other poets the
art of telling lies skilfully. The secret of it lies in a fallacy
For, assuming that if one thing is or becomes, a second is or becomes,
men imagine that, if the second is, the first likewise is or becomes.
But this is a false inference. Hence, where the first thing is untrue,
it is quite unnecessary, provided the second be true, to add that
the first is or has become. For the mind, knowing the second to be
true, falsely infers the truth of the first. There is an example of
this in the Bath Scene of the Odyssey.
Accordingly, the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable
possibilities. The tragic plot must not be composed of irrational
parts. Everything irrational should, if possible, be excluded; or,
at all events, it should lie outside the action of the play (as, in
the Oedipus, the hero’s ignorance as to the manner of Laius’ death);
not within the drama- as in the Electra, the messenger’s account of
the Pythian games; or, as in the Mysians, the man who has come from
Tegea to Mysia and is still speechless. The plea that otherwise the
plot would have been ruined, is ridiculous; such a plot should not
in the first instance be constructed. But once the irrational has
been introduced and an air of likelihood imparted to it, we must accept
it in spite of the absurdity. Take even the irrational incidents in
the Odyssey, where Odysseus is left upon the shore of Ithaca. How
intolerable even these might have been would be apparent if an inferior
poet were to treat the subject. As it is, the absurdity is veiled
by the poetic charm with which the poet invests it.
The diction should be elaborated in the pauses of the action, where
there is no expression of character or thought. For, conversely, character
and thought are merely obscured by a diction that is over-brilliant.
I leave it up to our roaming band of wise Aristotelians to decipher the finer points of this lengthy chapter drawing distinctions between two, I guess you could say, narrative forms: Tragedy and Epic Poem. As far as I can make out, Aristotle is saying the main difference is what he calls “scale”. Tragedy is more contained in scope. An epic poem is more expansive.
There is some relevance about this point to contemporary screenwriting. Setting aside the two specific categories — Tragedy, Epic Poem — and just focusing the idea of scale, the very idea of your story — its central conceit — can dictate the scope of the story. If you have an concept that involves a war between interstellar planets, then you know you are writing a story with a huge scale. If, however, the ‘war’ you explore is between a married couple like this:
That is a smaller scale. This consideration not only has aesthetic applications, but also practical ones in terms of production which relates to budget, which in turn may require you to put on your producer’s hat as you consider the cost effects of certain narrative choices. Ironically, it appears that Aristotle wore his own version of a producer’s hat, noting of Tragedy: “…we must confine ourselves to the action on the stage and the part taken by the players.”
There are two other points I’d like extract from this section:
* “For sameness of incident soon produces satiety“: David Mamet says the number one rule of writing is “Never be boring.” That is a variation on the theme Aristotle lays down here.
* “The poet should speak as little as possible in his own person, for it is not this that makes him an imitator“: I’m tempted to say, “Tell that to Shane Black!” Or Charlie Kaufman who on occasion goes so far as to insert himself, as the writer, into the story as he did in the movie Adaptation.
When we write a selling script, our job is not only to tell a story that is well-constructed and satisfying as a narrative whole, it is also to entertain the hell out of the reader. Depending upon the genre, the story and the writer, we have the freedom to make our Narrative Voice… our Narrative Voice. Novelists do this. Poets, too. Songwriters. Why not screenwriters? Again, I’m talking selling script, not necessarily the same as a production draft / shooting script.
The line of least resistance and conventional wisdom echoes what Aristotle recommends, essentially let the story speak for itself. And that is a safe, secure touchstone for most writers and most stories.
However in an extremely competitive environment in which our stories are judged by readers, from people who provide coverage to heads of production, whose collective eyeballs bleed from the number of scripts they wade through, if we can imbue a story with our own personality, our own Narrative Voice, and do it in a slick, non-obnoxious way and distinguish ourselves from the rest of the pack, we have that right as screenwriters.
A reminder: I am looking at “Poetics” through the lens of screenwriting, what is its relevance to the craft in contemporary times. And I welcome the observations of any Aristotle experts to set me straight as I’m just trying to work my way through this content the best I can.
I invite each of you, especially our wonderful group of Aristotelians, to join me in comments to continue our discussion.
How about you? What do you take from Part 24 of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?
Next week: We continue our journey through “Poetics”.
Chris Boal writing reboot of Zorro for Sony.
Mark Bomback adapting 1973 Broadway play “Veronica’s Room” for TWC-Dimension.
Max Botkin (2010 Black List) rewriting science fiction project “Prosthesis” for Universal.
Karen Croner sells pitch adapting novel “Everything Nice” to Universal, Charlize Theron attached.
Neil Druckmann adapting video game “The Last of Us” for Screen Gems.
Neal Gumpel and A.J. Benza sell comedy spec script “Pushing Daisy” to Linesfilm.
Michael Hirst adapting Hemingway novel “A Moveable Feast” for WillingWay Films.
Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton sell adventure fantasy spec script “Winter’s Knight” to Sony.
Tom McCarthy and John Bland adapting graphic novel “Tommysaurus Rex” for Universal.
Patrick Ness adapting his fantasy novel “A Monster Calls” for River Road Entertainment and Participant Media.
Nicole Perlman adapting science fiction YA novel “The Fire Sermon” for DreamWorks.
Anne Rapp writing drama fantasy “The Christmas Pearl” for Julius Nasso Productions, Whoopi Goldberg to star.
Billy Ray adapting “The Ballad of Richard Jewell” for Appian Way, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill attached.
Scott Rosenberg adapting YA horror novel “Grasshopper Jungle” for Sony.