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Citizen Screenwriter

By Charles Deemer

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Immediately after the terrorists' attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, Hollywood responded by pulling movies scheduled for release that, in the horrific context of the times, suddenly were considered to be "in bad taste."

Question: why weren't these movies in bad taste before the attack?

Another question: what responsibilites, if any, does the screenwriter have to the society at large? What does it mean to be a "citizen screenwriter"?

The Screenwriter as God

Screenwriters create stories. Stories do not happen in a vacuum. Stories happen in "a world," which also is created by the screenwriter.

A world without values is flat and without conflict -- in other words, boring. Since creating boredom is the first sin of screenwriting, a screenwriter's world is value-laden: there are good guys and bad guys, there are points of reference by which the audience can choose sides, usually hoping that the main character ("good") reaches a goal by defeating opposing forces that often are presented by the antagonist ("bad").

Most of the controversies surrounding contempoarary film have to do with what influence, if any, the screenwriter's world has on "the real world." If, for example, a screenwriter's world is filled with acts of graphic violence, does this mean the world at large is more likely to be filled with acts of violence? Does life imitate art?

Of course it does, just as art imitates life. The screenwriter's world and the world at large are connected by a two-way street, each informing the other. Art does not happen in a vacuum, and neither does life.

Because the screenwriter has complete control over the world he or she creates, in essence the screenwriter gets to play God. Usually this extraordinary act is accepted without fanfare and not thought to be terribly important. Usually screenwriters put into their screenplays the same values they see around them.

Then a great historic tragedy happens, such as the events of September 11, and we begin to question everything. A movie that wasn't in bad taste on September 10 suddenly is considered to be in bad taste on September 12.

The "Character" of a Script

I want to suggest that bad taste is less contextual than this, less topical than this. I want to suggest that the responsibility of a screenwriter, like the responsibility of all writers and all artists, is considerable.

This responsibility is not fettered by any notions of censorship. Writers must be free to write whatever they want to write. But what often gets lost in writing, perhaps especially in screenwriting given the clear mass popularity of film, is the writer's conscious recognition of and acceptance of this responsibility. Writers who don't recognize their responsibility tend to ignore it.

A script reflects the character of the screenwriter. A racist screenwriter is going to write a racist script. This is different from putting a racist character into a script, into a story. The great violence that is so common in so many scripts is there because writers choose to put it there. These acts of violence on film inform the world, give the world an ambiance, that tilts it out of balance. In this case, the screenwriter's world is usually more violent than the world at large, and this fact is what makes a violent act like September 11th so shocking and why so many people said, "It was like a movie."

We expect horrendous acts of violence in movies. They've almost become a cliche, they are that common.

Writing to Inform the World at Large

But what if screenwriters presented a different kind of world? What if screenwriters wrote less about violence and more about the positive dynamics of our lives, into which conflict (the driving force of storytelling) still can be present? Many screenwriters do, of course -- it's a matter of balance. And the screenwriter isn't the only one responsible for the great focus of violence in films today. Violence often requires special effects, which are like wonderful technical toys for a writer's collaborative artists to play with.

And yet violence doesn't have to be grandiose and literal, the bigger explosion the better, the more blood the better. What is striking about a movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is how dancelike and artful the "violence" is depicted. It turned violence -- fighting -- into ballet, and audiences loved it. How refreshing and magical, rather than literal and graphic, violence was! This movie was a victory of Poetry over Prose.

Screenwriters inform the world at large, whether they intend to or not, whether they do so consciously or not. The values present in the worlds they create spill over into the larger world beyond the screen. When these created worlds stray too far from the values we cherish in the real world we actually live in, as when films tilt in an unrealistic emphasis of graphic violence, it's no wonder that graphic violence invades our real lives. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

The challenge to screenwriters is to create the worlds we would prefer to live in. To dramatize, to find the conflicts associated with, the deep human values we want emphasized in the world at large.

In a way, the large crop of violent films reflects a failure of the imagination. Can we offer no more than car chases and explosions, blood and gore, to capture the attention of our audiences? We have been myopic, taking the easy way out.

We need more creativity than this. We need more imagination than this. And most of all, we need more character and life-affirming values than this.

Only then can we write the scripts that produce the movies that inform the world in a way we can be proud of because we've contributed to making the world a better and more meaningful place to live.

About Charles Deemer

Charles was raised in Virginia, Texas and Southern California. He began his undergraduate studies at the California Institute of Technology, where he was quarterback of the 0-4 Freshman football team, and finished them at UCLA, where he received his BA (Phi Beta Kappa, Honors English). He has an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Oregon.

Deemer's play Famililly won the 1997 "Crossing Borders" international new play competition. The public television version of his play Christmas at the Juniper Tavern won an ACE award. Three of his short stories were selected to the "Roll of Honor" in Best American Short Stories. His novel Dead Body In A Small Room was a finalist for ForeWord Magazine's Mystery of the Year award. His book Seven Plays was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. His other books include Sodom, Gomorrah & Jones, a novel; Kerouac's Scroll, a novel; In My Old Age, poems; and A Charles Deemer Reader.

Charles is a pioneer in hyperdrama, a term he is credited with coining. His short memoir Hyperdrama: My Obsession With A New Theater Form shares his enthusiasm for the new dramaturgy.  Deemer is the former editor of Sweet Reason: a journal of ideas, history and culture, former managing editor of Oregon Business magazine, former editor of Oregon Literary Review and former artistic director of Small Screen Video.  Deemer recently began making digital films. His DVDs include Three Short Digital Films, Deconstructing Sally and The Farewell Wake.  He currently teaches screenwriting at Portland State University.

Screenwriting Article by Charles Deemer

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