Syd Field, John Truby, Chris Vogler, and Michael Hauge are men on a mission. Their respective careers demonstrate lifelong delving into what makes narrative work, and how, by gaining an understanding of what story conveys subliminally, a writer gains the power to create surface events, characters, and conflicts that resonate on the level of the most eternal truths of human nature.
The Screenwriter’s Summit on December 11/12 in Los Angeles at the Westin Hotel gave aspiring and established writers alike ample chance to hear the theories of all four of these luminaries. And despite disagreements on particulars, all four meet on these points: a writer should write free of restraint, and theories, ultimately, are resolvable to common sense. But as any person of experience knows, the road to common sense is long and hard.
Syd Field hardly requires an introduction. Because of his fame he is perhaps the most misinterpreted of the quartet — rumor being that he views his famous screenplay template as set in stone. But hearing Field talk gives a different impression. “We’re in the middle of an evolution and revolution of the screenplay,” Field says. “Digital technology is imprinting our cultural consciousness to a point where we can build greater characterization and dimension of character by utilizing flashbacks, flash forwards, and fragments of memories.” At the summit, Field pointed out a growing trend of emphasis on images over dialogue, citing films various as Avatar and Juno. “Giving characters dimension through images rather than words – that’s part of the evolution.” Focusing on the first ten pages of a script and how a writer must establish character and story from the outset, Field discussed voice-over narration and the use of a recurrent, thematically related image (such as the famous chair that opens Juno) as methods by which to keep viewers watching, and perhaps more importantly, production company readers turning pages.
John Truby has a stance unique among the foursome, maintaining that a story gains its meaning through how structure enables the writer to deliver a moral to the audience. “The ultimate end point of a good story is to express the author’s moral vision,” Truby says. “Not beating the audience over the head with it, not forcing them to believe what he believes, but saying this is my moral vision of the best way to live a life, done artistically through plot and character.” Emphasizing genre at the summit, Truby explained how his ideas on deep structure and the character “web” serve to create a unified story, and summarizes: “Where you start is not so important as understanding the need to connect all the major story elements organically under the surface.”
Chris Vogler doesn’t so much tell writers how to write, as explain to them what they have written. Author of the acclaimed The Writer’s Journey, Vogler emphasizes the socio/cultural studies of myth pioneered by Joseph Campbell, translating these ideas into a twelve-step structure detailing the phases every hero moves through on his journey. What’s fascinating about this structure is how it functions as a template in reverse. “The hero’s journey is embedded in almost every well-structured story. Sometimes the elements are switched out or inverted, but the basic structure will always be found.” In Vogler’s structure, the hero starts his journey in his ordinary world, but through a call to adventure, and successive phases including mentorship, tests and allies, he finally returns with the elixir, completing the journey’s cycle. Ultimately, Vogler’s stance explains how as storytellers, writers guide us on paths of metaphoric self-renewal, whether that renewal occurs in outer space, a mythic kingdom, or a modern office.
Michael Hauge‘s six-stage plot structure mirrors in different language the structures of Field, Truby and Vogler. But his greatest innovation is his definition of the character arc. During his journey, Hauge explained, a character travels from a socially-defined artificial identity to his or her true essence, brought to light through the ordeal of dramatic conflict – something noticeable in all well-defined characters, but especially important in the romantic comedy genre. “The secret of successful romantic comedy is in knowing how to have the lovers reveal to each other their true essences,” Haugh maintains. “Without this, there is absolutely no reason for them to come together.”
During a group Q&A, all of the gurus emphasized that yes, to be forearmed a writer must have insight to the demands of the industry, and each provided a wealth of details on pitching and representation. But the main theme of the weekend was a celebration of creativity — unhampered by industry demands and even the strictures of writing theories. Vogler’s motto? “Trust the path. Trust the story. It will know how to tell itself.” Syd Field remarked, “When you sit down to write, just write! Absolutely put all this stuff out of your mind and write the sloppiest first draft imaginable — let it all come out!” Michael Hauge pointed out that Hollywood is a town run on fear. His response? “Hang onto your passion. Passion trumps fear every time.”
Now that’s a story.