5writers.com is pleased to welcome guest blogger Michael Tabb, WGA.
WGA writer Michael Tabb has written for Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, comic book icon Stan Lee, and industry players including: Lawrence Bender, Sean Daniel, Paul Schiff, Mark Canton, Mike Newell, Thor Freudenthal and Dustin Hoffman while speaking at schools and panels across the nation. He lectured or served on panels for: USC, UCLA, NYU, FSU, The Screenwriters World Conference, Comic-Con, and the WGA (where he co-founded the guild’s Mentor Program). In October 2014, Mr. Tabb received the one and only, faculty-nominated Pilot Award for the entire Liberal Arts Program for an online M.F.A. script-editing course at Full Sail University. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelTabb.
Don’t You Lie To Me!
by Michael Tabb, WGA
One of the simple questions a writer like me gets asked a lot is, “What is the most important element of scriptwriting?” Many might think it would be character creation, imagination, structure or a fantastic premise for the story that sells itself. Now, each of those things play a truly important role in either execution of a great story or selling it, but I would put none of those qualities at the very, tippy-top of this list. Just as character creation is the adhesive that holds the reader to the page in any drama, a vivid imagination plays an equally vital role in science fiction and fantasy. Structure keeps every story on pace in scriptwriting and the premise of a movie is often the largest factor in marketing what Hollywood movie studios refer to as a summer, tent-pole motion picture. All of those things are used in every written story, but any given story may not equally rely totally on each of those four attributes when considering the wide range of genres from biographical content to a horror story. There is only one thing that is universally needed in all forms of storytelling, and that is honesty. Without a strong sense of truth, no story of any kind (in any genre or format) will keep an audience’s interest.
As readers, we all know that when we get a whiff of characters or a story that reeks of falsehood, it makes a reader walk away from a story. There’s no more disruptive moment in storytelling than one where the reader thinks to him or herself, “Oh, that would never happen that way.” This is why research is such a large part of story formation. Once a writer loses the readers faith in telling a story that no longer feels authentic to itself, readers check out pretty fast. We can put up with a lack of imagination if the characters are truthful, dynamic and engrossing. We can swallow a story not moving along at a fantastic, structural pace if the concept is engrossing enough. We put up with a lot of those other story attributes playing a less important role repeatedly in the stories we read because the other strengths hold our interest. The one thing a reader cannot stand for is something that fails logistically to read as truthful or honest. The minute a character or idea does not read true, it cues a reader to lose faith in not only the story but the writer as well.
Honesty is what allows us to buy into the fantastic reality of any story. It sounds contradictory at first to say fantasy or science fiction requires tremendous honesty, but the reader would not be able to relate to that world or its characters without it. When we create worlds, they must be grounded in rules and truth of some kind, regardless of how far out the technology or realities of that world. A story reads and feels more immersive if it reads like science fact. Even the most wildly imaginative worlds should read as if based in some kind of exploration that we already know exists. Because the human race studies DNA and explores cloning, the idea that Jurassic Park, as far-fetched as it seems, can still make sense to a reader. The scientific part of science fiction is based in truth. In fantasy, though it’s very hard to believe enormous reptiles larger than elephants used to fly, the concept works with dragons only because they have wings, which know is how animals achieve flight. Once we started the space race in the 1960s, shows like Star Trek start to feel real to audiences. Mankind is raised and educated to understand the universe around them by making sense of how things work in the real world. We need the truth. How can readers hope to understand the protagonist’s personal journey if circumstances or characters make no sense? It must ring true in some way. This goes far beyond just situational surroundings as mentioned here.
Not only should the world feel honest, but the characters must have their own truth as well. Characters must act and respond in ways that are truthful to the character that the writer introduced. They need to be consistent. If a character is terrified of physical confrontation or a pacifist, she’s not going to join the Army without being drafted. Truth is at the core of character sympathy and our empathy. When someone’s family member dies, the truth of that pain shoots through our veins when they sob. If a horribly abusive villain dies, because we know the truth about terror in this world, emotional satisfaction fills our hearts (even if we feel for the deceased party in some way). Also, the truth is used to unveil the inner workings of a character and help us understand them. If they find out a parent dies and their first question is about the deceased’s last will and testament, it tells us a lot about the character. A character’s inner truth (perspective) defines their role in the story. It shows how they relate to and conflict with the protagonist’s goals.
The pursuit of the truth about people and the universe is what inspires most writers and their stories. Therefore, it makes sense that honesty is the quintessential, non-negotiable element necessary in any story. The premise behind a well-written and crafted story is usually an exploration of finding answers to a question. Does good and evil really exist or all we all just somewhere in the middle? Can man get over a deeply, emotionally, devastating trauma? Can people really change? Can someone who has done bad things find satisfying redemption? Is there a God? Is nature or nurture more powerful? Does even the smallest life have an impact on the world? Is love worth dying for? Is it possible for dynamically opposing ideologies to coexist without war? Can peace ever exist in the Middle East? These are just questions that came to mind. So if you think about it, no matter what it is, every story is really about the pursuit of truth. As human beings, we want answers. Stories explore the questions and that writer’s perspective on the answer to it. Its always about finding the truth.
So, when you add it up, thinking about how the truth is integral to the concept, the world and the characters of every story, there is no single story attribute more important to keeping an audience engaged in any or every aspect of your story than that of keeping it full of unadulterated honesty.