Monday 9 July 2012

Book review: "The Television Plays"

This is post #300. The Collected Works of Paddy Chayefsky: The Television Plays was recommended to me by Brian McDonald. My query related to screenwriting, but rather than suggesting one of those by-the-numbers,-make-a-million-overnight bestsellers, his answer placed the emphasis on story-telling, the "how" of putting an effective story together.

To start with: Who was Paddy Chayefsky (1923-1981)?

Only five people have ever won three Academy Awards for screenwriting. Three of those (Francis Ford Coppola, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder) shared the credit with at least one other writer. Only two have received three solo Academy Awards for Best Screenplay. One is Paddy Chayefsky—Marty (1955), The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976)the other, Woody Allen. Chayefsky wrote songs, plays, TV series, and feature films. The Writers Guild of America named their award for television writers in his honour.

The Television Plays contains the full scripts of six one-hour TV dramas written by Paddy Chayefsky between 1952 and 1954. The value of the book doesn't lie in the provision of the screenplays, but rather in the comments and explanation he gives as to his mental processes while working out how to tell a given story.

For example, he was asked to write a one-hour drama (Holiday Song) based on a Reader's Digest story about a chance encounter on a train which led to the reconciliation of a husband and wife, both of whom believed the other to have died in World War II.
The incident is not a good one for dramatic purposes. Despite the fact that it involves bringing together a husband and wife who believed each other dead, there is little emotion involved. There is a certain element of suspense, but suspense is a poor substitute for drama. It would be possible to use this incident as the opening scene of a story and then follow the course of events resulting from the meeting of a long-separated husband and wife. But this isn't what the subway incident is about.
     The incident has only one dramatic meaning, and that is: there is a God. The incident is what I call a third-act incident: it proves something. If in the beginning of the play there was a character who didn't believe in God, then this incident could prove to him that there is a God. Of course, the character would have to be someone who would accept such a symbolic interpretation of the incident; and as a writer it is your job to create such a character.
     You open your script showing a religious (person) who has lost his faith in God, and you end your script with this subway incident which restores his faith to him. What is missing is the story or what I call the urgency. Why is it so urgent (he) regain his faith in God? What terrible consequences will occur if he doesn't? As a writer, you sit down and painfully invent a series of circumstances that will be resolved by this incident on the subway.
Here are a few quotes from the book.
  • Dramatic writing is really nothing more than telling a story, and nobody ever tells a story quite like anyone else.
  • I have only one rule that I consider absolute and arbitrary, and that is: a drama can have only one story. It can have only one leading character. All other stories and all other characters are used in the script only as they facilitate the main story.
  • Dramatic construction is essentially a search for reasons. That is to say, given the second-act-curtain incident, construction consists of finding the reasons why the characters involved in the incident act the way they do. Each incident must be dramatized by at least one scene, and the scenes laid out so that they inevitably grow into the crisis.
  • It's always good to start a dramatization with a crisis if you can get one. For one thing, it promptly tells you what your basic story is and keeps you from getting confused with other story elements.
  • The basic story is always the emotional line of the script. Don't ever make the basic line the social comment of the script. Drama is concerned only with emotion.
  • It is a common illusion that dramatists sit down and preconceive a detailed biography and character study of each character in the script. To a professional writer, this would be a palpable waste of time. A writer usually starts off thinking with a rough feel of the character absorbed from some experience in his own life. 
  • It is inevitable that the preconception of the character will change a thousand times during the course of construction in order to satisfy the demands of the story line.
  • Writing is such a confused business of backing and filling, of suddenly plunging into the third act while you are still pondering the first act.
  • Writing is unfortunately an emotional as well as a mental trade, and the simplest steps in logic are obscured by the writer's own fears and anxieties, most of which he is unaware of.
  • I usually like to start my subplot in the second act.
  • Each story demands its own kind of construction, and each writer must construct his stories as best suits his ways.
  • The Bicycle Thief, an Italian masterpiece, got about as close to an ordinary day in an unemployed man's life as you can get in a movie; but even this picture required a special urgency of incident.
  • There is far more exciting drama in the reasons why a man gets married than in why he murders someone.
  • There are all sorts of actors, many of them highly intelligent or amusing, but as a class they have a poor sense of theater. There are very few actors whose opinion of a script I would trust.

Some more Paddy Chayefsky quotes, this time from the book The Craft of the Screenwriter.
  • If it should occur to you to cut, do so. That’s the first basic rule of cutting. If you’re reading through and stop, something is wrong. Cut it. If something bothers you, then it’s bad. Cut it. If you can cut inside the speech, you’re really cutting most effectively.
  • It’s purifying, it’s refining. Making it precise. Precision is one of the basic elements of poetry. My own rules are very simple. First, cut out all the wisdom; then cut out all the adjectives. I’ve cut some of my favorite stuff. I have no compassion when it comes to cutting. No pity, no sympathy. Some of my dearest and most beloved bits of writing have gone with a very quick slash, slash, slash. Because something was heavy there. Cutting leads to economy, precision, and to a vastly improved script.
  • Names are fun. In Hospital I used a lot of mystery writers. Had a nurse named Christie. A doctor is named Chandler. Sometimes I go to baseball box scores and pick out names. Sometimes I keep characters from one project to another — Arthur Landau, a lawyer, runs through a variety of things. 
  • I always write a prose treatment. I write about half the story in prose to keep order among all the elements of the plot so I don’t get stuck when I do the screenplay.
  • My dialogue is precise. And it’s true. I think out the truth of what the people are saying and why they’re saying it. Dialogue comes because I know what I want my characters to say. I envision the scene; I can imagine them up there on the screen; I try to imagine what they would be saying and how they would be saying it. and I keep it in character. And the dialogue comes out of that.
  • The best thing that can happen is for the theme to be nice and clear from the beginning. Doesn’t always happen. You think you have a theme and you then start telling the story. Pretty soon the characters take over and the story takes over and you realize your theme isn’t being executed by the story, so you start changing the theme.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

It would have been good to talk about writing with this writer, he thought so much about what he did.