Why Suspension of Disbelief in Movies Work

This post is really aimed at my girlfriend…you’ll see why. Yesterday I went to see Jurassic World with her. She’s the most unimpressed person when it comes to movies. She actually hates movies. Don’t know why. Don’t know where her childhood went wrong that made her hate movies. WHO HATES MOVIES???? Anyway, every 30 minutes I would ask her how she’s liking the movie, knowing her distaste for movies. She would answer, “It’s okay.” I would proceed to ask her after something epic would happen. She was still unimpressed. Well, I found out she doesn’t really care for action or unrealistic movies. Which, if you think about it, most movies are somewhat unrealistic.

After the movie we went out to eat. Most of the meal consisted of her going on about what she hated about the movie. (There were a lot of things). One thing she focused on was how unrealistic Jurassic World was. So I tried explaining to her that obviously in real life most of the movies out there would never happen, or could never happen, and that’s why they’re called movies. Although not all movies are works of fiction, some are based on true stories. Nevertheless, in order to make a movie work, you must have imagination. You have to exaggerate things or stretch the truth to make it more entertaining for your audience. You think biopics would be entertaining if movies stuck to the facts? Not everybody lives an interesting life, so of course you must create content for the purpose of a successful film. What makes a successful film you ask? Conflict.

You must throw obstacle after obstacle at your protagonist to overcome, whether it’s as extreme as fighting off dinosaurs or as mild as not fitting in. Whether it’s an external or internal conflict, your film needs conflict. Although too much conflict and too much going on causes chaos and the film fails. So you have to have a good balance of things. Okay, back to what I was actually talking about. Oh yeah, realism and movies.

Do we actually believe that Claire ran the entire movie in heels? No. Do we actually believe that Jurassic World theme park would ever happen? (Perhaps in the future, but for now, of course not.) Do we believe that people would genetically modify a dinosaur? Actually, I believe this one because humans are crazy, but you guys know what I’m saying. It’s the idea of suspension of disbelief.

In actuality we don’t believe any of Jurassic World to be true, but in the world they’ve created, we believe it. In the universe where these characters live, we completely buy it. Is The Hunger Games real? No, but the world that Suzanne Collins brings us into, feels real.

To further explain why fantastical movies work, I’m going to quote Syf Field and this will put the whole thing to rest.

“It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the 19th century poet and literary critic who coined the concept known as the willing suspension of disbelief. What he says is basically this: when we, the viewer, reader or audience, approach a work of art, we must leave our own personal beliefs, our own personal perception of reality, behind so we can approach the work on its own merits, on its own level. In other words, we must willingly suspend our disbelief no matter how distant the story line strays from what we believe to be true. All thoughts of what we believe to be true have to be suspended; our “reality” has to be left behind to “the work.”

Amen to that, Syd. Amen. So now you realize that no matter how unrealistic your concept is, there’s always room for an audience. (Unless it’s batshit crazy stupid). But in that case I’m sure the SYFY channel will pick it up.

SMC

The Importance of Writing a Character Biography

I’ve always felt the characters I created were real. The situations I’ve thrown them in really had me empathizing with them. Whenever they cried, I cried. Whenever they were sad, I was sad. I’m not sure if I can even put it into fathomable words. The connection I feel with them is real. It is beyond real. To me, they genuinely feel like real people who happen to be going through  very real situations. (No I’m not cray cray).

I was editing one of my scripts and realized I knew my characters in the story I have written, but not as well as I’d like to. By that, I meant I knew who my characters were from page 1 to 114; from beginning to end, but I didn’t feel I knew them outside of the script. I still felt that deep connection with my characters, but felt I didn’t know them as much as I’d like to. I found myself questioning some of the decisions my main character made in the movie. I asked myself, what would he do and why? What is he like as a person? Why is he like that? What made him that way? So I took Syd Field’s advice and wrote a character biography for my characters. Let me tell you, it was one of the greatest experiences.

A character biography is a free-association writing exercise that reveals your character’s history from birth up until the time your story begins. In the book, The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field, he has a whole chapter titled The Tools of Character, where he talks about creating back story for your character. He breaks it into the first ten years of the character’s life, then the second ten years, then (if applicable) the third ten years. He provides a sundry of questions about your character’s life, some as basic as is your character male or female, where do they live, where were they born. He then goes into more technical questions such as who were your character’s friends growing up, what sexual experiences did they have, if their parents were divorced or not, etc. Of course you can ask your character any question in the world and use it in your biography.

This is a great tool to better understand your character. I now now my characters 100% more than I did before. While writing my character biography, I didn’t even have to brainstorm or hesitate, it honestly came out all natural as if this information was bona fide. I feel I know my characters so much better and you will have a better understanding of who they are and why they do the things they do. So I challenge you to write a bio for your characters. Trust me, it’s life changing. Yeah, me and my characters are closer than ever. I am vicariously living through them, okay? Don’t judge.

SMC

Why Syd Field’s Books Matter

If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, the very first book you should pick up is Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field. It’s one of the first screenwriting books I ever read and let me tell you, it’s the greatest tool. It’s the most important 309 pages you will probably ever read in your screenwriting career. The book is filled with rich information on how to write a screenplay, from the very concept, all the way to completion and what to do after it’s written. He covers the basics, starting with what actually is a screenplay then delves deeper into theme and subplot. I honestly learned so much from the man, Syd.

Syd Field makes you believe in yourself as a screenwriter. After reading his book, you actually feel like you have a chance in the industry. Most people and books will tell you that you have a better chance of starring in an NBA playoff game, like Michael Hauge said in Writing Screenplays That Sell.

Syd came up with the Syd Field Paradigm which is prominent to every movie ever made.

how-and-why-syd-field-paradigm

The paradigm is a good guide to follow when writing a screenplay. It helped me immensely and will do the same for you.

It would also be beneficial to read Syd Field’s Selling A Screenplay: The Screenwriter’s Guide To Hollywood, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, and The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver. Pretty much anything by Syd Field, read it and retain all the information…well, as much as you can anyway. Selling A Screenplay covers how to sell your script to the big guns and how their minds work. It’s pretty much everything you will do after you’ve written your screenplay and you’re ready to send it off and pitch it.

The Screenwriter’s Workbook gives you great exercises you can do to better your script. Confession, I actually haven’t finished reading this book but I will soon, I promise, okay? Don’t hold that against me.

The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver by Syd is also a great book to read and I highly recommend it. It provides exercises and strategies to get past writer’s block and helps you actually identify the problem of your screenplay. He covers common problems people have when writing and in general covers problems, problems, and more problems. This book was a lifesaver. Go buy it!

Other great books you can read to better yourself as a Screenwriter:

  • Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

Blake comes with a batch of fresh new concepts and ideas for screenwriting, including his own Beat Sheet, called the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. Ironic, right?

STC_BeatSheetRev3Pg1-2

At the end of each chapter he provides helpful exercises to try.

  • How NOT To Write A Screenplay by Denny Martin Flinn

This is an easy book to follow with a lot of great insight on what not to put in your screenplay. Such as, don’t add song titles or music in your script unless it pertains to the movie (Across the Universe), don’t list a cast of characters, and don’t include camera instructions, you are NOT the director…unless you are. Denny is also so kind as to tell you what you SHOULD include in your screenplay, cover letter, etc.

  • Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge

I’m about a third into this book and it’s a great tool for screenwriter’s. It’s full of plenty of information the other books will tell you but in a different method with a different point of view. Pretty much all these books are the same concept, just explained and conceptualized differently, but you get the same outcome. 2+2=4. 1+1+1+1=4. 2+1=3 +1=4. Something like that. I do enjoy how I attempted to use math (in the real world) to explain something about writing. Good for me. Maybe math did pay off, Mrs. Hartwig. (My 12th grade math teacher).

  • Writing Movies by Gotham Writer’s Workshop expert instructors, edited by Dean of faculty Alexander Steele

I’ve taken a few classes through Gotham Writer’s Workshop online. It’s a great platform for those interested in learning about screenwriting, also simply writing. They offer a myriad of writing classes online and in NYC. I’ve had some great teachers teach me a lot about the craft of screenwriting. The instructors have published a rather thick book on the art of writing movies. It goes over the fundamentals and covers plot, dialogue, tone and theme, etc. Pretty much everything you need to know about writing a script, this book has. Linked below is the website to sign up for classes at Gotham Writer’s Workshop.

Gotham Writer’s Workshop

There are a ton more screenwriting books I’d like to read. If you know of any, please let me know which ones I should read.

SMC