Friday, January 31, 2014

What's Your Screenplay About? Part II

A couple years ago, after my book was published, I did a number of interviews – print, radio and television – and somewhere near the start of each interview, the same topic would inevitably be raised. Either I’d have to listen to the host tell the audience what my book was "about" or I’d be asked to explain what it was "about." Of course, even before the book went to print, my editor informed me that I needed to write something for the book jacket describing, she said, what my book was "about." I was taken by surprise because I always assumed, having read many book jackets in the past, that someone other than the author must write the stuff inside the jacket. I knew that no author would be vain enough to write things like, 

“A riveting tale of murder and. . .whatever,” 
or “a heart-stopping, rip-roaring tale of. . .whatever,” 
or, “a heartbreakingly raw and brilliantly observed memoir about. . .whatever.” 

It was the worst writing assignment I could imagine. It’s like when you join a self-help group and you need to use three words that best describe yourself. How is that in any way possible? I mean, you could choose to appear humble and use words like, “unattractive, stupid, and selfish,” all of which might be true, but if you use words like these, your group will feel sorry for you and think you have some deep-seeded problems involving your mother. Or, you could say you are “gregarious, sexy, and humble,” all of which might be true, and the group will think you’re an asshole. The three words you choose will probably depend upon what effect you want to have on the people you’re in the group with. In other words, they’ll all be bogus. 

For my editor, aware that I had been paid an advance and wanting to do my part in the publishing process, I hacked together some bogus series of sentences I hoped would make people want to pick up my book, and the words weren’t just passing things, like thoughts or dreams or money. They still appear on the book jacket today and every day and each time I hear someone use my own horrible sentences to describe what my book is about, I feel my skin crawl. Because I know it’s all wrong. Here’s part of the blurb I wrote: “. . .a wrenching, unsentimental account of the heartbreaks and ecstasies of marriage, fatherhood, and small-town life in the Midwest.”

Heartbreaks and ecstasies.

Here’s another: “Exquisitely observed and lyrically recounted, this is a compelling and often humorous account of an ordinary man’s struggle to live an extraordinary life.”

I’m surprised I didn’t just go ahead and write, “Gregarious, sexy, and humble. . .”

But then, what were my options? Was I supposed to be honest? If I were honest, in retrospect, I’d probably have written something like, “I wrote this book to get attention, and then I realized I didn’t actually want any attention because it makes me nervous. So, you can read this book or not. In the long run, it doesn’t matter. On the off chance that you do happen to read it, however, I hope you like it. But if you don’t like it, please don’t let me know. Because that will hurt my feelings.”  

To every interviewer who asked what my book was about, I’d give a different response. Not to be clever, but because I didn’t know the answer to the question. One time, I said it was a “middle-aged coming-of-age story.” Once I said it was about a guy who “learns what love is.” Once I said it was about a guy who “needs to learn how to participate in his own life.” And once I said it was about “freedom. Or, in other words, choice.” At this moment, if you were to ask me what my book is about, I’d say, “It’s a middle-aged coming-of-age story about a guy who needs to learn what love is, and to do that he needed to participate in his own life by making choices and, therefore, gaining his own freedom.”

And all the answers are bullshit. And now, since I’m writing a movie script for the book, I need to answer the question all over again. Everyone agrees that the theme is the first thing you need to identify before you write even a single word of your script because it will inform every scene and every line of dialogue. If, for example, your screenplay is about a woman who needs take revenge upon the people who killed her husband at her wedding (in which case, the theme would be revenge), it would be extraneous to include a page of dialogue having to do with how she hopes her nephew gets into the exclusive daycare program her sister has applied to.   

I’ve been told there are ten main themes in film and that mine is one of those. So, I google “ten screenplay themes,” and I get the following:

Man vs. nature                Yes.
Man vs. himself              Yes.
Loss of innocence           Not really.
Revenge                          Definitely not.
Death as a part of life      I guess. (Death of a relationship, etc.)
Triumph over adversity   Yes.  
Love conquers all            Definitely.

The list goes on. And it doesn’t help. There is no list that can help. Because my theme keeps spreading out like lard in a hot pan. If you go deep enough, you could answer the question, “What is cat food about?” by saying, “Because cat food nourishes and animal, and all animals are devoid of choice where morality is concerned and therefore inherently good and without sin and unable to tell even a single lie, then I’d have to say that cat food is about The Truth.”

The exercise of writing is for me a way of ferreting out what it is, exactly, I’m thinking. I’m never able to actually pin anything down because the things I’m trying to pin down keep changing shape and escaping between the words. Which, I know, sounds like a lot of poetic horse shit, but I can’t help it. If I’m bound to honesty, I’ll say that for me to answer for what I’ve done after I’ve done it is impossible. For me to proclaim what it is I’m going to do before I do it is no less difficult, both being impossible.  

All this rhetoric aside, I need to say what my theme is for this fucking screenplay. And so, what I’m left with is this. In stating the theme of my screenplay, I need to write something less than true that sounds like it’s not less than true. In other words, I need to bullshit my way through this like any middle-aged author of any coming-of-age story about finding one’s freedom and learning what love is bullshits his way through every moment of his life.  

The great challenged, Joe's great challenge, in the face of eternity and death, is a question of kindness. Can he love his son? 


  1. Your last sentence - your big question - seems to be answered by what used to be your next post, which is now taken down. Stating the obvious, I guess, all around.

    1. Jenny, I had to take that down because I sent it to a place that won't accept previously published work, and even though not many people read this blog, I guess it would count as being "published." And that last line? It'll change again. It has changed once before. I'm still working through it.

    2. Well, that would explain why I didn't remember it ending like that the first time I read it :)

      Good luck; I hope you get an offer. If not, I hope you keep trying.

  2. Every aspect other than the writing (why would you ask the writer to describe what he's written? He's written it.) is bullshit. Sometimes the writing is bullshit too. It's all an attempt. I hate marketing. Your last sentence breaks my heart, which is what you do. Not in a bad way.