We don't think in episodes, we think in arcs. – Rob Edwards
In the following interview with screenwriter Rob Edwards, writers of all levels will certainly be inspired. It’s easy asking questions about the art/science of scriptwriting. But, it’s Rob’s answers that reveal the elements of storytelling.
And to be sure, readers can find so much more from Rob at his website: RobEdwards.net. Plus, this isn't the first time Rob’s been interviewed for Script Mag. Ryan Kelly’s interview with Rob explores Rob’s many other insights on screenwriting.
Rob Edwards on IMDB: Rob’s credits include Princess and the Frog, Treasure Planet and other feature films, plus writer and producer credits for numerous TV series (In The House, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and more).
What is a story? The most common definition I've found for defining what a story is in screenwriting is: “A flawed character overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to reach a desired goal.” Would you agree? And of course, there are as many ways to tell a story as there are stories to tell.
Rob: That's a great definition. I've also heard James Cameron say that story is about beating up flawed characters until they finally see the light. We tell stories all the time. We share them at the dinner table. They're the first things we hear from our kids when they get home from school.
But when you make a living telling stories it becomes a different thing entirely. Andrew Stanton gave a lecture on story and called it his “Journey of Pain” to illustrate just how impossible it is to tell great stories that will resonate with large audiences.
How important is conflict in storytelling, from feature films to sitcoms, from love stories to comedies to thrillers?
Rob: I'd say that conflict is the SECOND most important element in storytelling. The first being “intention.” Our character has to want something. The more desperately they want it, the more interesting it's going to be.
But “obstacle” is what makes it entertaining. It's no fun watching a character want something that's easy to get. The fun is watching the struggle. Then you start layering in other elements. You try to make time an issue to add urgency. Maybe clarify some of those intentions internally so we know why our hero wants what they want. Maybe find some reasons to care about whether or not they get it. Maybe get into their heads a bit so we know what's inside them and what they need to fix about themselves before they can get what they want.
Also, when talking about conflict, it's important to pinpoint just what we're talking about because all conflict is not equally entertaining. I've read scripts where characters argue for pages on end. It's conflict but it's boring and it doesn't advance the story so, as a teacher, I'm hesitant to talk about its importance out of context.
Good story conflict boils down to a concept that Joseph Campbell calls the tension between “the sword” and “the elixir”. The sword being that thing you know will work. The elixir being that thing that could possibly work if you just take a leap of faith and use it.
To me, story boils down to that dilemma that we all face at critical times in our lives. Become the president of a huge company or be a good dad? Complete the mission and get your legs back or save the Na'vi tribesmen? In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker has to make the choice to destroy the Death Star with the tracking device on his ship or to use The Force like Obi Wan told him to. That's the essence of good story.
Not all screenwriters (big and small) are instructors. What led you to do a Master Class Series and various screenwriting workshops? Screenwriters helping screenwriters--great concept, but isn't the business of screenwriting terribly competitive? Why do you want to help other screenwriters?
Rob: Ha! Great question. And I have a terrible answer for it.
When I first came out to Los Angeles from Detroit I was astounded by the amount of great writers who were eager to help me learn how to write. They'd read my specs and take me out to lunch to give me notes. Then they'd beat me up over the stuff I did wrong and pat me on the back for the one or two things I did right.
Now there seems to be a big “for profit” industry around teaching writers how to write. But they're taught by people who are lousy writers. It's like learning how to cook from guys who can't make a sandwich. I'm reading scripts by guys with degrees in screenwriting and they're not just unsalable, they're unreadable! I've read scripts by their professors and they're no better!”
It all makes sense when you look at it this way, the “guru” business model isn't to teach, it's to get you to pay for the next seminar. I don't look at it as a business. I'm more interested in giving writers the tools they'll need to teach themselves. Let the “gurus” teach theory. I'm more interested in teaching fundamentals like the ones I learned from my mentors.
Everybody doesn't have to become David Koep but it helps to know that if you introduce 22 main characters in the first five pages nobody's going to read page six. So I'm just trying to pay it forward in the best way I know how.
You should check out my 5 Keystones articles. I wish I had those when I started writing. They teach you how to move clearly from Inciting Incident to Midpoint to the End of Act 2, to the Setback to the Superfreak! The Superfreak is that dilemma I mentioned earlier with Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. You can't write a good screenplay if you haven't given this moment a lot of thought.
Another big one is the way we clearly set up protagonists and antagonists. The way we emphasize intention and obstacle (which is so fundamental it goes back to Aristotle's, Poetics.)
What are some of the major differences between writing for TV vs. film?
Rob: It's kind of like asking which of my sons I love more. Television is in your living room every week so there's an intimacy you don't get with movies. Movies are events. But you're twenty minutes in before you can effectively set up the world and the characters.
There's also a lot of blurring the lines now because some of the most fun movies out there are sequels and some of the best television series are limited. Frankly, I confuse matters more because I watch most of my television and my movies on my computer.
Of course there's a big difference between television shows like How I Met Your Mother and movies like Divergent, but I don't think that's what we're talking about here especially from a writing perspective.
When I made the transition from half-hour television to feature films it took a while because three-jokes-per-page was in my bloodstream by then. I had to break movies down and reexamine everything I thought I knew about writing. I wish I could explain it in a couple of sentences but it took me about a year to figure it out. It's like going from being a professional tennis player to being a professional golfer. You're through the looking glass. Lots of writers try to make the transition but I don't think everybody takes the time to learn the new style.
With “buddy” films like Lethal Weapon (Glover and Gibson) and Die Hard (Jackson and Willis), clearly there are ways to tell stories with black and white characters without having to address the issue of color. Meanwhile, with films like The Help, The Butler and 12 Years A Slave, the issue of being black is still…very much an issue. Where does the future of filmmaking lie in terms of black actors, directors, producers, etc.?
Rob: It's hard to avoid discussions of race when you're dealing with slavery but I would argue that The Help, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave and Django are more about humanity than skin color. As far as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard are concerned, you have to remember that those movies were made in 1987 and 88 respectively. They predate Will Smith, Jamie Fox and Kevin Hart.
We are living in the future right now. Ride Along is a black-white buddy cop movie without the white guy and it's currently the third highest grossing movie of the year! Tyler Perry is said to be worth about $400 million! As the demographics of the country changes so to do the demographics of the box office.
The pressure is in the other direction now. For example, there's a lot of pressure on the film, Noah, because there's nobody of color on that boat with Russell Crowe. I'm not sure if you would have seen that in the late 80s. So, all in all, I'd say the future looks bright for talented artists of color.
Movies are full of clichés. In fact, Hollywood is often a cliché in itself. Yet, producers and audiences alike are always looking for something unique? Or are they? Do audiences want clichés or do they want originality?
Rob: You're giving me a bit of a Hobson's Choice here because I'm not sure anybody is looking for “clichés” over “originality.” I'm also going to push back on the premise that Hollywood is a cliché. It's an evolving organism that completely overhauls itself every few years. The people who make the decisions, the ways movies get funded, the methods and technology we use are all vastly different from even a few months ago.
Having said that, it would be easy for me to be cynical and say audiences aren't looking for anything new. If they were, the top 5 movies last year wouldn't be: 1) The Hunger Games sequel; 2) Iron Man 3; 3) Frozen (the third Disney princess movie); 4) Despicable Me 2; 5) Man of Steel.
If we, as artists, think we can force feed the audience a steady diet of “original” vegetables, with movies like Eraserheads and Un Chien Andalou, and stay in business we're kidding ourselves. I'm just a kid from the Midwest and my taste is staggeringly ordinary. I like comic books, sports and movies that make me cry.
When I write, I write stuff I want to see and, truthfully, I want a little of both. There's a concept in creating great art called “Heart, Head & Hand.” We need a balance of all three. The Heart that gives it emotional depth, Head is the great original idea and Hand is the craftsmanship and familiarity (or “cliché” as you'd call it). A movie like The Incredibles is riddled with clichés but it's clear that Brad Bird has seen all the movies we have and he's having fun putting new spins on everything. He proves that you need to be both familiar and innovative to make great entertainment.
Where do you see the future of screenwriting? Will we be writing more scripts for online entertainment? Now that audiences can watch several seasons of a series back to back via Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc., how does this affect the writing for TV series? Audiences no longer have to wait a week to see the next episode. Plus, in re-purposing series for online, there's no longer the need to write according to commercial breaks. Are these changes a good thing?
Rob: Ooh. A lightning round. I like it. I'll try to take these one at a time.
I can't tell what the future of screenwriting will be. I think screenwriters are like ants. We all go off in our own directions until somebody finds a crumb and then we all line up until we've devoured the thing.
Yes. The network heads themselves have been saying that networks will be obsolete for years. I think we should listen.
I love being able to watch TV series back to back. Remember when Steven Bochco did a series called Murder One in 1995 and everybody said he was crazy because nobody wanted to watch a serialized murder mystery? Then they did The Killing on Danish television and everybody stood around looking at their shoes. You could say the same thing about 24 and Lost.
Writers have been ahead of this trend of fully serialized TV shows for decades. We don't think in episodes, we think in arcs. Unfortunately, being a writer means spending lots of time in rooms with people looking at you like your crazy. They're always the first people doing cheek to cheek selfies at the Awards ceremony.
I can say without fear of contradiction that the person who came up with commercial breaks and 26 episode seasons did not write for a living. TV series have been getting shorter and shorter with more and more breaks. That's food out of the mouth of a writer.
I like the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes model on Masterpiece. They do three episodes per season that are an hour-and-a-half long. As soon as the model changed from “per viewer” to “subscription,” it encouraged channels to make shows that appealed to viewers rather than advertisers and you've seen the results. More risk taking. Better stories. Higher production values. And the artists are coming back. Best of all there's not a single reality show in the mix. Yeah. I said it.