Story Consultants: The Snake-Oil Salesmen of Screenwriting
Flimflammers or people who have grown tired of incomplete and pointles stories?
Treacherous waters await those who set out upon the seas of storytelling. While the tossing and turning of indiscriminate waves threaten stability, it is the the company kept within that calls for caution.
The act of writing requires only one. Whether with pencil in hand or keys beneath, writers write with the understanding that in the end, they only have themselves to rely on.
Yet, the process can overwhelm one to such a degree that they consider looking to others for help. Some turn to professional screenwriters kind enough to log their experience and know-how in podcasts and blog posts. Others turn to story consultants and gurus familiar with narrative and its ability to bridge the gap between Author and Audience.
Confusions sets in once one discovers that the former don't look too kindly upon the latter.
Consultants Who Can't Do
In a blog post written several years ago, screenwriter Craig Mazin attacks script consultants:
What is NOT a smart move is listening to the people who DON’T do the job. And who are they? Oh, you know who they are. They’re selling books. They’re selling seminars. They’re “script consultants.” And for a small fee, or a medium fee, or a goddamned flat-out ridiculous fee, they’ll coach you right into the big leagues!
I don’t endorse any of them. I haven’t found any I’d recommend to readers.
The two posts generated hundreds of comments (sadly those from August have been lost) both for and against, with the majority siding with August and Mazin. Why pay for someone to help write a better story when they themselves haven't done it? If these "so-called experts" have all the secrets, why aren't they sitting on a pile of money and critically-acclaimed screenplays instead of how-to books and blog posts?
Because story can be so much more than simple self-aggrandizement.
August keys in on the ulterior motive for these consultants with his sports analogy:
Many of the best coaches were never star players. Rather, the top coaches have the ability to extract the best efforts from the athletes they train. They recognize weakness and focus attention. It’s conceivable that the same could hold true for screenwriting. There might be individuals with a remarkable sense of both the broad narrative form and the precise on-the-page details.
To put it another way--those who can, do; those who care, teach.
Setting Ego Aside
The truth of the matter is a consultant does what he does because he is more interested in helping others rather than himself. Why spend one’s relatively short time on Earth marking territory and building shrines when one can turn the tide far beyond the boundaries of self-indulgence?
Story-telling, and in particular feature film screenwriting, needs fixing. Epic battles and latex-clad heroes can only last for so long before Audiences will finally give up what little faith they have in movies. How else can one explain the increase in acclaim for episodic television like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men if not superior storytelling?
The majority of feature films today lack a strong structural foundation. They tell tales, not stories. Following the muse works great as a step one; steps two and beyond require organizing that creative impulse into something more meaningful.
The Flimflammer's Approach
In a recent Scriptnotes podcast screenwriter Mazin resumes his attack on consultants by echoing the oft-heard complaint against a structural approach to writing:
This whole “plot point one,” “pinch point,” blah, blah, blah, you’ve been suckered like so many before you into thinking that there is a calculator through which you can run ideas and out comes a screenplay and you just simply calculate your way to success. There is no faster, easier, simpler way to arrive at failure then attempting to calculate the process of screenwriting.
Many who struggle with Dramatica (narrative science theory) decry its apparent attempt to turn writing into a "calculated" endeavor. They see the boxes, they run into dead-ends trying to fit their convoluted story into its comprehensive paradigm, and they easily discount it as yet another in a long line of com-men eager to separate writers from their precious pennies.
They [script consultants] are flimflamming you, buddy. They're flimflamming you.
Or it could be that the flimflammers have grown tired of incomplete and pointless stories. It could be that they have discovered a better, more comprehensive way of understanding why stories seem to require certain structural precepts (more on this later).
It could be that they simply want to share this information with as many people as they can.
The books that have been written are being written by people who have failed at screenwriting, possibly because they were over calculating, and now they offer you the gift of the very process that failed them. I am not a fan of this nonsense.
Thank God some of them have failed at screenwriting! If they hadn't, they wouldn't have taken the time to ask why. They wouldn't have spent decades looking into the psychology of story and discovered its analogous relation to the mind's problem-solving process. They wouldn't have moved us beyond Aristotle's ridiculous "beginning-middle-end" tripe.
Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips developed their brand of narrative science (Dramatica) after writing and directing a really bad movie--a movie influenced in part by established screenwriters and university professors. Instead of developing bad habits accumulated from years of capitulating to producers and studio executives who truly have no idea how to construct a proper narrative, these two "flimflammers" set out on their own and discovered something quite unique--an understanding of story we all know instinctively to be true, yet previously have been unable to quantify.
Truth Behind the Con
In the very same podcast in which he calls out consultants for subterfuge, Mazin pitches the importance of a structural approach to story and an understanding of narrative science:
One of them is the protagonist. The idea of the protagonist, traditionally, is that our capacity for drama as humans and such that we prefer — we prefer — that once character is the focus of internal change. One character is going to have an epiphany and a catharsis and a transformation. But, another character with them can be instrumental to that. Another character with them can change, also. Another character can change in such a way that changes the protagonist.
Dramatica refers to these two characters as the Main Character and the Influence Character (the term protagonist--commonly mistaken or substituted for the Main Character--features elsewhere within the theory). Isolating the concept of Resolve between these two characters, one will experience a 180 degree "flip" or change in their point-of-view while the other will grow in his or her resolve by remaining steadfast to their personal paradigm (See the series Character and Change).
The protagonist sometimes isn’t the biggest one, or the most heroic one, but they’re just the one that changes. So, think about it that way. And just remember, we will be trying to — we will be connecting with somebody’s change. And if two people are changing we want to know which one is primarily changing. It’s just sort of ingrained in the way we experience story.
Dramatica (and narrative science theory) isn't an elaborate scheme to swindle amateur writers; it's an attempt to quantify and qualify this "ingrained experience" that we all instinctively understand to be true. Those engaged in its ongoing-development and education simply wish to pass on what they've found.
It’s a very… — You just have to know this stuff when you’re doing it, and you have to figure it out, but you can’t divide your attention. You have to actually — you have to know.
Writers have to know this stuff, yet they can't seek help from those who know. Why can't they seat both professional screenwriters and theoreticians/consultants in captain's cab along with them?
A Synergy for Story
For the very best example of this needed collaboration in action, one need only look to the real world example of animation directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. The former, a member of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Writers Group excels at structure. The latter, a creative powerhouse, brings the unexpected and touching character moments to the table. Together they create heartfelt stories full of purpose and meaning. Apart, not so much. Lilo and Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon, products of mutual collaboration, showcase stories that satisfy the head as much as they fulfill the heart. The Croods--directed without the assistance of DeBlois’ attention to structure--meanders aimlessly, ending only because animated films last 90 minutes--not because an actual story had been told.
The Croods may be heartfelt and inventive, but without something greater to pull it all together--something more than the sum of its parts--the film falls into insignificance. Years from now the majority will be hard pressed to remember even a little of The Croods. Contrast that with the legions of fans who count Lilo or Dragon one of their very favorite animated films and one can begin to see the importance of having both.
Purpose and heart can and must co-exist. One can glean all the experience and industry know-how from August and Mazin while at the same time benefit from the enlightenment and wisdom of those outside of the system like Phillips and Huntley. Want to know how to conduct yourself in a meeting or how best to receive and respond to those notes you'll inevitably run into? Listen to the former. Want to understand the connection between your Main Character's personal issue and the larger thematic issue affecting everyone in the story while at the same? Partake in the latter. Regardless, taking both along for the ride ensures a pleasant and purposeful experience.
Someone to Talk To
A recent article from screenwriter/consultant Erik Bork sums it up nicely:
Certainly it’s true that many writers who succeed never hired “script consultants”. But I would say virtually all of those writers had access to their equivalents at some point, as I did — to augment their ardent self-study.
Access to those who know. The certified consultants featured on Dramatica's Story Consultant page understand narrative science better than anyone else in the world. They might not have a clue how to conduct themselves within a meeting or how to avoid the dreaded air duct clam, but they do know how to use character, plot, theme and genre to construct a convincing and solid story. They do understand the commonality of the almost 300 films, novels and plays (yes, even Shakespeare understood that ingrained experience!) featured on the site's Analysis pages. And they understand how to work with writers to give their work gravitas--to make those words count for something more than yet another on the pile of disdained and forgotten films.
Yes, the seas ahead promise turbulent violence. Crews may lose hope or find themselves lost without trusted companions there to help navigate the waters of story. But with the assistance of hardened screenwriters and inquisitive theoreticians, the voyage can continue with confidence. One to set the course. One to keep the boat steady.
Safe harbor awaits those brave enough to set sail.