Friday, November 7, 2014


MICHAEL JANN - Emmy Nominated TONIGHT SHOW writer
Making the invisible visible.

That's the job of the filmmaker, and even the novelist, although, I think, the novelist has the more difficult time of it.

Show, don't tell.

That's the mantra of all storytelling, although, again I think, the novelist has it more difficult.

Make it visceral, not abstract.

That's the job of all communication. Although our essences are spiritual, we identify ourselves primarily in physical terms.

Psychological Values leads to Physical Actions.

That's the concept that The Moral Premise concept builds upon. But, what matters to film audiences and novel readers is what transpires in the physical realm. Our psychological world may house and care for our moral motivations, but something does not become part of our neighbor's universe (and the larger realm of humankind) until we push it into physical space.

These are the storytelling dilemmas all of us storytellers are faced with. And, perhaps I've made this a bit more difficult to resolve by sticking to my strictly speaking "inner to outer" litany. I mean by that, this: Most of the time when I speak or write bout The Moral Premise it is in this form:

Inner Value leads to Outer Action.

But to the screenwriter and the even the novelist, that inner value has no practical identity until it is made visible through some action. I know this, but I don't always practice it. In helping writers with log lines and moral premise statements I may get there, but my mind isn't purposely doing so, i.e. making physically explicit the inner motivations. 

This was brought to my attention recently in dialogue with MICHAEL JANN, Emmy nominated writer who wrote for THE TONIGHT SHOW with both Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon. He's been working on a few screenplays in his post TONIGHT SHOW reality when he wrote me this about current screenplay (this used with his permission):
I’m so happy right now!  After reading your chapter 10 again (more carefully, this time), I got less rigid with my prose, and more “writer-y”, and fine-tuned my Moral Premise to: 
“Hiding behind masks and shields leads to isolation, loneliness and misery. But, giving yourself to others in an authentic way leads to community, intimacy and love”. 
It was so cool to express my virtue and vice in external terms (moral, i.e., affecting others). rather than internal terms (abstract, i.e., affecting only the hero).
Now the woman he falls in love with must confront this same moral premise.  She might boast that she doesn’t hide behind a “mask", but she bludgeons people with her “honesty”, which is still hiding  (albeit in a different way -- behind a shield, rather than a mask.)  Now they both have to confront the moral premise:  "Hiding is bad, authenticity is good."
To some, this may be subtle. But the distinction is worth emphasizing because it empowers the writer (and the director and actors) to communicate effectively with audiences. I wrote Michael back:

You make a good point that I’m not sure I’ve ever emphasized, although I’ve come up with MPS like this. But I need to make this more explicit. The human process is still internal value drives external behavior, but for screenwriters I won't argue with your insight.  While the novelist would speak in more internal terms, the screenwriter can’t … except perhaps on a 3x5 card taped to the frame of his computer. “Hiding behind” is more physical than “lack of self confidence” or “selfishness.” And, “giving yourself” is more physical than “self confidence” or “generosity”.  “Hiding…” and “Giving…” are “action” terms, which is a key concept for actors.
At this point I referenced ACTIONS: The Actors' Thesaurus by Marina Caldarone & Maggie Lloyd-Williams, (also available as a SmartPhone APP, it appears.) In my own directing efforts I've found this book invaluable when working with actors at table reads, centering their performance on actionable interpretation of lines and scenes. ACTIONS also contains an excellent introduction explaining Stanislavski's acting method and the necessity of "finding an action for a particular moment or line of text." I think I should write about this book and how it can help screenwriters connect better with actors and audiences.

In a followup email to the above, Michael pointed out the practical benefit of thinking more visible, physical, and actionable:

That finesse point was the biggest thing I learned from both you and then from John Truby.  He talks about how the hero's flaw must be a moral, i.e. negatively affecting other people. The example he gives is if a guy is alone in his bedroom doing heroin, we don't really care and it's not much of a story. But if his kid is waiting at the school bus stop while he's in his room doing heroin -- now you've got a story. I recall him initially apologizing for the word "moral", in anticipation of the "I don't want to moralize" backlash. But that's why I thought I would share this development today with you, as you have always been a fearless proponent of that idea. Seeing it come to life for me made me today made me really happy and I immediately thought of you -- the Moral Premise-Meister! 
Thanks, Michael, for the kind words, but even more so for the great insights.

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