THE ORGANIC NATURE OF STORY WITH DARA MARKS
Creative Screenwriting's #1 Rated Script Consultant
Interview by Stan Rutledge
is a leading international script consultant, recently ranked number one in the business by Creative Screenwriting Magazine
. She has specialized in the analysis of the modern screenplay for the past fifteen years, and her clients range from top studio writers and executives to beginning and apprentice screenwriters. Her unique workshops and seminars are drawing national and international praise. Marks originally hailed from Sacramento, and is now living in Southern California with her husband and son. She received her Bachelors Degree from Sacramento State, and is currently doing advanced doctoral work in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara.
Why is it important for a writer to work with a script consultant?
Writers need feedback. We generally put the best we've got into a draft of a screenplay, so to begin the rewrite without get-ting some sort of fresh viewpoint would almost be self-defeating. Most writers have good friends and family, on whom they rely for an honest assessment of their script. For the most part, this sort of review is probably pretty accurate. If a story is slow and uninvolving, Aunt Sally's going to feel unmoved. If the plot is too convoluted, your old roommate from college will eagerly tell you how confused he is. However, the trouble with this approach is that even if they are dead-on accurate with their criticism, there is very little information they can give you about what created the problem, and they can tell you even less about how to solve it. Which doesn't mean that they won't offer up solutions of how they would rewrite the story if it were theirs. People are very free with this sort of advice, especially because it gets their creative juices flowing. But the problem is that it isn't their story and, especially in the early stages of your script's development, you're still trying to gain insight into your own vision and you don't want it to be tainted by someone else's ideas.
As a script consultant, I strive to bring to my client's work an objective reflection of what they are trying to express, as opposed to my subjective opinion of what I think they should write about. I often tell prospective clients that I don't critique scripts, I interpret them. This means that through the analytical process I look for clues that give me insight into what the writer is trying to communicate. This approach allows me to give writers feedback without interfering with their creativity or jeopardizing the integrity of their unique idea.
What else does a script consultant do?
Another very important benefit of working with a script consultant is that it helps writers improve their skill and enhance their craft. Whether I'm working with a novice or a top "A-List" Hollywood screenwriter, I find that the problems in a story generally point to problems in a writer's technique. If your only approach to the rewrite is to poke around until you come up with a better idea, then chances are you'll keep running into the same problems in script after script. It is very important to me, as a consultant, that I don't just help writers make better scripts, but that I help make better writers. Therefore, in every session with my clients, I provide training along with the analysis. When a writer goes back to work on the rewrite, it's important that they not only know where the problems are, but they know how to solve them as well.
How does your service differ from that of other consultants?
I can't really speak for other consultants, but my process tends to focus on what I perceive as the organic nature of story. By organic, I mean that I see story as having a central source from which all structure naturally wants to grow. If we can tap into this central source then our story choices cease to be random and arbitrary. They become intentional and this translates into intended results. As a script analyst, therefore, my primary function is to help writers identify and tap into this, because it is the essence of their own authentic vision.
You mean, you help writers find their creative voice?
Yes, but there's more to it than that. To create means that you are giving birth to something that has never existed in this form before. Therefore, it can be intangible, vague, chaotic, disorganized and even messy. But there is no place else for the creative process to start except in this intuitive soup. So I encourage writers to play with their characters and see where they will lead. You never know when one little meandering thought will bring about your most original story idea. As an analyst, it is extremely important for me to honor the chaos, and I do that by searching for the values that the writer is trying to communicate. It is precisely these values that hold the transformative key to identifying intention. And it is through intention, as I have mentioned, that the writer can eventually proceed with the rewrite process and bring clarity, structure and organization into their work without losing any of their originality and creative integrity.
Can you explain this idea of intention a little more specifically?
The more commonly used word for intention is theme. The theme of the story holds the writer's views, values, and point of view on life. Every other aspect of the story can be made up and invented, but the thematic intention must be based on what the writer knows to be true. This is not a sociological truth, a religious truth, or a politically correct truth. It is the emotional truth of how the writer perceives the world in which he or she lives.
Why is this emotional truth so important?
Because, in reality, it's all we really know. There isn't anything in the physical world that has any meaning or value to us whatsoever, except for how we internalize it. In other words, if we were writing about the subject of wealth, there is nothing intrinsic in that topic that gives us any real sense of value. Every person interpreting the word "wealth" will bring a different perspective to it, depending on his or her own life ex-perience. For some people wealth may trigger feelings of oppression or inferiority, for others wealth represents inspiration and motivation. For still others, true wealth may have nothing to do with money at all, but is seen as abundance of spirit, love and hope. None of these responses is wrong or right. More importantly, each of them is plugged into an emotional reaction from the writer that can be universally experienced by everyone. You don't have to have an overwhelming desire to become a ruthless in-side trader in order to identify with the conflict and pain Bud Foxx feels in "Wall Street" when he is forced to chose between impressing Gordon Gekko or betraying his father. In reality, the core human value that is expressed here, has more to do with the meaning of our own humanity than it has to do with the meaning of wealth. But exploring the issue of wealth is the vehicle that takes us to this core value. Ultimately, therefore, I don't have to have the same perception of wealth that you have in order to feel connected to the emotions that you are truthfully expressing through the experience of your characters.
How does all this translate into story development?
That's a very important question because we could philosophically discuss theme all day, and in the end there would be very little dissension on its importance to the story. However, how we integrate theme into a script is a whole other matter. This is perhaps the most essential, and yet most undertaught and undervalued aspects of story development. In general, there are only two ways to impart theme into a story. You can either have characters give speeches about it throughout the script, or you can have characters (especially your protagonist) come to learn the thematic value that you are trying to express through having them face or overcome the external conflict of the plot. This means, of course, that the plot serves the internal needs of the character. Obviously, this is the far more effective way to tell a story, specifically because this is a reflection of our own process in real life. We grow and change and evolve primarily in relationship to how, we face up to and overcome the trials in our life.
Does this mean that stories should only be told about characters who succeed at attaining the thematic value in the end by heroically overcoming the conflict?
Not at all. I believe that we, the audience, enter the story through the protagonist. And, as they make choices, we make choices right along with them. But this doesn't mean that we make the same choices. In fact, when we see characters making the wrong, self-defeating choice, we are usually screaming at them (in our minds) to go the other way, and this makes for very powerful drama. Whether the protagonist succeeds in the end or not, we still get the point that the writer was trying to express. Therefore, if a character fails at achieving your thematic goal, the consequences are tragic, but their failure still leads us, in the audience, to a deeper understanding of our own human nature.
What's your biggest piece of advice to writers?
Following up on what I was just saying, probably the most importing thing I have to tell writers is that if you're not writing about something important to you, then you are really writing about nothing at all. Most of the films we see today leave our consciousness by the time we get to the parking lot. So, why even bother? Some people make a joke of the fact that, from car attendants to neurosurgeons, it seems like everybody believes that they have a movie in them that they're just dying to write. But the truth is we all do have a story to tell. And if you have the courage to write your story from this deep inner truth that we've been discussing, then it's an important story. The road to Hollywood is rough and hazardous at best but if you write with meaning and value, then you can at least be guaranteed that your journey will be meaningful and valuable to you in the end.