As we began to head out of the pandemic in 2022 (but have we?) I set myself a bunch of creative goals – to finally complete a novel that I’ve been mucking around with for years, to make a short film and to write my blog regularly.
After many years, I’ve finally learnt that I work best in creative mode if I have some form of structure around me, so I signed up for a creative writing course and dusted off a short film script, The Parrot, to put in the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) Kōpere Hou- Fresh Shorts Much to my delight it made it though the first round to the final 18. Now I have to get into the final six to receive funding of $25,000 to make my film.
I’ve always been an advocate of paying people for their creativity – not matter what they do, so it’s important to me if I’m going to make something to fund it so I can pay people for their time and efforts.
Another benefits of going through a funding process, even if you don’t get through, is that they force you to really think about your work. The criteria for Fresh Shorts is extensive and includes the usual logline, genre, synopsis etc, but also creative vision and treatment as well.
I’ve been thinking about the creative vision for a few days, because as I started to work through the guidelines, it raised the question, what the hell IS my creative vision? I wasn’t altogether sure.
So I stuck on my headphones and listened to some binaural beats (I don’t know if they work, but they seem to help me think) and as my mind wandered I remembered a great book I had read some years ago, Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias.
His main point is that movies are an emotion delivery system, and although many screenplays and movies may be good structurally, they often fail to emotionally engage the reader and then the viewer.
Working on this premise, I thought about my story. The Parrot is based on a incident that happened to my grandparents; an empty parrot cage was delivered to their neighbour’s house, and in my grandfather’s mind it became a threat – it was something different, and unknown that would disrupt their lives and make them uncomfortable.
My grandmother, May, was so aligned to my grandfather’s needs and wishes that she saw the cage as a threat too. But, like Lily the protagonist in my story, she rebelled in unseen ways – secretly smoked cigarettes, had the morning glass of wine, knocked over the hated photo of his tyrant of a mother.
But she never went that step further – the programming was too entrenched – good wives stayed and did what their husbands said.
From this family story, I thought “what if?” What if the cage instead of a threat became a promise – a promise of something new and exciting. In a way, it’s wish fulfilment for me – that my grandmother had had the courage to step out of Charles’ shadow and become her own person.
So Lily is my avatar – but what was the emotion I want my audience to feel? Not what Lily feels, but the audience watching her. I decided it was at first frustration at Lily’s conformity and then hope and joy as she finds the strength to find a new path in life for herself.
By using the emotional response as my starting point, all the other creative building blocks started to fall into place. How do I write that – what do I need my characters to do and say? What does it look like – how do I convey these emotions visually? What sound design and music would work?
When I think of all the movies that have I returned to or loved, it’s the ones which may not necessarily have the greatest structure or story, but which enabled you to feel something, be it love, hate, sorrow, joy, wonder, excitement. I think this is why there is so often a mismatch between critics’ reviews and audience response. Critics are looking for structurally perfect movies while audiences more often connect on a simpler level. They love the world (such as Avatar), the characters or even just the thrill of the ride (as in most Superhero movies). Some movies are so emotionally visceral you can only watch them once, like Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Firefliesfrom Studio Ghibli, which utterly breaks your heart.
Then there are the movies I return to time and again like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, because I go on an emotional journey with those characters, especially Samwise and Frodo, as they travel to Mordor with the One Ring. We feel joy as good triumphs over evil and the Ring is destroyed, then sorrow as Frodo parts with his friends as he leaves to journey to the Undying Lands. (I always cry at that part!)
If you are struggling with a story, deciding on the emotion you want to evoke in the reader and the audience is a good place to begin and can help bring clarity to what you are trying to say. I concluded that as we head into 2023, after two grueling years, I wanted to create stories that deliver hope – hope in the future and the power of change.
Also, give Writing for Emotional Impact a read – it’s a great book, which I am busy rereading as I prepare my proposal.
I’ll keep writing as I go along and prepare my proposal and share what I learn for others out there who are also on this journey – have a safe and happy New Year – let’s make it a creative one.