By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 21, 2015
My first exposure to contemporary writing and art came in eighth and ninth grade. I can’t remember what books we were assigned in English class (I don’t think we read Catcher in the Rye till tenth grade) but whatever they were, they were dark. The point of view was bleak and despairing.
That’s what I and my classmates came to think of as “literary.”
Movies were grim too. Dance was weird. Sculpture was industrial and monolithic. Fine art’s job, it seemed, was to mock fine art, to declare that the creation of art was impossible in an era of nuclear bombs and Cold War. Comedy was ugly then too. Four-letter words were coming in. The more avant-garde a piece was, the more disgusting its subject matter had to be.
This again was what I imagined art was. If it wasn’t repulsive or nihilistic or deliberately pointless, it wasn’t serious. An artist couldn’t seriously have a positive point of view. By definition, an artist who produced something beautiful testified only to her own state of delusion or denial. Her head was in the sand. She just didn’t get it.
I confess I still don’t have a handle on this issue. How dark is the world? God knows the news could hardly be more grisly. The human race seems hell-bent on destroying the planet, not to mention each other, as fast as it possibly can.
If you’re an artist or a writer, what do you say to this? What kind of art do you produce? What’s the point of producing art at all?
And yet …
And yet art demands to be beautiful. Even the sentences of this blog post are crying out to me as I write them: “Make us look good. Make us cohere. Make this whole piece interesting and fun and informative.” (more…)
By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 14, 2015
Today’s post is a follow-up (and closely related) to last week’s “The Clothesline Method.”
The great British film director David Lean
David Lean was the two-time Oscar-winning director of Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago, among many others. He was a Brit. He died in 1991. I don’t know about you, but if David Lean has something to say on the subject of story or narrative, I will travel many miles to listen.
What follows comes from my own yellowing newspaper files. I have no idea when or from where I clipped this. It’s part of a longer article, an interview with Christopher Hampton, the British playwright, film director, and screenwriter (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement, The Quiet American). According to the article, Hampton spent a year with David Lean “collaborating on Hampton’s adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel, Nostromo, but the epic film version ultimately didn’t happen because Lean died six weeks before shooting.”
Here, via Hampton, is David Lean thinking in “clothesline” terms:
Hampton remembers that Lean told him to think of every movie, depending on its length, as six to 10 segments, each strung together with a very strong rope. “And because he was an ex-editor, I suppose, he always said, ‘The most important thing in any film is the last image of one scene and how it sits next to the first image of the next scene,’” recalls Hampton.
With each new draft of the script, Lean would actually have storyboard artists paint those juxtaposed images off the page so he could see how they looked together. Occasionally, he’d even ask an artist to draw a third image of a combined dissolve, to see if that was a better fit.
Hampton says he was able to apply much of what he learned from Lean to his future screenplay work. As it turns out, the next script Hampton wrote was Dangerous Liaisons. It won him an Oscar in 1988.
Here’s the David Lean Rule, as I would state it, for my own benefit as a writer or for anyone else:
In addition to thinking of a narrative in terms of Act One/Act Two/Act Three, think of it as eight to twelve sequences or sections. (more…)
By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 7, 2015
I’m just starting a new novel, trying to figure out the shape of the damn thing. Here’s a trick I use that might help you too. I call it the Clothesline Method.
All you need is some clothes pins and your imagination
I think of the story as an old-fashioned clothesline, like people used to string up in their back yards to hang the laundry on. The left-hand end is the beginning of the story. The right-hand terminus is the end.
The line starts out empty.
Then you hang the shirts and towels and underwear (the scenes and sequences) on it.
I aim for between eight and twelve.
Sometimes I’ll actually draw a clothesline on a piece of paper (yellow foolscap, my fave) and sketch in a dozen or so squares hanging beneath.
What I love about this method is it’s simple and it’s dumb. It takes all the preciousness out of the process. And it eliminates a lot of the fear. How hard is it to hang a dozen dresses, sheets, and pairs of blue jeans on a line?
You can start with just one. Say you know the ending. Great. Hang that on the right-hand end of the line.
Maybe you’ve got one killer scene or sequence that you know goes somewhere in Act Two. Beautiful. Hang that in the middle of the line.
Let’s say you don’t know the beginning. No worries. Just pin a place-holder, however vague, to the left-hand side of the line.
Now you’ve actually got something.
I feel better already, just thinking about it.
The other great thing about the Clothesline Method is it identifies the gaps and forces you to fill them. (more…)