Truth and Lies
Pablo Picasso once said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” While screenwriting is more of a craft of which we are trying to write to specific set of commercial requirements and expectations, there is an art to a well-written script.
At the end of the day, the goal is to present an emotional truth that speaks to an audience. Hopefully, that truth has something to say about the human condition in a way that resonates.
When done well, the result is a film that sparks the imagination of its viewers and inspires them to believe that they have seen and experienced something real. Even when the story takes place in the past or the future, the audience connects to the story being told; and their experience is one of truth.
But It’s a Lie…
But unless it’s a documentary, a film is not truth. It’s not even close to real. It is light or pixels projected onto a screen in a darkened room. Sure, we’re watching real people – actors – on screen actually do things. But the actors we’re watching aren’t the people whom they portray. And the things they’re doing aren’t real. These days, they’re often green-screened and added later via computer.
These people are actors. They are pretending to do things and say things that appear natural to achieve a level of verisimilitude. Their goal is to create the impression of something that seems real, when in fact it’s a lie that’s been manufactured for our entertainment pleasure.
We Know That, and We Accept It.
We allow these 2-dimensional images of actors as other people to stir our imaginations into believing what we are seeing on screen as real. It’s why we flinch when things fly off the screen. It’s why we clutch our neighbor’s arm. It’s why we open our mouths in awe and why we shed tears of sadness and joy.
The fact that a film can affect its viewers in this way is one of the things that makes writing a movie so exhilarating. Mastering a basic understanding of how the onscreen images play on a viewer’s imagination is one of the important quivers in the screenwriter’s tool kit.
As the screenwriter, you create the script that will be used as the blueprint for everything that follows in the making of a movie. In order to create the best blueprint that you can, it’s important to understand how this “lie” affects the audience.
The understanding of the way signs and symbols work on people is called “semiotics.” It has been around for over a century. When it comes to film, the best writing on the subject is Umberto Eco’s Articulations of The Cinematic Code (1976).
Umberto Eco’s research dealt with the study of visual codes in movies. He wrote: “Semiology shows us the universe of ideologies, arranged in codes and sub-codes, within the universe of signs, and these ideologies are reflected in our pre-constituted ways of using the language.”
What that means in plain English
What Umberto Eco said was actually in Italian because that’s where he’s from. In plain English, the point he was trying to make was that every individual sees an object and imposes on that object whatever it means to them.
Why? Because before the words come out of your mouth to describe an object or react to that object, you have already formed a set of opinions about what you’ve seen based on your prior experience.
For example: Someone sees a red ball on a playground and remembers the fun times they had playing foursquare in elementary school. Someone else sees that same ball and remembers being tormented by bullies during kickball every day. Same ball; totally different emotions.
What images from movies have stayed with you? Have you ever found yourself having a discussion with someone else who saw the same image and came to a different conclusion? Have you used specific images in your own scripts? What happened when they worked the way you intended? What happened when they didn’t…?