Shane, zen, and imperfect answers. What a 60-year-old movie teaches us about learning.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” ~ Aristotle, an early screenwriting guru.

Have you seen Shane? If you haven’t, shame on you, go to Netflix and watch it twice. Take notes.  But because we both know you’re not going to do that, let’s talk about my favorite part.

The scene, for those of you who don’t’ feel like watching a video, is this: Shane is a wandering gunslinger who stays with the family of Joey, a little boy who idolizes him. Shane shows Joey how to draw a gun.  He gets real technical.

JOEY: Gosh! Is that what real gunfighters do?
SHANE: No, Joey. Most of them have tricks of their own. One, for instance, likes a shoulder holster. Another one puts it in the belt of his pants. And some like two guns. But one’s all you need if you can use it…
JOEY: Which is the best way?
SHANE What I’m telling you is as good a way as any, better than most.

Good as any, better than most. That blew my mind. I was used to Batman being unbeatable, to James Bond always saving the day, to Magic Johnson having the tightest basketball game of any human being ever. Shane blew my mind, got me to see that everything had strengths and weaknesses, everything was fallible, and that so many gurus were really just talking about taking different paths to the same road.  You could be technical, you could be instinctive, but in the end all advice aims for that unreachable heaven of excellence.  The stoner and the student council president were just enjoying high school in different ways. Ju Jitsu was no better or worse than Wing Chun, they were just different ways to explore the martial arts.  And in screenwriting, William Froug, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Blake Snyder (and all people who offer advice with good intentions) are just offering different paths for advancement, the best way they know how.

Sometimes you get lucky and get a piece of good advice early, one that informs your entire world view. I saw this scene when I was seven years old, and I have never forgotten it.   I’ve wanted to write about Shane for sometime, but I’ve been trying to let my previous blog steer the contents of my next one (a useful skill for screenwriting scenes and conversation in general). I finally got my chance.

Da Bomb

In my last blog, I wrote about the basics of screenwriting. I approached this gingerly, like a person disarming a bomb. I put up seven basic elements of screenwriting. Sensing danger, I put up a caveat:

“Author’s note: Every time I open my big fat mouth about some sweeping generalization, someone comes out of the woodwork to argue about it… In the (probably vain) hopes of subverting arguments, let me say that the following “basics” are simply a … list of good advice I put together for the sake of argument because I need to illustrate some points about basics. Seriously, these basics are just a list of things I cobbled together at 2AM to illustrate a wider point.” – Me

Versions of this disclaimer were repeated numerous time throughout the blog. I thought I was drilling the point to death. I was wrong.  I got this response:

“I learn by failure. The way for me to learn the “basics” is by violating them until I come to understand them. So it’s pointless for someone like me to even think about what someone else considers to be the basics.  And, in any case, the last thing i want to do is install someone’s network of creative barriers in my brain. That process is more about learning the maze than finding the cheese. I’m just here for the cheese.” – Some other, cheese-loving person.

I question how carefully the person read the original text*, but I’m glad for the response because it’s an illustration on human nature, on why it’s so hard to get a straight answer on simple things, like “how long should my treatment be,” or “how should I go about creating my characters.” When people hear information, it goes through a minefield of their own prejudices. If it flatters their assumptions, they’ll like it. If it doesn’t, they’ll be inclined to hate it. My most popular articles are the vaguer, agnostic ones that encourage hard work (it’s really hard to argue with them), but as soon as I say anything specific, it’ll inevitably piss someone off and set off a firestorm of arguments.**  The safe play is to keep it vague and vaguely inspiring, and most people do.***

if you take anything from this post, it should be watch Shane. The second thing is that when I offer advice, it’s usually with a little more irony than I’m given credit for. This is my way, a way that works for me, and a way that helps other people learn in as efficient a manner as possible. It may not be for you, and if you have a better path, I’d love for you to drop your wisdom on me.**** This blog is here to help, it doesn’t offer THE way, but A way that is (in my not-so-humble opinion) good as any and better than most.


* Later, when I pointed out my disclaimer, they said, “ Didn’t really pay that much attention. I guess I had my own axe to grind and didn’t really care what it said.”
** Arguments are actually better for blog traffic, but as a child of divorce, I really, really hate them, outside of the safe confines of dramatic writing.
*** I hate keeping things vague.  I love specific, actionable advice.  The corollary to that, is that people with useful, actionable advice tend to be real dicks about it.  I really try not to be.
**** Potential blog – times when I was wrong. It would be lengthy, to say the least.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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