All modern writing is built on writing that came before.

“You’re always talking about genre. That’s for hacks! I’m a creative person who writes serious art.” I hear variations of this a lot. I’m sure it’s intended as a serious defense of a philosophy, but to me it always reads as both an excuse for a lazy understanding of genre and audience expectation, and a fundamental misunderstanding of how culture works. This is the writing version of creationism.

Writing is concentrated thinking. Everything is built on what came before. To understand Tarantino, understand his influences and then you’ll see the specific brilliance that made him understand the art of the past and create new developments that pushed the art forward. It’s an evolution.

We can’t produce purely original thoughts because we’re the beneficiary of all the ideas and writing that are part of the culture we grew up in. Without that support and framework, we’d be like pre-lingual humans or feral children trying to talk. We might be able to produce something, but it wouldn’t be something the audience could necessarily recognize.

It’s important to understand how writing and genre works and how it feeds into the expectation of an audience.  Knowledge is power, even if you’re a genius like Mozart. Actually, especially if you’re a genius like Mozart. In his words:

“It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.”

Sports analogies for screenwriters.

In the NBA (the sport I know most about) there’s five players on the court at all time. They fall into archetypes (the five positions). Interestingly, lineups can be mixed, but over time, for whatever reason, the teams tend to regress back to the archetypal five. So it is in writing, where the archetypes and tropes of narrative are often subverted, but eventually returned to.

The tight salary cap of the modern NBA is analogous to the slavish page restrictions in modern screenwriting. There are players like Joe Johnson who is amazing, but not for the amount of money he costs. In the same way, I’ve written scenes and threads that I really liked, but they simply ate up to much page count to be worth it for the team effort of where the script was going, so I “traded” the elements for things that worked less well, but got me under the cap.

Teams are fond of saying that no game plan survives first contact with the enemy (they usually paraphrase related Napoleon or Mike Tyson quotes). So it is with a script – you go in with a plan, it doesn’t always work, but even a plan that you deviate from tends to work better than no plan at all.

The way sports are learned is interesting too. People say “just write a screenplay,” but that’s not how sports are learned- no good team gets that way just by scrimmaging. They learn drills (analogous to exercises) and offensive/defensive schemes (analogous to the underlying asthetic theory that all writers build in their head).

And at the end of the day, when the chips are down, you can always throw a hail mary (play a long shot) or call an audible (wing it). Those are NFL references, so I’m mixing metaphors, but they’re more interesting than the related basketball lingo, so I’m using them.