by Helena Kriel
Spalding MFA Faculty, Screenwriting and Playwriting
So, here is what happened:
I finished my screenplay “Baby Rhino”, celebrated for a day, then got it off to three creative friends for feedback. An interesting thing happened: pandemonium. Why? Because at the heart of the story is an event that had all three in violent disagreement. It left me with a decision to make: Who to trust? And, what to change?
In a nutshell:
Story is about Zack Newman, a modern American man. His daughter has died before the narrative begins. He and his wife have drifted into trouble, their marriage is a shell, they have no contact. Zack has become cut throat, has in effect lost his moral compass. His wife is inert, inactive, paralyzed by grief. He lands up in a situation in Africa (after a rhino is poached in front of him, I don’t have to get into this aspect of the narrative) with the woman who runs a rhino sanctuary. She represents everything he has lost. She is the epitome of life: grounded, she cares deeply, she is fun, she is spontaneous. Of course he becomes attracted to her. He lands up in her house on two separate evenings. On the first, they admit to their mutual attraction. On the second, after a series of dramatic twists and turns in the narrative, they hug, then kiss, at which point we leave the scene, wondering if he went beyond just kissing, did he in fact take it all the way with her?
The three friends got reading. I waited for their responses. I went swimming in the ocean. I made a few meals. I ate excessively (so many Kettle Chips). I visited friends. All weekend I wondered how they would respond to the story, as soon as the phone rang, I pounced on it (because they weren’t going to text their responses.)
Here is how it went:
Lisa D – a writer, teacher of writing, and ex-Hollywood executive was furious. “He’s a cad,” she said. “His wife is falling apart and he’s off in the middle of nowhere, cheating on her. I hated him by the end. He cannot be married!” She was adamant. She’s been in “the business” for thirty years. I take her feedback very seriously. So I made a note: Zack is divorced. I put the word “divorced” in a circle to highlight it. I started thinking about how to execute that note.
I asked David W to weigh in. Divorced? Separated? Or married? He has been married and divorced. He would know. And he’s been a journalist for thirty years. He’s been exposed to life, in all its forms. And behavior, lots of bad behavior.
He was equally adamant. “Of course he should be married. Come on!” I listened, pen in hand. The word “divorce” still circled at the top of my page. “From a woman’s point of view, perhaps the kiss is terrible, but it’s only a kiss after all! He has not been unfaithful, in my book. A man can excuse kissing. Perhaps from a woman’s perspective it’s wrong, but it’s human to do that! And it adds an emotional layer. As a viewer, I want that emotional complexity. I want him to struggle. I want him to fail. Maybe at the end he can succeed. But not till then.”
I waited to hear from Wayne L. He has insight, he has emotional intelligence. He always gives me good feedback. I trust him.
So, when asked if he had any judgment about Zack’s behavior he said: “God, no! 98.999% of guys in that situation—away, in the middle of nowhere, struggling in their marriage—would just go for it! And, by the way, kissing is not going for it. Of course he must kiss the woman!” And then he added: “And 80% of women would accept the kiss and understand if he took it further.”
I decided to have my friend Meg F weigh in also. She likes a good love story. She is fond of the forbidden.
“Married.” She was categorical. “If he’s divorced, or separated, he’s available. There’s no emotional complication. It’s easy. They hook up. Where is the drama?” I wanted to know if she would hate him for it. “No. I would understand him,” she said.
I then called my mother and stepfather. Both are writers who have books coming out next month. They are also movie buffs and have very strong views on movies.
I spoke to my stepfather, David Z first: “Should Zack be divorced?” I asked. “Because a friend thinks it is totally wrong for him to kiss, perhaps even go further with the woman in the story.” His answer exploded out of him: “Oh rubbish!” he said. “It’s to be expected. We’re not living up to an unnatural, prudish standard. To regard someone as immoral in those circumstances is highly artificial.” He continued, “He may be doing something rash, something that has complicated consequences, something that is emotionally dangerous. But one doesn’t think about consequences at a moment like that.” I scribbled his dialogue down. He went on: “I could imagine myself landing in that situation and I am neither a libertine nor a prude.”
Finally, I got my mother, Maja Z on the line. She listened quietly. She paused a moment to think. And then she summed it up very quickly: “If he’s divorced, or getting divorced, then what’s the problem? He kisses her. He makes love to her. So what? It’s only if he’s married that he has a problem. If there’s no problem there is no conflict. You have to have some conflict or you’re not telling a good story.”
And of course, therein lies my solution. I went from deciding to have my guy be divorced, to entertaining the opposite, to feeling a little confused, to thinking, as I drove around (dry cleaner, Starbucks for Vente soy-cap, the dreaded Radio Shack for ear phones) that what is the point of a story without as much friction as possible.
I expounded on this for myself a little, coming to the conclusion that everything requires friction. Cooking? Pure friction. Swimming in the ocean? Friction between oneself and the wave. Coffee? Best if it’s ground, so friction right there. Conversation? Any satisfying conversation has the friction of differing viewpoints. Music? Friction between musician and instrument. Gardening? Raking, weeding, planting, trimming, all friction. Flirtation? Friction, friction and more friction. Oyster and pearl? Friction. Sex? Nothing if not friction. Love of a dog? Well, perhaps there is no friction there. But then, we all need some relief from conflict and friction. Hence, the advent of the dog.
So. If I remove conflict, I remove friction, if I remove friction, I remove story. To have my protagonist be divorced, and therein perhaps a more ethical man in his behavior, is to remove some beautiful, essential opportunity for conflict, inner conflict, outer conflict. And resulting frrrrrrrrrrrrriction.
Decision made. Time to rewrite it.
Okay. But. Please.
No conflict. No friction. Surrender. Sit down. Shut up. Do it.