Kings And Witches

In my early twenties I briefly entertained the idea of becoming a screenwriter. I wrote two scripts and spent nine months in Hollywood before the novel called me back. During this stint, I thought Shakespeare would make a good model for screenwriting. No, not for his iambic pentameter. Rather, Shakespeare what you might call High Concept. His stories had ghosts, kings, queens, wizards, duels, castles and plenty of far-flung action. Yet, no matter what was happening, whether the Prince of Denmark was talking to his dead father or Macbeth was consulting with witches, everyone behaved like a person. In fiction we talk about the willing suspension of disbelief: we know this didn’t really happen, but we are willing to make believe it did so that we can reap the emotional benefits of this narrative train ride. To this end, audiences are willing to believe pretty much anything you tell them. Life on Mars? Sure. Golems in World War II Germany? We’re in. Eight foot-tall blue aliens? Of course.

What audiences are unwilling to accept, usually, are people who don’t behave like people. You can have your protagonist beamed up to a spaceship and fall in love with a Vulcan Queen, but only if the audience actually believes he fell in love. Stories don’t die because readers think, “But people can’t turn invisible or age backwards!” They die because readers think, “Why is she doing that? She would never do that?”

We all know the human heart because we all have one. We may not always behave as if we understand the human heart, we may often act in direct conflict with what we know about it, but we do know about it. Falkner said the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. I tend to agree. Where that human heart resides is ultimately irrelevant. All we want to do is hear it beating, and feel its yearning to be at peace with itself.

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