Offbeat Advice

More From a Screenwriter

Bad people do good things, good people do horrible things, everybody — extraordinary and ordinary — does the same things.

My screenwriting pal told me that he had written a piece in which a mother went to prison for [I think] burglary. People told him, “Oh no, that wouldn’t happen! That’s unthinkable. She’s a mom.” Seriously? Tell that to Child Protective Services. There are maternity wards in state penitentiaries, you know? And the ability to bear a child (and possibly take decent care of it) does not make a woman unable to commit crimes. Yet the idea is, well, unpleasant, and folks don’t want to think unpleasant thoughts so they deem it unthinkable.

Prospective audiences also have trouble believing that a killer might be very religious, a prostitute might be a perfect babysitter, or a female executive cries when she burns toast. It just seems out of character. (More on that in another post.) Serial killers eat breakfast, remember people’s birthdays, and suffer toothaches, flat tires, and overdue library books. While their crimes might generate interest, they don’t. They may commit horrific crimes, but for the most part, they are Joe Blows of little note. As Hannah Arendt noted, evil is banal.

Meanwhile, history is filled with accounts of ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things — some reported, some not. Soldiers do some heroic deeds in battle and a passerby may put out a fire and we hear about it a news feed, but all day every day regular people are stopping fights, feeding the hungry, and improving someone’s life and we will never know about it. A character who stops to give someone CPR or foil a burglary and then goes on about their humdrum day with no fanfare or even notice is not an anomaly, it is everyday life.

Offbeat Advice

Life Truths I Have Learned From Scripts and a Screenwriter

I have a long-time neighbor and friend who is also an award-winning screenwriter. He has written screenplays that deal with murder, motherhood, loneliness, lust, insecurity, empathy, being a black sheep, being a fish out of water. While he can write horror and sci-fi, the majority of his scripts are realistic and showcase the thrills, chills, wonder, and weirdness that occurs in real life. Thus, reading his scripts — most for the screen — has brought me some revelations about life offscreen. (In the case of screenplays, art not only imitates life, it examines and evaluates and influences it.) A few things I have learned:

Conclusion does not necessarily bring closure. Situations — an unsolved crime, a family dispute, an illness — may come to an end, but that ending does not necessarily bring any answers or comfort to anyone. The killer gets caught but the victims’ families still grieve. The lonely guy makes a friend but still doesn’t find love. The alcoholic makes peace with his past mistakes but cannot stop drinking. The war is over but the winner is broke. The end of bad times may bring relief but not resolution. An ending — even one with revenge — rarely heals any wounds. This is true in movies and in real life. People may celebrate the end of a bad scene for a bit, but usually they just pick up and move on (and clean up).

When someone is horrible and you wonder what happened to make them that way, the answer is often NOTHING. Or at least nothing extraordinary. While there are people killing children or setting houses on fire due to one very traumatic event, most people are the way they are due to how they learned to handle the ordinary ups and downs in their lives. For every person who is shooting at cars on the freeway and points to a lousy childhood or some injustice or mistreatment of some sort … well, there is a successful business owner or a great teacher or other well-adjusted person who had a lousy childhood, grew up poor, and was picked on and does not rob people or melt down in public. Of course, they don’t get any press. The serial killer is way more interesting than the guy who owns the shoe store, If you scratch the surface, however, you may find they ain’t all that much different other than the store owner chose to take a more constructive path.

More on this subject at a later date … in the meantime, go to the movies!


Let’s hear it for bad endings …

So the fat lady sang, eh? The pink slip came, the gavel fell, the movers left, and now you are crossing through that door that separates your life then with this life now. All those comforts and connections you had before are now a memory. Groan, grieve, and then be grateful. Bad endings can make for great beginnings.

When there is no chance to reconcile, renegotiate, rebuild, or go in reverse, you have no option but to go forward. Scrap it all. See this as the opportunity to start anew, reinvent yourself, revise the life story you’ve been living. You’ve lost it all anyway, why not lose your identity and get a new one?

Yes, yes, do remember that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Mull over your past in the wee small hours of the morning. Examine it, learn from it, beat yourself up if that’s what you need to do. Then put it away as you do a book on a shelf. It’s always there, easy to retrieve, a reference source that may influence the future, but should not guide the present. The schemes, schedules, and social circles that formerly clothed your life are shredded, and you cannot sew a coat from tatters. So shed that old costume and tailor a new one. Your new life may be quiet and cozy, wild and wandering, it might be a refined version of your old life or completely unrecognizable. It’s your call. And that’s important to remember — it is your call.

I am aware that some folks — actually most of us — cannot completely walk away from all of their past. There are remnants — bills to pay, kids to raise, sentences to serve — that still require our attention. Also, I sure as hell ain’t sayin’ that everyone will be skipping along and singing a tune while they rebuild their lives. What I am saying is that when events — divorce, losing a job, going to jail, going nuts — bring you to a point where you lose all structure in your life, realize that you have also lost stricture in your life. Take a look at the guidelines in your life. Have they become restrictions? Did the input and influence of others become interference? Do your goals and your dreams still get you out of bed in the morning? Is it time to blaze a new trail?

When the fat lady sings, stand up, cheer, exit, look ahead, go forward, find a fatter lady.