The Paradigm In Singapore
To my astonishment, the first three months of 2017 found me in cosmopolitan Singapore. Employed as the Project Director of a professional training program entitled WritersLab, I was there to help evolve the quality of television writing for the local market, and hopefully, make it more competitive across Southeast Asia. It was a ten-week, TV pressure cooker that leveraged pretty much every skill I’ve acquired over thirty-five years in the entertainment industry.
The primary text I chose to facilitate this ambitious endeavor was Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. This groundbreaking Hollywood writers’ “bible” provided my initiation to satisfying, cinematic narrative structure in the mid-1980s when I wrote my first spec scripts. What a pleasure to share Mr. Field’s lifework with people who love TV as much as I do!
And I couldn’t have been blessed with a more gifted octet of natural storytellers, a prerequisite for which I tested every applicant last November. Well, it was more of a creative ambush during the individual interviews. After typical questions about the writers’ background, I had them join me at a nearby table. There, I dramatically revealed six photos set in Singapore. I then offered a choice of four emotions. The applicants’ task: to pick an image and a feeling and tell a brief story combining both. Anyone who didn’t instinctively know that a “story” has a beginning, middle and end didn’t make the first cut, and at least two of our finalists told such poignant, off-the-cuff tales, that the assessors’ eyes welled with tears. <sigh> Authentic heart coupled with innate talent can’t be faked, ignored or forgotten.
I designed a rigorous curriculum for the Lab, but we also had fun – aided by an abundant supply of dark chocolate. I regularly quizzed the participants on Mr. Field’s Paradigm, which they all had to be able to draw and explain in their own words. The Writers were required to utilize the Paradigm in their pilot’s story, their series’ first-season overall arc, each character’s individual episodic and seasonal arcs, and also within every act and scene of their pilot script. All eight pilots and series bibles are effective testaments to Syd Field’s insights and genius, humbly offered to the best of my current teaching abilities, but the journey to their successful completion at virtual light-speed was rife with fascinating linguistic challenges.
Having once been a British colony, English remains the common language of Singapore, throughout the urban streets of which you’ll also hear a lot of Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Each of these languages has its own TV channels catering to the largest cultural groups: Chinese, Malay and South Indian. My eight Writers all happened to be of Chinese descent. Seven of them received public educations in Singapore, with one having been raised and educated in the U.S.; so all had learned basic-English grammar and composition. However, many of them thought in Mandarin, which I quickly learned has only one tense: Present. This explained why English tenses, as well as verbal agreement with nouns, were often confused. Miscommunication abounded, especially on the page. In Screenplay, Syd Field states, “Writing is an experiential process, a learning process involving the acquisition of skill and coordination, like riding a bicycle, swimming, dancing or playing tennis.”
A writer’s main job is to transfer ideas that seem perfectly clear in our heads to other people. That vital conceptual movement was seriously strained in the Lab’s early days, which led to my coming up with an illustrative acronym – BHEB:
BRAIN –> HANDS –> EYES–> BRAIN
So, using only words, information must be relayed from the Writer’s BRAIN through their HANDS – onto page or screen – into the Reader’s EYES to be processed by their BRAIN so that it reasonably resembles whatever the Writer wished to convey. A corollary is BMEB (BRAIN –> MOUTH –> EARS–> BRAIN), useful for verbal pitching, which the Lab’s Writers also had to master to complete the course. As Syd Field wrote in Screenplay, quoting his mentor, Jean Renoir: “Art should offer the viewer the chance of merging with the creator.”
As the weeks rolled by, whenever the Writers’ verbiage was unclear, I’d remind them of BHEB, which quickly became a catchphrase unique to our joint experience. By mid-March, the Lab’s eight participants had developed, written and pitched Hollywood-quality pilots for original series that are distinctly Singaporean. Production funding is allocated for up to three of these English-language projects, which spanned quite a tonal range: workplace farce, sentimental romance, false-identity comedy, millennial melodrama, global satire, two historical dramas (about human trafficking and penal reform, no less), as well as an animated musical with intense psychological aspirations. The Lab’s “development slate” was fertile ground indeed.
I’ve only been home for two months, and am busy developing a TV series of my own. Yet again, I find myself relying on the cogent storytelling principles that are part of Syd Field’s legacy. I couldn’t say no when I was asked to recount some of my WritersLab experience for this blog. I definitely need time for fuller processing, but it’s not a coincidence that I chose “Live, Learn… then Write about it” as the auto-signature on my Lab e-mail – a quote from Syd Field. The non-dual worldview we share remains a touchstone for my ongoing work.
My Singaporean protégés have a hearty taste of it too, as I repeatedly asserted that as long as they showed up and did the work, they could never “fail” in my eyes. Or as Mr. Field noted in his text: “Judgments of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ or comparisons between ‘this’ and ‘that,’ are meaningless within the creative experience. It is what it is.” During the Lab’s final week, I ceased editing their writing. Instead, the Writers gave each other notes to polish their deliverables. The mutual respect and communicative clarity that I observed in their interactions was immensely gratifying, the memory of which I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.
This year I unexpectedly lived a profound adventure, from which I learned so much, and now I’ve written a bit about it. Thanks for reading to the end, and I hope that together we’ve achieved BHEB.
Copyright 2017 Shari Goodhartz