What Guillermo Arriaga Does When He Is Stuck on a Scene, the Screenwriting Rule He Follows & His Writing Process [Masterclass]
There’s no progress in art, your last work is not going to be better than your first work. So the best thing is to be authentic and honest with your own work. That’s how it happened.
After I had the chance to briefly listen to Guillermo Arriaga at Raindance Film Festival (see anecdote here), I was curious to know more about the man who happen to have penned two of my favorite films (Amores Perros, Babel. If you haven’t seen them, get to it).
Arriaga gave a BAFTA Lecture back in 2011 that you can listen to in its entirety below. In less than an hour, the self-taught screenwriter takes you on a journey filled with stories, tips and wisdom, and leaves you with a feeling that if there is one thing you need to get right above all else, is how to stand strong on your two feet. The rest is out of your control.
But for those who enjoy more specific information, here are some of my personal highlights:
Questioning the necessity of the three acts structure
“What I think is the one trick pony is really the three act kind of structure. Why do we think that we have to put rules on storytelling? Just because a Greek philosopher said two thousand years ago it has to be. Who says that on page 30, page 60, page 90 we always have to follow the same structure?
I think that every story has a different way to be told; each one of them. And we have to realise that in real life, in our daily life, we use extremely sophisticated storytelling. We never go linear, we never structure with a first act, second act and third act. We always use this back and forth kind of storytelling. So why do we have to go always with this kind of structure?
There are people who are paid a lot of money in Hollywood because they are able to bring the 35 page turning point to page 30. Really. They are called Script Doctors. And the disease is not being on page 30. That’s the great disease the script doctors are curing.
Now I’ve been teaching seminars and many people are asking me if there’s any technique. I think that the only technique for writing has to come, not from the technique itself, but from questions about important things.”
The Question He Asks Himself to Get Unstuck and Create Conflict
“Every time I write a scene or a story and it’s not working I think, ‘How would Shakespeare solve this?’ It happened to me in Amores Perros. Amores Perroswas a story that was not working, and I asked how it could work and thought of Shakespeare. In Shakespeare the way of doing things is: the closer the characters are, the greater the conflict. Think of Hamlet.
Who killed Hamlet’s father? Who is marrying Hamlet’s mother? Macbeth. He wants the throne. In order to get the throne he has to kill the King. But the King is his best friend, and the one who is pushing him to kill his best friend is his wife. So when you put things so close, conflict becomes much larger, bigger. So that’s something I use, that’s a trick that I give to you. Think like Shakespeare. Or William Faulkner, The Sound & The Fury.
Benjy [the protagonist in Faulkner’s novel] has been castrated by his brother because Benjy was having sex with his sister and the brother is in love with his sister. It becomes a great tragedy. Huge conflict, when things are close. So in Amores Perros how it helped, I have a guy who wanted to be in love. This guy was in love with his brother’s wife who – by the way – is pregnant. And that helped me a lot to make things advance.
I grew up in the Marxist tradition, and the Marxist tradition came from the dialectic kind of thinking, so sometimes when a scene is not working I try to think like Hegel: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. I always like characters to go into a scene with a dramatic objective, and the other character has a completely different dramatic objective. And they clash and that brings something else.
Many times when a scene is really stuck, that’s something that helps me a lot, to think in the dialectic way.”
The Screenwriting Rules He Follows
“I already said that I have no education at all in screenwriting. But when I have read all these manuals of screenwriting, they say things that I will never follow. And I have learned that the first rule of screenwriting, or any art, is having no rules.
Everyone has to find their own way of doing things. For example, every screenwriting teacher says, ‘Research, research, research is the key to everything.’ I say I’m too lazy to research. I’m talking about myself and the things that happened, so why do I have the need to research at all? So I do not do any kind of research, ever.
Second, I was writing a screenplay and the producer insisted – because I come from the novels – that I had to go to one of these gurus of screenwriting seminars. It was a woman, and she was saying, ‘You must know everything about your characters, everything. You have to write the whole backstory of your character.
You must know even how much change he has in his pocket. What kind of underwear he is wearing…’ and I said this was so boring. If I know everything about my characters how am I going to be surprised by them? So I have no idea at all where my characters are coming from, who their parents are, I have no idea. I’m not interested in that.
Third, many writers tell my students, ‘If you don’t know the end of the story, don’t write it.’ Again I say how boring is that? If I know the end what’s the purpose of writing the story? I like to discover the end, so I have no idea of the end. The way I work in Hollywood is I pitch my stories to producers, and many of them are like, ‘What happened next?’ and I say, ‘I have no idea.’ ‘What’s the end?’ ‘I have no idea.’ ‘And you want me to pay this amount for something you have no idea how it’s going to end?’ ‘Yeah, it’s going to end good, don’t worry.’
Don’t worry, be happy. So I love to discover the end. I hate when I know everything, so that’s why I don’t write an outline. Why write a treatment? And I have no preconception, I have no preconceived ideas, I have just a very vague idea of where the story’s heading and what structure it needs. So the way I write the stories is I sit down and begin writing.
So that’s the way I work that I want to share with you, because I know that many writers feel liberated after I say this.
They’ve been taught to research, they’ve been taught to write outlines, they’ve been taught to follow rules, and when I say you can write without being constrained by anything it makes you feel free. That’s what I think.
So first of all I think that when we write we must have a sense that each story has a different way to be told. Each one of them. If he has to do linear and it works in the three acts, perfect. But what about if not?”
An Exercice to Find Your Writing Style
“When I was teaching creative writing I asked [my students] to read certain authors.
And then I asked them, ‘Please write a story like that author. Copy the style.’ And the more they tried to copy the style the more a style of their own came by itself.
At the end of the course, I asked them to submit an original story anonymously. And we read it aloud, and everyone was like, ‘Ah, that’s you because that’s your style, that’s the way you put words,’ and they were copying other people. So style always comes by itself.”
Try to Have a Concept Behind a Story
“What I always try also is to have a concept. A concept that is behind the storytelling.
For example, in The Burning Plain the concept was the four elements. I want a story that has to do with fire, one with wind, one with water and one with earth.
In 21 Grams, it’s the point of view of a dying man. That’s why all the scenes come in a mess, completely disordered, because they say when you’re dying your life flashes before you, and I think if it comes to you it doesn’t come: first act, second act, page 30. It comes completely scrambled.
In Babel for example, the concept that I used to have some motive for me, was the last day of something. This 24 hour period of time; in those 24 hours something breaks forever.”
These are only fragments of the lecture Arriaga gave. If you consider yourself a storyteller, take 50 minutes and enjoy the full ride. Not because you should apply what Arriaga says, but because his way is one of the way, and certainly a unique way with a lot of personality that will likely provoke frictions in your thought process, which is always good: