Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tolerating the unarticulated

One of the most unsettling things for a human being is uncertainty. That’s just a fact of life. People like to know where they stand. What time is the train going to leave? Does my wife still love me?

We screenwriters, being mere mortals like the rest of humanity, don’t much like uncertainty either. But “not yet knowing” where a story is going or exactly what a character is going to do, is an important phase in the writing process and should not be hurried.

It’s often hard to imagine, but there’s always another way of writing everything.

Sometimes a great idea only occurs when lots of scenes have already been put in place and the perspective on the whole screenplay changes. Or when you’re halfway through the storyboard. Or when you do a table reading.

Tolerating the discomfort of knowing where you want to go but not yet knowing the way, is a skill you have to master as a screenwriter. And it’s actually easy once you learn to go with Zen of screenwriting and see each idea for what it is: One of an endless stream of ideas passing through you.

It’s a bit like having forgotten where you put your car keys when you’re already late, or not for the life of you being able to come up with the right word even though you know it exists. The harder you try to recall that trivial little piece of information, the more hopeless it seems.

The best policy in these situations is more often than not: Do something else.

Same with the unarticulated screenplay element you’re struggling with. Do something else. Relax. Trust your unconscious mind to do the work while you’re looking the other way.

Don’t take my word for it, go to Creative Screenwriting Magazine and listen to their podcast interview with David Lynch in which he talks about his fascinating relationship with ideas.

Or, of course, you could go and do something else ...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Unfashionable screenwriting techniques

In the context of one of the animation projects I’m working on, we’re discussing whether to use voice-over to give the story a kind of satirical “noir” feel. Our discussion is basically: It could work well as a comedic style element, but will it put potential investors off? And I’ve discovered that I’ve internalized a common bias against voice-over without really knowing why.

Flashbacks, voice-overs and dream scenes are frowned upon by most in the film industry these days. The mantra goes like this: These cinematic tools digress from the action. They take the audience out of the movie, disturb the narrative flow of the story. They’ve been used too much. And anyway, there’s always a better way to get the same information or emotion across.

Is any of this true?

Not on TV. Where would Six Feet Under, Medium, Heroes and all the rest of contemporary small-screen magical realism be without a parallel fantasy world?

And there are plenty of box-office hit films that use these techniques beautifully too: What would The Shawshank Redemption be without Morgan Freeman’s voiceover? What would Prince of Tides be without Nick Nolte’s flashbacks? What would Open Range be without Kevin Costner’s nightmare scene?

Nevertheless, the general consensus in movie-land is that these are the exceptions that prove the rule. “Use these tools in a spec script at your peril,” we’re warned. Screenplays are “stories told in pictures and sound,” and the accepted way to draw the audience in and give them insight into the characters, is by having the characters do things in the (fictional) here and now.

Question: Who ever heard of a production company turning down a thrilling, hilarious, or intriguing script because it had a voice-over in it? Or a flashback, or a dream sequence? More than likely, if this is given as a reason for rejecting the script, the basic idea isn’t strong enough to begin with. Because if the idea at the core of a screenplay is great, then the exact details of the writing are of secondary importance.

So will we use the voice-over or not? I think it might just work …

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Changing tack

Imagine you had a mental turntable. No, I’m not talking about one of those ancient phonographic devices for reproducing analogue musical recordings from bulky vinyl discs. What I’m referring to is something even older and much less likely to fit into your living room: A railway turntable.

Imagine you had a device like this in your mind. You’re stuck with a scene, a character, an idea, whatever. It just won’t gel. Probably because you’re sticking too closely to some preconceived direction you were travelling in. For some reason you’re convinced that this is the way it has to be. Even though it’s not working. Hey, it happens to the best of us.

Well lucky for you, you’ve just hit the turntable. You’re about to shunt.

Drive your scene, character, whatever, slowly onto the turntable and stop. Look around. You can pick any of the available alternative directions. You can change drivers. You can change destinations. It’s the ultimate "What if?" Let your imagination go down any of the different tracks leading away from the turntable.

And if you get the jitters (damn, what about my perfect set-up in scene 3?) you can always decide you were right in the first place and choose straight ahead.

P.S. For the nitpickers among you: Yes, changing tack is a nautical metaphor. But isn’t creativity all about taking two disparate concepts and conjuring up something new with them?