Sunday, October 26, 2008

How To Use Self-Imposed Deadlines Wisely

Some people hold that setting a deadline for yourself is a great way of forcing yourself to do the work. I would advocate caution here. My scepticism towards self-imposed deadlines is not because of the stress levels they generally cause, it’s because they are symptomatic of an attitude which accepts good enough as its standard.

There are a number of unspoken convictions which underlie the misconception that screenwriting benefits from time pressure. Here are some:

  • Working under time pressure forces you to make choices you would otherwise make anyway, only later. The truth is usually that with time, you’ll make entirely different, more considered creative choices.

  • The degree of improvement to a screenplay diminishes as more time is spent on it. This is also nonsense. Sometimes a great insight can only emerge after you’ve written a whole lot of material and encountered an important new question.

  • A screenwriter will endlessly change their work if not forced to stop. This too is a fallacy. Every writer has a sense of form, and will reach a point where things “make sense.” Like when you change one last aspect of a character and suddenly it all fits.

But the main, and in my opinion most objectionable rationalization for imposing a deadline on your own writing, is the notion that artificially predetermining when the work must be finished, will result in it actually being creatively cooked and ready by then.

I’ve seen it happen so often: A looming deadline encourages you to move the goal posts, lower the bar, relax your standards. The closer the deadline approaches, the more crap you’re willing to see through your fingers, despite your intuition quietly telling you not to.

It’s precisely those nagging little doubts in the back of your mind which make for excellent rather than merely OK writing.

I definitely see the use of deadlines in firing people up to get to work. However once a deadline becomes an excuse to deactivate your critical faculties, then it becomes counterproductive.

So how do you use a self-imposed deadline wisely?

Set yourself a reasonable deadline and at the same time, compile a list of criteria by which you will judge whether you’ve achieved what you set out to do. When the deadline arrives, consult your list of criteria and be honest. Take a “Zen moment” to divorce yourself form any ulterior considerations and listen to your intuition.

If your material is where you want it to be, congratulations! If it's not, figure out why and by all means set a new deadline (with a new list of criteria).

There’s no point delivering anything less than the best you can do.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Staying True To Your Vision

In his book The Lucifer Effect, about circumstances that can collude to drive ordinary, decent individuals to unacceptable behaviour, social psychologist Philip Zimbardo discusses ways to resist external influence.

Zimbardo strives to create a culture of everyday heroism through showing how to become aware of and resist social structures that can subtly convince you to do things you disagree with. He advocates teaching awareness, critical thinking and nurturing autonomy in order to avoid falling prey to social pressure and individual manipulators.

So what’s that got to do with screenwriters, you ask?

Except perhaps for the top ten A-list writers in Hollywood, the vast majority of screenwriters are under constant pressure to sell their work and acquire new assignments. The playing field is generally very uneven, with production companies traditionally able to dictate the rules because they hold the purse strings.

Taking notes from producers is an art unto itself. Even accepting notes which make sense, as that requires the screenwriter to acknowledge weak points in their script. But when it comes to dealing with unacceptable, amateurish or plain bullying demands, what’s a screenwriter to do?

The moral dilemma goes like this: If I don’t accept the changes these people are asking of me, I’ll never be able to pay the rent. But if I go along with their demands, I’ll ruin my script.

I’ve been in these situations, and I’ve always done my best to try and divorce my need to earn a living from my vision for the screenplay. It can be very difficult, and it’s very tempting to compromise in order to get the cheque. Here’s one suggestion from Zimbardo’s website, which might be helpful (there are lots more, so go and visit it!):

Keep a temporal perspective in mind. Don’t let the heat of the present moment (= the meeting) blot out the personal values you’ve established for yourself in the past and the goals you have for your future. As Zimbardo writes:

Situational power is weakened when past and future combine to contain the excesses of the present.

Resisting influence means being able to separate what’s going on around you from what you as an individual stand for. Then you can take a wise and informed decision. That may lead to a compromise, but at least then it’s your conscious decision.

It may also lead to you being a bit of a hero, and surprising the authority you’re dealing with by politely turning them down, despite the fact that you need the money ...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Essential Screenwriting Skill #357A: Pacing

There are actually two kinds of pacing relevant to screenwriting:

a) The act of walking back and forth in a state of agitation, and

b) The variation in duration and intensity of scenes, the rhythm of the film as it were.

While the careful balancing of action, suspense, introspection, etc., is essential for a good script, it’s the nervous striding I want to discuss here.

In fact, I highly recommend this activity, especially in combination with talking to yourself. In my opinion it’s one of the least appreciated screenwriting techniques. McKee doesn’t discuss it, neither does Truby or Iglesias, or any of the other people who claim to know how to teach you to write screenplays.

Of course, you have to be careful about when and where you pace. Probably the only right circumstances are when you’re on your own and there’s no one within shouting distance. Public pacing can be misunderstood, especially in a park where children are playing.

However, I also occasionally pace when working with my writing partner. I will suddenly get up from the table and commence to marching to and fro across the room, whilst thinking aloud. (I take the fact that my writing partner still works with me despite this unnerving activity as a sign of the robustness of our relationship.)

Seriously though, here’s the thing: Sitting and typing activates different parts of the brain from walking and talking. Don’t ask me the neurology of what I’m saying. If you’re a Darwinist I guess you’ll say it has something to do with coming down from the trees ten million years ago. All I know is it’s true.

I find it an especially useful technique for getting to the point, whether the point be an aspect of your theme, the specific emotion a scene turns on, a character’s precise motivation, etc. Somehow it’s much harder to digress when you’re pacing and talking.

Oh, and here’s a variation I really enjoy: Pacing and talking aloud whilst pretending to be a big-shot lawyer in a courtroom drama. It really sharpens the wit, focuses your attention on the facts. Particularly as you can choose who has to take the stand: Your main character, the main character’s mother, you the writer, whatever takes your fancy.

..........Ladies and gentlemen of the
..........jury, I put it to you …

I’m off to put my writing boots on.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Screenplay Heroes: The Brave And The Courageous

In a characteristically poignant article, meditation teacher Sally Kempton talks about the difference between courage and bravery. Her area of expertise is meditative reflection and introspection, but what she says has relevance for screenwriting. Here’s a quote:

“… courage and fearlessness are not the same – in fact if we didn’t have fears we wouldn’t need courage. Courage implies moving through fear.”

She continues to describe the difference between what she calls “raw” and “cooked” courage. The former is the kind of blind, impulsive bravery in the face of danger that is perhaps spectacular, but can leave a trail of reckless destruction in its wake. The latter is the kind of calm, deliberate encounter with a fear, which comes from strength, conviction, faith, or trust in something larger than oneself.

Now here’s the point for screenwriting: Too often, a screenplay’s main character seems to be courageous because they take spectacular risks and defeat the bad guy in the process. But the real hero is the character who goes beyond that, who acknowledges and confronts a fear with conviction and inner strength. Regardless of whether that results in victory or defeat at the hands of the bad guy.

It’s this choice for integrity which makes our insides churn as we identify with the difficult decision the character has to make. Sometimes you can’t do the right thing and survive to tell the tale. (Often you can though, especially in Hollywood …)

Of course, the ultimate film hero is one who realizes his spectacular fearlessness means nothing and who finds real ("cooked") courage in the process!

So where does your main character stand? Do they face their biggest fear and become calmly courageous, or do they see red and blast everyone to kingdom come in the process?