Thursday, June 28, 2007

Taming the Torrent

This is the best and the worst part of screenwriting as far as I’m concerned: You have an idea, say for a scene, a character or even a story premise and then it happens. The dam bursts and your mind suddenly fills with images, snippets of dialogue, music, sound effects, ideas for the trailer, the poster, people you must remember to thank when you hold that little golden statue, and so on.

It’s a rush, a physical sense of excitement as in an instant you realize the potential of what you’re imagining. But you’re also in a panic. It’s too much to be able to capture on paper and elements have already begun evaporating and disappearing even as you desperately rush to note them down. It’s like waking up and writing down a dream which is fast being pushed out of your mind by the responsibilities of the day ahead.

Of course one of the basic facts of writing films is that it’s the idea that counts. So the main priority in an emergency imagination situation is to do the opposite of the instinctive response I just described. Instead of scrambling to hold on to whatever details you can salvage, stand back and scrutinize the flood of information as it careens past. Until, that is, The Idea becomes visible. Aha! It’s about … and that’s what you grab. Because the idea is the key to the place where all that imagination (and more) came from. Once you have articulated the idea, however rudimentarily, you will be able to return at will to the river of imagination whence you fished it up.

The idea might be a neat premise, a general theme, a situation, or a character with a goal, whatever. The important thing is that you remember what this story idea is about in a way that makes sense to you. It’s no good demanding of yourself from the get-go that you formulate a dazzling 30-second pitch, ready to spring on Spielberg if you happen to get stuck in an elevator with him. It’s enough to hold on to an image, a sentence, a character description, or any other nugget which typifies the idea for you. That will tame the torrent and give you the power to go back to it when you have the time and inclination. Now isn’t that comforting?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

What if ... ?

I can’t remember who said that screenwriting is all about asking yourself the right questions, but undoubtedly one of the most important questions a screenwriter can ask is, “What if?” Whatever level of detail you’re considering, whether you’re thinking about an event in a scene or brainstorming basic ideas for a story, the same little query is a wonderful way of exploring the possibilities.

What if it starts to rain during the ceremony?
What if he turns out to be an alien in disguise?
What if the theme were honour rather than greed?
What if she’s infertile?
What if they only have four hours to break the code?

“What if?” is a beautiful tool but it only works if you’re prepared to let go of preconceptions. Especially if someone else is asking the question.

Like if your producer asks, after reading the fifth re-write, “What if the protagonist were ten years younger, and a woman instead of a man?” You know it’s implausible, you know you’ve meticulously constructed every beat and scene in the script around the concept of a man in his fifties, you know you’ll have to almost start from scratch. But hey, she might have a point. What if …?

“What if?” can also be of great value in terms of method.

What if I approach this scene in a completely different way? What if I set aside all my pre-conceived ideas about character arc, structure, acts, sequences and so on, and just let my creative mind wander for a while? What if I allow myself to simply imagine things?

And here’s another great thing about the “What if?” question: There’s no right or wrong answer. Sometimes the question will yield a long list of possible outcomes, sometimes it will point to that one twist that’s been eluding you for months. But it always clarifies something, as long as you’re willing and able to take the answer seriously. So don’t be afraid of asking. In fact fear of “What if?” is a sure sign you’re clinging to a baby you might intuitively know you should kill but don’t want to because of all the extra work that entails …

One last thing about “What if?”: It’s just an exploratory question. By asking “What if?” you haven’t committed to anything. Nothing in the script changes unless you start typing. If none of the answers make your story better, then just put them aside (or store them in your “ideas” file) and get on with your life.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Writing the logline - Part three

So now you’ve described who the main character is, what their central problem is and how they have to go about solving it. All that remains is to explain why their mission is impossible, but at the same time leaving just enough room to wonder if perhaps they might just succeed, if only they manage to ...

What is it about the combination of this specific character and these particular obstacles that ensures that the audience is going to want to know what happens?

This touches on one of the basic reasons people enjoy watching movies: It’s a vicarious emotional experience. You identify with a fictional character confronting a fabricated problem, deliberately designed to refer to analogous issues in real life. You want to board the metaphor and go along for the ride, perhaps secretly hoping to disembark a changed person.

The metaphorical value of the specific challenge the main character faces is what engages the audience. The prince has to kill the dragon in order to win the hand of the princess. He’s scared, concerned he’ll fail and not win the princess, perhaps worried he’ll ruin his hair in the fiery scuffle. We, the audience, feel what the prince is going through and unconsciously, or even consciously relate those feelings to our own lives. We intuitively know what it’s like to have to face a frightening obstacle in the way of something we really, really want. Whether it’s asking the boss for a raise or taking a first scuba-diving lesson. Everyone has their own fears and desires.

So the main character has to face problems which evoke the kind of emotions we’re all familiar with in our own real lives. Naming the dire consequences of not overcoming the obstacles is an effective way of eliciting the desired emotion. The main character must succeed, or:

- ... lose the love of his life forever.
- ... die a horrible or shameful death.
- ... miss a once in a lifetime opportunity to see justice done.

And so on. The more catastrophic the outcome of failing to reach the goal, the more emotion the audience invests in the main character’s struggle. Of course catastrophic isn’t synonymous with gory or violent. It’s relative to the life of the main character. In the context of very different stories it would be equally horrific to fail to save the world from alien attack (e.g., Independence Day) and to fail to fulfil one’s potential (e.g., Good Will Hunting).

Some examples for good measure:

"A working-class single mother campaigns to prove the guilt of a huge, polluting corporation, and resorts to unorthodox methods when no one takes her seriously (Erin Brockovich)." The vicarious emotional experience? The frustration of someone who is judged by their social status, their gender and education rather than by their actual merit. A very familiar experience for many people, especially women. Erin is obviously going to give it all she has, not only to prove the big, bad corporation is guilty, but also to prove that she is worth taking seriously as an individual. This is her now or never moment, her chance to shake off the stigma with which society has burdened her. If she fails, she’ll be doomed to live out the rest of her life in poverty and dependence.

"An indignant twelve-year old demands the return of his toys from a creepy neighbour, but discovers that the real villain is the neighbour’s house, and it’s alive! (Monster House)." The emotion here is abject fear. He’s just a kid, and he’s finally plucked up the courage to confront the creepy old guy across the street. Most of us had elderly neighbours we were frightened of as children, right? A very basic fear of being sucked into a strange house and eaten alive. And that’s exactly what (almost) happens. As if the kid’s fear of the neighbour weren’t enough of an obstacle, and the retrieval of his toys not a worthy enough goal, it turns out that the house is a vicious monster (the neighbour’s wife’s ghost has possessed it). Instead of having to get the toys back, the kid now has to figure out how to destroy the house or literally be eaten alive.

"After his British hostage is killed, a remorseful IRA gunman flees from his vengeful comrades to England and falls for his ex-hostage’s lover who turns out to be a transvestite (The Crying Game)." Here’s someone on the run from both the British and Irish, who is having trouble with his conscience, who becomes infatuated with someone and then discovers this person isn’t a woman at all. Now there’s an emotional web to be stuck in! The plot of this film is far more complex than a mere logline can convey, but the central obstacle for the main character stands out like a sore thumb: In order to find peace, this man has to reconcile his feelings of affection with the completely unexpected and for him inappropriate object of his infatuation. Not only has he fallen in love with someone who is grieving partly due to his actions, but she turns out to be a he to boot! Impossible but undeniable love. Sound familiar?

Any of the loglines I’ve used as examples here and in previous postings can obviously be formulated differently and no doubt more effectively. However, the basic elements of a logline remain the same whichever specific words you choose:

1. The Main Character: Who is the story about and what is their main trait or weakness?
2. The Goal: What do they want, need to achieve or avoid?
3. The Obstacle: What makes achieving the goal problematic?

It’s a simple recipe, but don’t be fooled: The less words you’re allowed to use, the more carefully you have to choose them. A bit like writing Haiku.