Monday, September 24, 2007

When is a scene not a scene?

At present I’m working on a screenplay which uses a structure variously referred to as multi-plot, or multi-protagonist or ensemble structure. It’s similar to the storytelling paradigm used in films like Happiness, Crash, Magnolia and so on. Apart from it being immeasurably more stimulating for the brain than anything Dr. Kawashima can throw at you, it also poses an interesting challenge in terms of writing scenes.

Because each of the main characters has a relatively limited amount of screen time, only ten scenes altogether for some of them, I have to force myself to be absolutely unequivocal about the function of every scene. I have very little time to establish characterization and conflict, so my choices become that much more critical.

So the question “when is a scene not a scene?” isn’t an academic one. It’s a practical query concerning how to keep the audience engaged with the story even though they’re following more characters and plotlines than they’re used to.

The answer is: A scene isn’t a scene when it’s merely a situation, a series of actions or images which depict a set of circumstances without raising a dramatic question.

A situation can certainly be as interesting as a scene in terms of imagery, acting, dialogue, and so on. And I’m not an Aristotelian fundamentalist who demands that every element in a screenplay must develop character and move the plot forward, as the manuals say. But in the screenplay I’m writing at the moment, if I don’t leave the audience wondering what’s going to happen next, then my multi-whatever structure is going to confuse rather than intrigue.

My way of making sure each scene earns its place in the screenplay, is to ask myself these basic questions at the outline or treatment stage (i.e., before I start writing the scene itself):

1. What action dominates the scene? That becomes my scene title in a scene list. Not necessarily anything dramatic, but a title which I will recognize immediately.
2. What’s the main conflict in the scene? This becomes my “scene subtitle” in a scene list.
3. What are the main beats in the scene? This becomes the kind of simple, one paragraph prose description I use in a treatment.
4. What further action does the scene cause? This becomes the hook at the end of the scene which makes you want to know what happens next.

Of course these are not the only questions I ask myself whilst planning the scene, but if I’ve got these items covered, at least I know the basics are sound. And being an anal, analytic type, I’ve created separate headings in Word which remind me to articulate these four items whenever I plan a scene. So when I type the scene title and press enter, the heading for Main Conflict appears, after which there’s a heading for a slugline, then a scene description and finally a turning point.

Each item looks different and is immediately recognizable. Here’s what it looks like:

The format is also collapsible, so I can see a list of only the scene titles, or the scene titles with the main conflict, etc.

This way of thinking about scenes forces me to remain focused on the essentials of each character’s story and to present them visually.

I’ll post the date of the premiere well in advance …

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Analysis vs. creativity

The ability to critically deconstruct successful films is not necessarily indicative of talent in a screenwriter. At least not one who aims to do well in the mainstream. The web is chock-full of wannabe experts eruditely explaining why this blockbuster romantic comedy or that runaway 3-D animation movie is actually no good at all.

They claim a film is too formulaic, or on the contrary, that it doesn’t deliver on genre promises. Sometimes they’ll slam the structure of the film because it deviates from or sticks too closely to a popular screenwriting model. Other times it’s the use of unfashionable techniques such as voice-overs or flashbacks which raises the briter’s* hackles.

And then there’s the subtextual envy of huge box office success for a film that isn’t exactly earth-shatteringly original or artful. That’s just not right!

But even if this criticism is in some way justified, a commercially successful film must still be pushing some of the right buttons, because the audience has already voted with its feet and propelled the film into the black. And this is the same audience the critical authors hope someday to entertain with their own creative efforts.

Contrast this with the common inarticulateness of many successful screenwriters when it comes to how they write. Even the most talented and oft-produced screenwriters are usually at a loss to explain where they get their ideas from and how exactly they turn these ideas into hot scripts. In fact you often hear writers say they don’t want to analyse their method or their ideas because it would kill their muse.

We live in age of analysis in real time. No sooner has a new trend been identified than it is analysed, abstracted and processed into a module which is then offered at a college near you. But of course when it comes to film, there’s no such thing as instant. It takes years for a compelling idea to progress from being an initial scribble on a screenwriter’s notepad to being a well-marketed product showing at your local multiplex.

Trends will always come and go. No amount of analysis is going to change that. Better to spend your time jotting down ideas for films you’d like to see than essays on films you’d rather not have seen. In the end all that counts is a strong, intriguing idea. And the only effective way to find one of those is to keep your creative mind open and be receptive to whatever's going on around you.

* briter = webwriter