Thursday, January 31, 2008

Aim high

I recently received the worst and at once most positively reinforcing piece of writing advice ever. It came from someone influential within a public organization which funds film projects. The advice was in response to the latest synopsis of a multi-protagonist script I’m working on with my writing partner.

The advice was basically: Don’t aim too high. Or, in subtextualese: Don’t take the risk of tackling such a complex concept, try something simpler and more familiar in order to improve your chances of getting funding.

Now, if there’s one thing I believe in, it’s aiming high, sticking to whatever it is you feel passionate about. The more you stretch yourself, the more you learn, the better you become. That is, unless you’re deluded and jump off a high-rise wearing only home-made wings.

By trying to encourage us to write something less demanding, to play it safe, this person was in fact giving us precisely the confirmation we needed: Our concept is ambitious and daring. It stands out.

To me that’s already good news.

In recent years the multi-protagonist or multi-plot structure has gradually moved into the mainstream, but it’s still a fairly rare bird. And there’s a reason for that. It’s very hard to write well. Take a look at the award-winning screenplay for Crash by Paul Haggis at Script-o-rama if you don’t believe me. Quite a screenwriting feat.

I wouldn’t compare myself to Mr. Haggis in any way. But I do acknowledge that he’s at the top of his game, someone to emulate. So I study his writing and try to understand how he works his magic.

That, to me, constitutes a very healthy form of aiming high. Much preferable to the notion of avoiding risks by choosing to write something more generic.

All advice is useful, as long as you know how to take it.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Writing as a writing exercise

A recent discussion on Shooting People’s screenwriting bulletin centred around someone’s confession that they’d been adapting a literary work for which they don’t own the rights. Purely as a way to practise their craft.

Responses were roughly spilt into two camps:

A) What a waste of time. If you’re going to do the work anyway, make sure it’s something you’ll be able to sell one day if the opportunity arises.

B) What a good exercise. This is an excellent way of honing your craft without the pressure of a real-world deadline or boss.

Is the exercise analogy valid? Is being a writer like being a sportsman or a musician in that training and practice increase your stamina and technical ability?

I think it’s a truism that the more you write the better you write. But it’s also true that one script meeting with an experienced producer or director can sometimes teach you more about what professional screenwriting is all about than six months’ solitary scribbling.

The temptation to shut yourself away and “practise” writing for the rest of your life is very real. So you have to be honest with yourself about why you’re writing something “merely” for practice.

It’s one thing to write something as an exercise because you love the process, you’re inspired by the idea, you see it as a positive step on the way to something even better, or even just something to add to your CV.

It’s quite another thing to practise writing because it’s the least intimidating option at your disposal. Other options being things like: writing a script for a competition, approaching people in the industry to pitch ideas, finding an agent, etc.

Here’s one positive way of looking at it: If you don’t have a proven track record, i.e., one or more produced films you can refer potential partners to, then sometimes the next best thing is a script you’ve written. It demonstrates your writing ability and dedication, even if the script was just an “exercise” and you don’t own the rights.

But at some point you have to get washed and show your face out there, in order for all that practice to translate into real, professional opportunities.

Friday, January 4, 2008

What is your character’s purpose in life?

I stumbled across an intriguingly entitled motivational exercise called How to discover your life purpose in about 20 minutes, by someone called Steve Pavlina. A tad ambitious perhaps and a little too Californian for a European like me, but a revealing and worthwhile exercise nonetheless.

Especially for exploring your character’s motivation.

Here’s how it works: You sit down and start answering the question: What is my purpose in life? Just write short, single-sentence answers, one after another, without thinking too much about what you’re writing.

Bear in mind, the term “purpose” here is not intended in a philosophical or theological sense, but rather in a concrete, motivational sense. What is it that drives you? What are your most important values? That kind of purpose.

As the list grows longer and longer (50 - 100 "answers" is quite normal), you find yourself honing in more and more on what really drives you, as opposed to what you think should be driving you. The more emotion you feel for an answer, so goes Steve Pavlina’s reasoning, the closer the answer is to your true purpose in life.

Unless, like me, you’re a completely integrated, fulfilled and grounded individual, the exercise will confront you with incongruity, ambivalence, conflicting desires and unresolved emotional obstacles … in short, all the things that make a fictional character interesting.

So the screenwriter’s version of this exercise is to don your character’s cap and then start answering the question: What is my purpose in life? Keep on writing down whatever answers come to mind until the answers begin resonating emotionally with your image of the character.

That’s when you know you’ve identified one of the character’s core values, something the character will strive to adhere to, whatever happens. And it needn’t be something the character is even consciously aware of. In some genres it’s actually more appropriate that the character is the last to discover what is really driving them.

Once you have this clear sense of what is most important for your character, consciously or otherwise, then comes the fun part: Inventing sadistic ways of frustrating your character. More about that some other time.