Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Why Writing Yourself Into a Corner Can Work Wonders

The Coen brothers are famous for claiming their writing method consists mainly of napping. Whether they actually spend most of their time asleep or not, there is another element to their methodology which is equally interesting and probably more constructive for most other screenwriters: They like to write problematic situations for which they have no ready solution and then see where that leads.

In William Preston Robertson and Tricia Cooke’s book about The Making of The Big Lebowski Ethan Coen talks about how he and brother Joel had the idea for a scene with a severed toe long before they knew whose toe it was going to be. He concedes, “ … that’s a way to work, painting yourself into a corner and then having to perform whatever contortions to get yourself out.”

Or in their movie The Hudsucker Proxy, where they created an even more extreme conundrum for themselves by starting out with the idea of the main character jumping off a building. “That stumped us for a while,” says Ethan, “and we had to resort to the ridiculous extreme of, you know, stopping time.”

I recently unintentionally discovered the benefits of this approach myself when I showed up for a script meeting, armed with a scene in which the main character finds himself stuck in a car with his leg in plaster, watching his granddaughter being kidnapped by a group of thugs.

My writing partner hit the roof. “You can’t do that! You’re writing him out of the action!!” To which I replied, “Well, what might he do, given the kind of character he is?”

And lo and behold, a couple of hours later we had not only nailed the sequence*, we also came up with a brilliant twist for the climax as an unexpected bonus! Which we would never have thought of if we’d plodded along in a more logical, motivational, plot-oriented search.

As with all “techniques,” this is just one of numerous ways to approach the search for intriguing scenes and twists. But it’s certainly one that can activate trains of thought and associations that would otherwise remain dormant.

And if the Coen brothers’ films are anything to go by, it’s certainly worth a try.

Go on, surprise yourself, put your character in an impossible situation and see what happens!

* The original scene in the car didn’t survive.


Anonymous said...

Good article Dave.

I adore this technique of writing.

Two of my scripts were written like this.

This is the only reason why I write and why I never gave up in this business.

Is this a popular technique in film-school?
Would a professor advise his/her students to write like this?


Raving Dave Herman said...

Good for you!

As I say in the post, this is just one of many techniques. I don't know if anyone would be well-advised to always work like this. You need a solid understanding of structure too, not to mention a knack for dialogue and other essential elements of a good script.

However, I certainly believe that too much emphasis on how screenplays are "supposed" to be written is one of the factors that contributes to the enormous amount of generic writing being produced.

And as I recently heard Daniel Waters (writer/director of Sex and Death 101) say in an interview: What the film industry is always looking for is an original voice, not someone who writes clones of existing genre films.

Happy writing!