Thursday, January 29, 2009

What Screenplays Have To Do With Parallel Universes

In a recent interview on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast, theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku, gave a brief and rather mind-boggling outline of the concept of parallel universes.

I’m hopeless at physics, but I kind of understood the theoretical possibility of there being multiple universes, billions of them, in which other versions of us live, but with whom we can never communicate.

Remember that movie, Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow? Two different versions of her life, depending on whether she caught the train or not? A bit like that except literally, not hypothetically.

I recognized something of what Dr. Kaku was talking about from the process of writing and rewriting a screenplay.

Your screenplay is the universe you have created. Every time you change something in the script, whether it’s one word of dialogue, an important plot twist or even an entire character, your script always moves on, leaving behind a script that is a different universe because of that change.

The script you continue to work on is like the universe we live in and are aware of. The other versions of the script, the ones that are shed like snake skins along the way, continue to exist separately somewhere else. Sometimes you imagine what might have happened to a character or a scene you cut. It comes like a flash of recognition, or a memory—or a déjà vu, whatever that is—but actually you can only live in the script you’re writing.

Of course, as Kaku points out, the possibility of us communicating with the parallel universes that came into existence along the way to the one we’re living in now, is purely theoretical. If such an encounter were to occur at all, it would only be possible after the natural lifetime of this universe expires. So don’t hold your breath.

Anyway, to my mind it’s a pleasant concept, the idea that the versions of my scripts that didn’t happen, just drift merrily off into endless space where in some parallel universe, different versions of me, sitting at exactly the same desk, pick them up and write their own version of the screenplay.

Perhaps a nice way of mitigating the sometimes painfully laborious and detailed work of getting the 15,000 or so words of your screenplay just right.

Oh, and if you read about some poor screenwriter being dragged away in a straightjacket, kicking and screaming about other dimensions and the paradox of time travel … that’ll be me.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How To Let It Happen On The Page Without Losing The Plot

Screenwriter of Revolutionary Road, Justin Haythe, recently did a Q+A on the Creative Screenwriting Magazine podcast. He makes a wonderful observation while describing the way he outlines before sitting down to write the actual first draft:

"… it never ceases to amaze me how much happens on the page that wasn’t planned for."

In other words, no matter how meticulously you outline and plot out the scenes before you start writing them, once you let the characters loose in the script, unexpected things start to happen.

I guess this particular remark struck a chord with me because I’m in the middle of precisely that process, turning an extensive scriptment into a fully-fledged first draft. And it always is a truly amazing sensation. Almost as if the characters are taking over.

Of course the important thing is to remain in charge, even whilst allowing events in the scene to unfold organically, in accordance with who the characters are. I think the key to achieving this balance is knowing what you’re writing about.

That may sound obvious, but a lot of scripts don’t make it to the screen because they don’t have a clear focus. Which doesn’t necessarily mean you absolutely must have that focus before you start writing. Sometimes it’s the writing and rewriting itself which clarifies what you want to focus on. But once you have a focus, you have to be true to it.

This focus transcends genre and style. Regardless of whether you’re writing a period piece, a comedic short, or an animated children’s feature. The focus might be a social issue, it might be a philosophical question, a mystery, an emotion, a psychological transition, and so on. Whatever your focus is, all the characters need to relate to it in one way or another.

This focus is what gives a script a feeling of being about something, without hitting the audience/reader over the head with “messages.”

One of my favourite examples of this kind of writing, is Paul Haggis’s Crash, in which the writer focuses every scene on the same issue: how astonishingly prejudiced and bigoted people of all races can be. (Click here to download a PDF of the script under "film scripts A-C.")

Armed with this kind of clear focus, you are free to let the magic happen on the page. You can let your characters loose in your story world, because you will always know when they’re straying outside of the focus of the story. Which is when you get to play God, using the backspace key.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why Your Characters Need Intentions As Well As Goals

In a recent article referring to the annual ritual of setting goals for the new year, meditation teacher Phillip Moffitt writes about the difference between setting goals and setting intentions.

A goal is a specific, concrete result, set in the future. Something you envisage yourself attaining, an outcome you are emotionally attached to, invested in. Because it’s concrete and specific, a goal leaves no room to adjust or change direction (unless you change the goal).

By contrast, an intention is rooted in the present, it’s a commitment to adhere to certain values, regardless of where that leads. An intention is a kind of yard stick with which you can always measure up your actions. Because it’s abstract, no matter what the situation, you can always hold your choices up against it.

As Moffitt writes:

You set your intentions based on understanding what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.

Not only can this be a constructive way of approaching your work as a screenwriter, it can also be a useful lens through which to view your characters.

Think for a moment about your professional goals. Maybe your goal is to get an agent, finish a spec screenplay, obtain certain qualifications, hone particular skills, earn more than you did last year, etc.

Now, what about your intentions? In the sense I quoted above: the commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values? That’s altogether a more tricky question, because it requires you to recognize what matters most to you. And that’s not always simple.

In fact this question can bring up all sorts of professional dilemmas.

Is it more important to write screenplays about meaningful issues, or is it more important earn a living writing screenplays, whatever the subject matter? Should you focus on one project you’re really committed to, or do you need to keep your options open? Should you work with people who disrespect you, in order to get ahead?

Of course, these are not black and white choices. It’s clear you need to be flexible in this business and that – as the Stones once sang - You can’t always get what you want. But it’s an interesting an illuminating question nevertheless! Because when you’re aware of your intention and that intention clashes with the concrete goal you’re trying to achieve, a dilemma arises which you can’t avoid. Conflict, in other words.

Conflict, the thing that drives all great screenplays, right?

Now ask yourself for a moment what kind of intention would clash with your main character’s goal? Are they even aware of this? Are they in denial? Is it perhaps another character who points this out, thus creating a dilemma?

As I’ve pointed out before, moral ambiguity is the life blood of great fiction. Articulating how, specifically, the discrepancy between your character’s intention and their goal interferes with their life, is just another way of exploring that moral ambiguity.