Monday, July 27, 2009

Why You Need To Know Who You’re Writing For

Well, I got to my first milestone on schedule … The outline is finished, and at about 2,000 words it’s a very decent length. Apart from feeling very pleased with myself, I’ve also learned something interesting while getting the work done: It pays to distinguish between a selling document and a working document.

A selling document is intended as a pitch, to interest someone in your script. As such, whether it’s a one-page synopsis, a blow-by-blow outline or a twenty-page treatment, it must be a good read. Not just in terms of story structure, character and imagery, but also in terms of language. Rhythmic sentences, well-executed humour, intriguing and teasing choice of words, and so on.

A working document, on the other hand, is solely intended to help you, the writer, move ahead with your process. It too can be an outline, a treatment or whatever, but it only needs to be comprehensible to you. The only thing that matters is that when you look at it you know what to do next.

So the thing I caught myself doing this weekend (no, not that thing …), was struggling to write a selling document, when what I need is a working document. Once I dropped that self-imposed stylistic demand, things suddenly became a lot easier. And it’s clear why.

If all I need is a reminder that, say, at a certain point in the narrative one character tries and fails to teach another character to use a sword, then “X tries in vain to teach Y how to fence,” is sufficient. When I read that back, it automatically evokes a scene I already have in my head, which I can then flesh out.

Not so if the document is intended as a pitch. Then I have to articulate the atmosphere and dynamics of the scene more succinctly. I need to spend a lot more time ensuring that the description is comprehensive enough for someone who doesn’t have the scene in their head to be able to picture it.

So, job well done. Now it’s time for my reward! Which for this modest achievement is an appropriately small item, a CD: Cloud of Unknowing by guitarist James Blackshaw. Wonderfully evocative music. Brilliant for spacing out to and getting your creative juices flowing!

Next step: Finish a treatment based on the outline. Deadline: 1 September.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

:59 Seconds Of Inspiration

In a departure from my usual reflective and observational format, I’m going out on a limb today by announcing a plan I’ve set myself. It’s based on a chapter in psychologist Richard Wiseman’s new book :59 Seconds. Think a Little, Change a Lot. This is a wonderful book which debunks many of the more insidious and widespread fallacies that drive the so-called self-help industry. Professor Wiseman simply and clearly sets out alternatives for the many popular, positive thinking methods, which he shows can be hugely counter-productive and even downright demoralizing.

I’ve recently found myself in need of an effective way of keeping focus amidst the numerous projects and people (including my children) vying for my attention. So I’ve decided to give the professor a run for his money and see what transpires.

In his chapter on motivation, Wiseman describes five principles that emerge from extensive scientific studies into how people successfully motivate themselves, keep focus and reach their goals. These are the five principles he sums up:

1. Successful people have a clear plan, a specific goal. And they break their plan down into a series of steps, or sub-goals.

2. Successful people tend to make their plans known to family, friends and colleagues. This makes it a lot harder to quietly abandon their plan without anyone noticing.

3. Successful people focus on the benefits of achieving their goals, rather than on the risks involved in not achieving them.

4. Successful people deliberately reward themselves for achieving steps along the way, and of course for achieving the goal itself.

5. Successful people often articulate their plans in writing, in very specific terms including detailed actions to be taken and deadlines to be met.

In my case, my concrete goal is to write a screenplay for a feature-length animated family movie, based on an idea my creative partner and I dreamed up about a year and a half ago. This idea already exists in the form of a first draft script for a thirty minute short, but I’m taking it right back to the drawing board and redesigning it as a feature.

I’ve already started work, using the old cork board and index cards method, and my first concrete goal is to finish an outline by next Monday (27 July). The following four steps in my plan are: writing a treatment, writing a first draft, getting feedback on the first draft and then doing a rewrite.

In a concerted, albeit virtual attempt to publicly embarrass myself into getting the work done (i.e., principle number two), I’ll be posting about my progress here on the blog, as well as on Twitter.

And now I really need to get cracking on that outline ...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why Screenwriting Is Neither Science Nor Religion

At the moment I’m reading Your Screenplay Sucks, by William M. Akers. I highly recommend it. It’s a very entertaining and educational compilation of the most common screenwriting conventions, presented as advice on how to get your screenplay read by the people that matter. However, apart from being a useful checklist with which to critically assess your writing, it’s also a reminder to me of the dangers of taking screenwriting conventions too literally.

The film industry in Hollywood is constantly inundated by spec scripts, most of which are not good enough to become produced movies. As a result, there is an extensive system of “filters,” such as agents and script readers, who sift through the mountain of screenplays in search of viable material. These people, by necessity, employ rules of thumb to make their work easier. So, for example, if you don’t format your script according to the accepted conventions, it most likely won’t be read. That’s one very good reason to adhere to formatting conventions.

But what about conventions that govern the content of your story? Here’s where it gets a whole lot trickier in my opinion … Screenwriting isn’t a science. There’s no way to replicate empirical findings. What makes one script tick may not work in another. And screenwriting isn’t a religion either. There are no divine laws that you must accept with blind faith.

So I’m a little uncomfortable with Akers’ numerous must-mantras such as “you must have an active protagonist, or “your protagonist must change by the end of the story,” and “your antagonist must be stronger than your protagonist,” and so on. These are all basic Hollywood story conventions as presented by popular teachers such as Robert McKee, John Truby, Syd Field and which are always disingenuously qualified as not being rules at all but merely guidelines distilled from successful movies.

In fact, these are rules, and they sound very Thou Shalt Not-ish to me.

I get the notion that these rules are formulated to help you avoid giving anyone a reason to stop reading your screenplay. The trouble is, follow these rules too closely and you end up with generic, boilerplate writing. Plus, presenting these rules as if they’ve been unequivocally proven by numerous experiments and studies, can lead to some pretty strange mental gymnastics.

For example, Akers criticizes blockbuster box-office successes such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Alien for not following the rules. On page 40 he literally writes, about an inconsistency he perceives in the actions of an evil pirate,

"It should have been infuriating, at least, to somebody."

To me this just confirms how impossible it is to dictate in detail how (not) to write a screenplay. I mean, it’s not really a convincing argument to claim that a hugely successful blockbuster movie was not actually as good as everyone thought, because the bad guy wasn’t written according to the rules.

In fact it’s evidence of precisely the contrary: Even if you don’t follow all the rules, your script can still be a killer.

To my mind, screenwriting is like any art or craft or skill: You first need to learn the techniques before you can subvert them and find your own voice. The same way an artist needs to study the effects of light and learn basic drawing techniques before he can experiment with new forms. Or like a musician needs to master her instrument by endlessly practicing scales and arpeggios in order to be free to improvise.

In other words, books like Your Screenplay Sucks are hugely useful for learning basic screenwriting techniques and conventions. But the real art of writing only kicks in once you stop thinking in terms of articles of faith or proven laws. The magic really starts when you open your mind and let your characters lead you wherever they choose.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Why Revealing Character Is Like Boiling A Frog

Characters require contrast. Sounds like a bit of a no-brainer, right? But as with every basic concept in screenwriting, it’s easier said than done. My writing partner and I were reminded of this recently while working on our current, comprehensive rewrite.

There’s this one character, see … and he’s, well … he’s a bad guy. But by introducing him immediately in all his ugliness (which is what we did in the first draft), we made an important mistake: We left ourselves no room to surprise the audience with his nastiness. In other words, the character was too predictable, and therefore his dramatic usefulness was seriously compromised.

It’s easy to make this mistake, because you want the audience to “get” why someone’s going to be such a bastard to some other character. You want to make a point. But that’s precisely where the craft aspect of screenwriting comes in. A screenplay has to be written deliberately rather than impulsively. Dosing character information creates tension and surprise, and it’s a delicate business. It sometimes requires you to write backwards. To start from the effect, the reveal, and carefully cover up the path leading to it with misleading, contrasting actions.

In relation to this particular issue, a metaphor is called for. Popular mythology has it that if you drop a frog in a pan of boiling water, it will jump right out, whereas if you put it in a pan of cold water and turn the heat on, the frog will realize too late what’s going on, and boil to death.

Same with a character: If you introduce a character in one way (sympathetic or otherwise) and subsequently add tiny increments of behaviour that reveal a contrasting trait, it will happen almost imperceptibly, until suddenly you realize the character is someone other than you thought.

So back to our bad guy. We decided to introduce him as a relatively nice guy. As follows:

He’s travelling, alone. We see him arrive at the airport. In trivial interactions we see he’s a charming, friendly guy. Then we see him in a hotel room. He calls home, speaks tenderly to his young kid on the phone. In his hand he holds a couple of children’s drawings and assures the child he’s going to take them to grandpa tomorrow. He wishes the child goodnight, exchanges a few pleasantries with his wife and hangs up. That’s the surface: a loving father and husband.

Now for the contrast: While he’s on the phone, the man unpacks food he’s taken with him for the trip. The careful way he unpacks and neatly arranges the items, suggests a degree of obsessive behaviour. So, almost imperceptibly, here’s a hint that this is also a man who plans ahead meticulously and needs to be in control.

The idea is that the discrepancy between the man’s spontaneous, loving attitude to his child and his calculating, premeditated behaviour in the hotel room, is a contrast that will gather more and more meaning as the story progresses.

It’s impossible to know whether this scene will survive, as is, into the next draft. However, just consciously deciding to introduce this character differently, has made him more contrasted and intriguing than he was in the previous draft, which only presented his bad side. And that’s a step towards a more interesting and intriguing screenplay overall, because the contrast creates scope for tension and surprise.