Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why It’s Good Idea To Have Lots Of Ideas

I recently had a horrible moment when I saw the trailer for the documentary talhotblond. It was one of those moments when you realize something you’ve been working on (in my case a synopsis for a lo-budget thriller) has sort of just been done by someone else. I’ve written before (here) about the value of seeing the bright side of having to put a project aside, but it also makes a lot of sense to pre-empt the situation by making sure you have plenty of other ideas to fall back on.

A great source of advice on generating ideas for movies is the Getting Ideas section of Linda Aronson’s book Screenwriting Updated. She sets out a systematic approach to generating ideas, based on Edward de Bono’s distinction between lateral and vertical thinking. Without going into detail here (buy the book, it’s well worth it!), her method entails deliberately choosing triggers, such as aspects of a genre, on which to brainstorm as many ideas as possible. She essentially advocates quantity above quality when brainstorming.

Aronson advises jotting down ideas in a single sentence. Not in the form of a cleverly constructed logline, but a quick and dirty, general notion of what a story could be about. Critical review of the viability of your ideas is a subsequent stage of the process, So is honing the one or two ideas that survive critical review, into workable set-ups for a screenplay.

But her most important advice, at least in my view, concerning the brainstorming stage of generating ideas, is this:

Keep to one sentence because if you start to plot a whole story you will commit to it, thereby shutting out a whole range of other potential stories.

This is such a difficult lesson to learn, but it’s true. However interesting an idea might seem at first glance, you’ve got to be prepared to interrogate yourself about the idea before you commit to writing it. I know I’m not the only screenwriter who’s had to learn this the hard way. I.e., by spending a lot of time and energy fleshing out a story only to discover too late that it isn’t actually a good cinematic idea after all.

It’s all part of growing up and becoming professional, I guess. You need to get the notion that there’s an endless supply of ideas out there in the cosmos, and that it makes good business sense to reject a thousand silly ideas in order to get to one or two really good ones… And to do that, you first have to generate lots of unusable ideas.

So my synopsis for a lo-budget thriller has now been moved to the pile of “good idea but wrong time,” and I’ve moved on to other stories which have cinematic potential.

How to judge which ideas are usable? More on that next time.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

How Much Coincidence Can Your Audience Swallow?

One of the worst things that can happen when you’re watching a movie is when you just don’t believe a chance event, and your suspension of disbelief is knocked out of the window. You’re no longer being swept along by the story and you’re suddenly acutely aware that someone wrote that distracting moment you just witnessed.

If you’re a screenwriter, moments like that don’t just spoil the fun of the movie, they also make you wonder if you aren’t guilty of the same sin in your own writing.

It’s not that coincidence doesn’t work in movies, but you need to be aware of when you’re using coincidence as an integral part of the story rather than merely for convenience’s sake. Which is not as straightforward as it sounds. I’ve had discussions with my writing partner about events which to me seem ludicrously coincidental, whereas to him they seem like the kind of thing that “could happen.” And vice versa. To some extent it’s subjective, but there are some objective criteria:

Does the coincidence fit with the story world? It’s one thing for Charles Dickens to have characters bump into each other just in time to move the plot forward, but does it work in your screenplay? Different genres deal differently with coincidence too. In a comedy caper, a chance meeting with someone from a previous scene in a completely different context can be hilarious whereas the same event will feel contrived in a thriller.

Is it something you’ve experienced yourself or has it happened to someone you know? How many times have you bumped into a significant person in the rush hour bustle at a crowded railway station or at a busy airport terminal? How many times have you used your spouse’s/child’s mobile and forgotten to delete a revealing text message? What about going shopping to chase away post-divorce blues and being tapped on the shoulder by a former lover who emigrated to the other side of the world twenty years ago?

Does the coincidence harm your main character or help them? Generally, you have less credibility when it helps them (whatever that says about how our brains work). It feels like a cop-out, like the character is being let off the hook. Whereas if it makes things worse for them… the raised stakes can sometimes distract your attention from the coincidence. Sometimes.

Is the coincidence a pay-off of something that was set up in an earlier scene? If the coincidence is the result of something hinted at or established earlier in the script, it can feel less like a coincidence, even though it still is. If it comes right out of the blue, the same event can feel terribly contrived.

Is coincidence an integral part of your story’s theme? A movie like Magnolia can take liberties with coincidence because it’s part and parcel of what the film is exploring.

Some writers keep coincidence journals, noting down chance events that happen to them which seem somehow significant. Not a bad idea, I guess, even just to sharpen your sense of what you think qualifies as believable. And paying more attention to the phenomenon increases the likelihood of noticing coincidences when they occur.

In any case, I think coincidence as a tool in a screenplay should be handled with great care and integrity. For your own sake, if nothing else. After all, the last thing you want to do is throw a glass of cold water in the reader's/audience’s face and jolt them out of your story.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Feeling Your Character’s Legs… As It Were

In a recent episode of her wonderful podcast All In The Mind, entitled Dream: the body alive! Natasha Mitchell interviews Jungian psychotherapist Robert Bosnak about his way of working with dreams. Bosnak’s basic assumption is that from the point of view of the dreaming state of mind, dreams are real events in real environments. The senses all function as in waking reality, as do the emotions. The elements of a dream have their own independent intelligence and in the therapeutic context they have something to tell the dreamer.

Using this as a point of departure in group therapy, Bosnak encourages his clients to actively re-enter their dream, intensely experiencing the physical sensations of the characters in the dream. In the podcast he relates some intriguing examples, such as the guy who dreams about a man in a green suit who is, “very strong and can take initiative.” The group encourages their fellow dreamer to feel what the green man is like, and before long he begins to feel how strong this green man’s legs are. It’s the direct, physical sensation of these strong legs that connects the dreamer to the emotional significance of his dream and helps him, literally, move forward.

In order to re-enter one’s dream in such a physical way, says Bosnak, you need to deliberately enter the state of consciousness between waking and sleeping called the hypnagogic state. In this state, you’re fully conscious of what you’re doing but at the same time also fully present in the reality of the dream. In other words, a state of dual consciousness.

Now then, what does all this have to do with screenwriting, I hear you wonder. Well, it can sometimes be difficult to really, physically, emotionally get into a character. It’s easy enough to compile reams of character biography. This may be what a producer wants to see, but you run the risk of writing from too reasoned a place in your mind, which doesn’t necessarily lead to authentically emotional drama. Phil Gladwin of Screenwriting Goldmine realized this too and writes,

I'd spend days writing up pages about a character, from where they were born to what disasters befell them at school, to how they felt about broccoli. And then, what was annoying was that, the minute the story got going, I would find my characters doing things I just never accounted for when I wrote those 20 pages of backstory, and a lot of it seemed a waste of time.

Whereas what you need to do in order to bring your characters to life, is feel what they feel. It’s not necessarily sufficient to reason what someone would do in a given dilemma, even if you know all about their history. Life is rarely that neat and tidy. What you need most is to get into their gut in the middle of the scene, experience their fear, anger, despair, disgust, arousal, or whatever other emotion that’s driving them.

And one excellent way of doing this is to relax, take a deep breath and become their legs. Or any other relevant part of their body, of course. Not as a sensationalist trip, but as a serious step towards being that character in the scene, towards deliberately constructing your drama from an emotional core.

Talking of which…. last night, I dreamed about this horrible, round-faced interrogator with ogling blue eyes and shiny skin, who was grilling me about something. He was being terribly rational and he was obviously aware I was trying to hide something.

I have the feeling he’s trying to tell me something…