Monday, May 17, 2010

Does Your Main Character Have The Right Adjective?

Having an intriguing main character at the centre of your screenplay is hugely important, especially when it comes to writing loglines and pitching story ideas. One of the ingredients that make a main character interesting, is a recognizable weakness, with which the audience can identify emotionally.

Which is why one of the essential components of a logline is a description of the main character that includes a suggestion of the journey they are about to embark on. A description of their profession, family or social status is informative, but doesn’t suggest a story. What the description requires is something that points at the main character’s inner conflict, the emotional obstacle they will have to confront in the story. Choosing the right adjective or descriptive phrase is paramount.

Imagine the main character is a plumber. Here are some very different plumbers:

- A depressed, recently divorced plumber
- A plumber guilty of domestic violence
- A sex-addicted plumber
- An overbearing, gay plumber
- A plumber suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder
- An overambitious, female plumber
- A self-conscious, overweight plumber
- A plumber on the verge of retirement

Each description evokes different story possibilities, whether dramatic or comedic. Each description hints at what is causing problems in this particular plumber’s life at the beginning of the story. This is what drives the main narrative conflict. It suggests the internal obstacle the character has to deal with, a trait or habit which makes them their own worst enemy, in the context of this particular story.

How about the same adjectives applied to, say, a nurse?

- A depressed, recently divorced nurse
- A male nurse guilty of domestic violence
- A sex-addicted nurse
- An overbearing, gay nurse
- A nurse suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder
- An overambitious nurse
- A self-conscious, overweight nurse
- A nurse on the verge of retirement

The same description, coupled with a different occupation, suggests a whole set of different story possibilities.

The adjective, or descriptive phrase, hints at the basic flaw with which the main character starts out. Together with a simple description of their occupation, it immediately suggests a basic narrative and a story world, as well as indicating the character’s main weakness.

In the above examples, depressed, recently divorced suggests a story in which the main character might learn that love is still possible, or that they need to make drastic changes in their life, or they might attempt suicide, and so on. Overambitious suggests a story in which the main character is going to be painfully (or comically) confronted with their limitations, or perhaps a story in which we gradually realize the main character is severely deluded. And so on, each description suggesting different emotional conflicts at the heart of the story.

So the main character’s basic position at the outset of the story, contained in that brief description, is the starting point of their arc. It suggests what the character will have learned (or not learned, depending on the genre) by the end of the story. Which is why the choice of adjective describing the main character in the logline is far more important than you might imagine.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Planning Your Work: Distinguish The Project From The Task

If, like most screenwriters, you work on more than one project at a time, you know how easy it is to lose focus and productivity. Screenwriter’s Diffuse Attention Disorder, I believe it’s called. To-do lists usually make matters worse, and lists of what not to do invariably end up being turned over and used as scrap paper to jot down a new idea for a story. The creative mind just isn’t conducive to careful and sensible planning.

So the other day I was happy to be pointed by Michael Bungay Stanier of Box Of Crayons to a great blog for unfocused creatives like me, called: Productive Flourishing. The blog is the handiwork of writer, designer and coach Charlie Gilkey, who outlines various ways to customize schedules or to-do lists to suit your particular line of creative work.

The one major take-home from this blog for me, is the distinction Charlie points out between project verbs and next-action/task verbs (which he in turn learned from Getting Things Done).

In the particular context of screenwriting, a project verb refers to a general-level activity such as: outline, rewrite, polish, complete, fine-tune, network, think about, and so on. The verbs referring to screenwriting tasks or next-actions are basically just smaller subdivisions of those larger activities, and might be things like: Sketch first act turning point, or: Follow up yesterday’s pitch meeting with an email to X, and so on.

Screenwriters are always acutely aware of their choice of words in their scripts. However, I’ve found that I’m hopeless at articulating in a simple, unambiguous sentence what I’m going to do, say, tomorrow morning between nine and twelve. Even though I know that if don’t commit to one task at a time, I get much less work done.

So, following Charlie’s advice, I’ve had a closer look at different ways of formulating a work plan. For example, look at the difference between these reminders:

A) Continue working towards completing a short script.

B) Describe the main character’s central dilemma and its consequences in short script X

In version A) you leave open which script to work on, which in itself can lead to endless mulling before you even get to writing. But even choosing which story to focus on is not always sufficient, which is why it’s helpful to add which aspect of the story to work on.

Because B) specifies where to start working, it reduces the likelihood of procrastination by demanding a commitment to a specific task. Of course A) also contains a commitment, to finish a short screenplay (e.g., in time for a competition deadline), but that’s a commitment to a project, to a longer-term goal. Which in itself is a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate specifically what work to do this afternoon or tomorrow morning.

The bottom line is, if you’re one of those people whose productivity suffers as the number of ongoing projects increases, one way to help yourself is to pay attention to the verbs you use on your to-do list. It’s useful to have long-term screenwriting goals (using project verbs) but you also need to know how to get the most out of your working day (using task/next-action verbs).

So, now that I’ve completed my action item of “write a blog entry about the distinction between a project and a task with regard to planning one’s working hours,” I can tick the box and move on to my next action item: “go and have that beer with the lady next door.”