Archive for November, 2013

The Deep End

At this point, I’ve read kind of a lot of stuff about screenwriting. There’s Syd Field and Robert McKee and Blake Snyder and a few more talented guys you probably haven’t heard of. I’ve read a ton of actual scripts. I’ve studied my favorite films. I listen to John August’s podcast about screenwriting.

I have learned a great deal from these sources. Much of it has been helpful. However, I feel there is a consistent thing I hear across the board about screenwriting that I think is pretty deadly.

Almost every screenwriting guru, at the same time that they are telling writers that the way to succeed is just to write write write write write will tell you that you shouldn’t even start writing if you don’t know what the start of your story will be, what the climax of your story will be, how your character will arc through the story and typically what your inciting incident should be.

Despite all my desire to write and what I think is at least a perceptible level of talent with the written word, I would read or hear that over and over again and it stuck with me. So I would rattle my ideas around in my head and maybe for one story I would just have a beginning and maybe for another I just had a character concept and maybe for the next I would just know what a great ending would feel like, but I couldn’t just brainstorm out of thin air the rest of the frame for a screenplay outline and so I would just freeze up and I would do nothing.

The norm for teaching seems to be that screenwriting should only begin once the script has been meticulously plotted out and outlined beat for beat. This may be the only way to really be efficient once you’re in the big leagues (and, indeed, it’s where I’d like to be, skill-level-wise) but it seems awfully restrictive for a newbie.

Screenwriting is an odd beast. You must write to communicate a specifically visual medium. You must worry about fairly technical formatting concerns. You should even worry about how much white space is visible on your page (Seriously, John August and Craig Mazin both state that they can spot an amateur script just by looking at how much white they can see on a page). You want to have a pretty deliberate construction for your plot itself. Being able to visualize all this in a relative vacuum is a daunting task. For someone like me, who learns best by doing, actually sitting down to write a script is actually the most essential part of the process and it’s the part I was being told I wasn’t ready to do.

So, with the help of my friends, I recently started to ignore that rule. Each week, I produce 5 pages of script. I turn in pages on Wednesday and meet with a friend each Friday to discuss what works and what doesn’t and to plot the next 5 pages. If we want to switch something up, we just do it. I make a note at the start of the next set of 5 pages what the new assumptions are about the plot and I go from there. I’m not making revisions at all (that would be all I end up doing if I start), but I do make notes about needed revisions.

I’m 20 pages in and it’s magic. The script is a horrible mess, of course, but I can feel myself learning what needs to be done to make it better as I go. Once I started writing, the words just sort of figured out what should be going on in the script. My story idea was evolving as I wrote without my really thinking about it. Solutions to problems I had about what to do next were getting solved as I wrote. Is it a crushing problem that I’m writing a script without having it all plotted out? Is it a problem for George R.R. Martin to be writing a sprawling multi-thousand page fantasy epic that is considered a masterpiece of modern fiction where he doesn’t plot anything in advance? I’m not saying I’m George R.R. Martin, but I am saying that there is clearly more than one acceptable way to write, even for something as meticulous as a screenplay and especially for a newbie who is still trying to find his method.

As I go, I can feel myself getting a sense for how many pages (and therefore how much screen-time) certain set-pieces will take. I’m learning how much dialog looks like too much dialog for a character and how much scene description makes a page look like a bummer. I’m sliding in characters just because I think that they may make for great subplots later. I’m tweaking the overall plot so that it’ll be easier for me to have a second act with steadily increasing challenges. I can already tell how I’m going to revise my script to make it better.

This is what writing gurus should be saying. They teach that you need to write tons of scripts to succeed. But they never say to just jump right into the deep end and run with it. Probably because that’s not super marketable as a concept. Considering that a successful script will be born out of endless revision getting held up on the nitty-gritty for a first draft seems to be a poor plan.

So I’ll just go ahead and give that advice for them: Jump in. Start writing. It’ll be bad. It’ll get better. Don’t slow down. Don’t revise until you are done because then you’ll just be revising all the time. Just make a note of what you’ll need to go back and fix and forge on ahead. I don’t care if you started writing a romance and now you’re writing a kaiju movie. Don’t look back until you’re done. When you’ve finished that first draft, then you can obsess over the specific pacing and construction of your plots. Doing the work is the best education you can get.


EXTRA NOTE: Here’s another thing not to always listen to like “they” say. Your main character does not, necessarily, need to have an arc. Think about a couple action-movie classics: Speed and Die Hard. Do Jack and John change at ALL during the movies? Is there any emotional point to their characters? John McClane’s personal arc ends before Hans opens fire in the lobby at Nakitomi. Jack… well… he’s Jack the whole time. Of course if you CAN work something in, do so. Ellen Ripley is basically the perfect action hero in the perfect action movie and has just a beautiful personal arc. But that arc ties in very integrally to the plot of the film itself and indeed to the film that preceded it. It won’t work everywhere nor does it have to. Why shoehorn it in if it won’t fit and isn’t critical for the story? I’m sure some people will be aghast at this, but I’m just saying it’s not a hard rule.