Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Big Picture: Why Size Matters in Screenwriting

A writer has to start somewhere.

Where you start is usually called a draft. And everyone knows what the finished thing should look like--a story or poem or novel or script or whatever.

But how you get from one end to the other is not so easy.

In the interest of demystifying the writing process, let's say you're writing lots of ideas to find the interesting ones.

Look at what you've written: look specifically at their duration. Some things last milliseconds and some can last for years.

  • Mary's heart skips a beat.
  • Mary wants to be a nurse.
Or I'll do a personal one.

  • For a moment, Ed wonders if he left the gas on.
  • Ed really really intends to clean his apartmet.
Okay. Neither pair is really visible.
But each of these invisible states has a duration. The first lasts a half a second. And the second could go on for YEARS.

The screenwriter must try to get somewhere between the two.

Why? Two reasons.
First, visibility.
Ultimately, everything the screenwriter invents must be acted out by actors and visible on a screen. No one, not Meryl Streep, can act "thinking of the number five." And if an actor tells you she can act "sad," she is a very bad actor indeed.

When the writer is discovering his story, he can imagine lots of things that can't be seen or acted: states of mind, states of being, places, hats, sprites, wishes, daydreams, etc.

This is called a draft--or better still, a prose draft. It can be in no particular order. It's a jumble, a dumping-ground. It's written in the order it comes out in.

But at some point, the screenwriter must write things that are visible. If you are not writing visible actions, you are still writing a prose draft.

Thus one of the activities of the screenwriter is converting thoughts, feelings and ideas into visible, sequential actions.

The second reason to write actions between a millisecond and forever is: convenience. It's very inconvenient to stitch together ten thousand moments that last a millisecond each.

So let's take two actions.
  • Mary gets so stressed her left eye twitches.
  • Mary tries to become a model.
The first is too short, and the second is too long.
If you have to write a script one millisecond at a time, it could take forever.
You can begin with lengthier actions. But your goal is then to break them down into smaller actions.
Take this:

  • "Joe looks for a screenwriting job or some money."
How long could this take? Probably years. But in Sunset Boulevard, the writers boiled it down to half a day--a bit longer. (We don't know what time it is when Joe is interrupted in his 'writing' by the repo men, but we know that when he reads Norma's lengthy, lengthy rough draft, the sun is going down, and Max the butler needs to turn on the lights.)

So Wilder and his writing partner broke down "trying to get a job or money" into smaller actions:
  1. Joe makes phone calls.
  2. Joe visits his agent on a golf course.
  3. Joe visits a producer in his office.
Notice that these are between a millisecond and forever. You can't do these things forever. They can only last so long. They are actions with a flexible intermediate duration.
Your story can start with indefinitely long actions, but then your goal is to kickstart some action that has a shorter time frame.
And by this rather odd thought experiment, we have come to a simple understanding of screenwriting as a process.
  • Many act as if screenwriting is just discovering or assembling an ideal whole--a "good screenplay."
  • So you build a car by taking a frame and adding wheels and an engine.
  • And you build a screenplay by taking a premise and adding conflict and setting.
This of course is nonsense. No one can do this. Or rather: you can only do this if you already know how--which of course is precisely what not-yet-writers do not kow.

In this sense, screenwriting is a kind of transformation and sorting.
  • The writer transforms non-visible thoughts and states into visible actions.
  • The writer sorts actions to nest smaller durations into larger ones.
Maybe Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard is in a state of misery and poverty. But it's only when he's prompted to act, seizes opportunities, plans and struggles, that the quicksilver of our inner lives and the fog of life's meanderings take shape that be filmed one shot after another.

--Edward O'Neill

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