Sunday, May 20, 2012

Don't Start on Page One: Work in Layers.

I dare say: the primary problem of creative writing is workflow. Where do you start?

I had two conversations about screenwriting recently, and taken together with a third observation, these can show something important about how to develop your work.

(The third thing is taken from some old Julia Child TV shows I've been watching. And those make me think that good writing is a bit like French cooking. But more of that later.)

First, I talked to an aspiring screenwriter whose approach to screenwriting was basically: "Start on page one--and then just kind of keep going."

This still blows my mind.

To me, this is like:

  • hanging the doorknobs or painting the trim before you pour the foundation, or
  • putting the icing in the pan and pouring the cake batter on top and hoping you'll get a layer cake.

A more sophisticated counter-argument would be: your brain can only do so many things at once.

  • There's something called "working memory."
  • This is like the cutting board for your mind.
  • It's the place in your brain where you bring together the stuff you need work over.

Can you do these all at the same time?

  • Juggle axes,
  • tap dance, and
  • recite the Pledge of Allegiance backwards?

Yeah, it's unlikely. Unless you can already do all three separately quite well. And then combining the three would only take a bit of practice.

But most people who start to write scripts cannot already do any of the separate skills too well. So starting from page one and typing is like trying to learn to juggle and tap dance at the same time.

The simple idea is: any complex made thing likely needs to be planned and built in at least a few steps.

Yes, I can make a paper airpline in a few steps. But you must assume that even the simplest movie script has a few things going on, and to get those events to spill out in an engaging way, some planning is desirable.

But what kinds of planning? In what kinds of steps?

The second conversation I had about screenwriting recently was about pitching--recounting your script or idea orally in order to sell it or get it read. Pitches come in a variety of sizes.

  • A thirty-second pitch--the "elevator" version.
  • A one-minute pitch. (This is for when the person isn't actually running away from you.)
  • A ten-minute pitch.
  • The whole movie in 30 minutes.

One person in the conversation looked at pitching as a separate skill and process--which in a way it is.

But I would urge that you should likely think of your emerging film script in pretty much this way. And movies that get made work like this and for a long time were even made like this. Screenwriting has this very organized side--but then it's also very organic--the same way we must learn any complex skill.

For any screenplay--the one you're writing, one you're reading, or one which was produced and which you're watching--you should be able to answer some simple questions.

  1. What's the premise? This is the basic idea, the hypothesis, which captures the problematic situation someone in the movie faces. A beach town is menaced by a killer shark and must destroy it. Or: A famous millionaire dies and reporters must discover the meaning of his cryptic last words. That type of thing: something that makes you curious to see the movie.
  2. What are the big chunks and turning points? This is three or four major actions which define the film's big twists and turns. The town can't get their act together. But a fractious team finally emerges, and they overcome their differences enough to work together. They ultimately succeed, but at a great price. The details inside these three or four chunks could change. But the gist should stay the same.
  3. What are the beats? These are the dozen or so smaller actions. The reporter tries to interview the rich man's second wife, but she's drunk and sends him away. Each beat captures between a few and ten minutes of the movie.
  4. How does each scene keep you in suspense and give you intriguing things to watch? This gets down to the microscopics of: Why does the character enter the room? What happens that's surprising? What new information comes out? How does your perspective change during the scene?

As you can see, these correspond to the various size pitches. And these layers of work also translate out into why an audience is interested or wants to share their enthusiasm with others.

Before you even see a movie, you likely know something about it.

  • The film needs to be promoted with a brief 'teaser' summary.
  • The story is compressed into taglines, posters, advertisements, etc.
  • Friends tell each other what the film is about in a sentence or two.

Longer things like trailers capture the major story points--as well as commercial attractions like stars and locations, story values like music or adventure. And then when viewers tell friends, they:

  • recap the story,
  • tell about interesting scenes,
  • describe certain moments where you must watch the actor closely to see what the character is feeling or hiding,
  • etc.

In short, these are all the levels at which the script must be interesting. If a script is not interesting at all these levels, it is likely not worth making--and almost impossible to promote or for viewers to recommend to friends or acquaintances.

The Julia Child/French cooking analogy is this: every ingredient in French cooking is itself layered with flavor, so the final dish has layer on layer of flavor.

  • You brown and salt the meat before stewing it.
  • The broth you add has a separate palette of flavors.
  • Even the fruit you use to decorate a tart might itself be soaked in liqueur or fruit juice.

Layers and layers of flavor characterize French cooking--and there's something delightfully similar when the story, scenes and dialogue are all richly layered.

Indeed, if you think about common criticisms, they often point to something missing at one of these levels. E.g.,

  • "Interesting premise but uninteresting scenes."
  • "Intriguing scenes, but not controlling idea or action to hold it together."
  • "The stakes aren't high enough--overall and in the individual scenes."

Back in the old studio system different people actually did different kinds of writing work on projects. So there was a kind of guarantee that each level of work would get expert attention and care.

  • Some people found interesting stories: forthcoming novels, published short stories, non-fiction articles in ladies' magazines that suggested interesting situations.
  • The same people summarized these--to see if they should be purchased.
  • Still other people decided which part was most interesting, essential--especially as it pertained to commercial potential (the stars under contract, the house genres, etc.).
  • Someone did a prose treatmen and analysis: this was five to ten pages, depending on the length of the original. It was a sort of short, novelistic summary, together with a discussion of why the material might be appealing.
  • Someone did a "scenarization." This broke the treatment down into segments that could be seen and acted out: scenes, montages, etc. This was like our outline of today.
  • Finally, still other specialists wrote the dialogue based on the scenarization.
Many people might work on the dialogue.
  • Women might work on the scenes that focused on women.
  • Humor specialists punched up that.
  • If someone had written a touching family comedy, she was brought in for the family scenes.
  • If someone had a knack for historical films and dialogue, he was brought in for that.

Now the nasty part is: imagine having to do all this yourself. It's a bit unfair. But that's the contemporary world of freelancers. Everyone has to do everything herself--until you're actually hired or have actually sold something.

So how, practically, can you do this yourself?

  1. Find or develop an interesting premise. The benchmark here is how much intereest it excites. It must excite interest in the writer, or there's no hope of getting started, let alone interesting an audience.
  2. Develop an interesting story outline from the premise. This means things like: one action flows from the prior one, and also that the overall situation becomes increasingly complicated--so the audience does not get up & leave.
  3. Parcel out the story into actable chunks: scenes, montages, sequences, etc. This is simply a requirement of telling a story on film. But it involves a lot of compression--leaving a lot out, picking exemplary moments.
  4. Visualize where and how those chunks unfold. My own technique is first to write the scenes without dialogue--purely visually, as a 'silent movie.' If a purely visual acting-out of the story does not convey what's happening, it's likely dialogue is not going to improve things.
  5. Add non-redundant dialogue. This means: your dialogue is not repeating what is already clear. And if you are able to write interesting dialogue where the characters are hiding their true feelings--because we see what's underneath elsewhere or can infer it--your scenes will be that much more interesting.

Hence at every layer, you have many opportunities to create interest--which is really the name of the game. (And also, if you don't work in this way, you will likely end up with lots of disconnected bits, rather than everything flowing from a few core ideas.)

This sketch does not give a full picture of these levels of work. And some kinds of work take place throughout. Only a few brief points can be added here.

  1. The Craft of Story Development. You're doing this constantly. And it has to do with connecting the pieces of the story, making this influence and interfere with that, beginning that later action earlier, etc. It's largely a question of keeping a number of plates spinning--like in the old vaudeville act--but it's also a question of unity, of preparing and even misleading the audience.
  2. Painting from Life. If you are from another planet, you are unlikely to have good material to use. Good movies are shot-through with interesting and precise observations of
    • the way people talk in the theater world,
    • the kinds of security tools at a big casino,
    • crime detection techniques,
    • what people wear and eat and drink in certain times and places,
    • and things like this.
    • If you don't have this degree of detail, you don't have a story--you have an abstraction.
  3. Hiding the Work: Creation vs. Presentation. Just because you thought of it in this order, doesn't mean you should tell it that way. As the writer you invented the story, but the audience might discover it in quite a different way than you did, or than the characters do. So there's a whole pleasant game-like way of revealing things to an audience slowly, parterning with them, getting them involved in figuring out the story.
  4. Interestingness Is Textural. Just the texture can be interesting. I'm thinking here largely of the way multiple stories are woven together. Several things happen at once--think of those spinning plates, each ready to fall at a different moment--and so the very way you bring things in and then take them away makes for a nice hide-and-seek with the audience.

These kinds of work don't seem to me isolated to one level. You must do them all the time, everywhere you go.

The writer must ask herself: What would be interesting here? How can I make this interesting?

And if you don't like posing and answering that question constantly, you probably don't have the stomach to do much writing.

--Edward R. O'Neill

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