22 July, 2007

Red Planet Prize Project - 6

I can tell that for some of you this foundation business is really getting on your nerves. I maintain that this method, rather than being a 'slow way' of writing, is the quickest. Practising this approach and learning how to do it well will come in handy when you’re writing under a crunch for an impatient producer. As I said before, trust the process.

Here's another inspiring quote from Paris Hilton: "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."

Actually, that was said by Abraham Lincoln but I'm sure Paris would have said it first if she was around at that time.

The foundation process is about ensuring that everything is stable before you start building on it. As I said before, if you find that the foundation of your script is shaky or you've lost enthusiasm for it then by all means re-work it. Change your story, characters, viewpoint and theme if you have to. It's far better to notice those problems now before you've spent more time on it.

You should, hopefully, by now be working your way through your character biogs. As you do so different ways of telling the story may occur and maybe even different stories altogether. Your characters will take on a life of their own with their own wants and desires. Follow your characters.

During this process, snatches of dialogue for your story will occur and its OK to write those down but be aware that you might not need them and better dialogue may develop more organically.

By following what the character would do normally rather than imposing plots on them then you will get your story. Just take it one step at a time ensuring that the character is psychologically true. What would the character really do next considering what's gone before? How would another character react to that?

Aim for character-driven plots not plot-driven characters.

Aim for simple stories and complex characters not complex stories and smple characters.

Matthew Carless, a writer and script reader, suggested one method to avoid plots that are too linear or not very interesting:

"Get a large sheet of paper. At the top, put the story beat you are working on; let's call it "A" (you will probably have written a brief sentence of two). Now at the bottom of the page write the next story beat; call it "B". So now you know where you character has to start from and where s/he has to go to.

At this point, keep in mind the "cause and effect" theory: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction". Most good stories are created this way. Using this, work out one potential direction for your character and see where that goes, so you end up with a sort of flow chart with your main beats and little "mini-beats", etc.

Now, go back to the top and work out another potential line of action - and see where that goes. And so on, and so on. Using this method, and applying it to both your main beats and some or all of your mini-beats, you will get a web of possible routes to story beat "B".

Some of them will reach a dead end, others will not. You could send your character off down one dead-end route, only for them to realise that they should've taken the other route you planned out. Which means you can then ask yourself "what now are the implications for this character because she didn't take the correct route in the first place". This helps keep your plots alive and interesting and is a good way to keep your audience hooked. "

You would then do the same from story beat B to story beat C and so on.

Bill Martell's “tennis plotting” approach to screenplay plotting is also something to think about:

“The ball doesn't just hop over the net on its own... somebody has to hit it – same thing with a story. Things don't just happen on their own. They happen because someone causes them to happen.

After that, another character reacts to that event, and the reaction knocks the ball back over the net so that the other player must react to it.”

Try and avoid overly complicated stories. A complex, clever twisty thriller where the audience hasn't got time to know the characters and you're forced to withhold a lot of information until the end will not show your story and character skills at their best. They will only show your plotting skills which aren't as impressive. You need a simple story to give the characters a chance to emotionally engage the reader as that's what's going to make your script stand out.

Try and avoid narration and flashbacks. This is what Nichola Schindler of Red Productions says about it:

"There are a lot of ways to tell a story and, in my opinion, a lot of ways that shouldn’t be used. I’ve got my pet hates which drive the writers I work with mad. But they have to do a lot to persuade me to change my mind.

I can’t bear voice-overs and flashbacks – interestingly, when you just lift them out of a script it’s amazing how well the story works without them, with no rewrites. I think they’re often just a crutch for the writer and sometimes show lazy storytelling. I feel the same about voice-over. It’s lazy.

This is a visual medium so don’t have someone tell me what to think or what to watch, show me! Make the actor work hard to show the audience what they are thinking."

They've always been my pet hates as well. Of course, one of the greatest films of all time - and the favourite amongst UK screenwriters according to a poll - is The Shawshank Redemption which has both narration and flashbacks, which is a good counter-argument but I've never seen it work in a spec script. Maybe I'm just not reading enough spec scripts or maybe yours will be the exception.

As well as the reasons Ms Schindler stated, I don't like them because they tend to throw us out of the story, just to give us exposition we don't need, rather than them moving the story forward. Also we're writing a spec to get us work on continuing drama and continuing drama doesn't use narration and flashbacks.

Now some of you may be thinking, "You two faced get! One minute it's 'use your voice and write what you want', the next minute it's 'shut up and don't do it this way'. Narration and flashbacks are part of my writer's voice". And that's fair enough. You've heard my side of it, decide for yourself.

The best thing about the foundation stage is that you don't need to be at your desk to do it. You can develop characters and work through story problems anywhere: while waiting for a bus, doing the day-job or while pretending to listen to your partner. It's important that your story is sound and makes sense before you start writing. I find taking the problem for a walk helps - although you get some funny looks in the park when you shout "Eureka!" and do your special "solved a writing problem" dance.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has pretended a huge plot-hole doesn't exist until I'm in the middle of writing the script and find myself right at the bottom of that hole and unable to claw my way out.

I know you're itching to start writing but for the next few days, just go over your characters and check they're substantial and believable and not stereotypical ciphers.

Check your story. Does it start in the right place? Is there a lot of set-up before something happens? Are there logic flaws which you are ignoring just to have 'exciting' things happen? Is there enough story for the thirty minutes or hour? If not, what sub-plots could you add? How can you expand the main story with more conflict and obstacles for your main character?

We're nearly there.


Voiceovered - Jane Espenson

Character vs Plot - Danny

Spec notes - Danny

Three Approaches to Developing a Screenplay - Gina Vanname

Flashbacks - Bill Martell

Confessions of a Genius Script Reader - Allan Heifetz



Lucy said...

V.O and flashbacks are part of lazy storytelling??

Gotta love those generalisations. Thousands of excellent films have both.

V.O and flashback can suck - just like montage, non-linearity, whatever. Instead of choosing a particular device as a whipping boy, why don't we concentrate on the actual writing?

Pillock said...

I personally don't like voice-overs and flashbacks, but I can live with them. For instance I don't hate My Name is Earl. Don't love it either, though, and I think it's the voice-over that bugs me.

Right, I think I'm a little behind, but not too bad. I'm itching to write a scene, which must be a good sign.

Robin Kelly said...

Thousands, Lucy? Name 10 excellent ones with voice-overs that weren't adapted from novels and were original drama specs. I can think of 6, maybe 7.

Oli said...

Not a huge McKee fan, but I think this particular point of advice is great:

If your script works without the VO, leave it in.

If it doesn't work without the VO, take it out and redraft it until it does.

That might seem contradictory, but I think it makes a lot of sense: if you need the VO to make it work, it's a crutch. If it works anyway, the VO's a stylish thing, like the aforementioned My Name is Earl.

Flashbacks are lazy if they're just exposition; but they can work well to pull the rug out from the audience if given the right context: witness The Usual Suspects.

Robin Kelly said...

I wish I had known of that McKee quote as that's really good advice and sums it up.

Although if a reader says to anyone, "nice characters and story, but I felt it needed lots of narration and flashbacks to really make it stand out", then feel free to shoot me. But give me some warning first so I can put my affairs in order.

potdoll said...

i don't like voice-overs an awful lot but i can live with them if they are doing something like revealing an unreliable narrator or for humour purposes.

i think flashbacks are best left to those with the skill and experience to carry them off. that's why i've so far never had one in any of my scripts...