Saturday, March 29, 2008

How To Know When To Quit

I recently read an excellent little book called The Dip, by marketer extraordinaire Seth Godin. In it, he deals with the question of whether and when to quit. To become the best at whatever you do, you’ll inevitably be confronted with a tough period in which quitting is one of the options.

In some circumstances, quitting is exactly the right thing to do, because it frees up your resources to work on something more viable. In fact, says Seth, successful people often quit, because they know when they’re flogging a dead horse (a situation he calls a Cul-de-sac).

In other situations, persevering and successfully working your way through The Dip will place you many notches above the competition. By having continued where many others give up, you become a scarce and therefore valuable commodity.

The difference between success and failure is knowing whether you’re in a Dip or a Cul-de-sac.

In the realm of screenwriting, this is true both in terms of any script you might be working on as well as in terms of your career as a whole.

A minority of screenwriters establish themselves by persevering despite repeated rejections, abysmal or non-existent remuneration, discouraging family members, and all the other factors that cause the majority to give up.

A minority of screenwriters listen seriously to criticism of their work and continue writing and learning until their screenwriting is absolutely as good as they can make it. For the majority this sounds too much like hard work, and they give up.

A minority of screenwriters acknowledge when a script is going nowhere, when it’s time to put it away and start on a fresh idea. They know that screenwriters write many scripts, a few of which get produced. The majority don’t. They’re the ones you see schlepping that same single script around with them year after year, complaining that the world is evil for not recognizing the unique talent hidden in that one masterpiece.

This uphill struggle seems to be a kind of natural selection process. That minority of screenwriters who push on through the Dip, come out the other side with infinitely more experience and skills under their belt than the majority who either get stuck or give up.

It makes sense, too, when you think about it. Part of being an exciting and inspiring screenwriter to work with, is being someone with vision and self-knowledge. Someone who acknowledges their own strengths and weaknesses. Someone who knows when to dig in their heels and when to bow out gracefully.

So where are you right now? In a Dip or a Cul-de-sac?!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Strengthen the core of your writing

There are countless screenwriting gurus and mentors, each with their own valuable nuggets of advice on how to write a viable screenplay. One of the things they all advise in one form or another, is to know what your script is really about. Not how the plot progresses, but why you’ve written it that particular way.

That sounds terribly trite and simple, yet it’s often one of the most difficult and important things to articulate consciously. Especially if you want to avoid generic, hack writing.

Whether you call this theme, premise, story promise, designing principle, controlling idea, it all boils down to the same thing, which I’ve decided to call the DNA of the story. By that I mean a basic, abstract, philosophical understanding of what you’re exploring in the story. It doesn’t refer directly to the specifics of characters or plot, but it does describe the basic question or statement to which everything in the screenplay relates.

Scientifically, this metaphor probably makes no sense whatsoever. In fact I don’t pretend to know the first thing about genetics. But I find the commonly used meaning of DNA useful for maintaining a focus during the writing: An individually configured set of potentials, present in every cell of a living organism, according to which everything in the organism grows.

If on a fundamental level, each and every aspect of your screenplay stems from the same idea, then you create a very pleasing and engaging kind of unity. You’re able to let your characters lead you wherever they want because you know which aspects of what they show you are relevant and which are not. You’re able to make intelligent, original choices about locations, conflicts, dialogue, and so on, because you know what you’re exploring.

Your story DNA might be a bulleted list of questions. It might be a pithy political or psychological statement. Perhaps it’s a nagging ethical question or some futuristic speculation. It doesn’t matter exactly what form it takes, as long as you, the writer, can use it as a touchstone during the writing process.

I’m off to genetically modify my latest brainchild.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Pitching Tip for Writers

My attention was grabbed recently when I heard life coach Fiona Harrold offering some interesting advice for pitching an idea to your boss.

Although her tips were aimed at a different situation (i.e., an employee mustering up the courage to approach the boss with an idea for improving the company), one tip in particular struck me as particularly relevant for screenwriters pitching their scripts:

Take yourself out of the equation.

In other words, it’s not about you, it’s about a business proposal. You have to put yourself in the position of the person hearing your pitch. What will your pitch sound like to someone who knows nothing about you or your script?

The essential thing to get across is how great the screenplay is, not how clever or wonderful you are.

However much depends on you getting the gig or not, your career prospects mustn’t be the subject of a pitch meeting. What you’re discussing is the script. Which for any potential partner is the starting point for a very risky, very expensive business venture.

So enter the pitch meeting as if you are representing the screenplay, rather than vice versa.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Power of Withholding Information

I’ve been following and immensely enjoying Damages on the BBC. It has great acting, snappy dialogue, convincing conflicts and relationships, but it’s something else that keeps bringing me back to watch the next episode: I’m dying to know exactly what happens in the end because of all the hints that have been dropped along the way.

Using flash-forwards, each episode reveals a tiny bit more about where all the action is leading. The most intriguing clues are the constantly recurring shots of the sympathetic young attorney Ellen Parsons (played by Rose Byrne) in a prison cell. The images are grainy and the colours faint, almost black and white, dreamlike.

Normally, Ellen Parsons is dedicated, honest, ambitious and totally in awe of her boss and mentor Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). But in the flash-forwards she looks completely haggard, shambolic, defeated. Clad in ill-fitting, formless, convict garb, her hair a mess, her eyes desperate, she’s the total opposite of the carefully groomed and likeable persona we see in the “present.”

We are repeatedly shown snippets of her being interrogated and of her being visited by various characters we’ve gotten to know along the way. We also see vague images of a murder taking place in which she is somehow involved.

This use of flash-forwards is very clever in a paradoxical way.

To create suspense and excitement, you have to withhold information, keep the audience guessing. However, giving away information in advance, makes the mystery and drama that much more exciting. It tantalizes, confuses, intrigues. It makes you care about the fate of the characters.

A bit like teasing a child by giving them clues about what you bought them for their birthday, before they receive the actual present.

I’m not usually a loyal tv show fan, but I have my seat booked well in advance for the next episode of Damages!

P.S. For a more detailed piece on set-ups and pay-offs, check out my blog Great Screenwriting. There I use one of the storylines from Paul Haggis’s amazing Crash screenplay to illustrate the technique of withholding information in order to create suspense.


Monday, March 3, 2008

How to let your characters go

One of the most useful and yet most difficult life skills I know of, is Letting Go. Letting go of debilitating habits, old resentments, dogma, defunct rules, and so on.

For screenwriters, one of the most difficult things is letting go of their characters.

By that I don’t mean writing them out of the script by means of a freak accident. No, the opposite. I mean literally letting go of their hand and allowing them to act independently.

You often hear writers talking about their characters surprising them. As if the characters are actually autonomous, living beings with a will of their own. However, it’s not “as if,” at all.

Once you let your characters loose in the story world, they will surprise you. And they’ll become totally irreverent and unscrupulous too. Without batting an eyelid they will upset a carefully plotted outline, destroy a meticulously crafted logline and undermine a perfectly good premise, damn them!

Joking aside, though, when your characters start to walk on their own, you have to follow them. At least for a while.

Here’s a quote from writer-director of Definitely, Maybe, Adam Brooks, in an interview on Billy Mernit’s excellent blog:

Usually I write about 150 pages to get to a 120 page draft. With Definitely, Maybe I wrote well over 200 pages. I wrote sections in prose and then adapted them. I wrote in diary form. And for the first time ever I allowed myself to write badly. By which I mean I didn’t put the pressure on myself to write a good scene, just to write the scene - long, rough, and bad as it might be.

The trick here is not to judge your characters’ autonomous actions too soon. The critical work happens during re-writing.

Turn off your critical, analytical faculties for a while and just let the characters take over. Let the scene ramble. No one has to read what your characters get up to if in retrospect it doesn’t work.

Left to their own devices, your characters might just lead you to a few story nuggets you wouldn’t have thought of any other way.