Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why Scripts Notes Are Like Fantasies

Mistaking a fantasy for a goal in life can lead to terrible choices. The same applies for taking script notes literally.

I’ve recently been fortunate enough to have short script of mine read and critiqued by a serious production company who is interested in producing it. As is always the case, the notes I’ve received are accompanied by some very creative suggestions for “fixing” aspects of the script they think need improving. Here’s the thing: since having attended SimonPhillips session at the 2012 London Screenwriters Festival, I feel so much better equipped to deal with these suggestions effectively. But first a digression into fantasy land.

Fantasy As A Signpost
Man fantasizing about cross-dressing
When someone asks you what you would do if you won the lottery, or what you would do differently if you could have the last five years again, your fantasy automatically shifts into gear. You might imagine the most outrageous alternative existence, or you might imagine something minuscule like having accepted rather than rejected that invitation from the guy at work. But whatever the fantasy, the fantasy itself isn’t literally the thing you want, it’s just a pointer in the direction of what you want.

The fantasy of a totally different lifestyle might be an indication that you need to seriously deal with a professional or relationship problem you’ve been avoiding. The fantasy about accepting the invitation might be a prompt to take some steps to improve your social life. The point is, the fantasy itself is not the goal. And often, if you chase a fantasy as if it is literally what you want, you end up disappointed. Unfortunately, this is why a lot of so-called self-help methods end up making you feel worse about yourself.

Follow your dream!

Um… in a sense, perhaps. Taking fantasies and daydreams seriously is a great way of distilling concrete, attainable goals, or for simply articulating more clearly what you’re unsatisfied about and want to change. But taking fantasies and daydreams literally, is a recipe for disappointment or even disaster.

Simon Phillips
A one-hour session with a huge audience during the London Screenwriters Festival can never do justice to the kind of profound techniques Simon Phillips teaches. But as with all great insights, his approach is based on some really very simple principles. They are simple to understand, but take a lot or hard graft to genuinely internalize.

His point about notes, whether from producers, directors or actors, is this: When they offer suggestions for improving the script which seem absurd or inappropriate to you, you need to take the suggestions seriously, but not necessarily literally. A suggested change to the script is a manifestation of that person’s intuition that something isn’t right, and it’s your job to find out what they’re intuiting. So Simon Phillips has a method he calls Creative Reading, which helps you identify contradictory or missing information in your script. Here’s what you do…

Creative Reading
Firstly, take a scene and read it as if it’s a real-life event. Make a note of every concrete thing each character perceives for the first time. This can include things a character sees, hears, smells, and so on, things that happened before the scene started, things that are not included in the scene description, things that are implied in the lay-out of the location, etc. But only list specific, concrete perceptions, what Simon Phillips calls “change points.” Not subsequent actions, dialogue, feelings, or anything of that nature.

Secondly, still assuming this is a real-life situation, make a note of each decision a character takes as a result of the perceptions you’ve listed. Each time they perceive something they decide to act or respond in a certain way. These are what Simon Phillips calls “phenomena” and these are the specific actions a character takes, or the words they speak.

Just doing this is often more than enough to expose things about the characters you may not have considered, or inadvertently left unmentioned. Equally, it can show you where you’re giving away too much information too soon, or repeating yourself, or leaving too much information out, etc. It gives you conscious control over what information to reveal or deliberately hide in a scene.

Script Notes As Fantasies
Does it have to be Nelson?
Armed with this kind of intimate knowledge of your script, you can identify far more directly what the creative suggestions you are receiving are indirectly flagging up. When the producer wonders out loud whether the main character should be a young man instead of an old lady, or whether the story might work better if set on a spaceship, these are their fantasies. And like your own fantasies about starting a new life in Mozambique or your fantasy about burying your spouse in your back yard, they are intuitive pointers to a specific but as yet unarticulated problem.

It’s worth practising this technique on a scene you have lying around. Identify all the “change points” and pretty quickly you’ll see how you can make the scene more dramatic or suspenseful, or what you can cut. I’ve actually been quite amazed by how effective and radical this seemingly simple method can be.

If you don’t identify and remedy confusing elements of the script, directors and actors will intuitively look for ways to fill in the gaps themselves, which may not improve the resulting film. And guess who will get the blame if the film isn’t well-received?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Confessions Of A Draft Dodger

Everyone says it, and everyone knows it’s true: Screenwriting is rewriting. But why is the rewrite such a pain?

A budding screenwriter on hearing
his first draft isn't Oscar material
I recently entered a new script of mine into Phil Gladwin's Screenwriting Goldmine competition and it didn’t get anywhere. I knew this would happen when I submitted it. Not because I have such a low opinion of my own writing. Precisely the opposite, probably. Hubris. It was only a first draft, and I knew as much. Not a totally incoherent vomit draft, but a first draft as in: Meticulous outlining, reams of notes, a wall full of index cards, a detailed treatment, a rough first draft, an edited first draft, an edited-again-after-getting-professional-feedback (from the likes of Danny Stack) first draft. In other words, a first draft as in: This is a good starting point rather than a script that is as good as I can ever get it and ready to show off to industry people.

It’s Not Ready. Get Over Yourself.
The thrill of typing Fade Out after all the hard work that gets you there, can be blinding. I don’t know how it works in terms of neuroscience, but I’m guessing it’s a bit like fashion. You see old pictures of yourself and you wonder how you could ever have seriously liked flared jeans, padded shoulders or spiky hair. I mean, come on, anyone can see how ridiculous that looks… now. In terms of writing, it’s a similar process of mental adjustment, but the process is faster. When you finish writing the draft, everything in it seems cool and just right. Leave it alone for a while, write something else, forget about it and then reread it and then it will hit you… wow, did I seriously think that line was funny, or that scene was full of suspense? That’s a critical moment, when you can go one of two ways: admit the script isn’t ready and get over yourself, or go into denial and pretend/hope/pray no one will notice. Guess which is more sensible.

Listen To The Voice You Most Want Ignore
If you’re seriously mentally ill, skip this bit. If, like me, you’re only moderately insane, then you probably also have this very, very quiet voice in your head that is always annoyingly correct in retrospect. It whispers barely audible script notes which you really do not want to hear (because they demand additional work) and which are remarkably easy to pretend you didn’t hear. Or perhaps you find yourself imagining an encounter with an imaginary movie executive in an imaginary world where you’re invited in to discuss your imaginarily polished script which in reality is still a first draft. And the imaginary executive has a shitload of really tough notes and questions about the script. News flash: The imaginary exec is the part of your mind that knows what’s still wrong with the script. Don’t ignore it, because it has your best interests at heart: Trying to market a half-baked script reflects badly on you the writer. It closes rather than opens doors. Better to spend more time fixing stuff first.

Dogs Don’t Fool Themselves, Humans Do
It’s not a pretty thing to own up to, but if this experience has taught me one thing, it’s that I’m (still) really good at fooling myself. If I were a dog (in the taxonomical sense), I would not try to pretend, say, that I had sniffed a lamppost long enough if I still weren’t genuinely 100% sure the neighbour’s bitch had been there five minutes ago. I might feign hunger if I thought I’d get an extra bowlful of Bonzo, but I wouldn’t try and convince myself I didn’t want to eat if my stomach told me otherwise. I’m guessing a dog wouldn’t know how to do that even if it wanted to. It’s a peculiarly human trait to be able to override one’s instinctive drives or intuitive insights by envisaging the consequences of an action. In many situations this is an excellent thing, and it keeps millions of people out of prison and mental institutions every day. But sometimes an instinct or intuition can be a life-saver too. However, you won’t know which it is if you don’t acknowledge it in the first place.
If only I'd listened to my intuition...

In any case, from now on I’ll be paying more attention to my intuition, listening out more often for that little voice (but not in public places, I promise), and in general being less of a dog.

On a final note, my script involved a wedding band, and I was considering registering for the upcoming London Screenwriting Festival's Comedy ScriptLab with this script as a possible starting point for a TV comedy show. So I thought I’d just do a bit of research and discovered to my horror (just in time) that Turner TV is about to launch a new TV sitcom called, wait for it… The Wedding Band, featuring some very similar characters to the ones in my script. Feeling suitably pissed off that someone had stolen my premise (see, still fooling myself), I thought for a while I’d just use the script for toilet paper. Then the answer hit me: Drop the wedding band and rewrite the script from page one. It will make the premise, the lead character and the entire story much leaner and more like the father-and-son adventure I originally intended it to be. Now suddenly I feel all Zen about rewriting. 

I swear I will never understand this screenwriting thing.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How Authentic Are You Prepared To Be As A Screenwriter?

Whether you’re writing a superhero blockbuster or a DIY lo-budget indie film, your writing will be best when there’s something uniquely yours on the page. But that’s terrifying.

What everyone in the film business is looking for in a script, is an original voice. Something about the subject matter and the writing style that sets it apart from the mass of generic, derivative scripts trying to jump on the bandwagon of recent box office or cult hits. For the screenwriter this is good and bad news. The good news is: There’s only one of you, so your unique experiences and point of view are inherently original. The bad news is: Writing from your own embarrassing, shameful or even traumatic experience, exposes you to criticism that can be extremely painful and inhibitive.

Embracing Rather Than Overcoming Your Demons
Terrified screenwriter embracing his demon
In his wonderful book Writing From The Inside Out, screenwriter turned psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo talks about how writers often become frustrated because they try to circumvent their embarrassing hang-ups or painful memories rather than embracing them for what they are: their own personal archive of raw material. Plus, what’s unique about a writer’s experience, however disturbing, is part of being human and so something to which other human beings will be able to relate. Which isn’t an encouragement to refuse to write anything other than a verbatim transcription of a highly emotional real life event (‘No, but it really happened that way!’), because that’s always less interesting to others than to you. But it does mean that your awful first kiss, your liberating divorce, your shameful experience as a son or a daughter or as a father or mother—all these unprocessed experiences are chock full of authentic details, characters and emotions just begging to be mined rather than avoided.

Exposing Yourself Emotionally Is Risky
Cut that scene, it turns my stomach.
The truth is, it is a terrifying prospect to let strangers have a peek at your dark side, however authentic it may be. They might laugh, be disgusted or simply disbelieving. Believe me, I’ve received notes from readers disapproving of actions or traits of characters in my writing which were direct representations of my own life. It doesn’t make you feel good when a reader exclaims: “What kind of a shmuck would ever do that?!” But what’s also true, as Dennis Palumbo writes, is that all screenwriting is autobiographical. Not literally, but whatever you write is informed by and infused with the way you experience the world, your past experiences and the values you believe in. Even if you try and hide it (that’s part of you in action, too…). So it hurts when someone dismisses or disapproves of your material, because you’re so invested in it and it feels like they’re rejecting you personally. But it’s par for the course and the risk is worth taking, because at the very least you come out the other end wiser and better equipped for your next writing challenge. And if you don’t stick your neck out, chances are your writing will feel inhibited or generic, which will certainly and justifiably lead to rejection anyway.

Why Authenticity Matters
I'm sorry, this suit just isn't me.
Lying, denying, avoiding, pretending, and so on, are all very stressful occupations. And in terms of writing, they cause you to (unwittingly perhaps) try and spare your characters the confrontations and conflicts you yourself are avoiding in real life. Whereas these are the very conflicts that you know most intimately! Again, being authentic doesn't mean getting rid of these conflicts. On the contrary, it means acknowledging and embracing them as a real part of who you are. Tapping into them for their emotional power. But besides being essential for being able to fully identify with and inhabit your characters, for being able to write honestly and truthfully (and therefore more engagingly), being authentic is basically just a lot better for you than being stuck in denial. Here’s an article from Psychology Today which explains the benefits of authenticity nicely. So, basically: Lie, deny, avoid, pretend and so on, but write truthfully about what that’s like…

Lastly, a huge thank you to the amazing Corey Mandell, who recommended Dennis Palumbo’s book to me. But more about Corey and his mind-boggling screenwriting insights in my next post. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

What Is Your Character’s Theory Of Mind?

Getting a handle on how your characters think about how other characters think, can give their decisions and actions more unity and credibility.

I know exactly what you think I'm thinking.
And it's true.
The fact that we can think about how other people think, is known in the world of psychology as having a theory of mind. We formulate expectations based on what we know (consciously or unconsciously) about other people, and so we anticipate their responses to events, including our own decisions and actions. In a recent episode of one of my current favourite podcasts, Arming the Donkeys, behavioural economist Dan Ariely interviews psychologist Laurie Santos about her research into cheating among monkeys. She and her team were surprised to discover how cleverly the monkeys managed to deceive the researchers. Especially because the way they cheat suggests that they must have some theory of mind, informing their expectations of human behaviour. However, one big difference between monkeys and humans, is that we’re much better at letting our desires fool us into misinterpreting other people’s behaviours.

What Do You Think I Think?
Consider for a moment what you think you know about someone close to you. A parent, a partner, a child, a friend, a colleague, etc. Based on your experiences with them, your knowledge of other people’s experience with them, their own reports, and so on, you probably have quite a specific, albeit implicit theory about how they view the world. You have a clear expectation of how they would respond, say, if you told them you’d been fired, won the lottery, been diagnosed with a serious illness, etc. You might be less sure of how they would respond if they found out you’d been gossiping about them, cheated on them, defrauded them, ratted on them, etc. Less certain, but still.. you have some expectation, based on your theory of their mind. But also, of course, based on what you would like to be true, or what you fear might be true. And you become most painfully aware of your theory about someone else, when it turns out to be wrong.

What Do Your Characters Think Other Characters Think?
Similarly, characters in a screenplay have theories about each other’s minds. Of course, these are made up by the screenwriter, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to be coherent. When you put a character in a situation in which, for instance, they have to choose between being truthful or lying, their choice is going to be informed by how they expect other characters to behave. And, just as in real life, a scene in a screenplay becomes dramatic or funny, or both, when one character believes something about another character and this turns out to be wrong.

When One Character’s Theory About Another Is Wrong
I could have sworn he was hot for me.
I recently got around to viewing Mike Leigh’s Another Year which includes a wonderful example of how one character’s theory about another character turns out to be wrong, creating a great tragicomic beat. Mary (played by Lesley Manville) a nervous, lonely woman approaching middle-age, flirts with Joe, the 30-year old son of her friends Tom and Gerri, whom she’s known since he was a boy. She mistakes Joe’s friendliness as a hopeful sign that he’s attracted to her, and so later she’s devastated when he enthusiastically introduces her to his new girlfriend. The scene is filled with such painful embarrassment because Mary’s reaction makes plain to the other characters and to the audience, just how desperate she is, and how misguided her perception of Joe was.

I know I’ve been in situations where my theory about someone else’s mind has been upturned. And I’m not just talking about that girl I was convinced was in love with me when I was thirteen, but who turned out to have a crush on my best friend. I’m talking about any time someone’s reaction doesn’t match your expectations, when you realize you had the wrong idea about them. You thought they were better, worse, more clever, stupid, compassionate or cruel than they really are. These are the kinds of moments that great scenes turn on. In terms of screenwriting, understanding and showing how your characters think about each other helps to set up these moments convincingly and effectively. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

How Screenwriting Paradigms Help And Hinder The Screenwriter

Screenwriting tutors advocate a variety of useful screenwriting methods, but the trick is to know at what stage of the writing process to consult which of them.

In a recent episode of the On The Page screenwriting podcast, screenwriter Irving Belateche related how he changed his attitude to what he calls ‘screenwriting paradigms’ and the dramatic improvement this had on his writing. The essence of his story seems to me to encapsulate everything that’s good and bad about screenwriting templates: He discovered that he could write much more freely and creatively if he only started checking for plot points, sequence breaks, act breaks and the like, after he’d finished writing the story. He found that too much ‘thinking about the writing’ too soon, detracted from his ability to create.

I don’t believe there are any rules about whether it’s better to check for plot points before, during or after writing an outline or even a first draft. But I think it’s wise to be aware of the essential difference between a creative and an analytical mindset.

Creation Versus Analysis
Creative work is putting disparate things together to produce something new, while analytical work is taking something apart to identify it’s components. The two are complimentary aspects of screenwriting, but they’re fundamentally different. I like to move back and forth from creative to analytical modes, but trying to do both at the same time usually spells trouble. In other words, if I’m writing a scene and I’m trying to force it to have a particular function in the story, I remove myself from the flow of imaginative writing. On the other hand, it can be helpful going into a scene knowing in advance that this is where, say, the main character is going to make a really stupid decision that leads to a specific event further on in the story.

The various well-known screenwriting paradigms all defer at some level to the three-act structure paradigm, but they operate at different levels of abstractness or specificity and none of them is The Truth About How To Write A Screenplay. Knowing which model is appropriate to the current stage of a project, can make the difference between finding inspiration and encouragement or feeling discouraged and inadequate.

Here are some of the more famous models, and what I personally find useful (and dangerous) about them:

Three-Act Structure
Beginning - middle - end
Basically, the beginning, middle and end of a story. The simplest form of story structure. The usual division is 1%-25% first act, 26%-75% second act, and 76%-100% third act, but it’s not an exact science. I like to know in general terms how my story is going to end before I start outlining, although not all screenwriters do. But knowing what sets the story in motion and what complicates things in the middle, is also handy… I find the three act notion a helpful way of thinking about the very big, rough idea of the story, as you might describe it in a short synopsis or in a pitch to your auntie, rather than anything more detailed than that. It’s also handy to be able to tell people who want to hear these things, where you are in a story when you’re pitching it.

One disadvantage of this model is that it’s so ubiquitous, that it can prompt you to abandon what might be a really interesting idea because you can’t squeeze it into a three-act jacket from the get-go. Sometimes an idea for a story will start from a point that later turns out to be the ending, or perhaps the original inspirational scene or beat won’t survive into the final draft at all. If you’re too hung up on “it has to have three acts” from the moment you start brainstorming, you might miss out on some great ideas.

Five Major Turning Points
This is the model advocated by people like Syd Field, Michael Hauge and lots of others. It’s essentially the same three acts divided into two parts, with a major plot-changing event at each division. It’s just specific enough to be more than the basic idea, and it gives a little bit more flesh to the central personal conflict and the big dramatic question at the heart of the story. I find it a handy expansion on the basic beginning-middle-end form, and also something that can help put the basic story in place before adding much detail. Alternatively, it’s a way of looking at what you’ve already written to see if the story has a sense of rising stakes and tension as it progresses.

Eight Sequences
Also known as the mini-movie method, this is way of writing a screenplay that goes all the way back to the days when films literally consisted of eight reels of celluloid. The idea is to write towards a big dramatic moment or turning point every 10-15 pages or so, within the overall notion of a three-act structure. Each sequence contains three mini-acts too. Lots of people advocate this method because it allows the writer to focus on one short section of the screenplay at a time, which is easier to manage. It also ensures you have plenty of rising tension and dramatic moments, because each sequence builds towards its own climax, so the story takes at least seven major turns.

Example of a screwed creative mind
In abstract terms, each sequence has its own specific focus, from set-up and theme, through increasingly challenging obstacles and increasingly desperate attempts to solve the problems while avoiding the underlying emotional challenge, all the way to the final climax and resolution. Here’s one simple overview of the eight sequences, which right away demonstrates how going into this kind of detail before you start writing might screw your creative mind… I certainly find it inhibiting. One way of using this method in the outlining process that I do find useful, is just to summarize each sequence in a couple of sentences and then get on with inventing scenes. But equally, it’s a way of analysing something you’ve already written, enabling you to see where perhaps the story needs expanding or trimming.

Fifteen Beats: Save the Cat
Much-used book and accompanying software, STC is yet another expansion on the three act notion, but which pays more attention to visual aspects (opening and closing images, the “save the cat moment”), a B-story (subplot) and the antagonistic force in the story. The software actually helps you expand the basic beats into 40 main scenes, which then becomes a detailed outline from which to write a first draft. Some people criticize this approach as being too “writing by numbers,” but other screenwriters swear by it, and it can certainly help create a very tight outline as a jumping off point. The trick is not to take this approach too literally (e.g., in terms of page numbers), but to let it stimulate your imagination. However, I find this kind of paradigm can tempt you into being too analytical while you’re writing. On the site there are numerous analyses of blockbuster movies, broken down into the fifteen STC beats. It’s tempting to think this is how they were written too, but again, analysis after the fact isn’t the same as the creative work before it.

The Hero’s Journey
Also known as the mythical form, or the monomyth, this is another much-touted model for writing screenplays. It was originally formulated by Christopher Volger in his famous book The Writers Journey, but since then many people have adopted various form of the same model as their standard. For example, Stanley D. Williams, who uses an incredibly detailed graph called The Story Diamond to map out the steps of the hero’s journey in a screenplay. Personally, I’ve not been able (yet?) to get inspired by this model, as it feels too prescriptive for me. It’s also based on a psychological assumption that I don’t share, which is that individual willpower can overcome any adverse circumstances in life (call me European if you want to…). However, this is certainly a great model to consult if you are writing a story with a single hero setting out on a quest of some sort.

Twenty-Two Steps
Some of the 22 steps
This is the John Truby method, which again goes into far more detail than the previously mentioned models. Truby claims that his method is made for writers whereas other methods aren’t, and he offers different classes for different genres. What I find useful is his book The Anatomy of Story, which I dip into every now and then to remind myself, for example, that besides a behavioural flaw, my main character needs a moral flaw too. The danger of Truby (and this goes for Robert McKee too, I find) is that they use a lot of prescriptive and judgemental language. Phrases like, “…a good story must have…” or, “…a well-written character always has…” I find if I try and follow this kind of thinking while I’m inventing a story, it just makes me feel I’m doing stuff wrong all the time, because I like to explore possibilities and come to story decisions by encountering dead ends. I like my creative work messy. Still, Truby is very good at analysing current films, and I often find his observations inspiring. Again here, the danger is to imagine that whoever wrote the films he’s analysing, wrote them with his terminology in mind. Also, his admonition to acknowledge what kind of film (genre) you want to be writing and to familiarize yourself totally with its particular story beats, is in itself a valuable insight.

Non-linear structure
I’m a great fan of screenwriting teacher Linda Aronson, whose focus is on screenplays that don’t follow the standard chronological, linear model or have multiple main characters and storylines. Lots of big mainstream movies play around with structure, and it’s been a staple of TV scripts for ever. But as Aronson emphasizes, in the end, all the various story strands are themselves emotional stories with a beginning, middle and end. She also stresses that the form has to be appropriate for the type of story you want to tell, rather than a just gimmick. And indeed, the danger of this model is that you are tempted to mould an ordinary story in a fashionable but inappropriate form. Here, again, you might only discover in the course of writing that a traditional linear form isn’t the right one for your story, or you might start out with a non-linear form in mind and realize it’s not appropriate. I personally find it useful to “try” to tell a story in this kind of form at an early stage in the writing. It’s usually pretty clear quite soon whether, say, shifting the chronology around is going to increase the suspense or just create confusion. Still, it could equally be something to consider once a first draft is finished.

In the end, the only thing that counts is what works for each individual screenwriter. But merely knowing there’s an option to analyze later rather than sooner, might be enough to give your creative juices free rein. It’s liberating, but also reassuring: Whether you prefer to start with a shape and gradually fill it in, or start with bits and pieces that gradually become a shape, I think the main thing is to be aware that these are two sides of the same coin. And each new project dictates which method is most appropriate because ultimately, the method serves the screenplay, not the other way around.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pros And Cons Of Journaling For Screenwriters

Some screenwriters can’t write unless they keep a journal. For others journaling is a distraction or even a waste of creative energy. Some thoughts.

Opinions seem divided about the benefits or otherwise of screenwriters keeping a journal. In general, those in favour of journaling see it as a means of finding or keeping focus, putting problems and worries into perspective, or even overcoming writer’s block. On the other side, are those who believe journaling is a self-indulgent displacement activity, and even a waste of your creative resources. Here are some of the common claims about journaling for writers, make of them what you will.

Journaling Helps You Keep Focused
Describing what you think and feel about scenes or characters you’re planning to write, evaluating what you’ve already written, identifying specific story problems you’re wrestling with… these are the kinds of journaling activities that help you distinguish between important and marginal issues. Often, when you’re immersed in a project—especially if you work alone—it can be difficult to sense the relative importance of a scene or a beat. Journaling can help you step back, see the bigger picture and choose which battle to fight, as it were. It’s also a great way to explore your own emotional connection to the story, to check that the story is still exploring or portraying what you intend it to. Also, if you’re like me and you work on multiple projects at once, then journaling can help you decide what not to do on any given day, which can be an important part of formulating your writing and career goals.

Journaling Depletes Your Creative Juices
An often heard warning, which frames creative work as being driven by a kind of fuel that gets used up and needs to be replenished. There’s something to be said for this, as the act of sitting and formulating coherent sentences, requires focused attention and energy. I know from experience that if you love writing, then it really doesn’t matter what you’re writing, you just become immersed in the process of translating your thoughts into written text, and before you know it, it’s time to pick the kids up from school. So it can be useful to set yourself a limited time to journal, because once you’re warmed up (see below), you’ll be ready to get back to your story. Whereas, if you carry on too long, you’ll just be spent when you finally stop.

Journaling Helps You Overcome Distracting Thoughts and Fears
Sian Beilock documents this wonderfully in her book Choke, which describes the research she’s done into performance under pressure. One of the numerous conclusions she’s come to, is that people who are prone to freeze up or be distracted by intrusive thoughts during activities where they need to focus intensively, can benefit from writing about these intrusive thoughts before they start the activity in question. Sometimes, the mere act of articulating clearly what’s on your mind, without necessarily going into any deep analysis or speculation about the underlying causes, can reduce its impact on your performance. It’s as if writing about your concerns is a way of shrinking them and putting them to one side for a while.

Journaling Encourages Self-Obsession
Definitely the flipside of the above and a very real danger of journaling, especially if you’re struggling with self-doubt. It’s very easy to get carried away and wallow in self-pity. Much, much easier, in fact, than doing something about whatever’s wrong. At least, that’s how it can feel if you let yourself get carried away, penning reams and reams of reasons to be miserable. One of those famous and by now thoroughly debunked myths of popular psychology, is that punching a boxing ball gets rid of your aggression. On the contrary, it evokes aggression. The same is true for going on and on about how unfortunate you are. Rather than making you feel better, it usually makes you feel worse.

Journaling Gets The Writing Muscles Moving
This idea frames creative writing as a kind of sport, and views journaling as similar to warming up before engaging in sports. Just writing something, anything, even complaining about not knowing what to write, can get you into the zone, and help overcome writer’s block. But if you extend the sports analogy, at some point you do have to finish the warming up and actually get to the sport. Otherwise…

Journaling Wastes Valuable Writing Time
Here’s an obvious disadvantage, especially if you only have limited time to write besides a day job, kids and other time-consuming, non-writing responsibilities. There’s definitely something to be said for using small windows of writing time for short, intensive spurts of writing, whether that be brainstorming, outlining or even writing pages. Several people have written convincingly about this, including Adrian Mead and Pilar Alessandra. The knowledge that you only have, say, half an hour or even ten minutes, can sometimes really get your creative brain in gear, and it would be ironic, to say the least, to spend that time pondering what’s stopping you from writing.

Journaling Helps You Track Your Writing Progress
This can be pretty confronting if you’re not making good progress, but it’s a great confirmation when you are. I recently read back some early entries in a journal about a screenplay I’m writing, and I was horrified to realize I’d been going round in circles, wrestling with ideas I’d played with before and rejected! At the same time, it clarified some story problems and helped me leave certain ideas behind for good and move on. Plus, keeping a record of your progress is also a way of compiling a (digital) paper trail, especially if you regularly back up your files on a distant server. If nothing else, you have a dated record of when you first started working on a project.

So, those are just a few of the arguments for and against journaling that I’m aware of. I come down on the side of journaling as a generally positive thing. I find it helpful to keep different journals for different projects I’m working on. These tend to be mostly notes about issues that relate specifically to the story at hand, but they can also touch on more general methodological or personal issues that come up. I also keep a more general writing journal, which helps me keep an overview of all the projects I have going at any one time. It’s a good place to identify similar problems that crop up in different projects, and it’s a place to reflect on priorities too.

But the main point is to avoid using journaling as an excuse for not working on your project(s). Journaling is best when it helps you keep a healthy balance between reflecting on your writing and… writing.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why A Great Screenplay Is Like A Beautiful Woman

All the usual lists of requirements for a great screenplay can help screenwriters up to a point, but like a beautiful woman, a great screenplay is not reducible to a list of its formal characteristics.

I’ve spent a long time trying to understand why I’m grabbed by one film while another doesn’t really affect me. Sometimes it’s the subject matter, sometimes it’s the acting, sometimes it’s the dramatic tension or lack of it. But in the end, I always find that no amount of analysis really captures what makes a film work for me. In fact, the more I strive to improve my own writing by reading screenplays, by watching on screen how other people work their magic, by taking advice from people who know how great screenplays "should" be written, the more I realize there’s a limit to how useful all that analysis of existing material is. Even on an internet dating site, where you can describe your ideal partner, the proof of the pudding is in the first face-to-face encounter. The “chemistry”(or lack of it) is determined by a process than analysis and verbalization of past experiences.

What Does A Beautiful Woman Look Like?
There’s plenty of social psychological research into falling in love, into the link between physical appearance and social status, and into the ever-changing norms concerning what counts as beautiful in different eras and cultures. Nowadays, for example, it’s fashionable to point to colour-coded fMRI scans to show where in the brain people decide what’s beautiful. But in the end, if you try and describe what a beautiful woman (or man) looks like, the only truthful answer is: I know one when I see one. It’s not helpful to say she should have straight blond hair, this or that hip-to-breast ratio, a certain type of gait… all these things may be true, but only on average and in retrospect. When you’ve seen the beautiful woman, you can describe certain aspects that you think attracted you to her, but that’s obviously not what attracts you to her in the moment. Your description is just a crude attempt to verbalize an immensely complex process that happens unconsciously, in milliseconds.

What Does An Amazing Movie Look Like?
It’s a familiar exercise that screenwriting teachers and how-to books propagate: Imagine what people coming out of the cinema are saying to each other about your film. Or: Imagine the poster. These are just a couple of ways of trying to distil the essence of a screenplay into a few pithy statements, so that you can keep yourself on track during the writing, and to give yourself a catchy pitch. These, and many other tricks of the trade are absolutely helpful, but they don’t do the creative work for you. Because, think about it, what made the last movie you loved, so great? That question alone activates a plethora of unconscious, pre-existing notions about “aspects of a film.” So you might say something about the acting, the camera work, the dialogue, the emotional dilemmas, and so on. But that, too, is just a crude attempt to verbalize a complex, largely unconscious experience. What you loved about the movie was the experience, not a bullet list of cinematic criteria. And what you loved about it may not be what other people loved about it. They may even not have liked it at all.

Analysis Is Not The Same As Creativity
For me, then, the lesson is that you can’t turn it around and use a crude analysis of a film you loved as the basis for your own screenplay. You can adopt the same structure as an existing movie, you can keep the same actors in mind when writing your own characters, you can imitate pacing and transitions, you can even copy someone’s writing style. And because your screenplay is going to be read by a lot of people who have lists of “good screenwriting criteria” boxes to tick, you have to master all the formal aspects of screenwriting just to get attention. But in the end, what makes a screenplay stand out from the crowd (and hopefully the movie that’s based on it, too) is dependent on so many unpredictable factors, not least of all the personal taste of readers, that the only sensible thing to do is to be true to what you yourself want to write. Find your own personal, emotional connection with your story and follow that.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Just because your best friend’s beloved doesn’t attract you, you’re not going to try and convince them to stop loving that person, are you? But there are people who aren’t embarrassed to explain to you why you’re wrong, say, to enjoy the most popular movie of all time so far: James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s “actually” not a good story, they'll tell you. Go know. So I think that following your own preference is probably wise. Which is not the same as saying that professional craftsmanship is irrelevant, because that’s certainly not true. My philosophy is: Get the craft, then tell your own stories.

It only takes one person in the right place at the right time to find my screenplay beautiful.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Danger Of Committing Too Soon To An Idea For A Film

Sometimes, what initially seems like a great premise for a film, might actually only be part of a great premise for a film, or even not great at all.

Like any self-respecting screenwriter I’m always on the lookout for good ideas for spec screenplays. I love books like Bill Martell’s Your Idea Machine because they remind me how essential it is to always keep your eyes and ears tuned to the ideas ether. That means not just keeping up with the news, both global and local, staying abreast of developments in hard science, social science (and even pseudo-science), skimming magazines, but also eavesdropping on gossip, catching snippets of conversation, etc. Anything that might contain the germ of a film premise when prodded by a “What if…?” or when otherwise treated as a jumping off point for fantasy.

It’s A Premise Captain, But Not As We Know It
However, sometimes I’ll come up with an idea and mistakenly see it as a premise for a story, when actually it might function much better as a section of something larger. In other words, I might have “merely” thought of a scene, a sequence, or a sub-plot, or even a minor character’s story, but I’ve latched onto it too soon and given it the status of story premise. I find a really good way to play with the ideas I come up with, is to ask myself things like:

  • Imagine this is a sub-plot. What is the main story?
  • Imagine this is just one sequence. What happened before? What happens afterwards?
  • Imagine this is only a scene. Where, chronologically, in the story does it take place?
  • Imagine this character is a minor character. Who is the main character, and what is their story?
  • Imagine this character is the antagonist. What’s he after?
  • Imagine this is just the backstory.
  • What if this were a major turning point somewhere late in the story?

Obsessive Logline Syndrome (OLS)
I guess the art of generating good film ideas also requires being able to tolerate a degree of uncertainty. Because ideas morph and evolve while you think about them. Some aspect of an idea may seem self-evident one day, only to fall by the wayside the next day as a result of a new twist or insight. This is something that has always bothered me about the notion that you must have a logline first, and only then start brainstorming scenes, sequences, etc. To me this is completely counter-intuitive. Sure, once you start writing a treatment or a first draft, it’s useful to have a good logline to hand in case anyone wants to know what you’re up to. In fact it’s always useful to use the logline format to check if your story still ticks the necessary screenplay boxes. But the logline evolves in tandem with the writing. So if I come up with something during the writing that makes the story better but, say, changes the main character from a man into a woman, then I go with that and adapt the logline accordingly.

Recognizing A Dead Horse
Clearly, you need to know when the idea isn’t big enough to carry an entire screenplay. Sometimes that’s obvious right away when you try and imagine a pitchable storyline with a main character who has a goal, and so on. Other times it might only become obvious after you’ve finished writing a two-page outline. It’s a matter of practice too, I suppose. But I know for sure that my own worst pitfall is committing to an idea too soon. I’m doing it less and less these days, but I’ve done it in the past. I once even found myself half way through a first draft before realizing the idea wasn’t sound as a film premise. I’m never doing that again, I can tell you!

My New Ideas Rule For 2012
I’ve instigated a new rule for myself for 2012: Whenever I think I’ve found a great idea for a screenplay, I have to brainstorm versions of the idea in as many different genres as possible, with different endings and beginnings, and other variations, before I settle on whether it really is worth pursuing to, say, a one-page synopsis. Plus this: If the synopsis doesn’t grab me, I’m allowed to admit the idea wasn’t as good as it first appeared.

Good raving writing to you all in 2012!