Thursday, June 17, 2010

Another Way to Write a Screenplay



For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.

FADE IN:
In the previous post I described how I approached conceiving and developing the story for my first original screenplay. I had written other scripts before this, but they were either adaptations of pre-existing stories, shorts, or collaborations. The point of the post was to try to show how to “get one’s head around” the challenge of conceiving a feature film from scratch.
In the modern age, it was Syd Field who first identified how narrative operates: that plots require structure for their narratives, and that structure is a function of the protagonist. What? You don’t recall that last part from your reading of Field? That’s because he only implied it, and, only once, in his first book, and he never again returned to it. What he wrote was that the two major plot points in Acts 1 and 2 "are a function of character." Those two moments in every story are the turning points in the story's structure. So it meant that structure itself is a function of character. And the only character whose story is being told is the protagonist.
For me, the light-bulb came on when I read that. He linked character, specifically the protagonist, to the transformation points of the plot. It showed that plot changed because of character. Plot is what happens. Character is why... what it means. In essence, it explained how stories work: through transformation. Put your hero through a trial that changes him or her (or the audience--more on this in a moment). The rest is all just fine-tuning and personal preference. 
Wm. Goldman said screenplays ARE structure. He meant they’re closer to girders and beams than they are the Sistine Chapel. Screenplays are structure because they can be. In fact, they have to be. Collaborating artists supply all the stuff (and more) that the novelist would otherwise put in. In no special order, they include: location, special effects, lighting, costumes, sets, character-attributes, sound, performance, dialogue-interpretation, action-specifics, pacing, camera angles, direction, and editing. So screenplays are able to get away with merely telling what happens, what is said, who is doing it all, and in what order. If screenwriters wrote all that other stuff nobody would read the script because it would be too boring, and packaged in such a way that it would be the worst reading experience conceivable. Remember, novelists don’t actually tell you everything. Talking motion pictures “kinda” do... or, until Star Trek’s Holodeck, they are the closest thing we have to it.
As for that case of the audience changing rather than the hero, it’s because many stories succeed just fine, with the hero remaining the same at the end as at the beginning. Nevertheless, we, as the audience, have gone through changes, both in our understanding of what happened, and in what it means in terms of both the plot, and our larger world. So, the transformation is still present, it is just not shared by the protagonist and the audience as it normally is. Instead the transformation occurs solely within the audience. Critics of the protagonist-transformation requirement in stories have claimed such a requirement is unnecessary because of stories like Death of a Salesman and the James Bond films where they are the same at the end as at the start. These critics are, themselves, wrong. Transformation is there, the result of the protagonist's experiences, but only in the audience, rather than both audience and hero.
So, having a grasp of how story operates, I could now look at my ideas and see, at a glance, if they had the potential to become stories worthy of an audience. Let me tell you, that’s HUGE for writers! It helps edit out bad ideas. It gets to the good ones and only the good ones. It saves LOTS of time. Simply identify whose story it is, and zero in on the transformation points. The protagonist may be a person, a group, a town, a society, or even just an idea or metaphor in rare cases. Where does the challenge to the protagonist get accepted or taken on? Where does the protagonist take final action to resolve it? If you have those, and can tell them clearly and in an entertaining way with wide appeal, you have a movie.
Today, when I conceive my stories, I see immediately how they need to hit their transformation points. From there it’s just a process of finding great ways to get to them. It’s still hard work, but with the spine in place, it is also fun work, work from which I can feel I’ll succeed.
So now, when I develop those remaining ideas that I now know are capable of becoming good stories, I can focus on great scenes, great pacing, character development, etc. I know where and when to “hit my marks” as a writer. So I make notes for scenes, play with them, throw in dialogue, order them into interesting progressions, develop sub-plots, etc. It becomes a present-tense short story with dialogue where and if I have it.
It grows, becomes as detailed as I can make it, or as sketchy as it still is until later. I think about it. It grows more. In some case this happens in a week or a month. But it has also happened over more than a decade and in as little as 48 hours. At the end of the process, I have a 40-60 page, single-spaced story. It’s my version of the James Cameron “Script-ment” (hybrid treatment and screenplay). Then, I just paste the thing into a screenplay style document that I have and re-format it to screenplay standard, cleaning up what needs cleaning, and adding what needs to get added. In one case this last part took only a single day, and I had a first draft script.
Screenwriting books and gurus focus mostly on techniques and marketing. If you want to know how to build a scene or create tension or write subtext, they’re all out there in books. What’s missing is the inspiration, and an in-depth look at the process of conception. If you’re a writer looking to begin, but struggling, what you need is that spark, that igniter that shows you that you have a story and you have it in you to do it. #     
FADE OUT
Lee A. Matthias



Quote of the Post:


"Structure is a function of the protagonist."
---Derived from Syd Field's observation that the two major plot points in a three-act screenplay are a function of character.

2 comments:

  1. Awesome post for a Friday hot afternoon here.
    I agree inspiration is 99% of the recipe. It comes and goes. But I always find it, sometimes.

    Cheers, good stuff.

    "Screenwriting books and gurus focus mostly on techniques and marketing. If you want to know how to build a scene or create tension or write subtext, they’re all out there in books. What’s missing is the inspiration, and an in-depth look at the process of conception. If you’re a writer looking to begin, but struggling, what you need is that spark, that igniter that shows you that you have a story and you have it in you to do it.

    ReplyDelete