Monday, September 3, 2007

Chasing Chickens Around the Yard

Brainstorming is one of the most rewarding processes for a screenwriter. There's something really exhilarating about free-associating, finding connections, and building drama out of a rough idea. You remember that your brilliant idea is connected to a whole world -- and that world brings life to your story.

Brainstorming is also a chaotic process. It can be very threatening to a writer. You follow a character's traits and the main action to its logical conclusion... and it doesn't work. Or the message changes. Or you start drifting into delicate territory. Or it starts sounding like that movie you really, really hate. Or the big one: suddenly you realize that all your work so far is for naught.

It's one thing to comfort yourself with the knowledge that you've merely written yourself up to the next stage of understanding around a story idea. You find your happy Zen place, and destroy the Mandala you've been working on for weeks.

Or, like the rest of us, you get that horrible feeling that you're spinning your wheels in mud. There's no traction in any of your plot points. You're stuck. And it's all crap.

It's way too easy to find yourself in that dark place where nothing really makes sense, or matters, or will even remotely appeal to Spielberg. That's when I like to throw my hands up and chase chickens in the yard.

Have you ever done this? You catch very few chickens. But there are two or three things you can do that will turn the task from an ordeal into an enjoyable experience.

1. Have a plan. If you run around randomly, you can be sure the chickens will too. You ARE spinning your wheels if you don't do some basic work to structure your process. I like to work with a rough set of guidelines around the three-act stucture. But what's more important is that you have a structure that gives you discipline.

2. Have a friend. It's much easier to catch chickens if you're not the only one in the yard. And if you're both working with the same strategy, you're gonna catch lots of chickens.

Having the basic beats of the three-act structure as a common language is very helpful indeed. Even when you reject a solution that the three-act structure points to, you're learning a lot about the script, and developing a better shared sense of the script with your collaborator.

3. Have fun. Be a kid. Follow your bliss. Play. An adult will wear themselves out chasing after chickens. A kid will have a blast, and be energized by the task. Brainstorming is the same way. You get more strong, organic solutions if you're losing yourself in the task. You get more entertaining plot points when you're entertaining yourself.

There's a reason we tell stories. The more connected you are to that, the more grounded you feel in your material.

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