Saturday, January 12, 2008

Writing Quickly

I've had two very different jobs in the last month. One was very intense -- working with a writer who agonized over every line, writing up synopses and plans of attack and random thoughts, and following that with afternoon-long consultations where we would reach consensus on how to approach every little issue. The client had very specific ideas about how every scene should go. That job felt like gem cutting -- a real precision job.

Now I'm working on the quickest, dirtiest script job I've ever had. We're changing some characters, a location, and adding some themes. The director basically wants to get an idea of what it will look like. The precision work happens later.

What's remarkable is how similar both jobs are. I've got piles of notes and some raw script. I've got all my basic screenwriting tools laid out fairly neatly (well, one more neatly than the other). While one job felt like brain surgery and the other is more like dressing a deer, both move forward most effectively when I adopt one particular perspective: the interplay between a character's intention in each scene moment, and the overall audience question of what happens next.

You can work through all the elements of your plot, character, etc. with any number of terminologies. You can pin and mount it like a butterfly until it looks exactly like the hero's journey or whatever other model you choose. It still won't write the script for you. You have to find something which a lot of otherwise smart writers somehow think they're above worrying about.

Where is my character at the beginning of the scene? What is his or her state of mind? What's in front of them? What would they do?

Often it's not actually what you want them to do. This is why a number of writers try not to look at this stuff.

But it's exactly WHY you should look at this stuff. Nine times out of ten there's a far more interesting way to let your character's internal misbehavior play out against their universal desire (or whatever terms you choose) than you'll ever map out in a synopsis. How do you find it? Character intention.

I've always found it remarkable that working from character intention always somehow leads you back to the question in your audience's head. It seems somehow obvious -- after all, the audience reads the plot through the characters. But it's fascinating to watch that interplay in action as you write.

If I don't find the character's intention leading me to the audience question by the end of the scene, I've usually done something wrong. I go back and look at my conflict, and whether I'm really listening. And sometimes I find it in my pages and pages of notes full of screenwriting mumbo jumbo. But usually I find it right there on the page in front of me, in a joke waiting to be told, or a prop sitting on a table, or in the perfect expression of that next level of meaning you dared not approach in your fancy notes.

No comments: