Friday, August 15, 2008

Finding Perspective and Clarity

One of the best screenwriting tips I ever heard was this: write your synopsis for a distracted teenager. And, if you're lucky enough to have a distracted teenager at your disposal, test it out on them.

Why is this valuable advice? Studio readers aren't distracted teenagers (we hope). Big producers, directors, and agents don't watch TV while simultaneously playing Nintendo, texting friends, and updating their myspace page.

But they are busy, distracted people. They live in the 21st century, and therefore have short attention spans and an unquenchable need for constant information input. This makes them anxious and lazy at the same time.

Writing for your probable reader, rather than your optimal reader, forces you to be incredibly clear about your story. It requires you to think it through so it

1. makes sense and

2. is something other people care about.

(I forgot about #2 for the first decade of my writing career. But enough about me.)

This is very difficult, of course. Many (mostly new) writers punt on the whole synopsis issue, and wait to write it only after they've written the script. I'm not sure why they do this. Why wouldn't you want to sort out story problems on one page instead of spending months writing and rewriting a hundred or more just to get it to make sense?

But if writing for a difficult teen just isn't your bag, then consider some other options.

I'm working on a script that's aimed at an adult audience. It's about family and loneliness and all that good stuff. I tried writing it for a child. I made it a fairy tale.

What happens? The same thing that happens when you talk to a child: you break things down into simpler and simpler chunks. Often there's no way around the honesty that arises out of that process. You have to explain things carefully, and lay them out gently. My boyfriend's 6-year-old niece once froze me with the question, "Why do you and he sleep in the same bed?" Then I got on the kid level and answered, "Because he's my favorite person in the whole world." And she smiles and runs off to play. It's that simple. And it's true.

Do that with your synopsis and you're liable to find what you're really writing about, and why it matters. Your characters hew to type a bit. All your three-act gobbledygook transforms into some beautiful archetype.

Next I tried imagining the story from the perspective of my main character. He's a fifty-year-old functional drug addict who's shut himself off from the planet. It's a daydream as he glazes over in front of the computer. Some more issues come into focus: why he'd suddenly sacrifice his safe existence; what he truly cares about and won't let himself have; what he WOULDN'T do that I've been trying to make him do.

It's a worthwhile exercise. It's also very close to what professional writers do regularly when they tailor their synopses, treatments, and query letters to specific individuals.

But for now, realize that this is a tooling for *creating* your story, rather than selling it. These shifts in contexts remind us just how infinite stories are. One slight shift in perspective, and it's all new again.

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