Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Character is Always Right

It's always difficult to finish my own projects at the beginning of a semester. So much of screenwriting is essentially modeling potential answers. So much modeling is basically throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks. I've spent much of the last few weeks convincing sophomores of the value of repeatedly synopsizing a script, or of trying out different conflicting elements within a character. This is largely a process of convincing them of the value of making mistakes and trying again. They are suspicious. They want to know how I intend to grade them on it.

Like most writers, I have a perfectionist screaming inside me most of the time. He's my editor. He's offended by mistakes. He's offended by what doesn't ring true. I'm still learning to stick him in a box while I try out different options. I've learned that my mistakes are usually more productive than that perfectionist A student still looking for a gold star still pacing back and forth in my head.

I just finished the second draft of a script. It's been a nightmare getting the damn thing down in on paper in a respectable fashion. My work, both with students and clients, has been all about making a effectively modeled character move through a well thought out plot. It's been all about those few equations that define different aspects of the story. There's a grand unified theory in there somewhere. You know all your story answer are there. You just know it.

And then you sit down to write.

I'd realized that building the perfectly structured screenplay had become more an impediment than an aid. I let go. I let myself be wrong one more time. I let my main character drag me, scene by scene, wherever he wanted to go. He tracked mud all over the carpet, and missed a couple appointments on the way. But he got to the climax, and he covered a lot more distance doing it. The midpoint got deeper, the high points higher, the low points more desolate and flecked with...comedy. It all felt more real. I had that model imprinted on my brain. I'd tried out dozens of ideas for each plot point. They varied wildly, but all had a certain aspect that made them structural. When I let the main character loose, he seemed to understand it all a bit better, more intuitively than I did. That was humbling.

I've been thinking a lot about this experience. It's not the first time I've had it, but it feels new each time. I'd all but decided I must have imprinted the story part of my brain with a kind of ingrained path that the main character just naturally followed.

But I'm of a different opinion now. This structure that we try so hard to impart is... already there. We see the world in stories. We understand each step we take as set up-conflict-resolution. We see the world that way. My character is no exception. We don't have to think about three-act structure. We think in three-act structure. We model, make mistakes, and learn something on the other end. It's not that the theory's wrong. It's thinking we control the process just by knowing a little bit about it.

1 comment:


Hi Richard,

Like your post. Personal.

The models, if taken too literal, are paint-by-numbers.

I think you could be interested in some of my thoughts on scriptwriting.

Working as a writer and editor in Greece.