April 2008 Archives
April 27, 2008
April 20, 2008
April 13, 2008
April 6, 2008
April 1, 2008
April 6, 2008
April 3, 2008
Sometimes I read a script that I just can’t figure out. I know it has problems, I can even put my finger on what they are, but I can’t offer up solutions; granted, some people don’t like solutions, but offering solutions while I point out problems has never failed me, and one of the unfortunate side effects of covering so many scripts is that I am, at this point, a better reader than I am a writer. The only way to solve this kind of problem is to figure out what’s causing it, but what happens when I can’t even do that? I know the characters are thin, but why? I walk myself through the story, reminding myself of surprising moments of nuance and subtlety that give the characters depth. Why is it that, at the end, I felt like they were paper-thin? Something went awry.
I can’t pretend to understand how it happens, but when I actually talk out these problems, I figure them out. It’s all in how you’re telling the story. Here’s the story, and here are its flaws. But what if the writer did this, that, or the other? The solutions present themselves, and if you do it right, you can solve every single problem in one fell swoop — and if you’re really good, you can do it without insulting the writer.
You’ve found The Bead™.
April 5, 2008
So the second script I read had one unfortunate side effect: very little in the way of plot. It gave me an early Richard Linklater vibe because of the setting and the writer’s penchant for meandering scenes of characters just hanging out. Although he defies many conventions, Linklater’s a master of subtext and conflict. For instance, Dazed and Confused has a very loose plot — seniors want to beat up next year’s freshman class — that sets up the characters and their minor goals over the course of the night (e.g., “beat up a freshman”/”don’t get beaten up”). It has the traditional obstacles and changing goals, but it’s mostly a movie about hanging out. Yet, from the conversations these characters share, everything they say tells us a little something about them. Their attitudes on superficial things like music, acid-induced dreams, fashion — what a person discusses and the way others react to it all tell us things about who they are.
The script I was given had the loose plot and the deliberate (some might say “plodding”) pace of a Linklater film, but it didn’t have much else in common. When the characters talked about buying a keg, all they were talking about…was buying a keg. That’s a problem. Similarly, the characters desires and goals are shielded until, quite literally, just before each goal is altered. (In one case, we don’t know a character wants a scholarship until page 100, and he gets the scholarship on page 102 — ooh, the suspense. In another, the character reveals he’s unwilling to take the scholarship because he knocked up his girlfriend and needs to take care of her. Beyond logic problems I won’t go into, this is another conflict that’s brought up way too late and then resolved almost immediately. In literally the same scene that he mentions it to the love interest, she’s hit by a drunk driver and killed, leaving him to take the scholarship.)
I don’t want to go on and on ranting about this particular script, but I do want to bring up some fundamental tools of drama that this script should have employed but didn’t.
April 7, 2008
I had trouble sleeping last night for a really dumb reason. It’s been a week since I sent Disappear to the Big-Shot Producer, and somehow reading through other peoples’ work made me realize something:
Disappear had a serious plot hole, and now it was out of my hands, ready to be scrutinized by people who may notice it and not care, notice it and toss it aside, or (if I’m really lucky) not notice it at all. The hole is a basic logic flaw that affects many thrillers and action movies: why do villains go to such elaborate ruses when it’s way easier just to shoot somebody?
April 12, 2008
I mentioned a few days ago that I sometimes lurk around misc.writing.screenplays (actually, now I stick with the moderated group), just to see what’s going on. I don’t have much interest in posting, and it’s easy to check in once a month and read all the worthwhile posts in maybe half an hour. They really don’t talk much about writing except to newbies, which is fine, except when they get distracted by politics, which they do. A lot. It makes it a chore to read unless you just skip those threads. I’m all for political discourse, but I’ve been lurking and (very rarely) posting there since around 2001, and it all comes down to: same shit, different day. It’s reached a point where I can’t figure out why posters allow their buttons to be pushed, or derive pleasure in pushing the buttons of the others, because it’s always the same argument.
April 17, 2008
Poring over* somebody’s screenplay, I’ve realized something: detail is a lost art.
Have you ever read an old-timey screenplay, something from the ’40s or ’50s? The screenplay for Treasure of the Sierra Madre is ridiculously vivid, jammed with visual information and nuance you don’t get in a modern screenplay. I can understand a desire to be concise for the sake of the reader. The most important rule in any kind of writing is to know your audience and cater to them, and the audience for a screenplay is generally “overworked readers who only read the dialogue” and “barely-literate producers who would rather read a two-paragraph synopsis.” However, there’s a big difference between brevity and eliminating necessary details.
April 26, 2008
So for all you non-writers, there’s this theory floating around — mainly but not exclusively in screenwriting circles — that notecards will magically help to improve structure. There are about 90,000 different methods of doing this, but the most useful one I’ve heard works like this: for every given scene, you write down a general description of what happens in the scene, followed by (a) how it fits into the overall story, (b) the characters involved in the scene, (c) their conflicts within the scene, (d) how these conflicts are resolved, and (e) how this scene reenforces the theme. In theory, you should have all the answers and a fully-loaded 3x5 notecard, or you should cut the scene. (Or rewrite it until you can provide all the notecard information.)
Most of the time when I hear the notecard theory, it doesn’t work like that. It’s a much more useless structural idea: you map out the scenes with notecards so that you can shuffle them around. I’ve read lengthy, possibly apocryphal stories (all of them coming from unsold spec writers) explaining how notecards saved their script. One part of the story doesn’t work, so they shuffle one scene from the first act to the third act, and — boom! Citizen Kane 2: Razing Kane. Am I an anomaly for never really having problems with an overarching structure or misplaced scenes?
April 30, 2008
In mentioning the notecard theory the other day, I started rambling about a novel I’m in the process of revising and editing. It’s in pretty good shape in a general sense — nothing huge to rewrite — but it had enough flaws that I needed to get organized on it.
I neglected to mention that, until a day or two before that post, the novel had been sitting, lifeless, while I distracted myself with easier (and potentially more lucrative) screenplays about people beating up Nigerian 419 scammers. I spent much of last summer revising it, then I decided, “I need to get on that novel again” and put it up in the little status sidebar, thinking if I let all my shame hang out, I might do something about it.
Well, I am doing something about it, but not because of its shameful flaccidity as it flaps in the wind. I just got burned out on this particular set of characters.