Lots and lots going on within the hectic hallways of Maximum Z HQ, what with all the writing, note-giving, and career-developing taking place.
Much as I would love to offer up an original composition, my current schedule is a bit tight, so instead I humbly present a trio of posts, all plucked from the archives, and all dealing with what I consider to be a most important aspect of telling a story.
An associate of mine is in the early stages of developing a low-budget film. Call it pre-pre-pre-production. The script is part of that (as in “about to be written”), and I was asked to take a look at the outline and offer up my two cents on it.
It wasn’t bad. The structure was a little wobbly, but not too far gone, and a few other minor issues, but overall, I’d call it a fairly solid attempt.
I totally got what kind of story they’re trying to tell, but reading this outline definitely raised some important questions.
Two, to be specific.
First: why is this happening?
I don’t mean this is in a negative way, like “why are you even bothering?” Quite the opposite.
More of a “does what happens in this scene adequately follow what’s come before it, and does it do an equally good job leading into what comes next?” sort of thing.
As it reads now, it felt more like a lot was happening because the story required it to, rather than letting it all unfold smoothly and organically. There wasn’t enough setting things up in order to pay them off later. Almost like each scene is saying “This MUST happen HERE, logic be damned!”
A should lead to B, which leads to C, and so on, but then you also find out that not only did A lead to B, but it also resulted in H.
Second: why is this happening now?
This applies more to the primary storyline. Things are taking place, but I never really got a sense of how or why it all started. A lot happens after whatever event triggered it all, but there’s no indication of exactly what that trigger was. When I asked the writer about it, even they admitted they didn’t know and were having trouble trying to come up with something.
A writer needs to know every part of their story; what things were like before it started, how it started, what happens, and how it ends. Sometimes you can even throw in what happens next. No matter what approach you take, all of these elements play a key role in the telling of that story. If one of those elements isn’t there, it just gums up the whole works and you’re left with an incomplete story.
The writer was very appreciative of my comments and was looking forward to finishing the latest draft in order to provide answers to the questions I’d raised. It’s probably safe to say we’re both quite interested to see how it all turns out (although I suspect I come in a close second).
Let’s pause now for your humble blogger-in-residence to proudly proclaim that Act One of the first draft of the pulpy adventure spec is complete.
But you know what that also means.
Yep. Time to buckle down even more, strap myself in, and jump feet-first into the intimidating arena commonly known as Act Two.
I’ll also admit it’s a little thrilling, too. There was a particular charge in working out the action sequences and story set-ups in Act One, so I’ve a strong suspicion the continuing build-ups for the former and the gradual development of the latter will be equally, if not more so, fun to write.
(and believe me when I say this is the kind of story that automatically requires a sense of fun)
Maybe it’s from continuously trying to improve as I go, but working on Act Two doesn’t seem as intimidating as it used to. Not to say that it comes easily; just slightly less insurmountable. I spent a lot of time on the outline, so confidence in that is pretty solid.
I read a lot about how a spec script might have a phenomenal Act One, but then things fall apart in Act Two for a myriad of possible reasons: the characters don’t do much/nothing really happens, or the overall story’s too thin, so a lot of Act Two is empty filler, and so on.
The only writing process I know is my own, and I always strive to make sure the story feels…complete? Full? It comes down to “I know what has to happen to tell this story,”, and while the first act is all about setting it all up, the second act is about fleshing everything out.
We get a closer look at the characters and how they’re progressing through the events of the story. We can see how they’re changing from when they were first introduced. Plot threads of all sizes get further developed. The central question is continuously asked (oh-so-subtly, of course).
It also involves steadily-mounting complications for your protagonist. They’ve got a goal, and it’s our job to throw all kinds of obstacles in their way that just keep making it harder for them to reach it. Again, a lot of it happens during our second act.
Act Two really is where the meat of the story takes place, so stuff needs to happen that not only holds our interest, but makes us want/need to know what happens next, and even that better be that much more intriguing.
As you’d expect, our work is cut out for us.
So off I go. Dispatches from this formidable excursion as they develop.
Writers put onto paper how they visualize the events of the story.
Your get an idea of how you want things to look, maybe even a picture-perfect image, so you put those details onto the page, which is fine.
But sometimes the writer feels the need to include as much detail as they can. “To really paint a picture with words,” they might say. But it’s easy to get carried away. Some writers see this as a golden opportunity to really flex their literary muscles, so they go all out.
A big write-up about the contents of a room. Or identifying specifics about the clothing a character is wearing. That sort of thing.
While that kind of colorful minutiae might work in a novel, many see it as a negative when it comes to screenplays (opinions may vary, but this appears to be the general consensus).
There’s only one reason the writing should be that specific: if the item in question plays a part in the story. Is it vitally important that we notice it? If the answer is “no”, then all it’s doing is taking up valuable real estate on the page.
When the writer makes a point of identifying a particular item, then we should expect it to make a return appearance later on. Set up, pay off, remember? It’s better to have a reader think “Aha! So that’s what that was for,” rather than “Huh? What was that for?” or “Why was that in there?”
By drawing our attention towards something that is more of an issue for the set designer or wardrobe department, it slows down the story’s momentum and makes for some unsatisfying reading.
Tell us the things we need to know, rather than the things you think would be nice to know.
After some thorough self-imposed analysis, the revising of the comedy spec is underway. It’s getting easier to spot trouble spots.
There’s one scene in particular that’s giving me some trouble. It’s a pivotal scene involving the main character and offers a revealing glimpse into his backstory. The problem was in figuring out how to best do that.
After much drumming of fingers, rubbing of chin, and a whole lot of attempts, a potential solution may have presented itself. It’s still in the development phase, but for now, quite workable.
One of the first things I learned about screenwriting was what each scene needs to accomplish: advance the plot, the character, and the theme.
Regarding plot, does the scene move things forward? Does it fall neatly into place in terms of how the overall sequence of events plays out? If you took it out, would it totally mess things up?
I’ve read a lot of scripts where something happens and I don’t know why. Maybe it’ll pay off later? Sometimes it does. Other times, well…
Another handy tip when it comes to advancing the plot in a scene: do it quickly. Get to the point of the scene as fast as you can, then get out. Don’t wait around. Just get out now. Too many times I’ve seen a scene drag on much, much longer than it needs to.
Regarding character, does each scene show them changing a little bit more from when they were first introduced? This doesn’t just apply to the main character. Every character needs to grow/develop. Wouldn’t it be kind of boring to read a story where nobody changes?
And tying it into the advancement of plot, every situation the character experiences should help move their own development along.
Which brings us to theme. The message of your story. This can be a little tricky.
Each scene should tie into the theme, or have it on display in some manner. I recently worked with a writer having trouble tying everything together. We discussed the story and the main character’s internal and external goals. What was the message they wanted to convey? Based on those discussions, we were able to come up with a theme that worked for both the story and as it applied to all of the characters.
One of my favorite examples of a theme in use is BACK TO THE FUTURE. Early on, Marty says “History’s going to change.” And boy, does it. We get a ton of set-up in the first act, and then everything does indeed change in the second act as all of those setups are paid off. Amazing.
Take a look at your latest draft. Does each scene advance the topics in question? If not, do you have a way to fix that so it does? The more you get in the habit of doing this, the easier it’ll get and the faster it’ll become second nature to do it all the time.