Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Jump In

Write an outline. Write a treatment. Plan ahead. Know what you're doing.

Sound advice, especially with regards to the weighty act II (what UCLA screenwriting professor Hal Ackerman calls "the place where good films go to die"). But have you ever found yourself with:

1. A killer idea ("To save her naughty dog, Toto, selfish Dorothy runs away from home, only to be whisked away to a land where she seems unable to ever return, even if she wanted to.").

2. A killer ending ("She had the power to make it home the whole time, by employing selflessness and a nice set of ruby slippers.").

3. No idea what to put for the 60-70 pages in between?

What happens if you click your heels four times.

Such a pitch might go something like, "A young farm boy dreams of adventure, battles adversaries, and becomes the savior of the galaxy" or "A doting father, who happens to be a fish, must swim the ocean and find his abducted son."

"Battles adversaries." "Must swim the ocean." So few words to stand for so many pages! The very heart and soul of your story, the battles that change your protagonist. The best way to attack this, the meat 'n potatoes of your screenplay, is to write a careful outline and adhere to it, yes?

Well, maybe not.

Writing an outline, a treatment, a synopsis, these are good tools, and I don't mean to disparage them. I always write one up before starting a script. What I want to draw your attention to is that usually by page 30, I've already heavily modified (or jettisoned) the original outline, and the script usually hasn't suffered for it. Don't know what you're going to do next? Don't know how your character will act and react in a given set of circumstances, when pushed to the edge? Afraid of painting yourself into a corner? Terrified that you'll put your character into such a dire predicament that not even you, the writer, knows how she'll escape?

Good. Neither will your audience.

The best piece of pertinent structural advice I can give is related to something I'll paraphrase of Hal Ackerman's. He related that when starting act II, the most important thing you absolutely must know is how it's going to end. What happens on page 90? What is the absolute worst set of circumstances to which your protagonist can be exposed? How does he lose everything? Things are at their darkest, and you must know what happens. Anything else in act II can go willy-nilly, out of control, in control, adhering to your careful outline, or departing completely askew. But you must know how he'll lose it all.

I'd go a step further and say that you need to know how all three acts end. How does your protagonist initiate the journey? What's the worst possible circumstance that she can face? How does he solve his internal and external problems into a satisfying conclusion?

A good writing exercise to try is to write a short story, or script, and put your protagonist into a situation that is so dire, so bleak, so awful, that not even you can figure a way out of it. The old "Can God build a rock so big that not even God could lift it?" adage comes in very handy here. Make a rock so big, a situation so dire, that your character can't possibly escape it.

Then, lift that rock. Break that character out of it. But there are rules: this time, at least, don't use an ally. Your character has to make it out on his own. Also avoid deus ex machina. The rock cannot simply disappear. Your character must lift the rock himself. He must somehow figure out, on his own, how to escape the firing squad, the sinking ship, the front lines of battle. Some fundamental aspect of who your character needs to be is that which will free them. They can be freed only by circumventing the part of themselves that brought them into that trouble in the first place, their flaw.

Love or hate Fox's 24 (I'm in the former camp), its strength lay in such moments. "How will Jack Bauer ever make it out of this situation? It's impossible!" And yet every week, he broke out from one frying pan, only to escape into another fire that would only be resolved in next week's episode.

If you don't have everything figured out when you jump into writing your story, I think that's okay. Know what you're building towards, and if you paint yourself into a corner, make sure that your protagonist has some paint thinner handy. Don't necessarily just go and start with a new room.

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