29 March 2008 - 15:53Taking it to the Protagonist

Jane Espenson has a post up about keeping the attention on the protagonist in a spec pilot. (A friend had got some notes telling her to focus on the protag on each ad break.) She has good advice, but it inspired me to riff a little further on the subject of disparate elements of your story.

She points out that, even though it is good to keep the story on your protagonist, if you want to break for commercial on a revealation that your protag doesn’t know about, that’s okay. It works for the story and the drama. (And if the revealation is something that brings the protag to mind, he’s still the subject of the moment.)

My immediate thought was that if your producer really wanted the protagonist’s face as the last sight before every ad break, you could still make it work for you. So the cliffhanger scene is the Hero’s best friend betraying him to the Villain. Cut to the Hero walking his dog in the park, whistling. Maybe telling someone that things are going so great. (Of course, you could also do the opposite. Hero tells someone about how his Best Friend is going to save his bacon, and then we cut to the friend betraying him.)

That sort of thing can become artificial if pushed too far, but pushed even further, it can also be stylish.

I’m working on stylish right now in the work-in-progress. It’s an action thriller, and has multiple threads. I’ve decided to push in extra connections into transitions from one plotline to the other. For instance, at the end of a scene where the heroine and her boyfriend discuss matters while driving along the road, an ambulance passes them. They have no connection yet with what is going on in the ambulance, but it acts as the transition when we cut from them to the scene in the hospital where the other plotline continues.

In another scene I try to do something more elaborate — have one of the kidnappers drive by the heroine’s father , who is a State Trooper, just as as he gets an alert on a vague description of the kidnapper’s car. The description is so vague that every car in the parking lot fits it. He makes a sarcastic comment and exits to chase speeders, while the story shifts from him to the kidnapper. This one pushes the coincidence factor, but if you weave it properly, there is a point when coincidence becomes irony. And irony is a part of style. Especially when you are working in a heightened reality genre, like action or comedy.

One of the reasons I think that scene will work is because it just happened to grow organically from the existing story. The State Trooper hangs out in a speed trap on a freeway. It’s a part of the badguy’s plan to make a call from a rest stop. Both elements were already in the story. It was just natural to cross them.

(It also was a good way to make the father more of a character in the story. At first he was just a background character, but after this scene, I realized I should replace any anonymous cop at the end with him. And then I realized he could play a bigger part, and still keep the budget down by more efficient use of cast….)

The key is not to force connections into the story, but to be alert to what the natural connections are. Sometimes it’s a matter of ideas. If you notice a touch of dialog among the badguys happens to hook up with something the good guys will do at some point. Look at it. Might it be a good place to cut from one scene to the other?

Of course, there is a danger of cliches, and of being too ironic or too subtle, or just throwing off the tone of the rest of the story. But the only way to learn to do it right is to practice it. That’s what I’m doing.

No Comments | Tags: Craft

21 March 2008 - 19:28The Pancake God (or what to write first)

Listening to a podcast the other day. (On The Page — a good talk show style screenwriting show, available on iTunes.) A listener wrote in to ask an important question. He has a passion project that he’d like to write, but he’s a complete beginner and doesn’t want to screw it up. He seemed intimidated by it. He asked if he should maybe write something else to learn his craft first.

I was surprised when the hosts of the show said, “NO! Write the passion project.” Which is not bad advice. What surprised me was their reasons: a beginner shouldn’t waste time trying to write something more commercial because it will be out of date by the time it is done anyway. I realized they were making an “insider leap”. Instead of listening to the question, they imagined their own most common reason to put aside a passion project - that’s when your agent tells you to write something easier to sell.

But this guy didn’t ask about easier to sell. He asked about whether he should do something easier to WRITE. And by golly, there are kinds of stories that are easier to write. Unfortunately, those kinds of stories are are most certainly not easier to sell, which could be why the hosts didn’t think of it. Pretty much everything easy has already been done. (Which is a clue to what it is….)

Write a cliché.

Go ahead. Don’t be scared. Sit down and figure out what formula-type story is your worst guilty pleasure, and write one of those. Just pure trash, but something that’s fun. It can be a cheezy romance, or a bloody horror, or a 1940s tough guy adventure. Go ahead and write something that no one in their right mind would produce today.

My first novel was a swashbuckler. My first screenplay was a western. (And not one of your gritty realistic nouvelle westerns either. Straight old-fashioned Gunsmoke type.) I learned a heck of a lot writing both of them. And here’s the kicker — even though neither of them have been published or produced, they have both got much more attention than a first work ever should have got. (The western got me a “just missed the quarters” note in the Nicholl a couple of years ago.)

Why? Because they were fun. By not bogging myself down in difficult writing chores, I could concentrate on figuring out what was appealing about the genres and the ideas involved, and I could work on THAT.

Nobody’s first script is going to be great. It’s always awkward and misconceived, and really hard to fix. It’s like making pancakes. The first one is misshapen, and the pan was either too cold or two hot. We always called those the “sacrifice to the pancake god” and tossed it to the dog. (The dog, Molly, was high priestess to the pancake god.)

So, while you certainly can work on your passion project while you are learning your craft, it is perfectly reasonable to do a project or two as sacrifices to the pancake god.

No Comments | Tags: Craft, podcasts, productivity