I’ve discovered recently that I’m a needy writer and I’m working hard not to be.
Not needy in an emotional sense or a whiny, weepy, please love me, I need your approval sense …
Although I am that as well. Come on, we all are. Deep down?
No? Just me?
Not like that anyway, more in the sense of thinking in terms of what the script/story/characters need.
Several times recently on a couple of projects I’ve been deep in discussion with the director or my co-writer about a script which isn’t quite working and saying something like:
“What we need is a scene which shows the character loves gerbils and is a homicidal maniac who’s afraid of cheese.”
To which everyone agrees … but how do we show both in the same scene?
What can we do to visually show both of these things in a single page or image? I mean, after the script needs it.
Or does it?
What happens if we take that bit out? What happens if we change it? What if we make the character love cheese and get all stabby over gerbils? What if we make the character something completely different?
How much of what we think we need do we actually need?
In both cases, the answer was the same – we don’t need that. Not at all. In fact, if we do the complete opposite then the story actually works and is completely satisfying as opposed to merely kind of okay.
The script I’ve just finished, to get specific without giving any of the plot away, is about risk and the taking thereof. We needed the protagonist to be risk-averse and to be forced into taking a huge risk in order to win through at the end.
We needed that. The script needed that. The story hinged on it. It had to happen.
The only problem is, it was making the protagonist incredibly boring. It’s quite hard (within the confines of the pre-existing story) to make this particular protagonist interesting and fun and likeable (or empathetic or loveable … or whatever you want to call it) and still be risk-averse.
I mean, how do you show that someone’s risk-averse?
You show them not doing dangerous things. You know, fun things like not skydiving or not being spontaneous or not gambling their career on a promotion or not … well, anything. And in order to show someone isn’t doing something, you have to have her standing next to people who are doing things. You have to see her next to someone (or someones) who do throw themselves out of a plane or off a building or running across a busy road while she waits behind looking scared and/or disapproving.
One of the quickest ways to build empathy with a character is to show them being good at something. Or compassionate about something. But if all you’re doing is showing them not doing it, then they’re just not interesting.
Okay, so there are ways around this but we found ourselves building in an incredibly detailed backstory to explain why she’s like this so the audience are on her side. She’s risk-averse because her mother was a compulsive gambler who lost the family home and was forced to work as a drug mule, taking the young protagonist along for cover who then witnessed first hand what happens when you are indebted to the mob and/or get busted for … blah, blah, blah.
An extra fifteen pages later and the script is waaaaay too long.
And the protagonist is still dull. Justifiably so – we understand why she’s dull and know this is the story of how she learns to stop being dull … but still, dull is dull.
But this is what the script needs, it’s about risk. Stories work best when the character has a thematically ironic problem to overcome. The theme is risk. The irony is she doesn’t take any.
That’s what the script needs.
Or does it?
What if we put that idea aside (because it’s terrible) and look at it from the other direction?
What if, instead of being risk-phobic, she’s a riskophile?
What if she’s the one throwing herself out of a plane while someone boring looks on disapprovingly? What if she’s a fuck-load of fun?
Well, for one thing it makes the story much more enjoyable.
She takes too many risks, learns about consequences and then, when she’s begining to fear taking risks, has to take the biggest one of her life.
Suddenly the script is far, far better.
Why do people take risks? Why aren’t they afraid of the consequences? Why doesn’t she care enough about herself to rein it in?
Suddenly the script is wide open … without actually changing any of the pre-existing story points.
But what about the antagonist? He was the one taking the risks she was afraid of, now he’s pretty much the same as her. If we change him, we change the whole story … which we can’t do.
Okay, fine. So let’s make him the worst version of her to show her how dangerous her present course of action is. He is what she will become if she doesn’t begin to comprehend consequences …
And so on.
Forgetting about what we thought the script needed allowed us to find something the script actually needed. It allowed us to find a way to make it actually work.
So that’s my plan from now on – every time I find myself with a fixed idea about what the script needs but not what that thing might be, I’m just going to set that aside and try to imagine what the opposite might be.
And the end of the day, the previous option is still there. Thinking outside of what I believe the script needs might not provide the results, but it doesn’t hurt either. It’s a technique which is serving me well at the moment so, you know, it might be worth a try?