Posts Tagged With: grief

Emotions first

 

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I have a nasty tendency when I’m plotting out a script to get too focused on the events. I work out what the beginning and end scenes are and then split the story into quarters, give each quarter a rough title and then start fleshing each quarter out with scenes.

The problem with this approach is it can sometimes leave me with cool sequences I’m very attached to which look great … but don’t really service the character’s journey. Because that’s what a film is: the protagonist’s journey, following along as they learn their most important, life changing lesson.

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No matter how big or blockbuster-y the film is, I want that emotional core. I want it to the story of one person learning and changing and growing (or dying and failing, that works too) … and I want that journey to be integral to the story. I don’t want the story to happen and then the character to suddenly change at the last moment or to change independently of the events. I want the events to alter her worldview, to shape and change how she feels until she’s forced to make a difficult transition which is the only way to meet the challenges of the film.

I don’t care if it’s a superhero film or a small-scale drama. Whatever the story-flesh is, I want it wrapped around a solid emotional-skeleton.

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The problem is, when I start with the flesh I end up with too many arms or not enough legs or a weird lumpy bit in the middle of the stomach which is soooooo cool … but has nothing to do with the main character’s turmoil at all.

So maybe, just maybe, the answer is to start with the emotions first?

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Maybe the way forward is to write down who she is at the beginning, who she has to be at the end and then divide the film up into segments which represent the emotional steps on that journey?

Maybe if I give each step a relevant name, let’s say I’m using the five stages of grief or something, then I know the sequences need to represent denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance*.

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Only when I know what the steps have to mean should I then work out what they actually are. I can construct the physical events of the story around those steps. So it’s not “She has to get the key to unlock the thing!” but “She needs to realise not all people are untrustworthy” and then figure out which bit of action best represents it. That way the emotional change is smooth, it happens gradually and every scene adds to the whole. Every scene can still be funny or cool or thrilling or whatever … but they have meaning, they contribute to the film instead of being diversions.

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Films tend to get written the other way round. Certainly whenever I get a rewrite job it’s usually because the original writer didn’t have (or couldn’t convey) a clear emotional journey, resulting in a script which has good bits in it … but none of those bits add up to anything satisfying. It’s really, really hard grafting an emotional skeleton on afterwards because, obviously, skeletons are meant to be on the inside, baked into the core of the story.

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It also means there’ll inevitably be that conversation with the client where they have a specific scene they’re in love with which has nothing to do with the story they’re trying to tell but looks sooooooo cool. Trying to persuade people they don’t need the thing they love most is never easy, but often the best options are cut it or tell a different story, one where that scene makes sense.

This is often most clear in action films, in the difference between a good action film where every fight scene and set piece changes the protagonist in some way and a bad one where shit just blows up for no reason.

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On the other hand, we all have favourite films where nothing makes any sense and the fact it’s just shit blowing up for no reason is what makes the film so great. So perhaps this emotion-first approach isn’t always needed?

Or maybe those films we love would be even better if there was some point to them?

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Maybe they’re good not because of the script (blasphemy – everything comes from the script!) but despite the script? Maybe it’s a mediocre script which has been acted, directed, edited, lit, dressed and scored well?

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I don’t know. I just know that for me starting with the emotional journey makes the script a lot less painful to write than starting with the physical one.


* You may be of the opinion that these five stages are bullshit. I may be of the opinion you’re right, I may not. Doesn’t matter.

Categories: My Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Time to grieve

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This is a post for producers and directors, or any note-givers really. It’s about how writers receive notes.

Or maybe it isn’t? Maybe it’s just about how I receive notes? After all, I don’t speak for all writers everywhere.

Receiving notes is tricky because of two key factors:

1: Most writers suffer from impostor syndrome.

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Most of us fear we’re terrible at this whole writing lark and no matter how many people keep paying us to write and claiming to be happy with the results, sooner or later everyone’s going to work out we can’t do it and no one will ever work with us again. Lots of people in lots of occupations suffer from this sort of thing, it’s incredibly common as well as being incredibly silly. Every time I receive notes I assume there will only be one: YOU’RE SHIT, GET OUT.

Luckily, this rarely happens to me. You’d think, looking at some of the terrible films which have been produced from my scripts that it would happen more often … but it doesn’t because either those films bear little resemblance to the scripts they were loosely based on, or they are exactly what I was asked and paid to write. In all but two occasions* I can recall, the producer or director (or both) has ended the rewrite process happy.

The second reason for receiving notes badly is probably more important:

2: Writers hate writing and are incredibly lazy.

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Every note comes with a calculation attached – how much of what I’ve done am I going to have to destroy in order to action that note? How long is this going to take me and will the end result actually make the script better? Or just different?

  • Changing names or locations – easy. Two minutes and I can get back  to Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes.
  • Swapping genders – might be easy, might be tricky. Depends on whether we’re swapping all the genders or just some and how homophobic the producer  is. Could be five minutes, could be five days.
  • Changing the ending/the beginning – arghh! That might be simple, or it might be moving the point of the pyramid two feet to the left. That involves thinking through the entire script from the beginning to see if everything still lines up. Especially if the new ending involves the protagonist having a new motivation/goal which could mean rewriting every single scene from beginning to end. That might make draft two take longer than draft one! How will I fit in my afternoon naps?

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Ultimately I want the script to be better and will put in whatever work it takes to make it the best it can be … but it can be really upsetting to get one of those notes, even if it will fundamentally benefit the script in an amazing way. Some note-givers like to deliver notes via phone or face to face … which I hate. These notes are like stun-grenades which shut down my ability to do anything while I frantically try to calculate how much work it will take versus how much better the script will be afterwards.

Which is why I prefer to have notes delivered via email first – it gives me time to grieve.

Time to grieve over the loss of my favourite idea, the one I spent weeks working on which you’ve dismissed in one vague sentence, as well as time to grieve over the days I’ve just lost in the coming week or two.

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After grief comes acceptance and calculation – is this better or not? Am I being resistant because it’s not my idea or because I’m lazy? What’s best for the script? That is the bottom line – will it improve the script?

If I get that idea in an email I have time to follow the proper foot-stamping, swearing, calm down and get on with it procedure.

If I get that idea face to face or  over the phone … I’m going to go quiet for a bit. That bit might be a few seconds or it might be a few hours. Depends how long it takes me to scream inside my head and then process all the ramifications for every single event in the script.

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The point of this post is just to warn you, the note-giver, that it’s fine to give notes by phone or in person if that’s what you prefer. You just need to understand that when I go quiet or gibber a little, it’s not because I hate the idea. It’s because I need time to grieve before I can add anything to the discussion. That’s why I prefer an email with a follow up phone call after I’ve had time to think, but hey, it’s your money and you can have it anyway you want it.

 


* One of those was because the producer told me the rough, not-even-first draft was a work of genius and, foolishly, I believed it must be exactly what he wanted. The director pointed out it was shit and the producer immediately agreed with him so as not to look like a moron. The other was when I gave the director exactly what he asked for … which was a mistake because he didn’t actually understand that what he’d asked for was an extra 90 pages added to the script. Even after I told him. Twice.

Categories: My Way, Writing and life | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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