Tuesday, March 21, 2017

How to protect your artistic vision...

As you face the challenge of writing your first draft there is one cardinal rule you should always keep in mind.  It's actually one of the simplest rules to follow, but often one of the hardest to put into practice.  It has to do with the writer's urge to share his or her work, to communicate to others what you are creating on the page.

In a nutshell, the rule is to resist the powerful temptation to invite other people to take a look at your first draft pages and show them the progress you're making--to get reinforcement, encouragement, and positive response in order to garner the emotional fuel you need to continue the often arduous task of trudging through the writing of that initial draft.

As you work through that first scripting of your story from beginning to end it's absolutely essential that you fight against this urge to share your pages as they're being produced because doing so is the one sure-fire way to lose control of your own artistic voice and vision, at least how it relates to the tale you're struggling to tell.
Without fail, friends and trusted colleagues are always eager to step forward to take a look as your pages materialize.  They like you, they want to help you, to encourage you, to give you positive feedback, to make you feel good about all that effort you're putting into your project.  And along the way, they love to point out what they really liked, what surprised them, where it took them as your story progressed, what it reminded them of as they consumed your pages--all in an effort to make you feel wonderful about yourself as a writer and storyteller.

The problem is, if you do succumb to this temptation to share your work while it's being given birth in your first draft, you destroy entirely your own private artistic experience with your material.  It is, instead, forever contaminated with the well-meaning input of those friends who talked you into letting them see your pages when you were in a moment of weakness and fear that what you were producing was terrible.  You won't be able to get their feedback out of your head.  Their attempts to encourage you, to bolster your attitude towards what's on those early pages, to "help" you write something you can be completely proud of are all well-meaning efforts and are delivered with love.  After all, these folks are your friends and want nothing more than for you to have amazing success as a writer.

What they don't understand is that the last thing you need as you struggle through your first draft is their input.  This is your story and your telling of it.  You deserve to have it stay a private and locked experience between you and the characters who populate your tale as long as possible and certainly through the writing of a completed draft and a first rewrite.  There comes a time soon enough that others can level their thoughts on what you've created, but you owe it to yourself to keep it to yourself at least through that first pass and until after you've had a chance to privately take a look at what you've come up with.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency just ended, running from January 6-15, and we are currently accepting applications for starting the program with our June 2017 residency running from June 23-July 2.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.

You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting

 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

At the first draft starting gate: the takeoff

There are two ways you can position yourself to begin the actual writing of your first draft.


One is to review all your pre-draft exploratory work one more time--any character work, backstory timelines, plot outlining and anything else you've explored regarding your developing story--and then, leaving all this material handy for reference, simply plunge in with page one and see where it leads knowing you can refer to any or all of this developmental material at any time.

The other approach is to put all your prep work away and don't review it at all, the theory being that you've done the pre-draft work and thinking, so it's up there in your head somewhere for guidance if and when you get stuck in the actual writing of your draft.  The thinking here is that this allows your characters more freedom to do and say what they want in the moment and reduces the temptation to force them into a predetermined mold.

Of course, there's not one best way to get started.  You simply have to discover a procedure that you feel comfortable with, that puts you at ease.  If all your prep work makes you nervous, get it off the table and file it away.  If it gives you a sense of security at the starting gate, keep it there in front of you.  Just always remember that first drafts often have a way of taking on a life of their own fairly quickly and you should give yourself permission to explore where your characters might take you regardless of any predetermined route you've worked out for them.

Ultimately, no one but you really cares how you get started with the actual writing of your script. People are only interested in how good the finished product is.  As the late, great playwright Romulus Linney told me about getting started with his first drafts:  "I have mulled it over and thought about it this way and that way, and there is always a moment when you say, 'Okay, for better or worse, here we go.'"

                                 *                    *                   *                   *

I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency just ended, running from January 6-15, and we are currently accepting applications for starting the program with our June 2017 residency running from June 23-July 2.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.

You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting







Tuesday, March 7, 2017

At the first draft starting gate: the ripple effect

I've always appreciated the phrase "ripple effect" because it nicely describes what occurs when you plunge into the writing of your first draft.  It implies that discoveries continue to be made as the starting gate is finally lifted and you begin the actual writing regardless of how much pre-draft exploratory work you've done.  And this is as it should be.


Because of this, however, in almost all cases, it's wiser to write that first draft in order from beginning to end so that the new stuff you are sure to uncover--subtle quirks of character, a surprise aspect of a relationship between characters, a slightly different voice that emerges in those early pages than you expected--are incorporated in the ongoing narrative as it unfolds.  These discoveries cause ripples that extend outward and throughout the telling of your story, some large, some small, but all critical in terms of how your actual draft develops from start to finish.

I'm not saying that early exploratory writing--actual dialogue scenes with your characters--shouldn't be attempted and played with prior to starting your draft.  But the purpose they serve is to hear and capture the voices of your people and aspects of their personalities, attitudes, relationships, etc.  So my advice is to have these scenes be from episodes outside of the script itself--backstory events that will give your characters a chance to express themselves and reveal to you more about their quirks and special personality traits.

One of my favorite examples about the experience of writing a scene prematurely and out of order was offered by Edward Albee in my interview with him at the Dramatists Guild many years ago, as he explained what happened as he was writing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

I was writing the first act...and got an idea for a scene for the third act...which I wrote down.  It was about seven pages, and I thought it was pretty good.  Then I went back and finished the first act, wrote the second act, and got into the third act and remembered I'd written these seven pages for the third act.  I found them and read them, and I still thought they were pretty good.  And I tried to put them in the play, but I discovered that the characters wouldn't say them.  They no longer fit into the play because I'd written them too soon... They were perfectly valid.  It was good dialogue... but I clearly didn't want the characters to say them anymore because I'd written them too damn soon.

Lucky for all of us, Albee had the discipline and instincts to reject these seven pages--something that's often not easy to do.  The point being that it's almost always safer and more productive to start your first draft at the beginning and push your way through in order, one scene at a time.  And let the ripples come as they may.

                                 *                    *                   *                   *

I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency just ended, running from January 6-15, and we are currently accepting applications for starting the program with our June 2017 residency running from June 23-July 2.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.

You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting








 

 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

At the first draft starting gate: the spontaneity factor

If you've faithfully done your due diligence with your pre-draft exploratory work on character backstories, discovering their voices, and working out an initial plot outline for your whole story, there comes a point when you find yourself as prepared as you'll ever be to make the initial plunge into draft.

When that's where you find yourself in the process, there are a number of things to keep in mind as you face page one.  And one of the most important is what I call "the spontaneity factor."


The benefit of having done thorough pre-draft work, including a rather detailed plot outline or treatment of your story, is that you have gotten to know your traveling companions quite well and you'll be departing with them on your journey with a road map beside you that guarantees a route to the final destination.  And this gives you the freedom--the permission--to let your characters talk you into getting off the pre-planned route and explore any number of side roads that may materialize.

There's no law that says you have to adhere to the route you've charted out.  If and when your characters prompt a change in your course, let them have their way.  Welcome the unexpected and explore every impulse.  You want things to happen that are total surprises.  Your people may do things that will shock you.  And you should always be encouraged when they seemingly take over, leading the story in a new direction.  This shows that they have life and vitality in the world you've placed them in.

The beauty is that your road map is still there on the seat beside you when and if you do get lost.  It's   still available when your traveling companions agree with you that it's time to push on toward your final destination.  It'll help show you how to get your party back to the main road or figure out an alternate route that will still get the group where it eventually needs to go.  The point is that writing the first draft should be an adventure and spontaneity is a key factor in allowing it to come fully to life.

                                 *                    *                   *                   *

I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency just ended, running from January 6-15, and we are currently accepting applications for starting the program with our June 2017 residency running from June 23-July 2.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.

You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting



Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How to avoid a script collapse...

When working with writers, I find myself saying countless times that the actual writing of a script begins long before you reach page one.  And that it's critical to convince yourself that all your pre-draft exploratory work--initial testing your story idea, character backstory development, and plot invention and outlining--is all part of the writing process of creating a solid draft that will have legs.

I like to use the analogy of the process of building a house because it so nicely illustrates this point.
The builder begins by securing the land and selecting the site for the house.  Then stakes are put in the ground where the house will stand.  Then the hole is dug for the basement or footings, concrete forms are put in place and the cement truck arrives to pour the foundation.  Then on top of the foundation framers construct the floor girders and erect the studs forming the walls and rafters and sheath the whole structure in plywood.  Window and door openings are cut in and installed, shingles put on, siding is added to the outside walls, everything gets painted or stained, etc. etc.  Then the interior is finished off--wiring, plumbing, drywall, floors, more painting, the landscaping, etc.  And finally you're looking at a completed house ready to be lived in.

But what happens if you skip or short change any of the early steps in the construction process? What if the framers, for example, cheated and put the studs and rafters 30 inches apart instead of the necessary 16 inches?  Or the concrete mixture was short on concrete and overloaded with sand or the holes for the footings were not dug below the frost line?  The house might still look beautiful when first completed (with all those shortcuts and mistakes hidden from view), but it won't stand a chance of surviving the harsh realities of time and weather.  And then you're left with something like this:


Or this:


And my contention is that this happens way too often with scripts when the entire building process is not respected and writers are in way too big a hurry to get that completed "house" up and running.

                                  *                    *                   *                   *

I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency just ended, running from January 6-15, and we are currently accepting applications for starting the program with our June 2017 residency running from June 23-July 2.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting



Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Your Act 3 determines your Act 1...

One of the danger areas I've come across with the writers I work with is the understandable urge to get into draft as quickly as possible.  As storytellers this is a natural inclination--"let's get on with it already; enough backstory prep work and plot outlining; I want to start turning out pages."

Unfortunately what often happens when this urge is embraced is that an extraordinary amount of time is spent working and reworking Act 1 without having a clear and consistent focus on the overall structure of the story being told.  And what happens is that there is not the full awareness of what needs to be established in Act 1 that must later pay off in Act 2 and especially in Act 3. In other words, what I often see happening is that the entire story is not kept front and center as the writer immerses him/herself in those opening 25-30 pages, getting lost in trying to perfect the beginning of a script while losing sight of the whole.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Developing organic story structure...

As you're working on developing a new story idea it's fun to get totally consumed in your research and pre-draft character backstory work.  This is as it should be of course.  You find yourself accumulating a mountain of information that you think somehow, one way or another, could be directly or indirectly related to the story you want to end up telling in your finished script.  For many writers this is one of the most enjoyable phases of creating a new work.  And the amount of material gathered can often be extensive.

However, if you work this way (and I hope you do if your endgame is to write a script that pops off the page with characters that have a genuine life of their own operating in a world that has depth and rings authentic) then here's a little tip that will help you process all that pre-draft work and have it pay generous dividends.

Simply put, from the very early stages of developing your idea, begin setting out your plot structure for your story--as simple and basic as it might be at first--and periodically go back to it as you explore your characters backstories, their voices, and research the world your story is set in.