Wednesday, August 31, 2016

How to avoid getting lost in your first draft...

I'm so often struck by the number of playwrights and screenwriters who attempt to "discover" their stories by starting with page one and just forcing it out by trial and error--riding on a hunch and a prayer that somehow they will find their story in the writing of actual pages of script.  Usually lots and lots of pages, hundreds in fact.  They are often very good writers with loads of talent and believe this is the only way they can work.

Frankly, this never ceases to baffle me.

I once asked a famous and established playwright how many pages using this approach he actually writes on average and he held up the palm of his hand about six inches above the top of the table we were sitting at and said "about this many," meaning at least two reams of paper or around a thousand or more pages.

My apologies to all of you out there who work this way, but it seems to me it's the equivalent of consciously taking a hundred mile trip to ultimately arrive at a destination a block away from where you started.

Of course for some writers, this works fine.  I can't ignore that fact.  Great scripts eventually emerge from the mountain of pages produced.  However, to my mind there is a much more productive and faster way to create rich and successful scripts.  It starts with developing a process that includes extensive pre-draft exploratory work on your principle characters that then leads the way to inventing the basic building blocks of your story's dramatic structure--all before you attack page one.

In other words, a systematic writing process that views your story as an iceberg...

...and first takes a serious look at the nine-tenths of your emerging tale that will forever lie under the   surface and explores it thoroughly--putting under the microscope the milestone events that have shaped your characters lives and their attitude towards those past events, especially the personal episodes that relate in some way to the central dramatic dilemma you're dealing with.

This is what makes for rich and engaging storytelling.   And it can most successfully be achieved by exploring this subtext before plunging into actual draft.  Directly or indirectly, it's all part of your story and in working this way you are, in a very real sense, already in the process of writing your script.

As a result, when you've done this kind of pre-draft exploration, the actual writing of the script itself--the one-tenth of your tale that is above the surface--will be written with authority and sense of purpose.  And lo and behold, the characters that walk into your story will take over and on the best days start writing your script for you.  And the added bonus is that with a little luck and help from the muses, you'll soon have in your hands a viable and sturdy first draft of manageable length that's been written in a fraction of the time.

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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 ran July 21-31, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program with our January 2017 residency that runs January 6-15.  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.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Welcome to the script factory...

Last month in Peterborough, New Hampshire there was a ten-day explosion of creative storytelling as 13 full-length scripts--plays, screenplays,and tv pilots--were lifted off the page for the first time.

Writers from all over the US and Canada gathered in this culturally alive village in the heart of New England to celebrate their art with professional actors, directors, designers, producers, and public audiences--everyone involved and focused on the new work being presented.  It was a high energy and exhilarating time for all participants and everyone left the gathering recharged and recommitted to our shared collaborative art form and the scripts that ignite it all.



What I'm referring to, of course, is the latest residency experience of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen program run out of the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  The program boasts a faculty of established professional writers and other visiting theatre and film professionals who teach classes and workshops and who mentor our students throughout the two-year course of study.  And at the heart of the program are the new scripts being written by every student--at least four full-length works while in the program--all of which are read and critiqued at each of the five residencies the students participate in.

Our program is nationally unique in its commitment to having every student create a substantial beginning body of work that serves as a launching pad for his or her script writing career.  Every effort is made to refine the craft and skill of our student writers and to realistically prepare them for the rigors of entering the professional writer's arena in the various mediums.  This is our trademark and our promise to every student, and our growing list of alumni and their successes lends credence to that commitment.



If you're looking for a place to learn and grow as a script writer in a safe and supportive, yet challenging environment, I suggest you check out our program.  The added bonus is that when you complete the program, you not only are prepared to begin your professional writing career, but you also walk away with that terminal degree under your arm.

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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 ran July 21-31, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program with our January 2017 residency that runs January 6-15.  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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Unlocking your screenplay...

Yesterday I was talking with a colleague of mine, a successful screenwriter, who was dumbfounded by the number of student writers she has recently worked with who didn't understand the importance of breaking down characters' actions into small pieces.  That it is in small, seemingly insignificant actions that a story is allowed to come fully to life and tremendous truths are revealed.

I was reminded again of Stanislavski in An Actor Prepares as his acting teacher Tortsov says to his students in Chapter 8 (see my first post on this book from a couple of weeks back):

"Since it is impossible to take control of the whole at once, we must break it up and absorb each piece separately...When you cannot believe in the larger action you must reduce it to smaller and smaller proportions until you can believe it."



What I find interesting is that what Stanislavski is telling his student actors could just as easily be told to writers learning their craft.  In fact, so much of what he says pertains directly to the writing process.  And, of course, that makes perfect sense seeing the material the actor works with is generated by us, the writers.

He goes on:

"Perhaps you do not even yet realize that from believing in the truth of one small action an actor can come to feel himself in his part and to have faith in the reality of the whole play."

Just substitute the word "writer" for "actor" and you have a basic truth in the writing process:  that action is the central driving force of any screenplay (or play for that matter) and that often it's the small, specific actions that hold the keys to good storytelling and the creation of a script that lifts off the page.

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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 ran January 3-11, 2016 and we are still considering applications for starting the program with our July 2016 residency that runs July 21-31.  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 Playwrights Process.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

MFA scriptwriting program spreading its wings...

A few weeks back--March 28 to be exact--a group of theatre artists who are a part of our MFA program in Writing for Stage and Screen staged a reading at the historic Players Club in NYC.  The script was To Moscow by our faculty member Karen Sunde.  The director was Robert Lawson, also on our faculty.  The producer was Steve Ashworth from Edmonton, Canada, a recent graduate of our program.  And two of the lead actors, Lisa Bostnar and Gordan Clapp, are members of our program's acting ensemble.  To top it off, a large group of current students, faculty, and alums were in the packed audience and were a part of the talk-back session following the reading.


That's playwright Karen Sunde sitting on the stage, producer Steve Ashworth standing next to her, Gordon Clapp behind Steve, and Lisa Bostnar (in pink) with the other actors.

And here is the write up of the reading in the Greenwich Village paper Westview News.

I mention this event because it's a great example of what goes on with a writer's work once it starts to hit the development arena.  The hopes are that this project will experience a bigger life with this collected ensemble of artists.  And it also is a testament to our MFA program and our commitment to helping all of our writers get their work launched into the world and brought to life on the boards. For as we find ourselves constantly explaining, a script is a means to an end and not an end in itself.

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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 ran January 3-11, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program with our July 2016 residency that runs July 21-31.  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 Playwrights Process.
 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Stanislavski and scriptwriting...

I'm re-reading An Actor Prepares and I'm struck with the degree to which Stanislavski--the preeminent master teacher of the art of acting--is in many ways also speaking to writers at the same time.


In this classic text, he carefully illustrates how the actor, in preparing his/her work, must develop a process with an intentional progression, exploring "given circumstances" and playing with the "magic if" among other techniques in such a way as to open the doors of the imagination and tap into the treasure trove of creativity that lies hidden under the surface in the subconscious.

"...Our art teaches us first of all to create consciously and rightly because that will best prepare the way for the blossoming of the subconscious, which is inspiration."

And:

"Our subconscious power cannot function without its own engineer--our conscious technique."

And he keeps hammering home this truth as he progresses, all of his lessons famously being described in detail by his student Kostya Nazvanov.  Stanislavski, through the voice of the teacher Tortsov, also demands that the actor focus on the backstory of the character being portrayed and the necessity of bringing to life the subtext underlying the actual words, and on and on...

My point is that much of the book reads like a manual for writers as they dive into their pre-draft exploratory work on character and story, much like an actor must do in preparing for a role.

Well worth taking a look.

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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 ran January 3-11, 2016 and we are now considering applications (deadline in June 1) for starting the program with our July 2016 residency that runs July 21-31.  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 Playwrights Process.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The script for Brooklyn: a second act meltdown

My wife and I finally caught up with the film Brooklyn last weekend.  It's been in our queue and we were looking forward to screening it.  And many aspects didn't disappoint.  The performances are all first rate, the cinematography is beautiful, and the overall look and period feel reads authentic.  And, most importantly, an hour into the film we were totally swept away with the story.


The script's Act 1 is masterful in inviting us into young immigrant Eilis Lacey's journey to America--her bright spirit as well as her struggles, her fears, and her growing isolation resulting from her immense decision to cross the sea to a new life.  We fall in love with her and the life she finds herself in.  And then she meets this special and humble young man (Tony) at the end of Act 1 and suddenly everything shifts and we're further carried away into her Act 2 romance.  The film is succeeding to totally immerse us in Eilis's world, taking us inside the story, increasingly carrying us along with the tale's forward momentum, up and through Eilis and Tony's elopement. Then at the midpoint of Act 2 Eilis gets the news that her only sibling, her sister, has suddenly died back in Ireland and Eilis has no choice but to return home to comfort her widowed mother.  A key plot point that again throws us in a new direction--setting up strong jeopardy to her new found relationship.  All is well with the story up until now.  I even recall saying to my wife at this point what a beautifully constructed screenplay this is.



And then, unfortunately, everything starts to fall apart.  Once back in Ireland, our heroine meets and slowly begins to fall for another young man and suddenly we start feeling as if a narrative switch has been turned off.  The Tony love story is literally dropped from the tale and we are left increasingly bewildered, watching our Eilis step ever deeper into this new life with scarcely a thought of who and what she left behind in America.  Absent are the moments of struggle pulling her heart in two opposite directions.  Absent is any visible concern over the fact that she is married to another man.   Or an explanation as to why she won't even open Tony's many letters to her. Or why she let her secret go on so long.  Or show moments of agonizing struggle as she's pulled ever deeper into this false life. We began to wonder if she would have ever told the truth of her marriage to anyone if she hadn't been eventually caught in her lie.  And as a result we felt like the rug was pulled out from under us.

The film is actually an excellent example of how a script can go wrong in the second half of Act 2, often the trickiest part of a screenplay to get right. Basically, the problem stems from the story not staying true to its central character who has been so expertly and successfully established in Act 1 and the first half of Act 2.  As a result, in Act 3 when Eilis finally makes the decision to return to America and her Tony, the story is so derailed that it rings false and isn't really earned.  As Anthony Lane asks in his review of the film in the The New Yorker, "Why does that choice [between the two men] not feel more like a wrench?"  The reason is that we no longer know who this central character is or why she is behaving the way she does.

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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 ran January 3-11, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program with our July 2016 residency that runs July 21-31.  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 Playwrights Process.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Can the plot of your script carry the load...?

One of my favorite script clients recently sent me a first draft of a new play.  It was the first time I'd seen or even heard of this particular project.  So I read it with great anticipation.  However, before I got to the third act, I knew that the plot was on increasingly thin ice, that the story was getting top heavy and that the script's structural engineering insufficient and faculty.  To put it bluntly, the whole thing came crashing down like a house of cards.

What happened here was that this writer likes to work out his plot structure as he writes his draft and doesn't want to create the framework for his plot before plunging into the actual script.  As a result, what inevitably happens time and again is that everything--all those many, many first draft pages--have to be put aside and the structure of the story has to be developed and planned out from the ground up.

It's like building a three story building and realizing when you get up to building the third floor that the load has become so great that this final floor can't be supported by what you've built underneath--the foundation and first and second floor can't hold the third.

It might look something like this underneath the surface...


So everything has to be dismantled stick by stick (or scene by scene, page by page) until you're back to square one and you're looking at your original hole in the ground.  And you have no choice--painful as it may be--but to figure out and create viable working drawings before you can attempt reconstructing your edifice.

The problem here is that many writers work this way--plunging into draft way too soon--and most of them have a huge problem with letting go of the pages and scenes they've already written in acts one and two.  I run into this time and again.  The reality is that, to do it right and have a fighting chance to eventually write a script that works, everything in that first draft effort needs to be dismantled and put aside and the story carefully reworked and designed from the ground up.  You have to be willing to let those original pages go. And instead, the story needs to be outlined carefully--engineered in fact--so that when it's reconstructed as a script it's able to carry the full load of the story--a critical part of which is your third act that sits on top of the other two.

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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 ran January 3-11, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program with our July 2016 residency that runs July 21-31.  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 Playwrights Process.