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.

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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.


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.


I'm not suggesting that surprises shouldn't happen as you plunge into draft.  In fact, you want them to. And at times they shed enormous light on what your story is really all about.  But it's my contention that if you discipline yourself to constantly keep the whole story structure in mind as you work on your Act 1--especially what you want happening in Act 3--you're almost always way ahead in the game.  
 
Always keep in mind that Act 1 functions as the "set up" for the rest of your story--preparing the way for your tale to unfold--introducing characters (especially your central character), establishing and enhancing the central character's main want and need which in turn creates his/her dilemma or quest, triggering your inciting incident that launches the dominant story to be explored, establishing the world of the story, etc. etc.  However, none of these elements can possibly be invented successfully from a structural standpoint without knowing what the main arc of the story is and especially where that arc ultimately lands in Act 3.

All I'm saying is that as you work on your Act 1--either creating the plot outline for it or actually writing pages--always keep in mind your whole story structure and especially your overall final destination.  Otherwise, as the old saying goes, you run the risk of not being able to see the forest through the trees and some or all that initial work on your Act 1 may end up being in vain.

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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 22-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.


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.

I begin by setting out three index cards on a work table in my office (a table cleared of all other stuff) and I write Act 1 on one card, Act 2 on the second, and Act 3 on the third and set the three cards in a row.  Then under each of these cards I add other cards with a single thought or plot point written on each and place them under one of my three acts. This at first is very very tentative and basic--i.e. a possible inciting incident in Act 1, a possible mid-point in Act 2, or the big climactic or obligatory scene in Act 3--any plot points in any act that seem like they might at this early stage be a part of my developing story.  One thought or plot point per card.

This is sometimes seemingly arbitrary and nothing more than a guessing game.  But as you work at this over time, the number of cards will grow and your grasp of your overall structural shape will strengthen.  You might have as many as 50, 60, 70 cards in total before you're done, maybe more maybe less.  The number doesn't really matter.  What is important is that you can rearrange your cards, eliminate those that don't fit, and keep adding large and small plot points, transitional scenes, etc.  The beauty of working this way is the flexibility you have as your story structure begins taking shape on that table in front of you and you're steadily gaining a stronger grasp of the structural whole.

The point here is that I suggest you start this card game very early on in your development process so that as you do your research and your character exploration work you are already consistently walking through a developing story structure--a structure that informs your pre-draft work and at the same time is itself informed by your growing discoveries about your characters and their world. They feed off each other.  And the hope is that working this way, the finished plot outline you end up with has grown organically out of your pre-draft exploratory work--which is, without question, the result you want to achieve before plunging into draft.

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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 22-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.                                         

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

What makes a good dramaturg...?

In one way or another I've worked as a dramaturg or script consultant for over three decades.  I love partnering with writers on developing their stories and getting their scripts to really lift off the page. And throughout the many years I've worked in this capacity there has been one rule that I've always honored and tried to put into practice.

Simply put, I consider my primary responsibility in working with a writer is to make sure I understand what he or she is trying to accomplish with a project in terms of premise or what they hope to leave in the collective heart and mind of the audience--and then help the writer achieve that goal.  In other words, my job is always to aid the writer in arriving at the end result they envision.


To accomplish this, sometimes it takes a bit of time to get the writer to articulate what is really wanted as an end result.  Often it remains somewhat vague at first, but I tell the author that my job is to help them arrive at that final story destination in a way that underscores his or her reasons for writing the script in the first place.  So I ask:  What is the tone you're after...?  How do want the audience to feel and think about the story they've just witnessed at the final fade to black...?  What would you want an audience member to say if asked to briefly describe your story to someone who hasn't yet experienced it...?

Then, armed with these ideas, we can go to work together because at least a tentative end goal has been clarified.  Of course, it can change as discoveries are made, but it's my job as dramaturg to always be aware of that final destination being sought, even if at times it seems a bit elusive and the target shifts somewhat one way or another.

Too often I've heard horror stories in which the dramaturg or director or producer commandeer a new project and attempt to turn it into the story they would like to tell.  This is not what a dramaturg (or anyone hiding behind some other title who is doing the same thing) should ever be doing.  The dramaturg's primary duty is very straight forward:  To listen closely to the writer when describing what he/she is after and make every effort to help guide the story to that end.

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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 22-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.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Analyzing your new story idea...

The first thing I do with writers I work with who have a new story idea they want to explore is to have them do a preliminary analysis of the idea to see if it at least has the potential to contain the basic dramatic ingredients any good script possesses.

 

This involves a simple process of breaking down the idea into the various essential components, all of which will "test" the viability of the idea.  I explain this in detail in my book The Playwright's Process, presenting what I call the Story Idea Worksheet and how to use it.  It's a simple tool that allows you to begin taking a serious look at your new idea, to discover if it is something that deserves further development.

The worksheet asks that you tackle your idea by first landing on a working title, briefly describing the story's central character, and then stating simply both the dominant conscious or external want of the character and his/her dominant conscious or unconscious internal need.  This sets up the major dilemma or issue inherent in the idea.  The worksheet then asks you to list other possible characters who could possibly populate your story--characters who champion or could come against the want and need of your central character thereby setting up conflict.  Next it asks you to suggest a setting and possible special occasion that might surround the unfolding of your story--choices that might further raise the stakes for your central character and his/her dilemma.

The worksheet goes on by asking you to state in very simple terms how the major conflict/dilemma manifests itself in action and how that dilemma is ultimately resolved.  And finally it asks you to state how the central character is changed by the end of the story--a critical part of any test of an idea--and what you think the dramatic premise might be--what you're leaving with your audience at the final fade out.

This exercise has proven to be invaluable for the writers I work with.  It allows for lots of flexibility and trying things on for size.  Some writers end up doing several versions of the worksheet before committing to developing an idea further, finally settling on the one that feels strongest.

The whole point is that you have to start somewhere and analyzing a new idea in terms of seeing just how potent it might be is a good and logical starting point.  Because a story idea's potency is always dependent on how solidly it contains the essential dramatic ingredients--a good thing to discover very early in the development process and not half way through the writing of your first draft.

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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 22-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.

 

     

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Our bi-annual gathering of scriptwriters...

It's that time again.  Every January and June, there is this special gathering of playwrights and screenwriters in the quaint mountain village of Peterborough, NH for a ten-day marathon of sharing new work and participating in intensive workshops on our craft and our industry.  Our next get together launches this Friday, January 6.

Of course what I'm talking about is our low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Talented student writers from all over the country--from New Mexico to Florida, from Texas to Michigan and from New York City to Dallas--as well as San Juan, Puerto Rico and Wabasca, Canada will all gather together to celebrate our art form with a distinquished professional faculty drawn from various aspects of our profession.


There will be intensive pitch sessions of new story ideas, craft classes in dialogue and rewriting and career oriented workshops on submission tactics and the national new play development arena. And central to the residency will be ten readings of new work written by our students this past semester, all of which are cast with professional actors and are followed by extensive feedback sessions.

To top off this residency, we've invited our alumni back for the opening weekend to share their adventures in the scriptwriting trade and to help further expand our growing networking apparatus on a national level.

Overall, these residencies are a time and place for emerging writers to share their passion for their art and expand their skill and their horizons as artists.  And all student writers leave the experience renewed and ready to go to work during the semester on their next project with their assigned professional mentor--developing a new script they'll share with the whole group at the next residency.

It's quite special.  Come join us if you can.

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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 about to start our next residency that runs January 6-15.  We are currently accepting applications for starting the program with our June residency running from June 22-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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Capturing your angst...

At a Christmas party this past weekend I ran into a writer I know who has been having a rough time emotionally this fall, to the point that she can't really move forward in her creative life.  I suspect there are a lot of folks out there who are experiencing the same symptoms to one degree or another this election year.

What I suggested to this writer (and anyone who considers him/herself any kind of scribe in this predicament) is to put down on paper or pound out in a document all your raw feelings.  In other words, to journal your way through your angst and/or the thoughts that are bringing you down.


Journaling can do wonders to help you objectify what you're feeling, getting out in front of you what you're experiencing emotionally and what you suspect are the reasons for it.  And by journaling I mean really venting and letting loose and putting down in words exactly what comes to mind when you target the root causes of the dark mood you find yourself stuck in--describing the sadness, the depressing thoughts, and so on and making an attempt to articulate in detail the reasons for it.

No one will ever see this but you, but the dividends are often significant and long lasting.  On the short term, you'll find that it tends to help you process your way through the doldrums you're going through.  But also, what I've learned over the years with of this type of journaling, is that sometimes months or even years later I can go back to these entries and there staring back at me is a vividly captured emotion that I experienced in my past and that I can now use in my current work.  I'm still connected to it, but I now have the necessary distance from it to be able to fold it into my writing.

At times it's been exhilarating as a writer to have this documentation of my past emotional struggles available to me--my own private treasure trove.  And on occasion a past journal entry has unlocked a key I'd been searching for and that I needed to unwrap for a project I was currently in the middle of.

At any rate, it's always a good practice for a writer to use words--the raw material we work with day in and day out--to help guide us through the down times.  And you may find that down the line it will prove a bonanza.

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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 still considering applications for starting the program with our January 2017 residency that runs January 6-15 or for starting with our June residency running from June 22-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