Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A scriptwriting secret: taking it one step at a time...

I'm currently working with a script client who is agonizing over his strong sense that he's missing something critical in his plot outline for a screenplay--something that will be a key to his story lifting off and really hitting the bull's-eye.  In fact, it's been stalling progress on his project and has pretty much left him walking in circles around his writing room with little forward movement at all.  He wants to have as complete a road map as possible before plunging into draft (and rightly so), but is stuck as to how to make that happen.

What I told him was that he needs to take a deep breath and realize you have to work with these developing story ideas one step at a time.  Sometimes new and extraordinary new plot points suddenly pop up, but only after what you have already figured out is laid out clearly and directly in front of you.  That's what often allows or releases new and sometimes key ideas to surface--by getting what you have figured out already under complete control and pinned to the mat.

I suggested that he take what he has now and carefully put his outline together act by act and scene by scene in order as to how he sees the movie playing out now from beginning to end.  And then assess what he has laid out in front of him, slowly walking through the script-in-the-making from start to finish.  That's the only way the process can work--by peeling off the layers one at a time to reveal new thoughts and ideas that were previously hidden from view.

One of my client's favorite films is Casablanca and he frequently uses it as a teaching tool for himself.  Needless to say, I have no problem with that, seeing the end result is a masterful classic. However, I'm quick to remind him that the movie is based on a play by two writers and the screenplay has three credited writers and a fourth uncredited writer.  And I ask him:  who knows how many plot outlines and drafts these writers went though before they figured it all out...?  You can bet there were at least four drafts of the screenplay and most likely many more plot treatments prior to that.  Clearly the layers were peeled off one at a time until the producers at Warner Bros. were satisfied the script was as good as it was going to get.  They realized early on that they had something good in the story and they insisted that it was necessary to keep pushing through the material until finally all the key discoveries were made that were going to get made, that the story had hit gold, and the movie could get the green light and go into production.

So welcome to the club.

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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 next residency runs January 3-11, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program in January or beyond.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.  

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