Closing the Gap

December 1, 2008

Of all the things I read in Robert McKee’s Story, this is the one that sticks out the most: that story happens in the gap between expectation and result.  I get inspiration from this in all kinds of weird ways, and it doesn’t always make sense, but I’ll try to explain.

I finished the first act of Charisma two weeks ago and immediately ran into a wall.  How the hell do I start the second act?  Something needed to go in there, after she “embraces her ability” but before she is arrested. This was a huge gap in my outline, and though I knew it needed to be the B-plot – her attempt to graduate from college – I had no idea how to execute it.

I wrote this fun little scene where she goes to her Academic Dean and tries to use a Jedi mind trick on her, but the tone of the scene was off – when she’s arrested, a few minutes later (in screen time), she still needs to be scared and confused, and I can’t see taking two huge swings in such a short time frame.  So I cut the scene and looked again.  She needs to be arrested, but what does the arrest scene look like?  I keep going back to McKee’s Closing the Gap example in Chinatown (which I just watched for the first time last week), where the butler doesn’t open the door … then she’s happy to see him … then she won’t reveal her secret … then she does. Do I need to have my hero try to run away from the police, when they come to arrest her?  That would certainly bring about a change of pace and a gap between what she expects of herself and the action that instinctively comes to her.  Although I’m not crazy about the idea of writing a chase scene for her arrest, I think it’s the right move.

Still, I needed something to set it up.  The arrest needs to happen at night, but what does she do in the day up until then? The segment has so many requirements:  It needs to set up the B plot and demonstrate her attempted development of her skill, while maintaining the tone that keeps her arrestable.

Once I figured it out in those terms, it was quite easy.  I started by re-inserting the cut scene, and instead cutting the last three or four lines of the previous scene.  They were lines I liked, but they shifted the tone from scared and confused to giggly and convivial.  By making that change, the entire tone of the next scene became much more sombre, and rather than being “fun” it became a desperate attempt for our hero to understand the world around her.  Amazing how cutting these few lines gave the “Fun & Games” scene a rich layer of subtext that wasn’t there before.  (Sidenote: I’m reminded of a famous story of an Orson Welles theatrical production of Julius Caesar, which went from mediocre to excellent in audience’s eyes, simply by adding back in – and using expressionistic lighting to accent – the lynching of Cinna the Poet.)

Then, she goes to her mentor for help … and he helps her.  She spends the rest of the day in the library reading and absorbing knowledge, and then she checks out some books that will help to incriminate her later on.  Problem solved.  And at every step, the gap occurs in what the characters expect of themselves.

Now we get to move on to the chase, followed by the accusal, followed by the rescue and the Ordeal, and hopefully the next 30 pages will be a breeze for me to write.


Moving the Action Forward

October 21, 2008

I’m in an improv class. I started a year ago at the Bovine Metropolis Theater in Denver, and then moved back to Austin in January and started taking classes at the ColdTowne. Now that I’m in the fifth and final level of classes at ColdTowne, I’m reflecting a little bit on what exactly I’ve learned from improv that can inform my writing. There are a number of answers to this, and for now I’ll focus on the one I learned today: moving the action forward.

This is not something new – we’ve been talking about this in improv for a long time, but I just made the connection to my writing.

The rule in improv is this: quit talking about what you’re going to do and just do it. No one wants to watch a scene in which two people are looking for a hammer. Just find the f***ing hammer, and move on. I believe it’s McKee in Story who talks about how easy it is to hail a taxi in the movies, or how they never have to get change from the cab driver when they get out on the other end. That’s because no one wants to watch that scene: quit finding the taxi and get in the f***ing taxi.

Simple as it may sound, it’s one of the hardest things to do. It’s easy to knock on the door, but frankly, we don’t need to see it. Just open the f***ing door. You wanna go to the drag race, but Tommy doesn’t think it’s a great idea? That’s great, get to the f***ing drag race and tell us while we’re there that Tommy doesn’t want to be there. That’s a much more compelling scene.

This translates directly into the well-known “show, don’t tell” maxim. It’s much easier to have your character say how unhappy he is with the merger, than for you to come up with creative ways of showing it: he plays solitaire on his laptop at the negotiation meeting; he calls his boss a jerk; he calls a headhunter while selling the stock he has in the company; he loses interest in sex with his wife. Think about how much these scenes communicate and how much more interesting they would be for the audience. We’re smart, we get the gist. And by showing, rather than telling, we’re getting that juicy subtext that adds texture and meaning to the dialogue.

As I think about this with my own screenplay, the heroine is unhappy with her job – but she never says “I’m unhappy with my job.” She says, “I wish this place would burn to the f***ing ground,” but only after we’ve already seen her in her environment, annoyed by the gossip and slamming her locker shut, and physically assaulting a customer.

By the time we get to her talking about it, she doesn’t even say how much she hates her job. Rather, we take it to the next level: she throws a dying house plant into the trash and says, “I can’t even keep a plant alive.”

This clearly delivers much more to the viewer than “I hate my job and I’m so unhappy.”

Of course, the flip side is that you can say that line in five seconds, whereas the scenes I just described unfold over about 20 pages. Which is why you have to make sure that every scene serves at least three purposes; that every line communicates something valuable.

And in discovering these little nuggets of writing wisdom, I can now see moments all over these opening pages where I’m telling instead of showing; where I’m talking about instead of doing. Although I’ve known this rule perfectly well for years, I think the most valuable lessons must be discovered on your own. I may have to go back and re-design or eliminate some crucial scenes. Such is the game of mastering the art of the screenplay.

Highlights from the Austin Film Festival

October 19, 2008

Things I learned at this year’s Austin Film Festival:

  1. Read Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot’s website, Wordplay, cover-to-cover, as it were.
  2. Just like a film has a three-act-structure, so too does every act and every scene.  Setup, turn, and completion that drives the action forward.
  3. What makes the chase scene interesting is how the hero overcomes the obstacle in his path – what changes along the way?
  4. Get a manager.
  5. Always be working.  Don’t ever stop writing.  If you’re the guy that churns out three or four screenplays a year, your agent loves you.
  6. Screenplays are really boring when read out loud.
  7. I came to this year’s AFF knowing a small handful of people.  Through each of those people, I met two or three more.  The lesson: keep coming, and you’ll double your circle every year.
  8. Danny Boyle is frickin’ amazing.  If you haven’t seen Shallow Grave, go watch it.
  9. Make your movie cool.  Always look for what can be done differently.  How can we write this chase scene in a way that no one’s ever done a chase scene before?
  10. If you want to do a screen adaptation for a project that’s been “in development” forever, find the themes and the genre elements that turn you on in the source material, and write a different script with those in mind.
  11. A screenwriter’s job is to keep rewriting his (or someone else’s) script until everyone involved is okay with it.  If you don’t look at your job from this perspective, you’ll only get pissed off because you keep having to change something that you already knew was really good to begin with.
  12. Don’t be creepy, annoying, or overeager.
  13. They’ll read the first five pages.  If you haven’t captured them by then, they won’t keep reading.
  14. Apparently, Robert McKee sucks.  This was news to me – I love his book.  But a lot of people don’t, and they say it results in formulaic films.

I’m sure there’s more.  Check back for more details.

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