a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Saturday, September 17, 2005

I Wish Screenwriting Was More Like Math

I'm a very logical person, who is very good at math. The latter is a largely wasted skill at this point, good for figuring out tips or gas mileage but not much else; though I got an 800 on the math section of the SATs, I didn't want to be an accountant, an engineer or teach math, so I just sort of crumpled up the ability and threw it away.

Still, there is a part of me that likes puzzles and challenges. My sister was pissed when I figured out how to solve her Rubik's Cube. Sudoku is such a great time-waster that I've had to limit myself to one-a-day with breakfast. I'm not a devoted crossword puzzle guy, but every once and a while I'll curl up with one.

And I like to write screenplays.

If I have a strength as a reader/writer, it is story. I can read a script, and spot the story flaws right away. There is a flow that a good screenplay needs to have, a sense of everything clicking in and fitting in the right place, so that it just works. It's like a really good song, or an ice cream sundae that gets everything right. Like a kickoff returner, cutting, zigging and zagging, all the way to the end zone.

And there's logic in telling a good story. It all has to make sense, or at least if it doesn't make sense it has to do it in a satisfying way. And we want this to be calculable. There's a "formula" for every genre. A way to try to take the liquid essense of a good screenplay and hold it in our hands, so that we feel we can control it.

But that's a slippery slope, and one I often stumble on. Because, when I'm writing, and something works, I feel a sense of accomplishment. It's like with a crossword puzzle, when you've figured out the word that has to go in 9 down, and suddenly it gives you 6 across, and 12 across, and then you are filling in letters. Boom, you've cracked it.

But screenwriting really isn't like that, because there is almost always a better answer. Too often I "crack" a scene, move on to the next part of the screenplay, and never really wrestle with the idea of whether or not there is a different take on the scene, on the moment, on the characters, that would make it work better. Unlike math, screenplays aren't about a scene being right or wrong and move on; there are much finer gradations. And not only do they take time to find, but sometimes we have to discipline ourselves to look for them.

(To continue the sports metaphor, that kick returner spends a lot of time each day working out, getting his body and skills in the best shape that they can be. While the average screenwriter is a lazy ass, content just to sit down, knock out a few pages, and not put in the real work. I'm guilty of that too. But again, it's all more subtle -- it's a lot harder to notice the pot belly on your own brain).

At this point I'm start to ramble; even my own blogging needs more discipline. A better blogger would make their point in the first few paragraphs, hammer it home in the middle, and wrap everything up late. It's the formula we were taught in school, when we were swiping essays about Tibet out of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

But with screenwriting, formulas only work to a certain extent. Too many screenwriters just try to cram their romantic comedies or horror films into the accepted templates, without thinking about what it is about the formulas that work, or how they can be shaped. Sure, sports dramas are helped by having an underdog team to root for, but how can this be made more interesting? How can this be bent? What are new and different challenges for the team to face?

Maybe the answer is just to be more aggressive in blending the logical and the creative. Know the formulas, know all the rules, but don't feel that you need rigid set-ups and payoffs at every point in the script (and don't criticize a movie for setting something up and not paying it off -- two many scripts are flatly predictable because they insist on setting up dominos and knocking them all over, when sometimes dominos should just be allowed to dance).

Screenplays are a little like math. And a little like dancing. And a little like weightlifting. Like jazz. Like a child reaching up, and taking your hand. Sometimes we try to make them like math, but it's actually more complicated than that, in ways that are frustrating and exhilarating at the same time.

I'm guilty of trying to make my script do things that make logical sense, that complete a recipe, that seem to solve the puzzle of what it is, though maybe in too-formulaic, predictable and expected fashion. This results in my scripts being a bit reined in, like a dog locked in the house so that it'll stay clean and won't run around the neighborhood knocking up other dogs.

But maybe it's time to let it out to play.


At 6:23 PM, Anonymous Chesher Cat said...

You know what happens when we keep the dog locked in the house so that it’ll stay clean…it shits all over the floor.

Time to let your dog out, Scott.

At 2:03 PM, Anonymous Joshua said...

the Jazz metaphor is really apt - I guess that's the most discouraging aspect to writing screenplays as opposed to other mediums - I always feel the press of the McKee princples pressing on an original spec, when sometimes writing needs to be what it is, like jazz -

Jazz isn't formed like opera or pop music, but it's still music, isn't it? I think that there are great stories that can be told in film in much the same way, if we allow them -

Before Sunrise (and its sequel) were films that to me felt very much like jazz -

Aren't we happy someone had the ability to get those films made?

I wish more folks who read screenplays had an ear for the music of a script, I really do -

At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what happens with me is I come across 3-4 good possibilities for a scene, it could go either way...I don't have any trouble coming up with them or writing them. What I have trouble with is choosing the one that is great and not just good


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