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

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

It's All About the Story

So I haven't been doing any real writing the last couple of weeks, because I've been so swamped with reading.

That's not such a bad thing -- I need the money, and it's nice to get away from my writing for a while, so that when I get back to it, it's fresher.

At least I keep telling myself that.

Meanwhile, I've been giving a ton of notes to people, inside my screenwriting group and out, and what has become even my clear to me is this:

It's all about the story.

It's really basic stuff, but too many writers don't take it to heart enough. It's amazing how many scripts I read that are polished, which have well-written scenes that are funny or dramatic, but which just don't work as a whole because the story doesn't hang together well.

And then the only way to fix them is to tear them apart, polished scenes rendered into flailing verbs and lost adjectives, as the structure gets the major overhaul that it should have had from the start.

I used to be the kind of guy who would come up with a loose idea and just start pounding out scenes, and I'm not the kind of guy who believes you should overthink the story at the beginning; I find that I come up with things that surprise me when I'm writing a scene I haven't over-pondered, and I think the best blend is to give yourself this freedom.

But the basics still need to be there. A main character, a solid dramatic need, a real conflict, and a plot that moves forward with every scene/sequence, and doesn't dawdle around. A sense of where the story needs to be at various points in the actual screenplay, so you know, when you are writing a scene, what the scene needs to accomplish to best serve the overall tale.

If you don't have that, stop polishing. If you start with 100 pages of scenes and later try to tease a solid plot out of them, it's a lot harder than simply starting with a solid plot and then coming up with scenes for it. Then it's easy to sharpen and polish those scenes until they shine.


I have to bring in 25 pages to my script group on Monday, and I'm wrestling with what to do.

I did a rewrite of my low budget thriller that still needs some real polishing, and I don't have a chunk of that I really want to bring in.

I could bring in pages 26-50 of the romantic comedy/fantasy thing I've been working on, but I haven't touched it in a couple of months, and it's still not really working.

Because I never got the story to work before I wrote the damn thing. Bad on me.

I have this other idea, that I loosely plotted last year, including writing the first 13 pages before setting it aside. It's a high-concept comedy, the kind of thing that is good to bring into group because you can get some real feedback on whether the humor is working.

I made a lot of notes on that in the last few days, and I've gotten it to the point where the overall story is coming into shape, and it's clear exactly what needs to happen in the first act, so maybe I'll polish what I have and bang out the first 25.


Last weekend, NIM'S ISLAND did a pretty solid $13.2 million. LEATHERHEADS did an okay $12.7 million. THE RUINS wandered in with only $8.0 million.

21 led the way with $15.3 in its second week. Not bad, since gambling movies have a history of not doing all that well.


At 2:57 PM, Blogger E.C. Henry said...


In regaurds to the stories you're reading that arnen't working, might I suggest to you that the reason they're not working is that the author is showing too early a draft. So often the writer is so EAGER for a professional's opinion, which you represtent, but his/her current version isn't ready for that yet.

I think it was in a Creative Screenwriting article where I read that M.Night Shyamaln did 6 drafts of "The Sixth Sense" before he knew that the Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) character was one of the dead people that Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) was seeing.

Point being: GREAT WRITING takes DEDICATION to craft and STORY.

I think the brillant Emily B. put in best in one of her blog posts, "Okay, you suck, now fix it." A little harsh? Yeah, maybe. But it depends on how sucky the suck really sucks.

If I were you, Scott, I'd bring the humorous stuff to your writing group. Comedy is PROBABLY the easiest thing to get usefull feedback on.

Love your description of how your high concept comedy is coming together. Build momentum, THEN write. That's the way to go. I think you're on the right track, kiddo!

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

At 2:33 PM, Blogger LHOOQtius ov Borg said...

I agree with E.C. about showing stuff too early in the process (I've done it myself -- I suspect everyone has), but I also think it's an oversimplification to say that people aren't thinking about story.

I think that as E.C. suggests, story evolves with rewrites, and that knowing where you're supposed to be in the "arc" doesn't always mean that your scenes and characters are leading you there (and maybe that's because the outline was wrong, not the new direction). I write an outline before each script, or at least a treatment, and even so things wind up varying (and sometimes becoming a mess, or dragging / becoming redundant in parts -- until I go in and fix it).

Some writers ask for notes in order to get a second opinion about what isn't work in a script they already know isn't working, or at least that it needs help in some places (I know I do). Asking for notes as validation is just silly (but, some people are silly). If you have a "perfect" script, don't seek out notes on it.

Personally, I can't fix a story until at least some of the scenes are at least somewhat polished. I need to know what my characters are saying and doing, not just a bullet point in an outline, before I know if it works. I can rewrite my outline (though I probably should do more drafts of that than I usually do), explicitly work on structure issues and conflict as I go through my first draft, and still not be happy with the form. At least for me, until I have at least some of those fleshed-out scenes that seem a "waste" I can't solidify certain elements of story structure.

Then again, I'm not afraid to completely cut-apart a "finished" script (sure I, like many, get irritated that I have to get rid of things I like, or re-do a lot of work that I thought was better than it really was, and that my carefully constructed interconnections between scenes fall apart and have to be rethought -- but I eventually get over it).

I think that you see a lot of the problems you see specifically because writers have always bounced stuff off their editors (or directors and producers, in the case of screenwriters), and for freelance or aspiring writers who don't have those people available to them on an institutional basis someone offering your services fills that role.


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