Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 242 - Thoughts on Structure

I spent last weekend at the beach (finally) with some friends from college. As most beach weekends do, the days in the sun with the sand between our toes and salty air in our nostrils faded into nights spent around tables with platters covered in seafood and glasses filled with wine. At the end of the night, when people were tired but didn't want to abandon the fun altogether for bed, we popped a DVD into the player and settled in for a few more drinks and some laughs. The selection? Bridesmaids.

I saw Bridesmaids in theaters and enjoyed it a lot. It's worth a ton of genuine laughs and seems - despite some scatological hilarity - is brainier than many comedies tend to be. As we watched it, I found myself studying the film more than I was simply observing and enjoying it. And I found that Bridesmaids is actually a very strong example of multiple plots and layers of story, which are structured extremely well. You might disagree with me, but the script has an Oscar nomination to back it up. Let's take a look at it. 

SPOILER ALERT if you haven't seen the movie yet.

When the film opens, we're treated to a raunchy and roaring glimpse of Kristen Wiig (Annie) and her sex buddy, played wonderfully by Jon Hamm. This scene represents a portion of the really pretty sad status quo of Annie's life at the moment. We're soon then also exposed to both her work and her living situations. Let's just say, we wouldn't want either. Intermingled with all of that, we get to know Maya Rudolph's Lillian, the bride-to-be and Annie's best friend. Soon, Annie and Lillian find their relationship strained by a new alpha female in Annie's life (Helen), and when things are starting to slip for Annie, she gets pulled over by an endearing cop, Rhodes. 

Annie's hookup buddy. Annie's job. Annie's undesirable roommates and living situation. Annie's fraying friendship with Lillian and  correlating distaste for Helen. Annie's relationship with Rhodes. That amounts to five thing - five - that are going on in the movie. You can further break them down if you want, but they can get lumped into those general categories. Annie's employment woes and difficulty making rent (and subsequent need to live with the odd English siblings) are due to a failed baking business that she put all of her money into. She had a serious relationship, but that dissolved when the business did, and now she's left with the douche she's sleeping with. Lillian and she go back a long way, but Lillian is moving on, and Annie is stuck in a rut. Annie is afraid to let her self open to people again; she is also afraid of flying (which plays out brilliantly later). In short, Annie has a lot of issues.

The script is masterful in its handling of all these seemingly disparate elements. For one, we can see why they all exist at this time in her life, for the reasons above. One thing led to another, which led to another, which splintered her existence. Furthermore, when things get bad for Annie, they don't get singularly bad; all things converge on her at the same time. When Annie hits rock bottom at the end of Act Two, she is really down in the dumps. Her hookup buddy has downgraded her from "sex buddy number three;" she has lost her job at the jewelry store; she's lost the apartment she didn't like and is back at home with her mom; Lillian not only demoted Annie from maid-of-honor but doesn't want her at her wedding; and Rhodes has called things off with Annie. Five concurrent plots that have all bashed together in the terrible train-wreck that is Annie's life. And these things did not happen independently of one another. Rhodes stopped seeing her, because he was frustrated with her antics and disgusted when he met Hamm's character. Annie's increasing loneliness and dejection related to Lillian caused her to act up at work, which cost her her job and meant she couldn't afford rent. Everything comes together wonderfully.

While I was watching Bridesmaids, I kept thinking to myself, "there are five levels to this story, and they're all working so well. Some are small, but they all seem to fit and all warrant screen time. How many layers do I tend to have?" I was dismayed to accept that I often have two at best. Sometimes, shamefully, it's closer to one. Subplots are pivotal in making a screenplay successful. Too many can clutter the structure or slow the pacing, but too few will leave you with nowhere to turn when you need an interlude. 

There are many other successful films out there, but if you haven't seen it, or haven't seen it recently, I suggest going back and rewatching Bridesmaids. It has its structure down pat. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 241 - Receiving Notes

One of the most important parts of writing is receiving notes. You work so hard on a script and become so immersed in it, that for a while, it is all you can see. Getting those drafts read by other people whose opinions you value (people who don't jut pat you on the back and congratulate you on your accomplishment, but actually critique the work) becomes integral to developing, writing, and completing an industry-worthy script. That entire notion is why, years ago, we formed The League. 

Last week, we held our monthly meeting. Though I hadn't submitted for a while, my 30 Day Screenplay Challenge script, a demon thriller, was subject of the meeting. Like dutiful group members that they all are, the Leaguers read the material and gave me feedback. Sometimes, I go into these meetings with specific notes for the group. This time, though, I only had a general notion of wanting to know whether or not the script was working, if it was slow or confusing at any point, if anything was missing, or if the rules of the world lacked clarity. 

On the whole, the group provided some very useful feedback. They told me what was working, what was falling short, and what they liked. For the most part, though, with the exception of the introductory scene, they didn't target specific portions of the script as needing a lot of attention. That makes my job both easier and harder. On the one hand, the rewrite becomes about an overall finessing of the script, which means that I can add, subtract, and edit as need be. On the other, there's nothing in particular to concentrate on now, which could make focusing on a start point for the revisions easier.

Either way, it's great to have notes again and to be able to dive back into a rewrite. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 240 - Thoughts on Collaborating

You probably know that I've been working on a sci-fi spec with a collaborator since about February. Let's call my writing partner W.A. He's a known actor/writer/director whose major projects came to fruition in the late 80s and early 90s. Needless to say, he has about two decades of experience on me, which is fecund with knowledge and insight. 

The collaboration has been a really interesting journey so far. For one, this is the first time I've worked on a project that has not been - at least partially - my idea from the get go. I came on board years into the development of the piece, though still in the outline stage. Almost immediately, I began implementing changes, and W.A. has been great from day one about letting me run with my ideas. He's been so open to any and every suggestion, as long as they have been in keeping with the fundamental precepts of the idea. 

In the months since I first got the call about the project, I've rewritten the outline in a major way in at least 4 different ways. (The latest draft was titled Revision 7, but some of the versions might have incorporated minor changes only.) W.A. wants to direct the piece, so his vision has sort of led it this whole time, but the autonomy that I've had has been tremendous. I don't know that I would have come up with the idea on my own, but I've grown increasingly intrigued by it over these past five or so months, especially as it has morphed from something entirely of his own creation to something that we have both weighed in on equally. 

I know that there's a lot of insight I can gain by working with W.A. In the beginning of our time together, our conversations revolved primarily around the project and didn't deviate much from that. In the time since, though, we have become more informal and personal with one another, discussing other projects, as well as the goings on in our lives in general. W.A. is consistently working on other projects - mainly as a director - so I know that he has a lot of wisdom to impart. If nothing else, this experience will be of value for all that I can learn from him.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 239 - Now What?

After about two months of having two to three projects going on concurrently, I'm down to a lull of zero. Well, that's not technically true. At present, though, I have had to table writing any more on any of them for various reasons. 

The post-Apocalyptic spec that my team and I were talking about converting into a comic book probably isn't going to progress in a different medium at this point. We hoped that we'd be able to get a short comic book story related to the script out soon, and we still might, but the timeline we were going to have to commit to was a lot longer than we had wanted - by about a year. My thinking is that, in a year a lot can change. Another project could take off, which would revive interest in the script. More than that, though, I'll need to focus on new material during that year, rather than on something that's been tested and hasn't taken off. So, that's on the back burner. 

The demon thriller spec, which I worked on for the 30 Day Screenplay Challenge, is out to the League for our meeting next Thursday. I'm eagerly awaiting feedback, but I won't really touch the script until I get notes. That, too, then is just sitting idly by the side of the road for the next week.

Finally, the sci-fi collaboration is moving forward, but also in a way that I have to be hands off with for a little bit. My writing partner and I went back and forth for a while one notes, getting to the knit-picky stage to help address any potential questions that might arise, before we sent it off to our producer for her to take a look at. This incarnation is very different from the last one she saw, but my partner and I both agree it's also a lot cleaner and clearer. I hope she concurs. If she does, then I'll dive into pages as soon as we get the thumbs up. It'd be great to start them well before Labor Day.

With three projects off to the side for the next week or so, I can take a breather. I don't really want to, though. I had an idea for an alien invasion project - might even be a book or a comic book - that I think I'm going to start trying to work out a bit. I've had the creative juices pumping through me for so long now that I don't want to lose the momentum.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 238 - Reducing Page Count and Tentpole Scene Placement

Two weeks ago, our 30 Day Screenplay Challenge ended. I decided to work on my demon thriller for the month in question, despite the fact that I went into it with an incompletely revised outline. The end result, though, was a full draft of a script I probably would have still been putting off otherwise, so who can complain with that?

One of the very first things I do after I finish writing a draft is I reread the script from start to finish. Well... first I take a few days to a week off and enjoy being done. Then I print and read through the script. My finished scripts tend to come in somewhere between 95 and 105 pages. Drafts, much like this one did, come in about 10 pages more than that on average. When the Challenge was over, I had a 114 page draft to contend with. The page count didn't matter to me quite as much as the placement of key scenes did. 

For example, of 114 pages, my midpoint came in at 65. Frankly, that's 7 pages too late. A midpoint is often not one specific instant or line in a script, but rather a scene or even sequence that can be drawn out over 5 or more pages. I came to terms with the fact that my "midpoint" would not be an altercation between the antagonist and protagonist, but rather the event that immediately preceded and led to their fight. The fight concluded on page 69; the earlier event on 65. There was no way I could have 65 pages before the midpoint and only 49 after it. That would just be way too unbalanced. Also, the moment of despair (which Blake Snyder likes to say should come around page 75, and I now agree with him) - the low moment when everything that didn't crumble at the midpoint just comes crashing down, leaving the protagonist with little to nothing - hit on 80. My Act Two turn into Act Three was about on target at 92, but considering the fact that the inciting incident was not a traditional one and ran onto page 12, I knew that I needed to get those big beats in place. Standard format dictates the inciting incident should come on 10, Act One should end on 25 or 30, the midpoint should be on 60, the moment of despair is on 75, and the turn into Act Three falls on 90. I had to achieve that, yet I didn't have a lot of wiggle room that I saw in the first half - there weren't many gratuitous scenes at all.

So how to go about shrinking the script and getting the beats to land where I wanted them? First, I went through and took a fine look at the dialogue. I often over write lines, reiterating things to make sure that the point comes across, saying in three lines what I really only need one or two to do. Step one: excise extraneous dialogue. Next, I went through and looked for any hanging words. Basically, those are words that sit on a line of dialogue or description by themselves, especially short words. If I see a "one" or "car" or "her" or "did" or anything of the sort taking up its own line in the script, I do back and find a way to trim a few characters out of the lines above in order to consolidate. There's no reason those should hang alone. And it's pretty amazing what cutting a few of those will do.

I use Movie Magic 2000 when I write, which affords a maximum of 57 lines per page. Depending what comes next after a page break, stripping one line of text from a page can bump up nearly a tenth of a page. For example, if a new scene begins on page 10, the program might cut page 9 off at line 53 in order to preserve the intro to a scene. The software won't allow a slugg line with no text after it on the bottom of a page. I can't ask page 9 to end with INT. BAR - NIGHT and start page 10 with the scene description. Even if it's only one line of action or description after the slugg line, the program is designed to require something immediately following the slugg line. Scenes that open with a lot of description will necessitate more space at the bottom of a page. That's why, of 57 lines, if 4 are free but I need 5 to accommodate the intro to a new scene, I will go back and look for hanging words. 

All in all, merely by consolidating some dialogue and cutting out most hanging words, I was able to drop the script from 114 pages to 106. More than that, my inciting incident came to a close on 10, the midpoint bumped down to 59, the despair point hit perfectly at 75, and Act Three began on 89. This was huge for me and made me much more comfortable with both the presentation and the structure of the script. Though the beats themselves might need work (I'll get the League's feedback in two weeks), at least I know they're where they should be. And that is always good.