Monday, February 18, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 259 - It All Goes Back to the First 15 Pages

I spent my Presidents' Day, not touring the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument as perhaps others did, but rather going over the second draft of my sci-fi collaboration with my writing partner. Almost a year to the date since we began working together, we now have a very strong workable draft of our script. It didn't come easily or quickly, though. Leading up to today, we went through seven drafts of our outline (and minor revisions along the way) and two major drafts of the script, before arriving at the one we went over today. 

We're poised to send the script to the producer who paired us together. Before we do it, though, there's one more issue we have to tackle in the script. It's not exactly a small matter. In fact, it's what the entire screenplay is built on. I'm talking about the protagonist's character. 

The hero of our story is a senior in college with some heavy baggage in his past. He is incredibly talented and smart, but he's also afraid (for good reason) of his own potential. He's at an amazing academic institution, but he's squandering his potential. In short, he's both the most capable student in his class, and a slacker. 

We've been struggling with our protagonist since we started working together, but today it was most apparent that he can't straddle the line we have him on now. It just doesn't work. And if our protagonist and his motivations don't work, then the rest of the script fails, too. 

In fact, over the course of our one and a half hour conversation, pretty much the only thing we discussed was our protagonist. More specifically, we spoke about our protagonist as we see him in the first 15 pages. Fifteen pages. Because of how we structured the screenplay (a 4 page prologue, inciting incident around page 11, and a big reveal on 15), we only have the first fifteen pages to set up our protagonist. However, with the prologue, we go down to eleven pages. That's not a lot of room to establish a deeply wounded character with incredible potential. 

We spoke at length about him. What does he want? What motivates him? What is he afraid of? Of course, all of this will have to come to a head over the course of the script, as he evolves, grows, and changes by the end of act three. I think we landed in a good place by the end of our conversation, but it just goes to show - if your protagonist isn't clearly written, especially within the first fifteen pages of your script, then good luck getting it to a producer. We're not even going to show the one that we work with our draft until this issue is resolved. It's a no-brainer that she would ask us about the protagonist - or tell us that she doesn't understand his motivations. It's that apparent. No way will we turn in something that's weak at such a fundamental level.

How do you make sure your protagonist is as strongly written as he or she can be?