You’re going to love this. It’s the easy part. You get to be smart, even analytical, if you must. You get to use your good old tried and true best business brain. I hope you’re happy.
BEYOND THE RANDOM DRAFT
If you’ve been aching to say stuff like “dramatic momentum,” “plot continuity,” “plausible motivation,” today is your day.
Let’s talk about your script.
I realize I haven’t read it yet, but we won’t let that stop us.
Since we’re not in the same room at the moment, I need to ask you a few things so we can get a clear fix on what your script needs for rewrite.
WHO ARE YOU?
Are you brain smart? Do you lead with your head? Do you read the newspapers voraciously? Do world issues concern you? When you have dinner with a friend, are you more likely to talk about politics than your love life?
Let’s call you Yang.
Are you intuitive? Do you lead with your heart? Do your perceptions of life come to you from personal observation? When you have dinner with a friend, do you talk about everything? Do you remember the food?
Let’s call you Yin.
Yang: Your script structure probably hinges on external events and actions. It’s in the mystery, thriller, or crime-action-adventure genre. You have a strong hero, but we don’t know much about him (like Clint or Duke).
Yin: Yours is probably an inner story. The character is on a journey of self-discovery. Themes are love and personal growth. It is intimate in scale and deep in scope.
Yang: Since you’re good at structure, you are probably satisfied with that aspect of your script. But there’s a flatness, a coldness to the story. You think you should put in more action. Go the other way. Every time it seems to go flat or slow down, zoom in on the hero and give us a quiet scene that shows more of him. The way to do this is to ask your character personal question. Imagine you went to high school with him. Reminisce. Write out a page of conversation between the two of you. Conversation is different than dialogue. Chances are that in your script he’s always got a smart line, like “Go ahead, make my day.” So in the conversation that you write, let’s see the feelings behind the smart lines. You don’t have to use this conversation in your script; we just want him talking to you, so that at least you know him. That way you can tell us. Of course, the best way is for the character to show us his feelings directly.
Yin: You probably love your character. You know you have lots of great scenes, but you can’t really say what they are about. You’re not sure if there’s really a story. Your script is long. Act I, you think, goes to at least page 45, perhaps even page 60 – you’re not sure.
I’m going to say the most terrible word to you. I hope you’re sitting down. Here’s what you’re going to have to do. Cut.
In any script there are x number of scenes you actually need to move the story along. In your script you have at least three variations of each of these scenes. Do this: read each scene. Ask, “What does this scene do to move the story along?” Find which other scenes serve the same purpose. Put them together. Now see how you can incorporate all like scenes into one brilliant scene that tells the jokes, shows the character, proves your talent but most importantly, moves the story along. You will have to make up a batch of what I call ego stew – which is a stock pot into which you throw great jokes and brilliant pieces of writing that don’t fit into the script. I realize this talk is causing you heart palpitations. However, you and the script will be fine as soon as you’re willing to accept that true brilliance is simplicity, not complication. If you insist on keeping in all your hero’s lovable antics, then we will not love him, we will want to throw tomatoes.
LET’S GET MORE PERSONAL
Do you feel this way in your life right now: you want to get going? You want to climb out of a hole you’ve been in and make changes in your life? Then on the first few pages your character will be moving into a new apartment, or quitting his job, or in some way going from dormancy to movement. This first spurt of action from your character is the result he wishes. This is an important element of structure. We’ll need to know why you chose to start the story at this moment.
WHY YOU STARTED WHERE YOU STARTED
Does your hero start out with action but immediately bogs down? Was the central question never really clear to you? Did you change the central question many times? Then you might have had big trouble with page 30.
From page 1 to page 3, you managed to get the character going; however, he stops by page 10, because though he has left where he was, he doesn’t know where to go. Your script then goes back and plays his past. You might even have flashbacks. But here’s the flash: The story you’re telling is backstory – the character’s history. He’s still there; he isn’t yet here. You are telling us where the character has been, not yet where he’s going.
HOW DO I GET HERE FROM THERE?
Picture the whole first act. Did you throw your hero out into the world on page 1 and then find him pounding on the door to get back in by page 10? Is he somehow missing or asleep from pages 10 through 30? Look at metaphors. Is he dragging around excess baggage? Has his watch stopped? Look at the dialogue. Are minor characters saying, “Where’s Marty?”
Here are two symptoms:
Did you get to page 30 in your random draft and come to a stone cold stop?
Do you have everything you know about your hero in the first 30 pages but nothing seems to be happening until page 30?
Your page 30 is actually where your movie starts. Look at it now; see if this allows Act II to suddenly come alive.
Does this realization make you feel free? Kind of like chiropractor popping your spine back in alignment. Great.
Now what are you going to do with pages 1 to 30? Keep them. Just add page-3 and page-10 declarations that move us forward in the story. Notice what backstory scenes you don’t need and get rid of them. That way you’re free to move the story forward.
Okay, that’s enough of The Big Picture for today.
Let’s rewrite pages 1 through 10.
This is the day you’re going to switch modes. You are going from heart to head.
Where up until now we’ve dashed down pages, now we’re going to fill in holes.
Read your pages 1 to 10 again.
Here’s your page 1.
There’s a metaphor on this page. It will give you a huge clue as to what your story wants to be about.
Here are some examples:
A stallion running wild; cut to main character in prison. This story is about freedom.
A main character trips over his own feet. The story is of him learning to get out of his own way.
A car won’t start. This is the story of how your character gets from stop to go.
Find the metaphor. What did you tell yourself on page 1? See how brilliant you are when you’re not trying? Take a moment now to see how the initial metaphor tells thematically your whole story.
Your “rewrite part” needs to respect your “write part” for coming up with the perfect metaphors.
It’s your job to understand what the metaphors mean.
The random draft is similar to a dream. You think some image is weird until suddenly it makes sense.
If you have a weird image sticking out that doesn’t belong, ask yourself why it’s there. Here’s what it isn’t: It isn’t wrong. Inner Movie Axiom: It only feels wrong if you don’t know why it’s right.
Notice the scene you chose here. Does it give us backstory (e.g., a young girl in wedding dress fleeing the wedding on a motorcycle)? In other words, do we have a sense that someone already lives and we’re just joining them at this moment? Have you given us a sense of place, time, tone? If it’s a comedy, is there a joke yet? Do we know something about the flavour of the world you are presenting? Do we see character?
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Is your first page very tight with detail, every nuance captured, no gesture left to chance? Did you work and hone and perfect this? Are you now quite proud of it? Look at it now. You have camera angles and more than three details to introduce each person and place. Is your first page mostly description? Free yourself from this right away. See where you can replace tight details with just three choice words.
Give us a general picture. Let’s get the mood and atmosphere. Yes, do choose the details that are going to give the audience information, but hone down. Coco Chanel said, “Get dressed – just before you walk out the door, take off one piece of jewelry.” It’s the one piece too many that you don’t need. See what detail you can eliminate now.
NOTE: What you’re writing here is a script to be read. Before it’s a shooting script it’s a reading script. Get the reader interested – paint word pictures. (It is a known fact that 80 percent of producers only read 20 per cent of the description.)
If you are visually imaginative or action-oriented, you probably have great sweeping movement – out of the plane, through the airport, into the limo, onto the turnpike. Fine. What’s happening? There is a difference between movement and action. If nothing is revealed about the character or the story or the mood or the atmosphere, all that visual “noise” doesn’t amount to anything. Replace movement with action.
Remember, each page is one minute. Look at your room for one minute. One minute is a very long time. Our eye takes in an enormous amount of information very quickly. Move through visuals fast. A picture is worth a thousand words. Show us the pictures.
List everything we know by the bottom of page 1 – it better be a lot. At least ten concrete facts showing point of view, place, character, arena, time, mood.
HOW TO STATE YOUR CENTRAL QUESTION
Your character does not have to get up on a podium and state the central question. For instance a battered housewife needn’t say “my husband has beat me for seven years and I have to get away because the most important thing I want is freedom.” Show don’t tell. Here’s an example:
INT. RANSACKED APARTMENT – NIGHT
Husband exists. Slams door. KAY, trembling, looks at the reflection of her swollen eye in goldfish bowl.
KAY: (to fish) At least you’re free.
This line of dialogue does a couple of things. It gives us story, what situation Kay’s in. It also shows how she feels about her situation, how she’s handling it, what her character is; and mainly it foreshadows that she wants freedom. Here’s a woman so desperate for communication she’s talking to a goldfish.
Did you say something on page 3 and something on page 10 that tells us who your story’s about and what it’s about?
Here’s an example:
If I don’t get those guys I’ll never be able to show my face around here again.
WHAT IS A SCENE AND HOW DO I MAKE MINE WONDERFUL?
Enter a scene at the last best moment. A scene does not need a beginning, middle, and end; it needs to take care of business and be done.
Ask yourself what this scene needs to show. You can even make a list. Then let your imagination do the work of coming up with the best way to show these things. It does not have to be one scene. It could be a series of quick cuts.
Once you’ve shown what you need to show, get out.
You don’t have to end the action. There’s another scene right behind this that keeps it going. Get out as soon as you show us what we need to see. Think in cause and effect, cause and effect. This scene causes the next one. The next scene is the effect of the previous one.
Answer these questions about each of your scenes.
What is the purpose of this scene?
Is this the best possible way to convey that purpose?
Do I need this scene? Does it advance the story? Did I already express the information? Does this scene build from the one before? Did the scene before cause this scene? Is this scene the effect of the scene before it?
Is my story building? Does the audience know a little more?
Is my hero different now than in previous scenes?
Do I know where he came from; where he is going?
Do the scenes reflect how I wanted the story to progress?
Does my hero stop action by saying, “We’ll talk about this in the morning.”?
Do I drop the dramatic ball by letting too much time pass between action and expression of emotion?
Do I stop one action and invent another? Do I let action build by stacking events layer upon layer?
Q: What can I do? My dialogue seems flat.
A: We hope that up until now you have been conjuring your scenes from real life, not from remembered movies, in other words, from what you would say if someone had a gun to your head, rather than from what have you heard said in a thousand such scenes in a thousand previous movies.
Look at your dialogue. Is it revealing enough about your characters and their relationships, or is it just “Hi, Joe.” “Hi.” “This is Sarah.” “Nice to meet you.”
Q: I have lots of description, but nothing’s happening. How can I create more action?
A: You’re controlling action by making the description too detailed.
Don’t tell us what we can’t see in the description. Do your characters talk rather than take action? Read one of these “talking heads” scenes. Now decide what the scene is supposed to convey and do that in a single action and no dialogue. Do that now.
Q: How come my story seems fake when it’s based on a real-life occurrence?
A: You’re not just telling the whole truth yet. If you have a real story but you tell fake parts, those are the parts we won’t like and will know are false.
Tell your truth and it will be true for others. If it’s not true for others, you just haven’t told the whole truth yet. Stop keeping secrets and it will have value.
So that’s plenty enough to get you through the first ten pages. Just concentrate on those today. We are off the whole picture and onto each page.
WHAT TO DO TODAY
If you haven’t switched from the overview to the specific, then go for a walk before you rewrite pages 1 and 10. In the random draft, we were seeing the forest; now look at the trees.
Before you begin to write, do two things to release your creativity: listen to music, and then take a deep breath, close your eyes, roll them up into your head, and feel your eyelid tweaking. Now you’re in an alpha state. It’s a particularly smart part of the brain.
Hold this thought: an artist takes us by the eye and leads us through his painting; he shows us what’s dominant and what’s subordinate. You now need to take us by the heart into the world you want us to experience.
Go now and rewrite pages 1 through 10. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~
©Andrea Nicola Dodgson, 1971.