Wednesday, July 8, 2009

We Get Requests - Getting past Go (or Act One, to be precise)

Here it is - the first topic suggested by a reader of the blog!

And it's about a situation I've found myself into more than once. I just hope that my musings and suggestions on the matter are of interest and can help you out somewhat!

When I was a kid, I loved writing stories. It was one of my favourite pastimes.

Well... I loved writing the BEGINNING of stories.

You see, I was going to be this amazing science fiction author, and I had a couple of books full of pulp magazine covers of the '20s and '30s - wonderfully evocative pieces of popular art which couldn't help but get the heart and imagination of a twelve-year old pumping. And these covers inspired me to dream up my literary masterpieces.

Except...

As soon as I sat down at the typewriter (my god, was I ever that young??), and started typing away, by the time I reached the end of the first page, I had a 'far better' idea for another story. Which I started right away - this was the one I was going to tell, no matter what!!

Except... ad infinitum.

More than thirty years later, I still struggle with the same problem. Not when working on a TV series, but when working on my own spec projects and ideas. I'll go over the same part of the story ad infinitum, and end up with nothing but a first act that's all dressed up and has nowhere to go.

So what's at the root of this problem?

There are a few causes. First and foremost: FEAR.

Fear of failure makes us subconsciously sabotage our own projects. How does this work? Well, if you don't finish something, no one can reject it... (I actually pulled this stunt some 10 years ago, when I had the opportunity to write the pilot script for a new comedy series I'd developed with a producer for the network... stupid, stupid, stupid)

How to overcome this - well, apart from realizing the psychological mechanism at work in yourself and then getting REALLY ANGRY about it, the best ways I have found are 1) get a definite deadline, so you're forced to get on with things

OR
2) get a writing partner. If you're working on a script with two people, there will always be at least one to keep things moving - even if only by goading the other half of the partnership into action. The very fact that someone else is counting on you to write the stuff, is a great motivator.

If you don't want a writing partner, a reading partner or some sort of coach could also do the trick - although you have to be careful with giving someone access to your script or story before it's finished. Because then another self-destructive psychological mechanism can come into play: you've already told your story, the creative urge to communicate has been sated, and you let the project drop because 'it's been done'.

Now, on the level of writing the script, there's also a reason why you can't get past Act One: you haven't done sufficient homework.

It's relatively easy to have an idea for a great opening to a movie, or to invent an inciting incident/plot start which really upsets someone's apple cart and has great promise for becoming an exciting, engaging screenplay.

It's far, far harder to think of an amazing finale for a movie. How many times have you come up with an incredible climax, and then thought 'hmmm, what story would fit this ending'? I'm betting it's a very rare occurence. (granted, if you're dreaming up a new Bond or Indy or Godzilla adventure, you might have more chance of this).

And that's pretty easy to explain. Dreaming up a climax means that you're answering a dramatic question. Which is very difficult if you don't know what that question is and who or what it involves.

Conversely, coming up with a basic dramatic question is far easier. It's also the logical starting point for the creative experience.

And it's easy to get lost in the excitement of the moment. At times, it may seem as if all the parts of the script puzzle are falling into place automatically. But certain aspects of the puzzle don't come quite that easily.

Most importantly: how unique is your protagonist? Has s/he got a real personality, with quirks, flaws, dreams, needs and goals? Or is he just Generic White Male Heroic Tween #245 who's only fit for the lead in Transformers 3 - It Gets Worse?

And secondly: what's the theme of your story? And does the psychological make-up of your main character fit this theme? Similarly, what about the antagonist - how is s/he related to the theme and the values it expresses?

The reader who asked me to tackle this topic said that he once he hit Act 2, all he could come up with were clich├ęs or things he'd seen before or considered trite. That, to me, seems like proof that the above elements probably weren't considered sufficiently in order to create a unique and original story (no matter what the genre).

Then again, another good reason for getting stuck once you're past act One is that you don't know your ending, or not well enough - or that the ending you've considered is not the correct one for your story. And once again, this means doing the necessary preliminary work (and it's intimately linked to the previously mentioned elements) before trying to complete your story.

Something which can help you overcome this problem is using a very detailed structural model, such as provided in the Contour software or Blake Snyder's Save The Cat. Because these models are so elaborate and at times very specific, they may help you formulate concrete answers to the story questions
which elude you. However, this won't work for everyone - it depends on how your creative process works. Some people will feel too constrained by this approach, while for others it will unlock ideas they didn't even know they could have.

But, to sum up, in order to get past Act One, you must:

- Know your protagonist (and to a very slightly lesser degree your antagonist)
- Know your theme
- Know your ending!!!

Good luck!

1 comment:

ef said...

Great! Thanks for engaging the question! Now another. "Know your ending" -- I've read that line a good number of times but no one has ever really taken it apart to say what it really means. IOW, is it as simple as 'boy gets girl' or is there more to it than that? Does "Know Your Ending" encompass the unfolding of the third act in its entirety or just that final standing moment? Keep up the good work! And I sure hope more people decide to chime in soon.