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Monday, July 7, 2008

Have You Lost the Plot?

You know that feeling when you're reading a novel and it doesn't feel like it's going anywhere? When it's all sorts of pretty things and reflections but you can't seem to find the plot? A reader friend and I were chatting over the 4th and she said "Reading scripts has ruined me for reading novels. I keep skimming along, faster and faster looking for the PLOT". Believe me, this serves a reader well when they are asked to "cover" a novel - the Wave-inatrix does that a fair bit for a couple of production companies I work for. Being a reader forces one to zero in on plot and quickly. We have to synopsize the story and we have to do it fast. It's a job requirement that begets a certain ADHD which trickles down to you, the writer.

Here is an excerpt from the very first blog entry on the Rouge Wave:

Action lines are not just paragraphs which describe the building, or the car or the dusty street the character is walking down. They aren't just to tell us the character is wearing "khaki pants, a white shirt and dress shoes". Action lines are like paintings. They should be kinetic, pithy and evocative. What do I mean by that? If a writer is describing a mid-19th century street in Nevada and the day is hot and the bad guy is about to gallop up on his horse, then focus on using that action line to really convey all of that. Let us hear a carriage creaking by. Let us feel the hot sun. Let us choke on the dust and hear the sound of the boots over the wooden walkways. Choose words, in other words, that match the mood of the scene and the tone of the script overall. Read produced scripts and notice the way a horror script uses dark, scary words in the action lines. Notice the way a romantic comedy employs lighter, funnier, bouncier words in the action lines. Make the scene come alive. Don't be afraid to sound like you, not some pedantic machine who's read a how-to screenwriting book one too many times.

Here's a little secret: most readers, and by extension, executives and producers, skim over action lines quickly. Particularly if they are dense. We are only looking for key words so we can orient ourselves. The dialogue is the primary place where the plot is going to play out.

To read the post in its entirety, click HERE.

Oh dear, I've lost the plot. Where were we? Ah yes - the yin and yang, the fine balance between writing evocative, cinematic action lines and also moving the plot forward. We are writers, let's face it. And we love words. We love images and moments. We love the feelings that are happening in a particular scene. But sometimes we over-indulge and forget that we must move along into the next moment and keep the story moving. Like a shark. Elegant, mysterious - but always moving or it will drown.

So how do you know if you've done that or if you've gotten lost in moments? How do you know if you've lost the plot? If you have outlined your story ahead of writing the script, you should be in pretty good shape. As long as your outline contained definitive plot beats every step of the way. That's the point of an outline - to beat out the story. Then when you get to pages, that's when you write the moments and visuals and feelings into the pages.

But what if you never outlined your script in the first place? First of all, bad Rouge Waver, bad! Unless you are one of those savants capable of keeping that outline in your head - and they exist, I've met them, but they are a rare breed - you should have outlined. But too late now, right? Well, have you lost the plot?

What about reverse-outlining your already written script? Take a look at your script in ten page increments. Can you pithily describe every ten pages with a set up, complication and resolution? Can you boil it down, in other words, to the plot and only the plot? Give it a try. If your description winds up sounding like: The woman meets a guy she would like to date and they go out on a date - if that describes ten pages - you gotta problem, my friend. Because it begs the question - yeah? So what? What's the problem? What's the complication? Why do I care what happens in the next ten pages? That description would work better as: the main character swears she'll never date then she meets a great guy, they go out on a date but it turns out he is married. Ah - complication. Not a great one, but a complication. I don't get a sense of the genre from that description, that's missing. So make sure you describe each sequence relative to the genre.

Go ahead. Try it. Reverse-engineer your script. Write a description of every ten pages, using bullet points. Now you can check for two things - plot development and escalation. Does the description of your third sequence sound BIGGER and even more entertaining than the description of the first sequence? It better. Every sequence should build on the last. Things should get more complicated with every sequence. There should be setbacks, surprises and twists. The obstacles keep getting worse and more complicated. Just when your main character has achieved something - SMASH it in the next sequence.

Once you have outlined in reverse, imagine that this is a story you are telling at a cocktail party. This happened. THEN this happened! But then that happened! And you wouldn't believe what happens next!

So if you are in doubt, give it a try. Does your script pass the test? Or have you lost the plot?

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1 comment:

PJ McIlvaine said...

Another way of doing this is writing a treatment AFTER you've written the script. While I hate treatments with a passion reserved for the Yankees and Mets, it's a good way to highlight the salient points...and discover which ones are saggy. Like blue jeans. We don't want to sag in the wrong places.