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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Avoiding Writing By Numbers

A very polite Rouge Waver asked me an excellent question and that is how to avoid writing by numbers. In other words - oh look! It's page 10 and there is a nice, tidy inciting incident! ...and page 50, this feels like the midpoint! ...and clearly this is our main character's redemptive moment of overcoming his flaw! Another Waver had written that he read at some big production companies and would cringe when he saw scripts that were so perfectly cookie cutter.

I'd like to say I had the same experience while reading at production companies but honestly, there were so many cringe-ier moments than that. Have I read a handful of cookie cutter scripts? Sure. I guess. But if the script is written well, really the last thing I'm really going to have a problem with is that the inciting incident falls exactly, neatly on page 10 or that the cute meet is so cute it makes my teeth hurt. But ah - therein lies the rub. A cookie cutter script is not written well, ultimately, is it? Because one should not notice the gears in the machine. Only the purr of the machine itself.

Every writer has a different jumping off point and different strengths and weaknesses. Writers evolve as they continue to write. So it depends on how long you've been writing in your life, what you've been writing and how much time you put into it. But like fish emerging from the mud and putting one shaky fin onto firm ground and lurching forward, evolution is an imperative.

One such stage of a writer's evolution is the Hopped Up On Too Much Theoretical Learning Stage. In which a writer becomes enslaved by methodology and totally subsumes his or her voice and originality but nails everything else technically. The machine is there, all right, but there's no ghost in it.

And this is the script that feels as if it were written by numbers. If you're in this stage, you know it and it's very frustrating. You feel literally enslaved. Shackled. Harnessed to a yoke. And you stop having fun. And you write stuff that is cookie cutter and you know it and it works but you hate it.

So how do you bust out of this particular stage?

Character, character, character. If you have written a three-dimensional, quirky, believable, compelling, original character with shades of complexity, your script just can't feel cookie cutter. Because if the reader is thoroughly engaged in your writing and by this main character, the stakes will feel real and organic - because they ARE for this character. The plot points will feel totally natural - even if they do happen to fall conveniently on page 25, 50 and 75. Because the reader's brain won't be engaged on that level - the reader will simply be along for the ride.

If a reader really NOTICES each plot point, then that means they aren't totally engaged in the story. Does that make sense? Structure, in particular, is like the blueprint for your script - it should go away underneath the fabulous beauty of the house itself.

So if you feel yourself writing by numbers - dutifully writing a cute meet where the couple are walking their dogs and the leashes get tangled - stop and ask yourself if your main character would truly do something like that or whether you've seen too many romcoms and are writing a derivative scene.

Character is the absolute holy grail of good writing. That said, the writing-by-numbers, over-intellectualizing stage of screenwriting is for many an unavoidable stage. And it sucks. But take heart - because it's actually up there relatively high on the scale of a screenwriter's evolution. It's something you must go through in order to overcome. It's fairly normal, you will get through it and again, hey, feel good - you aren't at the stage where you were six scripts ago, when you could not grasp how to execute an entertaining theme.

Screenwriting is math and art. And the art part cannot be taught. It's as though you've been taught to build perfectly symmetrical cupboards and you'd like to do better than that but you keep creating perfectly symmetrical cupboards. Well god damn, how do you do better than that?

There's good news and bad news. The bad news is you can't think your way outside of this box. The good news is what you have to do is simple: Set yourself free and don't worry about the math because you already know it. Stop looking down at the tightrope and start looking up at the stars. Trust your writing. Wax on, wax off, grasshopper. Repetition, practice, preparation and letting go are the magic recipe.

Now get back to work.

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Dave Shepherd said...

I haven't paid attention to structure in a long time... at least not consciously. Everything falls about where it's supposed to, but I don't plan for it anymore.

It's like learning to walk. At first you have to really focus on putting one foot in front of the other and maintaining balance, but after enough practice, you just do it, and you can pay attention to other things.

Maria said...

Thanks for the great post! So I guess those people who say the first thing they do is open a script to a specific page to look for a specific event are not being quite as rigid as they sound?

Thanks again!

Hilary said...

Julie, your blog could't have come at a more perfect time-- I'm trying to dig my way out of that stage right now, lord help me. Thanks for your insights. You couldn't have said it better. --Hilary

Christian M. Howell said...

That's what an outline does for you. I like to use 2 page sequences, so no matter the point you can flesh it out before you write and hit hose peaks and valleys.
Before structural issues are subjectivity issues. It's hard to get around as a screenwriter.
I have STILL yet to have different people give an 70% similar review of my scripts.
I chalk it up as appealing to individuals but maybe I suck. Hard to say. But then sucky stuff will get the same reaction and general analysis, so structure is just ONE of the issues to overcome.
I am haapy that my dialog is always praised.
Wow, I'm doing back flips.

Future Man said...

This is my new fave quote:

"A cookie cutter script is not written well, ultimately, is it? Because one should not notice the gears in the machine. Only the purr of the machine itself."

What I find damaging to new writers is the advice from professionals who eschew outlining or beat sheets to plan the structure of a script. Their advice is to plunk a character into a situation and let the story evolve organically. What these pros don't realize is that they have developed the skill set wherein structure comes intuitively after years of practice. Beginning writers often don't understand the physics as they build their machines and must go through the process of writing scripts with glaring structure before it becomes second nature to use character to mask the artifice. Thank you, Julie -- I haven't seen this issue addressed with such clarity.