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Monday, May 18, 2009

How Do You Find Your Way In?

Different writers have very different methodologies for finding their way into creating story or developing character. If you have ever worked with a writing partner, you know this. It's quite remarkable, actually, the differences in the ways writers understand story - or try to make sense of a nascent story. Some use a particular methodology that they may have read in a how-to screenwriting book and others are more gut-driven.

Having studied many ways of approaching screenwriting, I'm one of those people who has done a lot of writing and had a lot of experience writing good and bad scripts so I tend to put down the cookbook and salt to taste at this point. Many writers love Blake Snyder's approach or The Hero's Journey and hew to their choice very closely. When I went to the Writer's Boot Camp I remember learning their methodology and becoming very confused - but - where's the elixir?! There are so many different terms for the same thing - plot point, turning point, threshold - and I think I blew a gasket at one point - why can't there be one universal way of understanding the way stories are told?!

You have to use the method that works and makes sense for YOU and nobody else. If applying specific terminology or methodology feels cumbersome - step away from the book and feel your way in more organically. If you get hung up on screenwriting labels and fixated on them (I seriously got really hung up on the terminology of The Hero's Journey for awhile there) then that's a sign that you're paying more attention to the way somebody else defines story than to the intuitive feel you need to develop on your own.

I personally think the most descriptive words about writing a story are: Get your character up a tree and throw rocks at him. I know that's pretty reductive, but for me personally, I write story from a very character-driven perspective. What's the overarching premise? What does the character want? What do they need? It is the conflict between that want and need that drives the story forward. You can't drop a plot onto any old character and have a necessarily entertaining outcome.

In the first 10 pages of your script, you establish the world your character lives in. You establish his or her flaw (which is the tension between the want and the need) and you throw a giant rock into the pond - what goes wrong? What new situation arises that forces your character to change? Mind you - characters will do anything NOT to change and not to deal with their flaws.

For my money, templates do not apply to all stories or to all characters, so saying thus and such methodology/philosophy must happen in thus and such sequence is confining and too one-size-fits-all. But there are writers who work with a prefab construct just fine, and can take that way outside of the box, too. But not me. I need more freedom. I need to put down the cookbook and play. I know I need to be entertaining. I know my main character needs to have a satisfying arc. I know where the act breaks need to go and I know there needs to be a highly entertaining "battle scene" (see, WBC lingo; I can't escape it) in the next to last sequence. That's enough for me.

So - what works for you? Is there a particular method you use when sketching out your story? Or have you concocted your own way? Do you combine different methods? How close or far are you from throwing down the cookbook and intuiting story?

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J.J. said...

I tend to lean toward (and I get very leery of "method" writing) the "staying true to character" approach to writing...That is, I play the what would my "hero" do in this situation game. And everything else springs from that.

I guess that's sort of organic, right?

Dave Shepherd said...

I have my own way of doing pretty much everything. I use my own structure, which dictates how I do everything else.

And the structure changes for each story.

The Hero's Journey structure only works if you're, you know, doing a Hero's Journey story.

The danger of too many how-to books is that it tries to force you to use the same template on everything you do, when some stories would work better if you approached them from a different direction.

I think being too locked in to any theory -- including your own -- is a mistake. You should be doing what's best for the story, which may not be the way you already do things.

Luzid said...

Sequencing, combined with Snyder's beat sheet -- a road map I more or less travel unless something emerges that I didn't find when breaking story originally (almost always better than the initial plot blocking).

Christian M. Howell said...

I think that's the most difficult journey a screenwriter has to take. When I decided that I would change careers in favor of the more cinematic pursuits I researched so many methods my head spins - partly because being a developer requires enough research.

In the end I think I determined a blend of topics into what I like to called "element abstraction."

It's not really a scientific term as much as a business term. I mean elements sell cinema: traditional heartfelt story elements; breathtaking moments - dramatic, suspenseful or comedic; character moments, directorial opportunities, etc.

The simple yet complex thing is that you can't leave any out and there are probably a few more that could be gathered through research.

I have a few contacts but I am cognizant that screenwriting isn't the job you interview for and get hired for a generic purpose. You get hired for a specific purpose and money isn't "two weeks away" in all cases.

And the bigger the paycheck the more fragmented portions are in terms of "expected output as per notes."

I can say that I have leaned more towards the 4 Act structure but I am fluctuating dependent upon story between higher levels of division.

Some successful people use 8 Acts. I think the learning of multiple styles does have the advantage of allowing for flexibility in the construction of the the necessary elements.

Stan said...

What was wierd for me was I have written several scripts and they all just fell right into place storywise. I didn't apply any method or follow any 'beat sheets' or any of that. They all had three acts, 'inciting incidents', turning or plot points, etc. organically. And I definitely wasn't thinking anything about those terms while I was writing them. For me a lot of these terms ('character arc' is my favorite one to loathe) and templates take all the fun out of a fun story and make talking about it boring as hell. For instance, I'll quit writing altogether when I'm not entertained by what I create.

I don't do outlining and most everything comes out just fine storywise. I have to admit, though, I have reached the point where my writing seems to be just lacking (for me) that one extra special ingredient I'd like for it to have. What that is, I don't know yet. Maybe sprinkles of freakin' pixie dust.

I'm moving to a more intermediate phase of the craft, and seeking out more advanced methods of understanding structure, and definitely looking into things like sequencing more. There is a mysterious, magical, hidden structure to movies and once you figure it out for yourself as a writer, you definitely have achieved an important milestone which you can apply again and again.

I quote or misquote Curly in City Slickers: "You know what the secret to life is?...One thing. You've got to find out for yourself." A screenwriter, if they are any good at all, will eventually reach the point when they've found that 'secret', for them, to screenwriting. In the meantime, reading books on structure cant hurt. There is a structure to it, but there is also a craft. Structure can be taught but craft has to be learned through practice. Then again, a strong voice, talent, and intuition can launch a lot of noob writers off on a career like Mine That Bird winning the Kentucky Derby.

Désirée said...

I use Blake Snyder's beat sheet to plan the story. That is the first thing I do in the process.

Then I split it down to scene level and make sure there is some form of conflict in every scene and write down why the scene is needed.

I need to plan, otherwise I get an unsorted mess.

But once I've started to write it is gut feeling.

Please feel free to visit my blog that is dedicated to my progress.

Joe Public said...

Follow a character's will, and just about everything about him, his supporting cast, and his world all fall into cool, original places.

It's something I just discovered in the last couple weeks and I've been exploring and studying the hell out of incessantly.

Sandford said...

After reading the major books on craft and learning the software of Movie Magic, I wrote a normal three act screenplay. They say write what you know and sure enough, it got optioned. Mainly because it was like the reader was surrounded by the story world (which I worked in for years). You could tell I knew that industry.

Embed yourself into the world of your story so deep that any one who reads your script will think you know what you are writing about, even if it is fiction. Research... research and more research!

The fourth script I wrote was non-linear. I was tired of writing as per the standard structure, even though my Canadian agent was against doing that. I just wanted to try something different since my previous two linear scripts had not sold.

Wouldn't you know it, it got optioned, but then again a paranormal romance gets everyone's attention these days. lol

Now if they would only hurry up and commence principle photography, because we all know selling a screenplay doesn't make a spec writer a produced screenwriter. Plus the checks are much bigger.

Keeping it real and funny at the same time works for me.