Thursday, 13 February 2020

Diary of a Spec Script Day 35-38 (Feb 4th-7th)

And well, as to be expected with any creative journey, we come to the first major roadblock. I don't view these as negatives - annoyances, but not terrible things. Instead, they are challenges, obstacles to force you to interrogate your process and beliefs in a story.

So, I got to work, rejigging the step outline, following a round of reading and notes. All going well - expanding the teaser, clarifying the action and what each specific character was doing. I was looking to recreate a style and vibe reminiscent of Secret of the Unicorn - nice, creppy house, mobsters and quick wits. All very nice and dandy... until I came to the first big scene in my first act. This is where things started to spin out: I was trying to effectively introduce the core family and give the audience a sense of who they are and what their respective conflicts are. The mum's an overworked nurse struggling to hold the family afloat; the older child is on bad terms with Dad owing to life choices; the younger child is disabled and wants to gain some kind of approval, and Dad's a deadbeat whos given up his real life goals.

At first, I simply streamlined and reordered the scene - it was a before-school/breakfast scene, so just shifted up the arrival of the bus and tightened the time to make it more of a rush. Nothing like a bit of time pressure to get people to reveal themselves. But then, as I progressed from there, more started to come undone from the treatment - the conflict with Dad made less and less sense. Why was he a deadbeat in this way? How did the reason given provide enough justification? What's stopping him from going away or being a workaholic to get away from that reason? This has bigger knock-on effects as the tension between him and the older kid was the backbone of the story - their coming back together again gave the story a heart, beyond the adventuring and treasure seeking shenangians.

I tried to just power through it (in line with past strategies I had used) and, well, it only got worse: the mum had less and less agency in the plot; the disabled child got lost in the shuffle of everyone else; the treasure clues became more archetypical and less inventive. Slowly, the whole thing was falling to pieces and no amount of raw gut determination could change that.

Something author and writing instructor Lucy V. Hay has discussed came to light here: I hadn't interrogated my concept enough and, worse, hadn't pushed my characters enough. It was eitehr too generic, driven more by nostalgia, or too disjointed to make sense or be emotionally gripping. The family are the key to this story: if they don't add up or do enough, what's the point? Treasure and history are nice and all, but what's the glue? What's the reason to care? Why watch/read this and not someone else's adventure?

Naturally, as a fellow writer (possibly a newer one), you might wonder: how did you not notice this in the treatment? In fact, what's the point of any outlining if you can't see mistakes ahead? A valid question, but one which is a bit simple: creativity is not a scientific formula. You cannot just plug in a and b and get c - it can change and vary alot, depending on what you're writing about. Plus, writing about something in broad overviews and prose can create a presentation of events that, when put into a more action-y format don't work. Like I said before: it's easy to tart up weak treatments.

So, I put on the breaks for a few days. I need time away from the project, make notes, brainstrom, and just reconfigure my approach. I have some notions rattling around in my head, but I need space to properly crack it. Rest assured, the fight ain't over...

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Friday, 7 February 2020

Diary of a Spec Script Day 32-34 (February 1st-3rd)

The work of honing and expanding a treatment gets underway. In revisions, I find it good to take your time and really work on individual scenes - especially ones that gives us a greater lens into the chaarcter's mind and psychology. Even in an ostensible old-school-esque adventure yearn involving lost Russian treasure, it's still important to ensure consistent and interesting characters who gain something out of the experience beyond material wealth. In this case, it's a story about ideals and expectations - how we can have something set in our minds, how we get disappointed, and how learn to accept, and possibly even love, the change.

Something which I got from my time on the Corrie scheme was the idea, more so than I had done previously, to treat every paragraph in the treatment like a scene or beat. In the past, I tended to be less strict, allowing one scene to occupy multiple paragraphs to detail and pull it out as much as I could. However, being direct and to the point is an important component of screenwriting and, to be quite frank, if you can say something with brevity, then clearly you've not thought it through enough and are just writing filler.

Indeed, it is tempting to throw in loads of trivial details to pad out a treatment - here is where you can be tempted to go really purple prose in your writing. Now, sometimes, there is leeway: if building up a picture of the world or environmnet helps you decode or unravel the character, then that's fine. But exorbitant detail about things like clothing, or over-descriptive actions, or just minor elements of the scene that don't connect to the core dramatic action - ditch them.

Something else that I'd like to highlight - what happens when you don't know everything that a character will do, or how a scene will play out? Is it right or proper to force yourself to slow down to really finetune one element, or do you just move on? Now, you might think it's the former, since I've talked at length how this treatment was going to be a more deliberate affair than past ones. However, I take the cue from C. Robert Cargill on this - if in doubt, just put in a placeholder for what you want to happen in the scene. Remember, when you write on spec, you're on no one's schedule but yours - do what you have to, but getting it right is more important than being a perfectionist.

Next time, onto the step outlines. Let's see what ends up changing.

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Sunday, 2 February 2020

Diary of a Spec Script Day 27-31 (Jan 27th-31st)

Right, so  went and did some more jotting and mulling, before returning to do revisions on my treatment. Here, the main objective was expansion and refinement - I needed meat on my skeleton.The easiest parts to write, I found, were the teaser (which sets up the world and was the most throwback-y of the story, so I got to indulge in my Herge-impersonation here), as well as the first act (as here is where I had the most clear picture of my pilot's narrative, and what my cast would be doing). The trickiest was the climax and ending - I knew what they were, but writing them down into something visible, as well as sensical, proved to be a lot harder. By my own admission, endings are something I struggle with, whether I know my story's outcome or not (and I almost always do) -  I enjoy the journey that the destination comes off as an afterthought, and can be a headache to tie in.

Thankfully, the treasure hunt aspect of the plot gave me something to anchor myself with, so it proved less of a nuisance than usual. I was feeling more confident, and even snuck in some more details about the world and the characters lives into the treatment, because I could (such as the contents of the children's lunches during a morning school run scene that set everyone up). Was it dramatic? No, but it just gave me another few more spots to paint in as, slowly, the world of my pilot started to glow in my mind and reach out to me.

Speaking of glows, I also colour-code all my acts, which gives me a quick visual means to gauge what parts of the pilot need lengthening or shrinking, as well as just make it easier to digest my work in review and be able to point right away and say 'okay, that's there, and there and there.'

After that was done, I did a readthrough, to see how it played (IN SHORT, PROMISE BUT QUITE WONKY), and then I did a scene breakdown to help marshal my points and criticisms into a gameplan. I should clarify I don't mean a step outline (though that will come soon), though these terms are used interchangeably. Here, the difference is my outline is, essentially, the script without the dialogue - it's all the action. A scene breakdown, on the other hand, is the cliffnotes, the broadest possible version of what every scene does, so I can tell what can and can't stay and pulls its weight.

The breakdown revealed that my second act was too long, with two setpieces sandwiched back-to-back, and my third act woefully short with basically one revesal and a whole lot of chatter. Character development and choices weren't there - it was reading much flatter than I had initially thought - doubly problematic, as the family story is the heart of the piece, the glue that holds the adventure hijinks together and makes it live.

Once again, turned to my notes and began to scribble and pound out little ideas or twists on scenes, as well as what needed expansion in the next go at the treatment.

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