1) Be clear about your central character. Who is your central character and what journey does your central character take? Have a sense of your central character at the beginning of the journey and how your central character has changed (if applicable) by the end of the journey.
2) Try to have a good idea about the central character's major relationships in the story. How do these relationships help define the central character?
3) Do you lose important characters for long periods of time in your story? (When changing locations this happens sometimes.) How do you keep all your important characters "alive" during the story?
4) Are you trying to tell too much with dialogue? How do you make dialogue count? Can you eliminate expository dialogue? How much of your story can you tell "visually"?
5) Are your scenes starting too early? Do the scenes run too long past their completion? Each scene is like a miniature film with a beginning, middle and end. You can usually hone a scene effectively by eliminating excess at the beginning and end of your scripted scene.
6) Point of attack is important for the screenplay itself and for each scene within the screenplay.
7) How many lines of action are you able to develop in your screenplay? Don't try to bring each scene to a completion. Leave the scene open. Move to another scene. Have a sense of the scene that you have left still developing. When you return to the scene, it is further along. You can have a number of scenes progressing off screen while you are presenting the onstage scene.
8) However, we should see the key choices the character makes on screen. Pay close attention to the choices that your central character makes. Choices (ranging from expedient to moral) help to define a character.
9) In your structure pay close attention to the "discoveries" your central character makes. Where you place them in the progression of the story is very important.
10) Do you know about "superior position" in your story? What does the audience know that the character does not? What does the character know that the audience does not? Who in the story is in the "superior position" with more knowledge than other characters? What and when does your character know or discover something important? Does the audience know something before the central character does? Do the audience and the central character discover something at the same time? How does the concept of "superior position" affect your storytelling?
11) Have you defined your central character's obstacles? How does your central character overcome the obstacles?
12) Have you looked at transitions? What is the hook that takes us from scene to scene?
13) Have you looked at the contrasting rhythms and tones of your scenes? Every scene should not be the same length or have the same emotional feeling.
14) Do you know how to storyboard your treatment or subsequent drafts of your screenplay? Have you thought about color-coding your central character, the different relationships of your central character, or key locations? I will talk more about strategies in storyboarding your individual projects.
Until then, best wishes.
And now to structure, that fearsome harpy of a word. When I transplanted from central Canada to the west coast, I came by train. The progress of any dramatic piece is not dissimilar to that train journey. First comes the wild surge of excitement at departing for places unknown - that's your HOOK. I cannot exaggerate the importance of The Hook, especially if you're writing for the MOW market, where the fickle viewer is off playing channel hopscotch if you don't capture his attention instantly. But even in the movie house, where presumably you have the advantage because the spectator has paid his admission, a good Hook yanks the audience in. Who can forget Paul Newman, drunkenly decapitating parking meters in the opening of COOL HAND LUKE? Now there's a guy you just have to know more about.
Then, your screenplay train starts to roll. The passengers mingle, getting acquainted, establishing their ground, declaring (or disguising?) the purpose of their individual journeys. We find out which we like, which we don't, and which way trouble may lie. And sure enough, trouble strikes when the train hits a blizzard crossing the prairies. Tempers fray at the delay. Some people want to get off and take a plane from the nearest airport, but the blizzard has shut down the airports, too. The train begins handing out courtesy drinks, which only worsens the situation. Will this train get through or not? And that's ACT I.
By morning the tracks have been cleared and the train can begin its ascent of the eastern slope of the Rockies. The scenery is gorgeous (and getting gorgeouser! with each passing mile), and the passengers can relax a little. But not the train crew, because they know something the passengers don't; this train is just now headed for the toughest part of the journey, through the towering Rockies, which grow steeper, twistier, and more treacherous as the mountains grow higher and higher. A decision must be made: whether to take a chance and barrel through avalanche country, or sideline again. The conductor goes for it; they pour on the power, provoking the very avalanche they feared! But it crashes down behind them as they barely scrape through - and that's ACT II. Whew!
From here on it's a downhill run and it ought to be smooth. Because of its breakneck dash past the avalanche, the train has made up time and ought to arrive on schedule - but wait! Word comes through that there's a runaway on a collision course. To avoid collision the train must make one last wild effort on the downhill run, risking the chance that it, too, could become a runaway. The alternative is to sideline and wait it out, but the conductor's wife is having a baby; there are complications, he desperately wants to get home. So, in one last, all-out effort he bids to clear the collision point before the runaway can reach it - and he wins! The train swoops into the clear and heads down the Fraser Canyon, and we see that we are in a new land. The blizzards, avalanches, and all the threats and glooms of winter are behind us, because here, on the west coast, it's a green, green, sunny January, allowing our train to roll into Vancouver on time - its problems behind it. And that's ACT III.
Just in case you're the kind of writer who doesn't want everything tied up in a pretty bow, don't forget the conductor's wife and her "complications".
The above, I hasten to note, is not a factual account of my own journey west. Had it been, I might have turned tail and run back to the flatlands, where I could have expired modestly from the combined effects of heatstroke and bordeom.
But the analogy, simplistic though it be, serves well enough to demonstrate how structure is achieved. Set up an objective, then throw frustrations and escalating problems at that objective. Depending on the complexity of your story (and the producer's preferences), you may find yourself dividing your story into three, five, or more pieces. But remember always to end each segment with something which makes us want to see the next piece. This last is especially true when aiming for the MOW market (more prolific, more accessible). The number of commercial breaks scheduled will determine the number of breaks you need. But the formula is still the same: set your characters' objectives, put them at odds with each other, because ALL DRAMA IS BASED ON CONFLICT, and see how, and how many times they can thwart one another. Then resolve the promblem - the crime is solved, the lovers united, the sufferer from a terminal illness undergoes a miraculous remission (or dies). But whatever, coast to a fast finish. Once the resolution is apparent, the film is essentially over.
In every sequence of a screenplay, there must be an objective. It may be a scene with no dialogue - the lonely rider is crossing a seemingly endless desert, striving for the next waterhole. Then, complication, his horse dies under him. New objective, to make the waterhole on foot; it shimmers before him, a glowing refuge in the desert. He staggers on. He reaches it: objective achieved! But no! It's just a mirage. (His objective thwarted.) He collapses, prepared to die. He's lost his horse, he's lost his hope. Then, he remembers cactus; the juice from the cacti can keep him going; he slits one, two, three, lapping the moisture they contain, and rises to press onward toward the town: "Paradise Lost, here comes Cornpone Finlay! (Objective regained.)
Things can become much more complicated as you begin to weave together a variety of story lines and their separate objectives, but why not stick with the simple for starters. Let me suggest a couple of films with which you might wish to acquaint, or re-acquaint yourself. Have you ever seen MEMBER OF WEDDING? If you'd like to know how the central character can be her own worst enemy, it's a good one to watch. The struggle is all within herself. Then try THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, where the central character's sole objective is thwarted by external opposition. They are both very simple, and exceptionally beautiful films. And, by the way, both are adaptations.
You might find it very helpful to try an adaptation, rather than grapple your way through creating characters, a story to suit them, and tailoring them all to meet the limitations of the screen. Just a suggestion, but one that may help you on the long, long, winding road which can lead to fame, fortune, and best of all, the satisfaction of knowing you actually wrote a screenplay!
And if I have made all this sound exceptionally simple, well, that was my intent. There is no need to confuse the issue at this point with terms such as "the arc of the story", "marketability", "targeting", etc. All stories, and the structures thereof, consist of a series of escalating events, hung on a clothesline of human emotion. This clothesline is supported by passions, yours, and the passions of your characters as they strive to attain their objectives. Plenty of time later to tinker and fiddle and revise, all of which processes are made infinitely easier by the computer - the "hired man" in the messy world of creative art.
Gerry Potter: Show, Don't Tell & Conflict (post to the Introductory Playwriting Workshop)
I'm going to make my missive today about 2 things that have arisen out of the scenarios we have been developing. The first is the SHOW IT DON'T TELL IT PRINCIPLE. The next is the use of conflict and its development through obstacles and complications.
Show it don't tell it. One of your most important principles, and one that has several meanings, all of them essential to good playwriting.
Meaning #1: Your themes come through, not by having your characters speak them, or by your telling the audience what to think, but by making the story illustrate the themes, so that the audience can observe the interactions of the characters, discover the story, and come to their own conclusions. It is crucial that your story actually illustrate the themes you want it to, clearly and through story (dramatic action). If it does not illustrate your themes, you have a choice: change the themes or change the story. Look at your scenario closely and say, if I were the audience, watching and hearing this piece, what conclusions would I come to about the story, about the characters, and about life? For example, Macbeth clearly illustrates the terrible conflicts and tragedy that are led into by ambition and greed that have become obsessive. It is not just about how things mess up when you listen to your spouse. (If it were about that, the first scene would not show Macbeth meeting the witches and reacting strongly when they tell him he will be thane and king; it would give us a scene between the married Macbeths right off).
This doesn't mean that all plays are thesis plays (some are just good yarns, with theatricality) or propaganda, though your play may come across as preaching or propaganda if your story and characters don't have some plausibility and dramatic probability (i.e they are consistent within the dramatic conventions of the world you set up, and follow upon their previous actions and interactions) .
Meaning # 2: Your significant events should happen onstage, not offstage or between scenes or acts. It is through the development of the story AS WE SEE IT AND HEAR IT onstage, that we in the audience come to our conclusions about the characters and the story. We need to see the characters in conflict, going through changes and discoveries, not just hear about it after the fact. This doesn't mean you can't have strong antecedent action or backstory for your characters and story; in fact, the classic technique employed by Ibsen and others is to start your story as close to the crisis point as possible and let the backstory come out through the dialogue slowly. The point is to have your most significant, life-changing events and crises happen onstage. And remember that if you want your audience to feel something strongly, you probably have to take them through that experience in dramatic action (ie. if you want them to regard a character as, for example, abusive, you have to show the character abusing someone)
Meaning # 3. Make it visual. The theatre, while it uses language well, is still very much a visual medium.
Meaning #4. Don't depend on a narrator (or speeches) to tell your story, unless that narrator has some other functions particular to the play (as in Brecht, Nicholas Nickleby, and Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa). Show it through dramatic action as much as possible.
Part 2: Conflict
The heart of drama is conflict. Conflict is inherently interesting to us as humans (witness the fascination of spectator sports or the Olympics, or a schoolyard fight). It also creates a tension we wish to see resolved -- and we wish to see HOW it is resolved, and who wins, and why. Conflict ranges from the barely perceivable, mildest resistance through to deep, desperately fought battle, and may include gameplaying and competition. But it gives us story -- we in the audience feel tension and suspense; we want to see what happens next, what tactics are used by the characters to win the conflict, how they respond to the previous tactics, how obstacles strengthen or are overcome, how new complications or plot twists are introduced and dealt with. Your play needs a CENTRAL CONFLICT, and may well have secondary conflicts. It needs OBSTACLES that keep the characters from achieving their OBJECTIVES (GOALS). Your characters need to care deeply about their objectives and fight for them tenaciously (even if they are not aware of them). They employ TACTICS to win the conflict and overcome obstacles, and it is through the interplay of changing tactics that character and story are revealed. (As in the Lanford Wilson scenario, or to use another example, Hamlet. Hamlet's objective is to see justice done. His main obstacle is Claudius who has power and the confidence of all. But before he can even take on Claudio, his first OBSTACLE is to find out if Claudius is actually the murderer (and the Ghost be believed). To do that his first TACTIC is to arrange for the MURDER OF GONZAGO to be performed in court, so that he can watch Claudio's reactions; Claudius then responds with his own tactics to hide his guilt and get rid of Hamlet, and the story goes on, like a tennis game for very high stakes.) Ultimately, the conflict must be resolved, often after a major crisis (turning point) , which may also be the major climax (point of highest emotional intensity) at or near the end of the story.
Frequently, a conflict or story will have a PROTAGONIST (usually the central character, who drives the story forward by pursuing her OBJECTIVE) and an ANTAGONIST ( who resists and opposes the protagonists and fights to prevent them from achieving their goal) . Not all stories have antagonists, but all have conflict.
In your plays, the development and working out of the main conflict should constitute the main body. It should be introduced early in the play (POINT OF ATTACK is when main conflict really starts rolling). It should grow in intensity and be full of variety . We should be surprised by some of the tactics employed and the complications that are introduced that change the nature or the balance of the conflict. It is through the conflict that the characters really reveal what they are made of, and what is important to them.
Keep working on your scenarios, keeping these two main principals in mind. When you become satisfied that you have set up a structure that creates conflict and shows the story you want to show, you can move on to a yet more detailed scenario, where every interaction is written out. But don't rush it.
For our final little chat around ye olde cyber-campfire, I thought I'd talk a bit more about structure -- and about a script that is non-traditionally structured (and non-traditional in other ways, too), but works all the same.
Beginning writers sometimes regard structure as a strait-jacket. I regard it as liberating. Structure allows me to know where I'm going in a script; it allows me to break it down into bite-size chunks; it makes life easier when I'm facing the shrivelling prospect of filling 90-100 blank pages (or 120 if it's a screenplay).
And the fact that I have some sense of where I'm headed makes it more likely that the play will have a built in sense of forward movement and progression.
The three key points of structure in a stage play are, to me, the catalyst (I wrote about that in an earlier post), the end of act one (which usually presents the central character with a new dilemma), and the climax (which resolves the central character's journey, for better or worse). If the play is a one-act, it may still have some point of crisis at its middle.
The one generalization you can make about these three points is that they will all involve, or have impact upon, the central character -- ie., will be something he/she does, or has done to them. They're the points at which, no matter how far afield you've gone in exploring character or generating sub-plots and incidents, you drag the play back to its through-line.
That's another useful concept, I find: through-line. It means the central core around which the rest of the play is wound -- kind of like the wire that an ivy or grape plant twists and turns about as it grows. Usually it's the journey of the central character, and to find it I ask and answer a few simple questions: what does the central character want, what does he/she do to get it, what (who) stands in their way, what do they do to overcome that opposition, do they get what they want or not?
It's usually at this point that somebody throws up their hands, or throws down their copy of "The Structure of Action", and yells "Oh, honestly -- we're talking about plays here, not cars! If I'd wanted to be a mechanic, I'd have gone to trade school."
These people are wrong -- and they're right.
These concepts are starting points, rudiments. The most interesting plays often move beyond them. That's what makes those plays fresh, and/or great.
I'd like to offer as an example a play I saw for the first time a few weeks ago -- Carson McCuller's "The Member of the Wedding". What a wonderful piece of work.
Actually, I didn't even see the play -- I saw the movie adaptation of the play, starring a young Julie Harris. And I haven't been able to dig up a copy of the script -- just a synopsis-- so to some extent I'm working from memory. Here's what I noticed.
The play is conventional in that it has a clear central character, Frankie (her name has nothing to do with why I like the play -- I think). But it's less traditional in that Frankie doesn't have a single important relationship -- she has a bunch of them: with the maid who raises her, with the boy next door, with her brother. (It may be significant that the play comes from a novel.)
The play has a clear catalyst -- the return of her brother with his fiancee. And Frankie has clear wants -- in the short-term, to go off with her brother and his new wife; in the long- term, to find, as she puts it, "the we of me". But structurally the play moves well beyond its logical climax -- when Frankie finds out that she can't possibly go off with the newlyweds -- to explore the emotional impact of that upon her, and the growth that eventually results. In the same way, many of the scenes continue on past the point you'd expect them to (once their narrative job has been done), to further deepen the characters' relationships or simply juxtapose one mood with another. The whole last two minutes of Act Two is nothing more than the singing of a spiritual.
You'll have to read or see the play, or see the movie, to really know what I'm talking about. The point is, I hope, that the "rules" of playwriting which we've been discussing for these six weeks are neither entirely untrustworthy, nor sacred. I like to think of them -- of craft, that is -- as a long dock projecting into a deep lake, upon which I will set sail. The dock gets me there. The lake is where the life is.
For another, more comprehensive exploration of dramatic writing, we