Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thoughts on screenwriting or how stuff floats to the top when you're tired...

Funny how a second can change your life. I was listening to the ’06 RWA lecture series on mp3 the other day (I didn’t go to many of the lectures when I was in Atlanta…) when I listened to Robin Perini’s two hour lecture, Layering Theme and Complexity using subplots and secondary characters, which lead me to her work on Story Magic, which in turn lead me to investigating Robert McKee’s seminal work, STORY.

It’s not just a damned good book, but the first time anyone ever sat down and explained exactly what a scene is, how it works and how to build one. I mean we all toss around the terms, but in talking to people I wonder if they had a cup too many gallons of grammar-juice. Don’t tell me a noun is a predicate when a verb is in the fifth house and all of it depends on dangling modifiers. Tell me in easy to understand, idiot-speak, what the hell is going on, because until I know, I can’t do it myself.

So, unless someone disagrees? A beat is the smallest unit of writing. It carries the action within the scene. Let’s make this scene, “Keegan arriving at the Project and meeting Jen for the first time”. Beat—Keegan arriving at the Project and getting out of his car. Beat—he crosses the parking lot to where paramedics are loading a body bag into the rear of an ambulance. Beat—he meets Chandler who says Jen is in the interrogation room. Beat—door opens on Jen.

A sequence is a series of scenes, usually two to five, which form a greater action.

Okay, let’s get Jen and Keegan away from the Project and into her house where they can hide from the crazed psycho-killers lurking in the bushes.

Scene—(gotta back it up, because “Keegan arriving at the Project” isn’t the first scene in this sequence, lol) Jen witnesses a murder, tries to convince Project officials that Terri’s death wasn’t an accident. Scene—Keegan arrives at the Project and meets Jen for the first time. Scene—Jen has issues because every time her father (Keegan’s employer) interferes in her life, she’s the one to suffer. Scene—Keegan starts to feel (and at this point it’s only feeling…) something for Jen. They arrive at her house.

…which makes the bigger whole-hog action of “Jen and Keegan meet for the first time and it sets the stage for everything that comes afterward, read my story…”

Aka the first sequence. A bunch of sequences strung together create an act. Acts are the biggest building blocks. Together it’s known as the story arc, which as Dunne says in his book, Emotional Structure, needs to end in a way that satisfies the reader. Yeah, I know it has nothing to do with writing the Great American Mid-list, but still makes a lot of sense. I think the screen-writing trio of Hauge, McKee and Dunne, created books which together make a lot of sense. Hague with his “hidden pain and seeing beneath the identity”, McKee’s structural approach, and Dunne with his emotional understructure. TEAM. Te amo. It means I love you. I love these guys. Without them I’d still be kicking around my unsold story trying to figure out what the hell I was doing wrong.

I think the hardest part of learning screen-writing and how it applies to novels was in learning to let go of superfluous stuff. In other words—those babies that you don’t want to let go of because they’re just that cool.


In some way, somehow, everything you write has to be about someone doing something. I don’t care if it’s someone getting a drink, moving from point A to point B, it needs to move. It needs to contribute to the flow of the story. It can’t just be a guy contemplating life, it needs to be—-like dialogue, not real, but a damned good illusion.

One day I’ve got to write a post on Dunne’s index card technique. Fabulous stuff., I forgot what I was going to say. Probably lack of caffeine. I need a JOLT.

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