Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The future of screenwriting in the Obama administration

...is not really what I'm going to talk about, but I couldn't think of a good title for my general updates and ramblings. (Note to self: maybe just say "general updates and ramblings" next time.)

In the past few days I came back out of my cocoon of outline-revising, subtext-finding, and central-theme-clarifying, and started on some actual script pages. In my limited experience, the best time to make the transition from outlining to scripting is not when the outline is completely finished, but rather when you're in danger of going insane from doing too many scene summaries without writing an actual scene.

Herein lies one of the constant internal battles that screenwriters face: Outlining sucks, but it's essential; writing real pages is great, but it can end up being a complete waste of time if you don't have the story figured out. But there's a philosophical flipside to this truism -- you can't spend your whole life outlining. You have to write pages eventually, even if you're not entirely ready. Because the outline never tells the whole story (no pun intended). It's a blueprint for a script, just as the script is a blueprint for a movie.

And like the transition from script to film, the segue from outline to script is never completely smooth. A scene that seems easy when written as a sentence (e.g. "Joe decides to tell Marsha it's over") turns out to be incredibly difficult to translate into real dialogue and action. A sequence you'd imagined taking up several pages ends up being easily condensed to a half-page scene. An important transition scene in the outline shows itself to be entirely unnecessary in the script; or two scenes that seemed to flow together just fine turn out to be confusing without a bridge between them.

Fortunately, this process of discovery helps to make the writing process more engaging. Writing a screenplay would be fairly dull if it were simply a matter of taking an outline and filling in the necessary speeches and stage directions. For me, there's a huge difference in the way the story feels when I'm constructing actual dialogue and prose -- for better or worse. All the minutiae is there; the individual moments that get glossed over in the outline are laid bare. If the scene works, those moments add up to much more than I'd even imagined. If it doesn't, every one of them feels painful and out of place. Hence, it makes for a pretty good acid test of the story.

Are there caveats to this methodology? Of course. Like I said, script pages written too early in the process are much more likely to be thrown out as the story evolves. But that's not always the end of the world. It's fun to write movie scenes, even if they might not make it into the movie. It makes you feel like a writer, instead of a person who sits and stares at the ceiling wracking his brain for ideas. We need that sometimes. And as long as you can be philosophical about exiling those recreational pages to the scrap heap later on, there's no harm done.

Anyway, I've really been enjoying the return to banging out pages. The script feels a lot smarter now, more mysterious, less obvious, and I hope I can carry those improvements through to the end. (If not, I'm sure I'll be back here to contradict some of the things I've just said.)

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