Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Writer's Intention

I'm feeling especially didactic after a few days of revisiting Robert McKee's Story, so bear with me. Anyway, I realize the term "intention" is incredibly loaded and controversial (if not simply ridiculous) in the studio system, where all such precious concepts go to be taken out and shot -- but fortunately for all of us, that's not the context in which I want to address it.

Instead, I'm just talking about the writer's intention in the most basic sense -- in other words, the thoughts and feelings that the writer hopes to evoke from the reader of his script. Though we might only associate this concept with highbrow intellectual scripts, it definitely applies universally.

"I want to make the reader/audience ponder the futility of hope and goodwill in the face of an unstoppable capitalistic machine" is a clear intention. But so is "I want to make the reader/audience laugh uncontrollably and also gross them out." If you're writing the latter script, you might not actively consider your intention, but it's there nonetheless. Even if your only goal is to write a complete rip-off of The Matrix or Pulp Fiction, your intention is clear: to evoke the exact same thoughts and feelings as those movies.

No matter where on this vast continuum a script happens to fall, it seems to me that it's always worth spending some time identifying and thinking about your intentions -- in the idea stage, during the writing process, after the script is finished. The reason is simple: you need to make sure that your intentions come through in the final product.

I guarantee you there's not a single writer, successful or not, who hasn't failed remarkably in this respect on multiple occasions. There are three general ways for that to happen:
  1. The writer never knew exactly what his or her intention was.
  2. The plot and characters didn't serve the intention sufficiently, and/or served the wrong intention.
  3. The writer's intention was off-putting, uninteresting, or unworkable.
Problem #1 is common among novice writers. They're anxious to get started, so they just pick a genre and a cool premise and then they're off to the races, trying to crank out 100 pages before they run out of steam. This is fine the first few times out, when you're just learning to write in screenplay format and think cinematically, but to be considered seriously, a screenplay needs to have serious intentions. Otherwise, the tone will be all over the place, and an inconsistent tone is a big red flag to readers.

Problem #2 is probably the most common and merits the most discussion. For that, we'll go back to the examples of possible intentions from a few paragraphs ago. Let's say you want to write a gross-out comedy because you've heard that scripts in that genre are being purchased like crazy. (Yes, this example takes place in 1999.) However, you yourself are actually quite squeamish, and you're only able to manage to write one or two serious "hahaha EWWW!" scenes into the script. If you have your intention clearly in mind when you're looking back over the first draft (and you're honest with yourself), then it should be obvious that what you've written is not what you truly intended. Two icky-but-funny scenes do not equal a gross-out comedy. They equal a comedy with a couple of isolated gross-out scenes.

On the flipside, let's say you're not at all squeamish and really go for the gusto on this script. By the time you're finished, it's wall to wall with the most disgusting imagery in cinema history. Any single scene would make the Farrelly brothers blanch with embarrassment. Once again, if you keep your intention in mind -- you're writing a gross-out comedy here, not a free-for-all pukefest -- you'll probably realize that the finished product is too repellent to be funny.

In either case, the solution is to pay close attention to your script as you're going along so that you can make sure it's adhering to your intention. It's not enough to announce your intention to yourself at the beginning, then go off and write your movie and assume that the results will deliver what you intended.

Although I've been talking about this issue on a whole-script scale, in practice it manifests in smaller, more individual ways. Characters, for example, have a way of getting away from you when you're not paying attention. I've long been a fan of the icy, acerbic dialogue style of noir films and old screwball comedies, so my tendency is usually to make people talk that way in my scripts. Problem is, if a main characters is always speaking that way, he or she is going to come off like a certain type of person, and that might not be what I'm intending for that script. So I sometimes have to sit back and ask myself, which is more important -- filling page after page with snappy dialogue that makes me smile, or telling the story in an effective and consistent way? Or, that's a great chase scene I came up with, but does it fit in the story? Awesome shoot-out, but isn't that character supposed to be an arthritic pacifist? As writers, exciting ideas flash into our heads all the time; the only problem is that most of them are completely irrelevant to the project we're working on at the time. Trying to incorporate every inspiration that comes to you is not just a waste of time, but potentially fatal to a script.

Which leaves us with issue #3 -- an off-putting, uninteresting, or unworkable intention. I think this problem is best addressed by bouncing your initial ideas off as many (trusted) people as you can find. Winnie the Pooh said it best: "Sometimes... a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets into the open and has other people looking at it." We never like to consider the possibility that our ideas are only interesting to us, but sadly, a lot of them are. If you think it's a really great idea to write a 100 page script about a thoroughly unlikable main character, you might want to see how other people react to the concept before you commit months of your life to the project. Similarly, a lot of newer writers get it into their heads to attempt something that's "never been done." My argument to that is not to say that everything has been done; but rather to say that there's a reason some things haven't been done.

So here's a multiple-choice question for debate.

You've finished the first draft of your script. After letting it percolate a few days, you clench your teeth and read it. It's great -- well written, entertaining, satisfying. But it isn't at all what you intended to write.

Have you failed?

(a) Sadly, yes. Go back to the drawing board and see where you got off track.

(b) Not at all! The results are what matter. If you like the finished product, who cares how you got there?

(c) You haven't failed, but you're not done yet. Figure out what new intentions emerged while you were writing, and find ways to service them throughout the script now that you're aware of them.

As anyone who's read books that use multiple-choice questions as a rhetorical device knows, the answer is clearly (c). On the one hand, it's great that you ended up with something you're proud of and genuinely enjoy reading -- that's a big part of the battle. On the other hand, the script is probably going to read very differently to someone who's not inside your head. Let's say it starts off as a raunchy gross-out comedy (why am I stuck on that?) but evolves into a thoughtful romantic comedy/drama with a tearjerker ending. To you, this is perfect. You get some great, icky laughs in upfront even as you know that the script is going somewhere much loftier -- the best of both worlds, right? Then you give it to someone else to read and one of two things happens. Either she likes the gross-out comedy premise and is disappointed to see how much the script sobers up over time, or she's turned off by the toilet humor and never even makes it to the Oscar-worthy scenes that come later.

You need to take a hard look at this script and decide what you want from it. If what you really wanted to do all along was to write an intelligent romantic dramedy, but you veered toward the gross-out realm only because you thought such a script would be more marketable, then fear not -- it looks like you have the chops to write something higher-minded, so play to your strengths and get rid of the crass stuff. If you're still wedded to the idea of doing a raunchy comedy, then you're going to have to put the brainy comedy/drama on the sidelines while you finish a proper gross-out script. And if you really want to try to pull off a script that turns from American Pie into As Good As It Gets in the span of 100 pages, you'd better find a way to telegraph that intention as early on in the script as possible (and good luck!).

So, yes, there is a reason why I think this "intention" business is so important and actually warrants as much space as I'm giving it. Here it is: readers are smart and intuitive. They will zero in on your intentions within the first several pages, then decide for themselves over the course of the script whether you deliver on those intentions. If your script begins with an epic car chase through the streets of Manhattan, the reader is going to expect equally thrilling scenes interspersed in the remaining pages. (I don't just mean professional readers; I mean anyone capable of sitting down, reading through your script and giving you feedback. A nonprofessional reader may not be able to articulate their expectations as clearly, but they still have them.) Throw some hysterically funny bits into that car chase, and you've stated your intention to deliver an action-comedy. End the car chase with horrific human casualties and you've stated your intention to deliver a realistic action-drama. And so forth. The only way to ensure you deliver the kind of movie you intend to write is to be aware of how each scene or sequence fits with your intention. When people talk about a script being really "tight," that's exactly what they mean -- and those are inevitably the ones that make the best movies.

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