Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Show vs. Tell (but not that kind)

Ira Glass did an interview shortly after the TV version of "This American Life" debuted in which he talked about the difficulties of translating his hugely popular radio show to television. (I wish I could find it online, but I can't; at least, not this specific one.) He said that there were a lot of things he wanted to do with the show that his producers and director assured him couldn't be done (or at least done well) on TV, but that in many cases he couldn't accept their opinions at face value, and they had to show him that these things couldn't be done (presumably by actually attempting them).

I realized the other day that screenwriters go through the exact same process all the time. We figure out an idea that we think is absolutely killer. Could be as big as a whole movie; could be as small as a line of dialogue. Someone else, someone we trust, tells us that it won't fly.

"You're wrong," we say. And we go off and write it.

And it doesn't work.

And we say to ourselves, "Well... at least now I know it doesn't work," and move on.

Sure, this kind of scenario is bound to happen from time to time. And sure, sometimes the other person really is wrong and the thing totally works. But not usually. Only through experience can we develop the instincts that will tell us when to listen to feedback and when to go full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes -- and those instincts are among the most valuable assets a screenwriter can possess.

I recently sent an outline of my latest script to a screenwriter friend. After reading it, he suggested I take a different tone with it. I bristled at the notion at first, because the movie I'd planned was pretty serious and he wanted me to make it funny. But as I thought more about it, and came clean with myself about the problems I knew already existed in my approach, I realized that his idea wasn't just good -- it was very possibly the specific change I needed to make to make the script work. Probably saved myself months of painful rewriting, just because I knew good advice when I saw it.

Ira Glass's second season of the TAL TV show was much better than the first. Hopefully my script will follow suit.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The pad and the pen

I'm a child of the digital age. I've lived with at least one personal computer in the house for most of my life. Although I learned proper handwriting in elementary school, I started typing my assignments as soon as I was allowed (probably around seventh grade -- back then, it was WordPerfect 5.1 on a bright blue MS-DOS screen). From then on, my proficiency with writing on computer increased in direct proportion to my impatience with pen and paper. These days I never hand-write anything at length unless I absolutely have to -- not just because typing is faster and easier, but because my thoughts genuinely flow more smoothly that way.

As a screenwriter, this is hardly abnormal behavior: the profession itself is as dependent on computers as Pixar is. However, in terms of the entire process of screenwriting, the only step that really needs to be typed out is the formatted screenplay itself -- which, as we all know, often represents a relatively small amount of time and energy in the grand scheme of things. Nonetheless, it's natural for a laptop-addicted screenwriter (especially a tech whore like me) to want to hash out the whole thing digitally, from spitballing initial ideas to doing character sketches to outlining to re-outlining to finally -- and thankfully -- firing up Final Draft to crank out the script. (Or CeltX. I use CeltX these days and love it and highly recommend it. Ask your doctor if CeltX is right for you. Member FDIC. Some restrictions apply.)

Are there downsides to that approach, though? For a long time I never thought so -- especially once Google Docs came out, and I could easily resume my brainstorming on any internet-connected computer at any time (even my phone!).

But then, while I was rewriting my last script, a few things hit me:

1. I can't really use my laptop on the couch. Any prolonged period of couch-based typing inevitably causes me back pain later on. (This is because I'm very, very old.)

2. Lugging a laptop to a coffee shop -- despite the highly romanticized nature of doing so in Los Angeles -- sucks. Searching futilely for a seat near an outlet. Struggling to fit your laptop, drink, and arms on a tiny, rickety table. Getting muffin crumbs or water drops on your keyboard. Trying to connect to the WiFi. Debating the need for locking your laptop to the table while you get up to pee. (It's a pain to lock it, but you'd feel like such an idiot if it got stolen just because it was too much of a pain to lock it... or do you just take the laptop in there with you? Or do you just try to hold it until it's time to leave. Screw it, maybe it's time to leave now.)

3. The computer isn't always the greatest medium for just jotting down bits of ideas. Writing on the computer is a relatively formal process. Even if all you're doing is spitballing names for your main character, you still have to create a new document, give it a name, and then save it. (Sure, you have the option of not saving it, but who ever does that in the era of 200 gig hard drives?) You can keep all your scribblings in a single document, but it becomes mighty difficult to parse after a while. So, for the most part I've ended up with a huge list of documents that I have to check out individually each time I resume brainstorming. I'm plagiarizing about a dozen in-flight magazine columnists when I say this, but -- wait for it -- weren't computers supposed to make us more efficient?

* * *

The last point, really, is key. Sometimes I have thoughts that just aren't ready to be typed. But I still need to get them out of my head so I can move on to the next thought. In these cases, I need a pressure-free, nonjudgmental canvas onto which to spill my brain droppings.

Enter the pad and the pen.

I can use the pad and the pen anywhere: on the couch (without back pain), in a coffee shop (who's going to steal some paper and a Bic?), even the backseat of a car. I can map out thoughts in as haphazard a manner as I choose -- circling, crossing out, drawing lines -- and scribble out or crumple up anything that doesn't work. Anything that does work will get transcribed to the computer (probably with some editing along the way).

The pad and the pen can come into play at any point in the creative process, too. Sometimes I need to quickly work out how I'm going to write or rewrite a scene in the final script before I sit down at the keyboard to do that. Or I might want to do a brief scribble on character traits or dynamics to remind myself what the story parameters are. Doesn't matter -- the pad and the pen are always game.

They're a great invention. I wish someone had thought of them sooner.