Wednesday, June 15, 2011

From Doorstop to Usable Script

"You will never write a good book until you have written some bad ones." – George Bernard Shaw.
I read this fairly simple quote in a group email this morning as I started writing this piece and it struck me as the best place to start talking about writing plays, whether they are for the stage or for the screen. My experience in play- and screenwriting comes from just doing it. Writing, that is. And I wrote a lot of bad ones in the early days.
I started writing plays and screenplays more than ten years ago after Richard E Grant (blessed be Reg forever) listened to an idea I had and promised to read the script if I wrote it. I did write it, and having never written a screenplay before – I had an intuition that I had to write screenplays and after a whiskey or two I’ll tell you why – it was a fairly monstrous creation. It was three times longer than it should have been; it was so dialogue-heavy that it would never have made it to the screen, and it was too soppy and personal ever to see the light of day. But dear Reg, (blessed be … etc) critted it honestly and gave me advice about how to turn it from a really good doorstop into perhaps a usable script.
That encouragement was enough to keep me going over the years. That, as well as a few small nibbles - such as scripts being optioned for production - stopped me from giving it all up and becoming a mealie farmer.
Having studied drama at Rhodes and having lived a life so full of drama it wouldn’t be believed if put into production, I felt entitled to write a play when I was exhausted by the eternal waiting for producers to make my films. Theatre put the power into my court. And, as Mike van Graan says in his online seminar, one sometimes has to become a producer, however reluctantly, if one wants one’s plays to be performed.
This preamble is just to say that my origins in writing are not really academic, and I am therefore not a purist by any means. But along the hard road of writing for many different producers – some in this country and some in Britain – I became aware of the need to learn a little more about structure. So I forced myself to read the scriptwriting guru of the moment, Robert McKee, who’s Story had become the stick with which producers beat beleaguered scriptwriters. I hate being told how to do anything by anyone, but I especially resented being told how to write screenplays by an American who’d never had one of his ten film scripts actually made into a film. However, I had to learn the jargon to survive in the slick world of British film production, and to my surprise, even I who hold the creative process sacred, had to admit that learning a little about story structure taught me a helluva lot more about how to write plays. I took what made sense from Bob (as I call him) and applied it to my work. As soon as I started to do this, my plays improved dramatically (pardon the pun). And screenplay writing didn’t feel quite as hit and miss as it had seemed before.
However, I still remain firmly averse to the pundits who insist that on page 27 I should have my first turning point and on page 65 the second act twist should kick in. (I’ve actually had a script editor phone me up and ask me why there wasn’t a twist on page 27. I couldn’t believe that she’d stuck to that template so literally.) That jargon, by the way, is classic Syd Field. He is another guru many screenwriters and producers pray to. I’ve only just succumbed and bought one of his many books, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. After almost dying of shock at how prescriptive he is, I’ve promised myself to go through the book when I'm calmer and extract what is useful in it. There must be something!
Another writer for writers who came on to my radar screen just after old Bob is Christopher Vogler. His The Hero’s Journey proved invaluable in finally getting my first (though by no means the first I’d written) screenplay into production. His work also led me to explore the originator of his theory, Joseph Campbell, whose The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a beautiful work which just happens to be a useful guide for writing stories. His idea that we human beings all have a similar mythical symbology in our make-up is well worth exploring.
When I was asked to lecture in scriptwriting at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg I was delighted. Finally I could talk about the one subject which I think I know the most about. I don’t know much about many other things, but I’ve kind of earned my stripes and have paid my dues as a scriptwriter over the past ten years. When asked to write this article I thought I would explore the themes put to me in the way I would approach them with my scriptwriting classes. These classes cover both writing for stage and writing for screen and it is remarkable how almost all the rules of dramatic structure apply to both mediums.
The first question posed is why I chose drama over other genres. It’s a tricky one, especially as I am so biased in favour of drama. But to choose to write plays one has to have a passion for telling stories in a dramatic way, whether it is on the stage or in film. One of the ways to find out if you are really a lover of this art form is to see whether you like watching people and wondering about their motivations. This, to me, is the absolute joy of playwriting: putting people on a stage, giving them lines, and trying to obscure their motivations from the audience for as long as possible. Being obvious in the motivations of one’s characters removes the element of surprise for the audience, and is often referred to as being “on the nose” with one’s writing. People seldom say exactly what they are thinking or feeling in real life. Imagine how risky it would be to blurt out that (a) you are passionately in love with someone who is married; (b) you wish you could kill someone because (s)he is married to the person you are passionately in love with; or (c) you are bored to death by the person who is passionately in love with you.
One of my greatest joys is to find dialogue which conveys not only something of the subtext of a character but which takes one inevitably along the path of finding out exactly who that character is. As old Bob says, “True character emerges under pressure.” So if you like writing about how people react to situations in which they are under pressure, write plays. If you like writing deep, introspective reflections about how the character feels when under pressure, write novels. And remember the old maxim of drama: show (the reactions of characters), don’t tell.
The second question is about where one finds ideas for stories. Bob (sorry) says that a dysfunctional childhood is the perfect qualification for being a great writer. So I’m alright. But what if you haven’t had a terrible childhood!? I try to get my students to think about a character first before they find a story. I’ve used a number of ways to find a kick-off point for them. One very simple way to do this is to give each student an object while their eyes are closed. I’ve often trawled through my house and arrived with a bag of strange objects for them to explore using only their sense of touch. While they feel the object with their hands, they are also required to write impressions down. Legibility is a minimal requirement at this point. We’ve had wonderful characters emerge from this sort of exercise. The students then focus on how to build a story around them. For example, one student explored a soft razor-type object used to remove hair after a depilatory cream had been applied. The feminine curves of this object inspired her to write a play about a woman who rejects the imposed format expected of her life and, as a result, runs away from her impending wedding. Another student examined an electric plug and came up with a wonderful character who felt so disconnected from life that she kept trying to kill herself. Unsuccessfully, as it turned out.
Another simple way to find a character as a starting point is to watch people all around you. Try to imagine what sort of daily life the hobo on the corner sitting with his ancient, grizzled mother day after day must have. Or watch the woman struggling with two small toddlers and a wayward shopping trolley who looks as if she could have been a model if she hadn’t become frazzled by domestic life. If you are a writer, your imagination will kick in very quickly and you’ll have a hundred stories after one morning of watching people in a coffee shop.
I find characters are a great way of finding a story, but sometimes stories find you. If you are completely stuck, though, go through a newspaper and examine any one of the stories which grab your attention. Think of the story behind the story.
Or, if you are really lucky, you might have a technicolour dream to inspire you with a story. Some of my favourite plays have been based on absurd dreams I’ve had.
Sometimes you will be lucky and just have something you want to say about something. Then I advise you very strongly just to do it.
As for the developing the storyline in a play, I’ve become a great believer in teaching the classic three-act structure until students are adept enough to break the rules well enough themselves. It’s important to me to know that students can do the Aristotelian thing and create a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. I start teaching my students that Act One (which can consist of any number of scenes) should be the set-up of the story; Act Two is the development of the set-up and should be the longest section of the play (with as many scenes as you need); Act Three is the pay-off, where all the loose ends are tied up and satisfaction is given to the audience (one hopes!).
Once you have mastered that structure without falling into deeply prescriptive territory you can break rules with impunity. One of my brightest students has just written a play which breaks all the rules and is a parody of storytelling itself as well as of The Hero’s Journey. It’s a very good play. But he had to know the rules before he could write this well enough.
If you need even more assistance in finding your path in a story, I really recommend Chris Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey, which need not become prescriptive but can really help you plot your path if you are lost. In fact, George Lucas attributes his success with the first Star Wars to discovering Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces when he was completely at a loss in his script. Both books are well worth a look.
Dealing with characterisation is quite a difficult issue. If characters are to be more than one-dimensional I can’t help thinking one needs to know quite a bit about the world and be a good observer of people. As I said earlier, people seldom say exactly what they think, so learning to be oblique in your dialogue is a really good art to cultivate.
Another really helpful thing to remember is that the most interesting characters usually have contradictory elements to them. Think of a conservative Bohemian; an obsessive compulsive psychologist; an ambitious hippie … I don’t know. You could go on all day. Bob, of course, says that Hamlet is one of the world’s most multidimensional characters, and I agree. At times Hamlet is deeply depressed. At others he is manically happy. Sometimes he is wise. At other times he is rash. He is loving and gentle one moment, then harsh and reproachful another. But yes, he is an extreme example. So somewhere along that continuum is the way to go to create a character who is not a one-dimensional stereotype. Bob also says that making Hamlet interact with different characters who bring out different aspects of Hamlet’s erratic personality is the secret of Shakespeare’s success. This is one of Bob’s cleverer moments and leads me perfectly to the next point.
Dialogue is so important in a play if you are to show many facets of a character. Film can show us a character doing a multitude of different activities to depict the internal world of this character, but it is theatre’s forte to use words and dialogue to do the same thing. I always say to my students that the minute they start to hear a character’s voice in their head, they are ready to start writing the play. I usually get the students to write monologues for the main characters as a way to make these characters come to life.
One has to be very restrained about dialogue, though. As someone who just loves dialogue I have been known to over-write speeches, especially when I first started writing. (And it is usually in the rehearsal process that this comes to light.) But once you have found your character’s voice, try to think of ways that the audience can learn more about that character when (s)he is talking to different characters. Think of Hamlet talking to Polonius as opposed to his talking to Ophelia. How is he different talking to best friend Horatio after he has just talked to his despised stepfather Claudius? Once again, listen to people and the nuances of speech and observe real life. There is no better teacher.
The final question is about production. This is all about teamwork, as everyone who ever writes about theatre (or film) should know. When egos get involved with Prima Donna attitudes all hell breaks loose. And this isn’t the exception unfortunately – there are big egos in theatre. And the bigger the budgets, the bigger the egos. That’s why films are so hard to get made! The ideal way for a scriptwriter to see his/her play get produced is to produce it him-/herself, as Mike van Graan has said.
I would suggest, though, that it is a good idea to get a director to direct one’s play rather than direct it oneself. It helps to have an external eye on the production and you’ll be amazed at the new insights a good director will find when directing your play. It’s vital, though, to choose someone whom you trust with the vision of the play. This is crucial. If you and the director do not see eye to eye at the beginning of the production it can only get worse.
If you are the producer you are also able to have a say in the casting, which is a gift. It’s wonderful to see your own words spoken by people who embody someone very like your personal vision.
If your play is bought or optioned (as it very often is when it comes to film) get down on your knees and pray that the director will see things as you envisaged them. There is nothing else you can do. You have written the best script you can, and now it is up to them to make it their production.
Good luck!