27 September 2009

Forgive me, Father...

We screenwriters are a funny breed. We’re awfully good about telling what we do well - we have to, in order to compete. The DIY generation has cornered the market on self-promotion.

What we’re not so great about is sharing what we don’t do well. God forgive the writer who admits to needing help in an area. Oh, the horror! The horror! Imperfection is seen as weakness, which translates to failure in the psyche of all things Hollywood. If we can’t discuss our weaknesses, we cannot improve them, so the problem becomes one of self-perpetuation, a Sisyphean-like existence, pushing the boulder of mediocrity up that hill, day in, day out, only to have it barreling down, crushing us under its weight, and then we start the task all over again.

In baseball, we revere players, who miss the ball seven times out of ten, with celebrity endorsements and multi-million dollar contracts. Why, then, are we so hard on artists?

I was working on my for hire yesterday, and began to ponder this quirk of very human nature. I went into shower (my method for generating the aha! moment), and realized that the solution might, just might, be absolution through confession.

Think about it – how much less powerful something is, once it is out there. To name it is to claim it, and by claiming it, you become the master instead of the slave.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is no Daniel Day-Lewis (please don’t ask me to discuss his politics, I’ll never be able to shut up). That being said, early in his career, he was able to identify his weaknesses, and then put forth Herculean effort, through hard work and discipline, to overcome these obstacles, and, by doing so, propelled himself into arguably one of the biggest box office draws of the latter part of the 20th century. He knew his dialect was unintelligible; he knew he could not act. He put in time – up to four hours a day – refining his speech and his skills, and it paid off.

All writers have talent. They would not be drawn to the craft if they did not. That being said, talent alone cannot sustain you. It’s the work, the hard work put into the craft, which distinguishes writer A (sales, hires and options) from writer B (still trying to complete script 1).

So, confession time. What is your weakness? What muscles need more flexing?

For me, it is a specific form of dialog, usually found in confrontation scenes. I find that, in my early drafts, I write these scenes with on the nose dialog. Absent of subtext and glaringly awful.

Within the rewrite process, I am slowly able to identify these moments, and cull through them, searching for the textual and sub-textual meaning behind each interchange. It is hard and it is frustrating. It is work. I can spend countless hours polishing a half page scene. I ride an emotional roller-coaster with these moments, often questioning my existence, my mental health, and why the f*ck I got into this crazy business in the first place.

That being said, there is nothing better when you have the breakthrough, when the great Aha! hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s better than chocolate. It’s better than cheese. And, if you create your Aha! moments as I do - in the shower - you’ll be clean and fresh as a daisy.

Confession time. What are your weaknesses? What muscles do you need to work out more? What process do you use to make this happen?

A friend and writer, Dan G., turned me onto a random logline generator.  He uses it to issue weekly challenges on his Yahoo! Group; I have begun to use it each morning to generate a logline and write a 1-2 page scene, dialog heavy, as an early morning workout. I allow myself one hour to write and refine, and then put the pages away until the next morning, so I may see what worked – and what didn’t – and use that data to help me move forward in the craft.

Writing is an art, and a craft. It is always in motion, never stagnant. The day you cease to learn, is the day you might consider a new day job.

~ HRH, Princess Scribe

TODAY'S ASSIGNMENT: Commit to your craft. Spend at least one hour each day flexing the muscles that need it. Do this the entire week - every day. Emails, message boards and blogging do not count.


MichelleShyman said...

My weakness...third act. Third fucking act. I always like to end at the all-is-lost. I like everyone to die and be miserable.

princess scribe said...

Dearest Lady Michelle ~

How do you build up your muscles in this area? Do you have any routine, or set way?


JVB said...

Good piece, HRH!

Here's my weakness: in contrast to my earlier years, when words flowed freely, I am now unable to get started. It's otherwise called a writer's block.

I guess part of the block is that I am too self-critical. If it is not something better than I ever did before, I don't want to do it.

I exhaust myself before I even begin. A million reasons not to write.

princess scribe said...

My advice - leave behind self criticism. I went through that as an actress, and became immobilized after 24 + years in the craft.

Forgive yourself. There are no mistakes. Flex the muscles. Move on. You can do it!!!!

Sandra said...

Telling instead of showing. argh. Sometimes I just like to hear myself talk (on the page) and then my feedback emerges as "show, don't tell!" I know, I know. So, what I do is set the scene with all the sensory detail, write the dialogue, and get the heck out of the way. But I keep forgetting! help me, Princess.

Sandra de Helen said...

Telling, not showing is my bugaboo. I love to hear myself talk (on the page) and then my writing group complains that I'm telling them, not showing them. argh. Once I've been made aware, I return to the offending scene and set in the sensory detail and let the dialogue flow. But I keep forgetting! Help me, Princess.

princess scribe said...

Milady Sandra ~

Here's a fun exercise!

Write a series of "scenes" (in whatever form you are writing in, stageplay, novel, screenplay). Let these be short scenes - they can even be French scenes.

Write them SHOWING action only. Dialog free - and raise some pretty huge emotional stakes. A woman decides to leave her spouse ... how do you SHOW this? (hint - she could clearly and deliberately pack a bag as he snores, take off her ring, place it on a table and leave). A young man decides to come out at Thanksgiving dinner ... make them huge, and have fun with them!

Does this make sense? Is this of help?


John M Crowther said...

Somehow this all reminded me of when I was working on The Evil That Men Do, one of those rare times that the writer was kept on location (Guadalajara) for the entire shoot. I handed the star, Charles Bronson, a page of rewrites one day and he questioned some dialogue that I felt was brimming with brilliant subtext. "So how's the audience going to know?" Charlie asked me. "We gonna hand 'em a flyer when they come into the theatre?"

princess scribe said...

Kind Sir John ~

How did this end up? I'm all atwitter!

Alexis Niki said...

Plot-driven set pieces. They frustrate the hell out of me--until I manage to find a character hook into them. They take me forever and feel like a grind.

Anonymous said...

Random comment for "show, don't tell"

I write scenes where a charector can't talk. Maybe they're hiding from someone...

Also, try rewriting your scenes with NO VO's. They are the enemy. They destroy show don't tell.

On to my weekness, I can't write action. I suck at it. I've been writing comedy radio professionaly for years so diologue is my bread and butter. But when it comes to a great action sequence it always seems horrid and fake.

So I force myself to write short films that are entirely action.
I'll never do anything with them but it helps.

Tennyson E. Stead said...

Great post!

For me, it's a question of leaning on actors. When writing a character, I start thinking about a specific actor, or a specific type of actor, and my challenge in rewrites is not to use that performance as a crutch. It's a problem with every one of my screenplays where archetype isn't quite so loud.

Of course, loving actors as I do, those tend to be the screenplays I enjoy the most. Posting on Triggerstreet has been a big help in this regard, actually. Now that I've gotten a feel for the site, I'm planning to post a draft on one of my more precious scripts - something I'm producing and directing myself. Feedback there seems to be more efficient than waiting on people in my own professional network, even if it's not always as as deliberately constructive.

I think this is the draft of that particular film where I've dropped the crutches. We shall see!

princess scribe said...

Dear Sir Tennyson ~

Being a former thespian myself, I can't agree more.

After I get to a particular stage in drafts, I hold a table read. Not in the sense of one for producers, but I assemble actors and a few invited guests to read the story aloud - without advance preparation.

Actors will work hard to make a line work - my theory is that if I do not give them the script in advance those glaring moments will be obvious.

They also help with character notes, backstory, etc. It's a lovely experience!

Alexis and kole - thank you kindly for sharing your thoughts!