Starting a Story Timeline

November 15, 2009

As I dig further into the development of the story, keeping the time-space continuum intact is getting tricky. The plot contains many twists and simultaneous or overlapping forces that come up against the hero’s efforts. Each of these forces, which include different characters or events, has its own timelines, so to speak—things that must happen before and things that must happen after—for each to make sense.  Even if the before or after moment isn’t necessary to show in the movie, I still need to at least reveal that they happened.

For example…

I’ve mentioned before that there’s a “Judas” character—a member of Joe’s police squad that is secretly undermining Joe’s efforts. After Joe catches the Judas in his deception and forces him out, he turns against Joe by supporting Joe’s main enemy, making up stories to incriminate Joe. For those two major actions of the Judas character (Joe’s exposing/shunning of the Judas, and the Judas character’s false testimony against Joe) to take place, a chain reaction of events must first happen to make these moments believable and emotionally engaging to the audience. These steps look something like this:

  • We must meet the Judas character and trust him as much as Joe trusts him.
  • We need to see that Joe knows he has a leak in the force: that someone close to him must be informing to the criminals, thwarting their efforts to bust the cartels.
  • We need to see subtle hints that Joe is beginning to question this squad member, but we must not be able to figure this out before Joe figures it out.
  • Joe must establish the importance of loyalty to his team, so we understand the consequences of disloyalty when it’s discovered.
  • We must see the status quo of loyalty in the way the squad operates, so we can empathize with Joe and the squad when the busted Judas is ousted.
  • Joe needs to test his suspicions against this officer.
  • The Judas officer needs to fail the test, revealing his guilt to Joe.

All of that must first happen before the first big moment I mentioned, where Joe confronts the officer.  Also, for the officer to become bitter enough to testify falsely against Joe later, the moment must be sufficiently degrading; i.e., in front of the squad and with Joe’s wrath against this traitor at its worst. And the other officers need to be in the right place at the right time throughout these preceding moments, so we’re “with them” emotionally at this moment.

And, while these things are happening, the story is still traveling forward, including what Joe’s older brother, the primary antagonist, is doing, and how the press is responding to the major events that Joe is creating, and how the crooked politicians are affect by and reacting to all this.

And so forth.

To keep this growing garden of forking paths smoothly interwoven, and to keep the story cohesive and interesting, I’ve come up with a solution, which is to…

“Timeline” the Story

Today, I began to map out the steps of the story outline chronologically, representing the major steps on a timeline. More than just putting the steps in order, it’s putting all the story threads on a calendar: a time breakout. What it will reveal: How many hours or days have transpired from this moment to the next and the next, and what other parallel events are happening, or need to happen?

The Goal:

I’m hoping to accomplish a few things by doing this:

  • Identify character “presence” gaps  (Hey, we just passed through two days of the story time without hearing anything about the reporter Orlando; shouldn’t he be following Joe’s activities?)
  • Reveal any impossible situations based on time (Wait a minute here … the American students on Spring break wouldn’t still be here on the Island after 14 days! Can we have them arrive later? or add a scene to explain why their trip got extended?)
  • Seek compression opportunities (Say, maybe we can combine Cain’s discovery of Joe’s actions against Bishop with Orlando’s discovery of it, since they both need to happen about the same time.)

I’m envisioning that it will a kind of Gannt chart, maybe even using Microsoft Project to do it, so I can change the view to a standard calendar format, and back, with ease. Not sure yet. But I’ll let you know how it goes.

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The Princess Bride Screenplay—A Good Read?

November 7, 2009

I just finished reading the screenplay for the movie The Princess Bride by William Goldman, and it was, in my opinion, a page turner. I was spellbound, unable to put it down.

You know what’s strange about that? It’s a screenplay, not a novel. And, by the nature of the beast, screenplays are…

Not designed to be spellbinding

By nature, a screenplay is effectively a blueprint—a kind of instruction manual for assembling a movie. By nature, it isn’t written for the enjoyment of the consumer. So it’s unnatural when reading a screenplay feels natural: pleasurable.

But isn’t a screenplay meant to tell a story too?

Yes, of course. But, in a screenplay, that conveyance of the story is stilted—structured in a way that it is inevitably non-narrative: not easily read with the familiar, graceful sentence-to-sentence and paragraph-to-paragraph flow of the standard narrative form, such as you would expect in a short story or novel. 

No, the screenplay is broken up visually into a series of mismatched text chunks of varying widths, alignment justifications, andimage capitalization rules, something like this:

So it’s a strain to the reader’s mind to consistently entertain and maintain the flow of the story as it hopscotches its way through the tangled form of the screenplay.

In spite of all this, reading this William Goldman screenplay—in fact, reading just about any of his screenplays—was as captivating as reading a good novel. Which should come as no surprise, given his own words on this:

“I try to make my screenplays as readable an experience as I can, for a good and greedy reason—I want the executives, who read them and who have the power to greenlight a flick, to say, ‘Hey, I can make money out of this.’” (from his book Four Screenplays with Essays)

From that same book, in his essay about writing the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid screenplay, he points out that:

“We all want the movies we write to get made. And that’s only going to happen if someone likes the script. Executives read a guh-zillion scripts on the weekend. It would be idiotic for me not to have him try and enjoy the ride.” (William Goldman)

That’s a great thing for me to remember as I approach the transition from constructing the step outline to writing the screenplay, as I now am. While it’s important to follow the industry-standard constructs of the screenplay format—to not do so could be a distraction to the reader—doing so doesn’t prevent the writer from making the process of the reading more enjoyable for the executive than the guh-zillion others they’re reading this weekend.

Consider an example of this from The Princess Bride screenplay:

Finally INIGO goes back to cliff edge, starts to talk. It’s instant death if the MAN IN BLACK falls, but neither gives that possibility much credence. This is our two heroes meeting. They don’t know it yet; but that’s what it is.

The last two sentences do two things; first, they tell the screenplay reader (who is usually going to be a producer or director or a hired reader initially, but me in this case) something important about this scene that the viewer will either not know at all, or may only be subconsciously aware of. Second, these words allow Goldman to draw me into the tale, creating anticipation, while making sure that I understand the spinal significance of this moment, which may not be fully clear this early in the story.

He also uses a lot of humor in his screenplays for the benefit of no one but the reader. Consider this example from the same script:

…And what we are starting now is one of the two greatest swordfights in modern movies (the other one happens later on), and right from the beginning…

These words are never spoken by the characters. In fact, both of these example passages are from descriptions of actions within scenes: words the viewer will never witness or hear. They’re only written for the benefit of the director, the producer, and others involved in the making of the movie.

Goldman does that a lot, and with all his screenplays (of the nine I’ve read, anyway). Which makes the reading enjoyable, and even sort of makes the reader feel special … privileged. Like they’re in on something secret. Given his commercial success, I’d say this writing technique works; his movies are getting made because the executives with the power to greenlight them are enjoying the ride of reading his screenplays.

You can read more of Goldman’s wise words to the writer in my writer quotations collection.


More Work Today on Step Outline

October 30, 2009

In Act 2, several course-altering events occur in rapid succession, including:

  • Joe’s first-ever blatant refusal to subordinate himself to his elder brother, who is also a rung above Joe in the country’s police. This forces a new dynamic and tension into their relationship.
  • Joe’s active elimination of the criminal elements puts Joe’s brother Cain and the other political cronies on edge, Joe-prepares-2-fireWeaponwhich causes the politico to rise up against Cain’s unspoken authority, which further pits Cain against Joe.
  • At the same time, Joe begins to employ tactics that he’s learned from, and once despised in, his big brother: using the press to his advantage.
  • As this is developing, Joe’s new take-no-prisoners strategy puts him at odds with his mother and other family members who symbolically serve as his moral compass and have previously been his greatest ally. This puts Joe emotionally adrift, separated from his support system.
  • In the midst of all this, Joe springs a trap he had set, flushing out the suspected Judas on his team. His harsh treatment and banishment of the traitorous squad member sends a message to anyone else operating against him to watch out.

These and several other interweaving threads of shifting pressures should cause us to react on several levels, if I can craft this right.

  • On one level, we revel in Joe’s victories and allow ourselves to believe that that he’s doing the right thing.
  • On another level, we know that his methods, though effective, seem morally wrong and seem to skirt the legal limits of the law. If done right, we should be torn between wanting him to do right, but wanting him to win, but not by becoming that which he’s trying to stop.
  • On a third level, we should feel alarm as we see forces rising up against him from all around, which should evoke empathy.

Keeping these threads fast and active and balanced in what will become just a 10-minute passage of screen time is the challenge of the day. And probably of tomorrow too, along with taking a morning hike with my daughter in the Verdugo mountains.


Crafted Two Steps of Act II Today

October 29, 2009

Sometimes it’s a labor of love, sometimes it’s no labor at all.  Today was one of those lovely days where the story took me along for the ride as I wrote out two of the story steps in the 2nd act.

The labor was done long ago, when I wrote the story threads—those parallel universes of the various characters and other story elements that get woven into the fabric of the story.  Having done that thread work before, filling story gaps and interweaving story elements for these passages today was magically easy.

Fun stuff.

Looking forward to launching back into the story tomorrow.


Just Delivered Act 1 Step Outline to Producer

October 26, 2009

A light-red letter day.

I’ll call it a red-letter day when I deliver the entire step outline.  But the effort involved in reaching today’s delivery was substantial enough that I’m feeling pretty dang peachy.

Step Outline TOC

I’d go out on the town to celebrate, if I weren’t so sleepy. So instead, I’ll have a glass of wine, rent a movie, and retire early.  Smiling.

Tomorrow, I get back on the horse and ride; the step outline for the second and third acts are calling to me.

FADE OUT


Anesthetized

October 23, 2009

Working on a tedious passage of the story’s step outline, my brain needed a little visual stimulation, so I grabbed my laptop and left my home office to go check out a local establishment here in my new ‘hood that advertised good espresso and free Wi-Fi Internet.

As I entered, the atmosphere looked nice enough, but the lack of a/c gave me pause (it’s about 93 degrees here today).  A bevy of big ceiling fans made it tolerable though, so I ordered an Americano and cranked up the laptop.

As I did so, the shop’s sound system loudly pumped out its “background” music. Some instrumental piece with a middle eastern flavor. A tolerable tune, but tediously repetitive.

Well, no biggie; how long can the song be, right?

So, I tuned it out in my mind and got busy on the story.

Good coffee, by the way.

Ten minutes later, I suddenly noticed that the song was still going. And it didn’t seem to build or fade or change keys or …

What the… Could it be stuck in a loop? How would that even be possible, unless they’re using a turntable record player? But surely it was stuck.

So I began paying close attention to the song…

Well, I’ll be hornswaggled.  Indeed, it seems just too repetitive to be anything more than the same three or four bars of music repeating, and there was this little, tiny hiccup in the rhythm that could very well be the skip point causing the song passage loop endlessly.

I should say something about it to the employee, I thought. 

But, no; there’s a line and she looks busy and what if I’m wrong about the song looping because what if it’s supposed to repeat endlessly in this trancelike way and I’m just being culturally ignorant to not recognize that and then I’d be insulting her to tell her that her music is “stuck”and besides I’m here to work on the script, not stand in a line so I can whine about the background music, which is now utterly in the FOREGROUND of my mind, by the way, and doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone else…

So, okay, I’ll push it out of my mind.

I’ve got brains. I’ve got willpower. I’ll employ both to ignore it and get back to work. 

Which I did.

45 minutes later, I awakened to the realization that the damned song was still playing. 

And, yes, it was the same three incessant, mind-numbing bars.

I looked around, wondering how it’s possible that no other patrons—nor even the employee behind the counter, who had been there the entire time, and who knows for how long she’d been hearing the song before I got here—seemed the least bit conscious of this never-ending musical faucet drip. How is this possible!?

Had they become completely anesthetized to it?

Those brainless sheep!

Of course, before I spent too much time pondering how stupid everyone must be to remain so unaware of this diabolical melodic torture technique (which was probably also insidiously pumping subliminal anti-American messages into our subconscious, right?), I had to first humbly (sheepishly?) recognize that I had been able to work on the story for nearly an hour without any conscious awareness of it either.

Like the proverbial slow-boiled lobster, I thought.

Which made me smile.  Because that’s at the heart of this story I’m birthing—how we all become anesthetized to an evolving or devolving social situation when it happens gradually—how we can come to shrug off a condition that would enrage us if thrown suddenly upon us—how we are numbed into a state of resignation when a distasteful situation is fed to us initially in an eye dropper, and then in tiny sips before more lethally poisoning our system with big gulps of it, until utterly drowning us in torrents of bile—how we’re unhappy about the bile, yet willingly stomaching it when it’s gently morphed its way into being the status quo.

Made me smile?  No, not the bile, and not the slow poisoning of a passive society, but the symbolic significance of the anesthetization that I just went through with that endless musical loop. It showed me how easy it is to fall prey to it—how, even when I was conscious of the situation, I felt pressured by social mores to not make a scene: to take action.

I could use this in the story.

As soon as that blasted song-loop stops!

So, like my protagonist Joe Cameron, I set aside my work to pick up the cause of the people—to save them from becoming boiled lobsters.

“May I help you, sir?”

“Yes, m’am. First, I’d like to say that your coffee is very good.”

“Thank you,” she said, glancing at the tip jar.

“Second, I have to ask … is this song really so repetitive, or could it be … stuck?”

She looked confused for a moment—maybe the word “repetitive” wasn’t in her vocabulary?—and then tilted an ear toward the ceiling, listening. 

After less than five seconds, she nodded. “I think you’re right.”

She disappeared backstage and stopped the song. I heard a collective sigh of relief throughout the shop. 

Oh, wait.  It was just me.

But it felt collective, if that counts.

I guess they really had all been numbed into ignorance. 

Wow.

A hero’s sacrifices often go unnoticed, I figured.  Yep, they may never know the great good that I’ve done for them.  Still, I felt pretty good about taking a stand—about becoming a shepherd instead of a sheep.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, my social activism had plucked me…

Out of the boiling pot, and into the skillet:

So now, the repetitive instrumental music is gone, replaced with Elton John’s Greatest Hits, which the employee must be very fond of, because it’s playing even louder than the preceding 50-minute-long instrumental loop that I’d just rescued her from.

Like replacing one tyrannical form of government for another.

Yep.

So, with Elton blaring as the FOREGROUND atmosphere of the shop as I write this story, don’t be surprised if there’s a scene in the movie in which a crocodile rocks a tiny dancer on a Saturday night until it’s knocked out by a candle in the wind thrown by some honky cat called Benny who then jets outa’ there before anyone lets the sun goes down on him.

And we CUT TO…


Readying Step Outline for Delivery

October 17, 2009

While I’m already deep into the step outline for the second act, I’ve gone back briefly today to the first act, cleaning it up for delivery to the producer.

Going back? Say it isn’t so!

No, no — this “going back” isn’t like a retreat. It’s a good thing. And truly a step forward.

You see, there’s an interesting statement by William Goldman in his book Four Screenplays with Essays that inspired me to go back and polish up that Act I step outline before delivery. In his essay introducing the script Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he talks about how the standard screenplay format is so structurally counterintuitive to a good read, being loaded with conventions that almost seem designed to interrupt the narrative flow. Which, he explains, is why, “I try to make my screenplays as readable an experience as I can, for a good and greedy reason — I want the executives, who read them and who have the power to greenlight a flick, to say, ‘Hey, I can make money out of this.'”

How I’m applying that

Even though this step outline is mostly for me, the writer, to help me structure the story and test out the narrative flow before I invest so many more hours in the detailed structuring of the entire screenplay with all the dialogue, I figured that the rules change for the delivery. This outline will be, in two days, mostly for the producer, not me.

As the producer reads it, he will be less focused on how artfully structured I have or haven’t made this first act than how much this outline version of the first act will or will not already begin to inspire him as being a potentially good movie. Or not.

So, borrowing on the wisdom of William Goldman, I’m modifying the first act step outline to read well: to flow compellingly from one step to the next, and using turns of phrase designed to make the reading more enjoyable. For the same good and greedy reason. 😉