Screenwriting: A Garden of Forking Paths

August 12, 2009

Writing a story as potentially complicated as this one is a process fraught with risks–things that can distract the writer from completing the story or from telling it well.

To illustrate the challenge, consider first the 1941 story The Garden of Forking Paths, in which writer Jorge Luis Borges suggests that life is like a garden with intertwining paths, and that we are each on a path, one that may (or may not) cross the path of another person. Those crossings may be brief, such as when you are waiting in a checkout line at a store, or the paths may join up for a longer, more meaningful time, such as the shared path of a mutual family member, friend, or coworker, before eventually separating again because of death, a geographical move, a falling out, a change in common interests, or whatever.

Inevitably, we never cross paths with the vast majority of other people because of the limits of time and space (if we disregard the quantum physics tangent Borges plays with in his story). Much of our lives then are heavily influenced by the relatively few people whose paths cross or align meaningfully with our own paths through this world.

Using this analogy, building a story — a screenplay, in this case — is like creating a garden (the universe, theme, motif, plot, etc. of your story) and creating characters whose paths shall cross into that garden; you’re choosing how long each will tarry, whose paths they will join up with, and how they will influence the others in your “garden” — your story.

For a story with a much simpler plot, the index card deconstruction process I use may be overkill: just an impressive “pencil sharpening” distraction. Example:

A martial arts instructor sets out to destroy the powerful crime
boss responsible the murder of the man’s wife and children.

That’s a simple enough plotline that I might encourage the writer to get started on the script without wasting time in any detailed analysis (other than analyzing whether or not the story is worth telling at all).

But if your story, like this one, has significant character development,  a large universe, necessary subplots, numerous plot twists, or a large cast of characters, a dramaturgical deconstruction process such as I’ve been describing in this blog can help you tend to your dramaturgical “garden,” so to speak.  I’ll pick up on this “gardening” business in a later blog entry.

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Construct Something, THEN Deconstruct

August 6, 2009

A few of you who happen to also be writers, or are so inclined, have expressed interest in the story structuring board and the process I’m using with it. If it motivates you to try using index cards like this to break down the story analytically to aid in structuring a story, that’s cool, but let me first say something important about the way I’m using it.

My tabula ain’t rasa

I first use the story structuring board as a deconstruction tool . . . which of course implies (correctly) that I have already constructed something. In other words, the board is not Step One for me in creating a story. 

In this project, for instance, I’ve already created an eight-page summary (not quite a step sheet but more than a regular one-page synopsis) that tells the story from beginning to end.  In that sense, the story is complete, even if only at a very high level; I know how I want it to start, how I want it to end, and who the primary characters are. I have a general idea of how the story needs to play out to reach its conclusion. 

So, where does the board come in?

Once I complete a summarized version of a story, and type it out into something I think I can sell (or that has persuaded someone to hire me to develop the full story from the concept), it’s time to expand that into a full story.  This is when writing gets trickier, and when I gain the most value in using the index cards to analytically develop, deconstruct, and order the story’s dramaturgical elements.

But, first, I suggest that you solidify your story summary before trying this deconstruction process. Without that as your first step, your index cards could turn into a granulation nightmare — a thousand points of light when all you needed to tell your story was a few dozen.