Putting Meat on Their Bones

September 3, 2009

I had to break today from developing the Act 2 step outline when I hit scenes that demand development of the five US College-Spring-Break Students and their parents. Without unique personalities, I quickly became bogged down in generalities.

About those “other guys”

In the first act, I was able to get by with only one of the five students named and fleshed out, while simply referring to her traveling mates as “the other well-bred American students.” No problem with that … until now.

I put away the step outline and jumped right into the character sheet, which is where I’m listing all the characters by name and giving each a short description. This morning, I filled in the gaps for these American students and their parents, most of whom need to be socially powerful — monetarily, politically, and such (you’ll see why later).

Apart from this, at least for the primary story characters, I’m also creating detailed character descriptions — a few paragraphs usually, or even a few pages for major or more complicated, dramaturgically pivotal characters. But not this morning.

More on that later. Today, I just honed in on the character sheet, with an eye on…

Connecting the students to the plot line

I already had a general idea of what personalities would need to be represented among the students, and how their parents would later alter the course of the storyline. Now, having reached a point where I could no longer go on until I took the time to make these kids real, I reviewed all the major plot points, looking for opportunities to heighten the drama or strengthened the story’s emotional spine by interjecting the students or their parents. From that, I gave them distinct personalities that would support those plot points, and also endowed them with real names that felt “right” to me.

That’s now done. And, let me tell you, it was both…

A worthwhile diversion, and well-timed!

Had I tried to mold them into dimensional characters earlier, before the storyline was sufficiently formed, it likely would have been a meandering guessing game, based less on how they would each effect the lead characters or the plot, and more on generic assumptions about what I think might be fun for people to watch.

Boring.

Flat.

But breaking to do this now, the story was hungry, greedy for their existence. It anxiously reached in to my subconscious and ripped the characters out, effectively forcing them into being.

Don’t worry, it’s not as painful as it sounds. Invigorating, actually. I just kinda’ sat back and watched.

So, who are they?

Going forward, instead of just “Sandy, and the other students,” here’s what I’ve got to work with:

SANDY BROUGHAM — A confident, comely, well-bred American lass on spring break from college. She is graceful and intelligent, and smitten by Sean, who is smitten by her.

JIM BROUGHAM — Sandy’s brother. An athletic and affable young man, lacking in the looks department. Not witty, but laughs easily, enjoying the humors of others.

MRS. VICTORIA BROUGHAM — Sandy and Jim’s loving mother, and also a state supreme court judge. Quick to judge, but, once beyond her initial reaction, she’s able to assess accurately, wisely.

MR. JOHN BROUGHAM — Sandy and Jim’s father. A US senator.

JANICE HOROWITZ — Also well bred and intelligent, but this Spring breaker is sorely lacking in self-confidence and social graces … when sober.

COLLEEN SMITH — Rather attractive American Spring breaker. Not from money or power, and not very studious. An athletic daredevil and wicked prankster. Funny as hell.

MR. JERRY SMITH — Colleen’s father. A widower of limited financial means. Dearly (smotheringly) loves his daughter — his only child.

JOSH KINGSLEY — Another US Spring breaker: a lanky and quick witted poli-sci major. He loves a good political battle, but too likeable to get rankled about it, as he artfully employs humor to defuse and persuade.

MR . CAMERON KINGSLEY — Josh’s “Type A” father. A nationally known American TV political commentator. Loves his son, and dearly loves his work.

MRS. RAMONA KINGSLEY — Josh’s devoted mother. A quiet woman, honest as the day is long; naturally inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

Much more satisfying! Now, I’m charging back into the step outline with this bevy of clearly formed characters at my side, spurring me on.

It just gets more fun every day. Tally ho….

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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.


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.