Thursday, January 02, 2014

Plot or Character? Which is driving your script and where is it leading your story?

Everyone who knows me, knows that I view most guides/seminars/consultants advising how to write a script (or produce a movie, or raise production financing) as - best case - a waste of time. There are a few good ones, but most are designed only to separate fledgling screenwriters/filmmakers from their hard earned cash.

That said, I do think there are opportunities to learn something about the craft of screenwriting. Not from books, or consultants, or expensive conferences, but by sharing our experiences as writers.

Recently, I agreed to read a script by a young writer and give feedback. For the record my feedback consists almost wholly of asking questions of the writer. I never give ideas or make suggested changes. I simply look at what is on the page, try to understand the story the writer wants to tell and attempt to guide the two towards each other.

What I saw in this lovely, yet flawed script was a problem I see quite often: The writer built her story by attempting to map out the plot before she truly understood her characters. The result left me disconnected and created those scratch-your-head moments where the reader wonders why the protagonist (or any other character) is doing whatever s/he is doing.

Crafting your script through plot is almost* always a critical error, because it is impossible to know anything substantial about your story until you've defined the character who will be driving it. This is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn about screenwriting - and something I struggle with in my own writing.

Here's an example.

If your protagonist is a successful male executive who inwardly suffers from an extreme lack of confidence due to a chilling childhood trauma, his reactions to a given situation, the way he drives the story, will be wholly different than if the character is a female executive who suffers from the same lack of confidence due to the same circumstances.

The only difference between the two characters is their sex. But the difference to the story and plot will be immense. It has to be.

So, how can we become better at writing for character and creating deeper engagement with our readers and audience? Here's a technique I recommend (and use):

1. Pick a movie you love - one where the characters made you laugh or cry. Rent it and find the script for it (scripts to many films are available online)
2. Read the script
3. Watch the movie
4. Read the script again

I think you'll be amazed at what you can learn about crafting a story for the screen. And I'm positive this will serve you, your writing and maybe one day, your paying audience far better than any screenwriting book or conference or guru. Good luck. And keep writing!

*nothing is ever 100%... not even this!