GTD & Screenwriting: Using Contexts

Part of the principle of Contexts in Getting Things Done can be summed up as: Is there anything else I can do here before I go somewhere else?

How does this relate to screenwriting? Take any scene you’re working on and ask yourself what the function of that scene is. In a best case scenario, a scene is going to accomplish more than one thing by the time it’s over. This isn’t a call for over-padding scenes and extending them for seven pages to make sure you cram five distinct functions into each scene. It’s a call to look at the elements you have in a scene and see if there’s anything else you can do with what’s there.

Let’s take a basic scene and see what happens when we play with the concept. A standard scene in a lot of police films and TV shows involves the Chief telling a Detective about the case that’s going to be the focus for the film/episode. What’s the scene’s function? Let the audience know what case we’ll be focusing on.

And if we left it at that, it would be a big, expository infodump. Yes, we’d get the information we needed, but not in a way that would be as engaging as it could be. What elements do we have to work with? We’ve got a Detective, the Police Chief, the Chief’s Office, and a Case.

Starting with character, look at all the angles. How do the Detective and the Chief feel about each other? How do each of them feel about this particular case? About this type of crime? Is there any history with this case, or a similar one, that we could draw on?

Now look to the greater context. What happened before this scene that can inform what goes on in this scene? Was there something that happened moments before that can bleed into the current scene? Are there any things that will happen to either of these characters later in the script that we might be able to start setting up now?

Look at the location. Location is something that can help us set the mood. What time of year is it? What’s the state of the precinct? Is it badly in need of repair, or sleek and modern? What can the Chief’s Office tell us about the world of our story, as a whole?

Every piece of the puzzle; every element should be used to its fullest potential. By making scenes do double, or triple duty, you’re trimming how long you need to tell your story, as well as making every moment count that much more.

They Didn’t Read It Wrong

No matter if you’re a beginning writer or have several years and numerous scripts under your belt, you have the potential in you to be That Guy.

Say somebody makes a critical comment about your script that you don’t agree with. It could be a teacher, someone in a workshopping group, or (if the fates favor you) a creative executive.

If you have the urge to say any of the following, don’t.

  • You read it wrong.
  • That’s not what I meant.
  • But I’m not trying to do (X)
  • That’s not how I see it.

There are plenty of reasons to not respond to criticism with antagonistic and defensive posturing, but it all boils down to one thing: If you don’t respond well to criticism, people will believe you are difficult to work with.

But what happens if you can’t help yourself? If you’re absolutely certain, in that moment, that what they’ve said is completely off base and they have no idea how good your script actually is? That this person claiming to want to help you is actually trying to do damage to your masterpiece?

1. Appreciate that somebody read your writing

Seriously.

It is more likely that someone who is willing to take the time to read what you’ve written and provide you with constructive feedback is genuinely interested in helping you make it the best it can be than that they are trying to sabotage or dishearten you. They could be doing other things, but they believe that it’s worth their time to work with you.

They’ve given time to consider your work, and you should be willing to respond in kind by taking time to genuinely consider their comments.

2. Believe that you are not your script

Even in situations where you think that criticism is personal, you can not respond to it as such. An imperfect script does not mean you are a bad writer. It simply means that you have yet to find the best way to get across the story you’re trying to tell. Any critical comment that is made is being made about a single, changeable document that exists outside of yourself.

Also, much like how you are not your script, your idea is not your script. If you believe something is in the pages that other people aren’t seeing, you must be willing to accept that something may have not made the transition from your mind to the page. Things can get lost in transit, and the only way to ensure that everything reaches its destination properly is to pay attention when people say something is missing.

3. Remember that you aren’t going to have all the good ideas.

This isn’t to try and dismantle your confidence or to suggest that you don’t have a dozen brilliant notions before breakfast every day, but you need to accept that someone other than you might have a perfectly logical suggestion for something you’re working on.

Unless you are directly plagiarizing, there is nothing wrong with finding a way to incorporate ideas that didn’t originate inside your brain into your work. Consider, in fact, that none of the ideas you have are completely original to your mind, because they all come as a response to the stimuli you process from the world around you. Every idea has an origin outside yourself, so it’s not too much of a stretch to then accept that another person might be able to have an applicable and helpful idea to contribute to your script.

4. Look for the note behind the note

Sometimes it’s not easy to articulate what’s not working. Sometimes smaller symptoms get the attention when a larger problem is lurking beneath the surface. That’s when you need to see what’s underlying the criticism.

It’s a two-way street: If you make a knee-jerk defensive response to a comment that doesn’t quite get to the root of the problem, neither you nor the person who read your script are getting any closer to finding a way to make it better. Absorb the comments. Digest them. Ask questions. Come back later and look over what’s been said and try to determine what the underlying points actually are.


In summary: Be grateful. Be humble. Be open to ideas. If you already think your script is perfect, you will miss countless ways you can make it better.

The Montage of Sadness

This is going to be the first of what will be several posts on Red Flags. What do I mean by that? In this case, they are elements that frequently appear in screenplays that, while not a major problem on their own, are symptomatic of larger issues.

One such red flag is the Montage of Sadness. Usually occurring after the main character has been dumped or fired, this is a series of brief moments that show the character moping about. Sometimes they sadly make dinner for themselves. Sometimes they sadly burn that dinner. Or they sadly walk through a nondescript park, sadly watching people. They might also stare out windows, at pictures, at old home movies… Whatever’s handy.

What do we as an audience get from this? We learn that the character is sad. Very sad.

That’s it.

If time is being spent on generic beats of despair, it’s saying several things about the script. It says that the writer didn’t dig deep enough to find the specific things that this character would do in this situation. It says that there may be other pacing problems, because the script is wallowing in the moment instead of moving forward. It may even suggest that the character’s overall motivations are unclear, because there is a lack of motivation in the moment.

Can a character be sad? Sure. Can a character feel like they don’t know what to do with themselves? Absolutely. But it’s your job as a writer to make sure it doesn’t last too long, and that the way they deal with their sadness is specific to them.

Think about the relationship between a protagonist and a viewer/reader as being like a relationship between friends. If someone you care about is feeling sad, you want that to be a temporary state. You want them to pull themselves out of it or help them out yourself. It’s a similar reaction when we attach our hopes and fears to a fictional character. If we care about them; if we sympathize in some way, we want their suffering to end.

Why are they together?

It’s not hard to think of movies that hang their hat on the the idea that there is a couple that is wrong for each other, and that the story intends to split them apart. The least interesting version of this involves a couple that is so clearly wrong for each other, that from their first scene together the audience is questioning why the two even got together in the first place.

There’s the challenge: Convey that there was something there at one time, but it’s fading or gone. And, perhaps, that they haven’t realized it.

For examples, I’d like to look at two relationships from films by the same writer. Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters has a relationship between Lee and Frederick that finds a balance, whereas the relationship between Gil and Inez in Midnight in Paris creates a much stronger sense that not only is this couple wrong for one another, but that we should feel that one of these people is particularly unlikeable.

Lee and Frederick are introduced to us in a brief, but sweet scene where Lee shows concern for him. She asks if he’s hungry, or wants anything to drink, and she’s concerned about the way he’s isolating himself from the world. His response is to say, “Lee, you are the only person I can be with.” Lee later says to him “You’re such an enigma. So sweet with me and so contemptuous with everyone else.”

Their dialogue does double duty in that it shows us that they do care for one another, but that there is an underlying problem with their relationship. Frederick dislikes most people, and this seems to include people Lee is fond of, including her family. Despite how much they claim to care about each other, that is a difference that will generate a rift. The later scene where Dusty, the rock star looking to purchase art, shows up, furthers this difference. Lee is trying to encourage Frederick to make a sale, and is friendly to Dusty despite his strange requests and clear lack of appreciation for art as anything other than as something used to avoid having bare walls. Frederick makes sarcastic jabs at Dusty (“I don’t sell my work by the yard.”), and drives him away.

Dusty is an external target to showcase the rift between Lee and Frederick. They’re not fighting with each other directly, but in the differing ways they treat Dusty, he adds a layer of distance to the conflict in their relationship. That distance lets us still believe that there are reasons these two are together, but to also see that there is a real contrast between them.

Looking at Gil and Inez, we have bickering. Arguing about what chair to buy. Where they should live. What they should do with their evening. It’s direct, and the differences between them are more clearly drawn than what may have brought them together beyond physical attraction. This isn’t helped by the fact that the audience is clearly meant to ally themselves with Gil’s perspective, and Inez is drawn in such a way as to push our sympathy away from her.

Inez is surrounded by people she sides with other than Gil. Paul, the pontificating man that Gil dislikes and Inez has an affair with. Her parents, who amplify Inez’s negative qualities (See the line: “You always take the side of the help. That’s why Daddy says you’re a communist.”) and make Gil appear put upon and vulnerable. We sympathize and fear that if he goes through with marrying Inez, his whole life will be dominated by this trio of like-minded personalities that are his polar opposite.

And then comes the element of the fantastic: Gil slips back in time to Paris in the 20s and we come along. Inez is left behind, and this furthers the gulf between them and our understanding of what keeps this relationship together. The things Gil loves about Paris; the things that make his view of the world different than Inez’s all come to life for us. We’ve taken a side in this battle the way we were directed to by the narrative.

And that, in the end, may be one of the things to consider when showing a relationship that needs to fall apart in the story. If we’re too clearly directed to take sides early on, we’ll be seeing more of the faults in the relationship than its positive qualities. Without that balance, there’s less to play with. Fewer complications. A story that feels over before it starts.

If we can’t believe why this relationship started in the first place, it will have less impact upon us when it ends.

Counterpoint: In Defense Of Writing Without A Net

If you think staring at the blank page is intimidating, imagine staring at 100 blank pages. All at once.

Sometimes, that’s what outlining feels like. You look at the outline, and you see the spaces where all the moving parts are supposed to go, but you’re not sure what goes where. Or you have all these different elements cobbled into a Rube Goldberg device, and you’re not sure if the end result will be anything like what you intended.

Every so often, it’s a good idea to set the outline aside and dig in. Write a scene. Write three. Don’t think any further ahead than five pages.

What you’ll find is that you can get a grasp on something concrete. The voices of your characters. One or two specific actions. An aspect of the location you hadn’t thought of before.

It’s a form of reverse-engineering your outline. By taking a moment to live and breathe in the world of the story, you see how some of the smaller parts function. When you see that, you can extrapolate where they can go from here.

Is this a good way to write an entire screenplay? Not generally, as tunnel vision can set in and cause you to miss the opportunities that planning helps to create. But this technique can be used as part of a middle path between the control and planning of outlining and the unbridled creativity of just ripping through pages.