Off to the side

I keep a mini legal notepad next to my keyboard when I’m writing scenes. It’s there for when I need a push on figuring out what to type next. For example, sometimes I’ll look at the wording of a line of dialogue and it feels wrong. I dash off 10 or so different versions of the line on the notepad, then keep moving.

You could spend hours on a single line of dialogue, character introduction, or action line. Type. Delete. Type. Delete. The computer lets you get stuck in this cycle as long as you let it.

That’s why I have the notepad. It has a physical limit, so I can see when I hit a point where I’m just spinning my wheels. It’s outside of the main document I’m working in, so I don’t feel pressured to hit the target all at once. Sometimes combining parts of different attempts into a Frankenline does the trick.

There’s a pressure that can come from looking at things in context, especially when the document’s page count gets larger. The notepad is a pressure release valve. Over there, away from the screen, it’s a place to play and discover.

Because writing should be fun.

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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.

Point: Outlining is Awesome

Seriously.

A good, thorough outline makes actual writing feel effortless. All the hard work has been done! You know who’s in the scene, where it takes place, and what should happen. Maybe some of the dialogue is even set.

Making a solid outline before you begin writing creates a sense of direction. You know where you’ll be going and how close you are to reaching your destination. It’s a set of specific goal markers that allow you to stay motivated as you move forward. At any given point, you will know you are X number of scenes from a completed draft.

Additionally, there’s an additional distance that you get with the outline. It’s separate from your script, though it’s based around the same ideas. This means you can add things to the outline and develop them without the pressure of seeing them in script form. The outline will never be a perfect document, because that’s not its intent. It’s meant to lead the way.

Think about it like a cartographer going into unknown territory. The map that they create can be extremely detailed, taking a long time to produce. While that detailed map may help future travelers as they venture through this land, there comes a point where additional detail becomes more decorative than useful. The shape of the coastline is important. The exact number of trees along a path towards a valley is not.

In this analogy, you are both the cartographer and the adventurer to come. First, you populate the landscape and give it a general shape. Then, as you write, you move through that place in its full detail, looking to the map as reference if you should lose your bearings.

These analogies aren’t just chosen at random. Writing is an adventure, as grand an adventure as you make it for yourself. You may not be discovering things as they are, but you are creating a world for others to explore. And much like actual explorers, this adventure should not be undertaken with reckless, aimless abandon.

Nice to Meet You

What is the purpose in a film of two characters meeting one another and introducing themselves?

For one thing, it allows the audience to know the characters’ names. Also, some small bits of character information are often relayed in an introduction. But that’s all exposition. And poorly handled exposition is boring. It’s a big sign that tells the audience “We couldn’t find a clever, dramatic way to convey this information to you. So sorry.”

First meetings are a whole series of complex social calculations. Think about the inherent tensions, even the smallest of tensions, that exist in that interaction. What do you think about? Are you intimidated by this new person? Trying to intimidate them? Do you find them attractive, or wonder if they find you attractive?

Think about history. What do each of the characters meeting each other know about the other? Are they hiding anything from one another? Is there something that they think they’ve hidden from the other person that isn’t a secret?

And remember, this is a first meeting. It’s rare for people to hit it off from the moment they’re introduced. It takes conversation. A little sizing up of one another. It’s much more likely that there will be some first impression about one of the characters that rubs the other the wrong way.

Alright, so you’ve thought about these things, and you still need to have these two characters meet for the story to work. How can you make it dynamic? Here are a few ideas to jump start you:

1. The Connector: Do they need to introduce themselves? Is there a third party that might be introducing them (aka, a smaller character that can take Exposition Duty so that the principal characters can stay focused on their deeper goals and motivations)? Also, think about how a Connector character can name both of these characters and bring them together without directly introducing one to the other.

2. Avoid the handshake: Unless you have a piece of business to make it unique in some way, watching two people meet and shake hands is the cliché to avoid. Any two characters can say hi and shake hands. Think about what specific actions your character would take in this situation. Maybe it would be shaking hands, but how they do it is what matters.

3. This is a conversation, not a CV: Which of the following sounds more natural?

“I’m Mark Smithson.”

“Of course I know who you are. In 1999, you were behind the merger that combined three smaller telecoms into the goliath ConnecTech that stood up to the FCC’s investigation and attempt to re-divide the business through antitrust proceedings.”

OR

“I’m Mark Smithson.”

“So you are. Still on the FCC’s shit list?”

We don’t get as much information from the second one, but in this situation we also learn something about the character speaking. Not only do we know that the person they’ve met is a powerful individual who has personally drawn the wrath of a government regulatory board, but now we know from the flippant tone of the questioner that they may share a certain disdain for the FCC. The other information? That can be filled in as needed, because…

4. Give us enough, but no more: Play around with how much information about each of these characters that we really need at this moment, and what can be held on to for later. If something isn’t going to be necessary for the next few scenes, use that time to deliver it. Overloading an introduction with character information will draw attention to the awkwardness of the meeting.

Inside Baseball

Any time you have jargon or character motivations that can only be understood with an existing thorough knowledge of the world of the story, that’s Inside Baseball.

This isn’t to say that you don’t want to place your story in a specific world, or that you should shy away from telling stories that take place outside of the normal experience of the majority of people. It’s a question of balance.

There are ways to ease an audience into a specific world. Consider the Audience Surrogate. Ever notice how many TV pilots involve a New Person being introduced into an existing world, and how people need to explain things to this New Person?

It’s because we, the audience, need this information. If we’re going to follow anything that’s happening, we’re helped by having somebody inside the story that needs to find out the same information we do.

This doesn’t mean that a Surrogate should be on the receiving end of pages of expository dialogue. The difficult task is finding clever and sneaky ways to hide information for the audience inside the action of the story, like sticking a disgusting chewable pill in a spoonful of peanut butter.

The larger point, though, is never take for granted that your audience will have the same level of understanding of a specific world that you do. In fact, you should know more about it than they do. But, as you tell your story, you need to remember to let the audience in on the workings of this world. Be it a mythic kingdom or the trading floor of the stock market, the audience needs to be able to follow the rules if they’re going to have any hope of paying attention to the specific story you’re trying to tell.