Sunday, 16 December 2007

Chip's Big Ass Post, part 1...

I got some development notes back from Lucy Vee recently, so I thought it might be handy to outline what I do with them and how they help, if only to get it straight in my own head (the inside of which looks like a landfill of second hand books and discarded coffee cups).

As I’ve written before, my working methods are truly random, so this is an attempt to wrap some coherent thinking around a working process that is freeform in the extreme – which is a lot like telling a jazz quintet to shut the fuck up and only use three notes (‘cos, let’s face it, who needs more than three notes?).

Straight off the bat, it looks like I have a few problems:

* Overall, the script is ‘mental’ (Lucy’s comment? I just have to congratulate you for writing the most mental script I have read since I read one about a secretary who keeps an alien in her bra). Wow – I think.

The issue with ‘mental’ is twofold as far as I see it: a) it gets remembered (a good point), as opposed to b) the story is hard to define, which in Lucy’s parlance means it’s muddled (a bad point). Fair comment.

* The protagonist’s voiceover doesn’t really add anything, and pops up ‘randomly’ (hmmm – might be a problem with my structure here...)

* Narrative logic: it seems that I require some kind of mechanism/thematic plot point to make the reader suspend disbelief, especially as the narrative is a little ‘out of the ordinary’.

* My protagonist is a bit of a tit. Charming! To be honest, I don’t feel the overriding need to correct this very much, which means I must be a bit of a tit myself.

* As if I need to mention it, structure. For this script I used a tricksy non-linear structure, which according to Lucy does not have a discernible pattern. I think it does, but if Lucy can’t spot it, then it probably means that I’ve buried it under a ton of dialogue and/or voiceover, or that it’s simply too complicated to follow properly – which all boils down to the fact that, structurally, I’m in trouble.

If you’ve ever gotten notes from Lucy, you might know that she’s got a ‘bit of thing’ for structure – which is fine by me, as structure is the one thing I struggle with above all else, probably due to the jaw droppingly random way in which I work. It’s fairly obvious I guess, but without a coherent structure whatever you write is going to suffer horribly – logic goes walkies and narrative coherency does a bunk. I usually try and get round this by doing a frantic little dance with my dialogue and hoping that it distracts from the fact that my narrative is sliding all over the place like a drunk duckling on ice. Sometimes it works: with the more perceptive readers out there, it doesn’t. I’ve always prided myself on my dialogue to the detriment of anything else in a script, which is a bit like trying to put wallpaper up before the foundations have been built.

Lucy was meticulous in picking apart the non-linear structure of the script, and stated that it didn’t really have a discernible pattern. From my point of view, it’s not so much the fact that the script is non-linear, it’s just that the vast majority of what takes place occurs as a flashback. It’s a structure you see quite often with films such as The Prestige, which opens with an image that only makes sense later on.

My problem with the script I think, is that I start with what I hope is a strong visual image – problem is, the explanation of this image does not occur until very late on in the narrative (again, similar to The Prestige). To open with one of your strongest visual scenes is always going to be problematic, as you then need to provide (in my case, a very lengthy) back story as to how you got there, which can often necessitate a pointlessly tricksy structure. Lucy’s solution? It appears that I’ve come into the story too early, so all I need to do is to chop off the excess, which amounts to about twenty of the opening pages. Zoiks!

I don’t think I’m unusual in the sense that I overwrite and cut back in subsequent re-writes. First drafts for me often weigh in at 105-110 pages, which I think is WAY too long for a spec script (better to keep it under the magical three figure number I reckon). The draft that Lucy read is no exception – too much dialogue for a start, which is easily fixable (Incidentally, I loved the male banter... But do you need ALL of it?). However, I do tend to over-complicate matters when it comes to structure and plotting and often do not have a fully thought through structure in mind.

As for narrative logic: Lucy states that there are several scenes in the script (if not the whole thing) that require a huge suspension of disbelief (such as the protagonist being blown out of an airliner at 30,000 feet and surviving). The solution? I need a reason as to why weird shit happens. Strangely enough, Lucy identified a part of my script that I had included in an earlier draft but excised on the basis that it was too gross. My solution? Put it in back in, and hang the consequences. I’d got the logic back, but probably at the expense of having people go, ‘Ugh, that's disgusting!' Ah well – an acceptable compromise I guess (and don’t forget: memorable is good).

So, what did I do next?

(Due to the unprecedented big ass nature of this post, I think it’s only fair to break it into two...)


Elinor said...

I look forward to part two, Chip.

I agree about the lengths of specs. If it goes into three figures then it had better be for a good reason.

Chip Smith said...

Thanks Elinor - this post is all a bit self-indulgent but thanks for sticking with it.

How's your METLAB script coming along?

Tom said...

re: disgusting scene. My suggestion would be to definitely put it in and make it as disgusting as you can. Don't pull your punches. If it's that shocking then it may well be memorable. Of course, if you want people to come away from the story thinking "Ah! What a charming and terribly lovely film!" then perhaps it hasn't any place being there but if the film is designed to shock, thrill or scare people, I reckon you need to include it and make it as disgusting as possible without being gratuitous.

I was thinking about a very similar problem only this morning regarding the background to a character: there's the backstory I want to put in because it's challenging and will provide much more conflict within the character. The downside is that it's of such a nature that I don't want to belittle it, make it the focus of the story or be seen to be making a judgement about it.

Chip Smith said...

David Cronenberg said somewhere (can't remember where, was it the book by Chris Rodley?) that you should never self-censor - and that's exactly what I was guilty of before I decided to put the scene back in. Obviously the scene has to sit well within the overall context of the script (I think it does), and shouldn't be offensive for the sake of it - even so, it's pretty disgusting!

Elinor said...

All going well, thanks. Just hit the half-way point which always drags for me but when I've finished I shall be applying the Soth mini-method to it.

Chip Smith said...

The Great Satan himself, eh ;-)

If you want, I'd be more than happy to give your script a read (once it's finished, that is, whatever that means). I can't promise any satanic assistance, mind you! Let me know if you're interested...

Lucy said...

Metlabbers should definitely read each other's work, I wholeheartedly approve. In fact, if you need emails, contact me and we can sort that out.

Interesting post Chip and not self indulgent at all... One of the best ways for writers to learn is by finding out how others do it. I enjoyed my university experience but in all honesty I've learned more since leaving and talking to others.

Elinor said...

You're on, Chip and likewise for your script too, particularly as Lucy thinks it's a good idea.

Chip Smith said...

Elinor - more than happy to do a 'swapsie' whenever you're ready. I'm tinkering with my METLAB script at the moment, which is always a bad sign, so it's about time it got out there and fended for itself. My email address is on my Blogger profile page. Whenever you're ready to do an exchange (sounds like we're handing over prisoners, doesn't it?), drop me a line.

Lucy - thanks for the endorsement! I don't remember learning anything at university, apart from the fact that the one thing I didn't want to do was teach (unlikes everyone else I went to university with)!