Thursday, September 10, 2015

Rewrite: Revisit The Story

This is a summary of my lecture notes for WEEK 2 of Rewriting The Feature Script, which I teach at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Before reading it, you may want to check out the summary for Week 1, Rewrite: How To Begin.

After rereading your first draft and gathering lots and lots of feedback, its time to sort, collate and summarize all these notes. I usually assign my students this Summary of Notes.

Now it is essential to step back and consider your STORY. 

You have been so embroiled in SCENES and DIALOGUE, so distracted by complex questions of CHARACTERIZATION and THEME, that you likely have lost track of what your story is about in the first place. Your story may have changed over the course of writing the first draft. If you are like me, you probably have become overwhelmed by how complicated your story has become.

It's as if you were designing a swiss watch, and you've gotten so focused on the springs and gears, you can't remember how many hours there are in a day. So let's get back to basics.

The Story

Here is the simplest definition of a story that I have encountered:

A story is about someone who wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it.

In class, we discuss students' stories in terms of each piece of this definition. "A story is..."

"About someone..."  Whose story is it?  Through whose eyes, and more importantly through whose emotions do we experience the story? Who takes the actions that drive the story forward? Who changes as a result? How does that character's viewpoint allow the story to be told in a unique way?

Sometimes you write a first draft thinking its a story about one particular character, but discover that a different character is actually the one taking action, making decisions, and changing as a result. The feedback on your script might reveal that a different character is the one the audience actually cares about and identifies with. Take this feedback seriously.

"...who wants something..."  What does this protagonist want? What primary desire is forcing him/her/them to take action? Whether or not the protagonist gets s/he wants is the DRAMATIC QUESTION that the story tracks and ultimately answers. This WANT has to be very specific and concrete, so that the audience understands what is driving the plot forward.

Often in first drafts the protagonist is passive. Circumstances don't force him or her to take action towards some sort of specific and concrete goal. Stuff happens, but all the tears, twists and tornadoes are not married to any clear objective, and so the audience loses interest.

"...very badly..." Why does s/he want it so much?  What's going to happen if he/she DOESN'T get it?  This defines the STAKES of your story.

Often in first drafts, the story lacks tension because if the protagonist doesn't get what they want, its not clear that it would be all that bad. Not Getting what they want should be an emotionally devastating outcome for our hero. It should be, figuratively or literally, a matter of life and death.

"...but is having trouble getting it."  What are the obstacles? Who is the antagonist, or what are the antagonistic forces that is keeping the protagonist from getting what s/he/they want?

Often in first drafts, things are too easy for the protagonist. Lucky coincidences help them along. Antagonists don't put up much of a fight. Problems are solved without much trouble. A former acting/directing coach at USC, Nina Foch, had sharp advice for writers on how to handle their protagonists. "Make Them Suffer!"

Telling the Story

Once, these basic (but difficult!) questions are answered, we can take a shot at telling the story.  Brian McDonald, in both his blog and book Invisible Ink, claims that all effective stories have the basic structure of a fairy tale:

Once upon a time_____________
And every day________________
Until one day_________________
And because of this___________
And because of this___________
And because of this___________
Until finally__________________
And ever since that day_______

Does a fairy tale template seem too simplistic for your grown-up, complex story?  It's not.  Even three hour epics like The Godfather can be told this way.

1. Once upon a time there was a Godfather who ran a family business.
2. And every day the Godfather did favors and got favors in return.
3. Until one day, the Godfather did not grant a favor, and the snubbed rival tried to kill him.
4. And because of this the Godfather's sons took over the family business: Sonny started a war and Michael killed the rival.
5. And because of this Michael was exiled and Sonny was murdered in the war.
6. And because of this The Godfather made peace.
7. And because of this Micheal returned to take his father’s place, but the family was weakened by the Godfather’s sickness and eventual death.
8. Until finally the rival family bosses turned against Michael, and so Michael killed each and every one.
9. And ever since that day Michael was the new Godfather.

What we want to avoid when getting a general idea of our story is a series of disconnected events. "And then this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens." Telling a story as fairy tale beats forces the writer to think of the narrative as a chain of cause-and-effect driven by the choices of the protagonist. All the ANDs get replaced by BUT and BECAUSE OF THIS.

Take a shot at telling your story in this simple way, using these simple story definitions. The parts of the story that you find difficult to summarize often defines the biggest problems in your script that you will tackle in your 2nd draft.

(Tune in next week, when we discuss the next step in a rewrite, RE-OUTLINING your script)

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