Some days ago, I was riding the tramway home and saw a young man on a wheelchair crossing the street. He was handsome, smartly dressed, and he smiled openly at me. I was unsure about the reasons for this smile: was it just cordiality, something you may do when you catch somebody else’s eyes? Was he coming on to me? Not many chances of this working out, given the geography of the situation. But he was so charming I like to think he actually was. Maybe he was. Maybe this guy on a wheelchair is a natural born seducer who just can’t help showing his appetite for life and his sexual drive, and he will try to lure you to his bed even if you are just passing by on a tramway. Maybe it was just friendliness. But that is even more fascinating. Just smiling at me for no particular reason. Unyielding optimism.
I kept this brief encounter alive in my mind because it fuelled my current writing, and because it reminded me of a valuable piece of advice I got some years ago. I’m working on a paraplegic character that is very charming and resourceful, but in a very conscious, constructed way. His self-awareness struck me as I saw that easy smile on the street. A self-aware (and content) character can be a problem. If characters already know themselves, they have a smaller journey to take, and they are probably cynical, which can be good for funny dialogue but carries the danger of making them flat. Flat and hovering above everyone. I realised that my character was indeed like that, and with that inspiring smile in mind, am working to make it otherwise. He must sincerely embark in his journey, not just play his cards as if in a rigged game.
I remembering reading some tips about writing main characters, and there was a line advising us to “make the protagonist smile”. The article made fun of these very serious, always stern-looking main characters afflicted by their quests. They are boring, and ridiculous for all their gravity. Giving the protagonist reasons to smile (either internal or external), and I mean from the beginning of the story, not just as they strike victory after going through whatever they have to go through, seems to me like a very good idea. It’s a good exercise in getting to know our characters better, getting to like them, and giving them depth. A disruption in the main character’s life is a non-negotiable aspect of storytelling for the screen, and it must happen early in the story; if despite the trouble, our protagonist is smiling at one point, he arises our curiosity and empathy.
I never used this sentence. But I sure would like to use it every day. Writing, and writing well, is a matter of writing a lot. Regularly, everyday if possible, meeting quantitative goals per day/week/month. When I read Stephen King talk about his daily 10 pages, and the process of writing without previous plotting, just letting things drop to paper, uncovering the fossil as he likes to put it, I intuitively decide this is the way to go. This is how I want to live as a writer: in a joyful, generous, productive way, definitely not pouring droplets of words through an agonizing pipette.
I’ve recently had weeks, months, of joyful writing. But now I’m back to the pipette. The problem is I have just finished the first draft of my current script. After putting it aside for a while, I went back to it and, unsurprisingly, discovered a great deal of problems.
This part is really tricky. Fixing things. It’s pretty much impossible to just let it flow with the same freshness as before. I absolutely want to avoid getting stuck, but that’s what’s been happening as I look for a solution to a section of story that isn’t working, think out once more what is it that the character really wants and needs, play lego with my text and end up each session with a bunch of loose bricks.
In the past, I was sticking to the idea that if I banged my head against the computer screen hard and long enough, something would eventually appear and help to fix the story. It did happen a number of times. But I don’t want to write like that. It just sucks. I can accept a certain degree of frustration and difficulty, but it can’t be like that every day.
Whereas during the first stage of writing I seem to have found my groove, phase two is eluding me. The fixing, the getting to the bottom of it. I don’t have an answer right now, but I think I need to go back to some sort of quantitative system, like on phase one. Otherwise I’ll sit the whole day in front of the computer and end up with three sentences that don’t belong to any actual scene. It’s important to keep momentum, and to be bold. If things only start to get interesting on page 50, then lose the previous 49. Small fixes are for small problems. If your story is not yet telling you its truth, flip it around; kill a character, bring in a new one, give the opposite answer to a question you thought you had figured out. And work on a blank page. Have what you wrote on the side.
Easier said than done.
Maybe something like:
Day one: 10 new ideas.
Day two: 10 more.
Day three: sketch 10 scenes.
Day four: 10 more.
And so on.
I just came across this writing challenge called NaNoWriMo: write a novel in one month. November. Maybe it would all come to me like in a dream. But I have other plans for November, and I’m not bold/careless enough to let go of this heavy rope I’m pulling.
What should we expect from a scriptwriting workshop?
Adventure more than knowledge, I would say.
I’ve attended a few of them now, and the best were the ones which encouraged taking risks, and whose approaches were also risk-taking.
There should be challenge and play.
One should be pushed out of one’s comfort zone.
This article from The New Yorker discusses the matter further. It refers to creative writing workshops, and not specifically scriptwriting workshops, but I believe the issues are pretty much the same. Of course there’s a technical aspect to scriptwriting that doesn’t exist in novels or short stories, but the bottom-line is the same: it’s about feeding on passion and experiencing something.