Local is the only universal

escolinha

A film with universal appeal. This is what we are supposed to write. Interestingly, you do not need to look further than the little village where you grew up to write with universal scope. The more you root your story in a unique, skewed little world – of which you have extensive emotional knowledge – the more universal your story will be.

I live in Amsterdam. I lived in Paris for 10 years. I was born in Portugal and grew up there until I left at 25. These expatriations have shaped the person I am. People sometimes said that I “was bound to be French by now”, after so many years spent living in Paris. This was intended as a compliment – a compliment to my French, my adaptation skills, my having made it to such a desirable city. But the idea of “being French” didn’t make any sense to me. Identity is a complex issue; I do not want to sound simplistic, or attached to atavistic notions of national identity. Nonetheless, it is such an evidence to say that I am Portuguese and will never cease to be. My childhood was entirely Portuguese, and uni-lingual, and happy (I guess this last quality accounts for a great deal of this sense of wholeness). So although I left many years ago, I am stuck with this identity. In her essay “Nord Perdu” (1999) the Canadian writer Nancy Huston captures this condition (not a very grave one, rest assured) beautifully.

I am a Portuguese child wrapped in worldly paper. (Up on that photo with my classmates of ’86)

And I am a writer too (because I say so). What should I write about? How does my personal trajectory affect the answer to this question?

The first feature script I wrote was set in Northern Portugal, where I come from. That story never left the paper and feels now a bit outdated – social realism applied to the now weary subject of a decaying industrial town. I decided to go back to it, throwing most things away but keeping something that was always at the core of the project: industrial ruins in Northern Portugal, and a gallery of characters that speak and behave like folks over there speak and behave, something indefinable but recognizable in the blink of an eye, at least for someone who grew up over there like myself.

I want to tell this story because it feels pertinent and it feels close.

Having left the country, I did my best to be pragmatic and connect to the places where I was living, even tell stories set in those places and using the local language. But there was this permanent fog that James Wood – a Brit living in Boston – describes in his piece “On Not Going Home”: I see a familiar life: the clapboard houses, the porches, the heat-mirage hanging over the patched road (snakes of asphalt like black chewing gum), the grey cement sidewalks (signed in one place, when the cement was new, by three young siblings), the heavy maple trees (…) and I feel … nothing: some recognition, but no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there – just a tugging distance from it all. A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: how did I get here? And then the moment passes, and ordinary life closes itself around what had seemed, for a moment, a desperate lack.

I want to tell a story set in Portugal because I long for home. I dream of spending time there doing research, getting my teeth into that delightfully familiar reality of language, landscape, culture. But apart from the practical problems of returning, even temporarily, there’s the fact that I have been away for a long time, and that “home” may now be as elusive as the places I ended up living in. James Wood: And then there is the same light veil thrown over everything when I go back to Britain. (…) There’s a quality of masquerade, as if I were putting on my wedding suit, to see if it still fits.

Still, my strongest, most determinant experiences in life did happen “back home”. Writing is always a business of using your personal scars and treasures, even when you are in year 3674 aboard a spaceship. I was delighted the other day when I came across a quote from one of William Carlos Williams’ essays compiled in the volume “Imaginations” (1970): From the shapes of men’s lives imparted by the places where they have experience, good writing springs. (…) One has to learn what the meaning of the local is, for universal purposes. The local is the only thing that is universal. (…) The classic is the local fully realized, words marked by a place.

“Writing local” doesn’t necessarily mean writing about where you live or where you grew up. But writing about (or in, within, from, for…) those places may be, for many writers, the best way to localize their writing and thus make it universal. Local here means particular, precise, inhabited, heart-felt. Generic is not good for art.

We are stories

huck

I was recently led to write an “artistic statement” in which I had to define the artist I am /am becoming. I wrote somewhere in there that “telling (and being told) stories is one of the best ways of being alive and making the best of our lives – as individuals and as communities. Stories allow us to learn about the world, question it, play and engage with it”.

I strongly believe this, but I think that my own quote about the importance of storytelling is rather bland. So I set out to find more insightful views on this matter.

The French essayist Alain Finkielkraut says the following: « L’œuvre a un lien avec le monde et nous avons besoin de ce détour pour mieux comprendre ce qu’il en est de nous dans ce monde. » The story is connected to the world; we need to take a detour through the story in order to understand where we stand in this world. (He is referring to books but I believe it is not abusive to apply it to any kind of storytelling).

For Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher who extensively contributed to narrative theory, the function of fiction is to reveal and transform our daily praxis. It reveals because it sheds light on hidden aspects of our experience; it transforms because examining life is akin to changing life. Here is the (prettier) original quote: « La fonction de la fiction [est] (…) révélante et transformante à l’égard de la pratique quotidienne; révélante, en ce sens qu’elle porte au jour des traits dissimulés, mais déjà dessinés au cœur de notre expérience praxique; transformante, en ce sens qu’une vie ainsi examinée est une vie changée. »

The French (script)writer Jean-Claude Carrière has often talked about the « storyteller » (le conteur), seeing himself as one. The storyteller is the one who provides others with words. She carries the unknown, the mystery that we as communities strive to understand. In this interview to L’Express, he details the possible links between the storyteller and her audience. Number 1 – the storyteller tells a story that the audience already knows. It’s all about form; it’s the way of telling the story that provides the insight. Number 2 – the storyteller tells a story that the audience doesn’t know. She is taking the audience into another world. Number 3 – the storyteller tells a story that she herself doesn’t know. This is what I often do with my son to get him to brush his teeth – and suddenly blue lions enter the bathroom only to be taken away by an evil sorcerer, and I’m as much in awe as he is. This is also what happens when I write a script. Number 4 – the storyteller tells a story that she herself doesn’t know to an audience that knows. Puzzling? An accurate description of the potential and potentially transforming bond between storyteller, story and audience.

Wasn’t it wonderful when we were children to read those adventure and fantasy books? And what about “The Goonies”? The impact of these narratives on the construction of the person I am is undeniable. Each of those moments spent reading or watching was an opportunity to take the world in, research and experiment the person I wanted to become. Learn about the world, about myself, go places in space and time. Projection is perhaps the word that better captures it.

As an adult, I do feel though that my relation with fiction is of a different kind. Grown-ups are still in motion, becoming themselves until they die, but well, there’s a threshold we’ve crossed, that thing called loss of innocence, which can happen in many chapters. When I see a film or read a book nowadays, I feel the closest to it when it takes me in, not out. In, deeper, deepening the vocabulary of my own imperfection and the imperfection of the world. Enriching and structuring my longing and my disenchantment.

“Books, which we mistake for consolation, only add depth to our sorrow.” (Orhan Pamuk)

Should I go non-linear?

maria_helena_vieira_da_silva_maria_helena_vieira_da_silva_19081992_a_cidade-16-1

After my Christmas vacation I came back to my current script and had an epiphany. Being away from your story for a while installs a distance from which you can benefit – problems become apparent, solutions pop-up. This time the spark was a rather unexpected one. I asked myself: what if I played with the chronology of my story? What if I went non-linear? All of a sudden, it seemed like the best, the unmistakably right thing to do. I had that thrilling feeling of having found a way to fix problems and deliver smarter, tighter storytelling.

But soon afterwards I began doubting. Moving blocks around is no way to build a tower. Maybe I’m being lured into an easy cosmetic solution that will redistribute, maybe hide, the weaknesses of my film, but not solve them.

Even before these doubts started bothering me, I made the decision of proceeding to the end of this second draft instead of immediately starting to scramble things around. I believe this is a very wise decision (congratulations to me). I can only benefit from sorting out things linearly before eventually putting them out of order. The build-up, the cause and effect that good storytelling requires are best assessed chronologically.

I now must test my idea. How would my story benefit from being told non-linearly?

While trying to answer this question I came across this text by writer/script consultant Ray Morton. He looks at non-linearity with great scepticism, seeing it as a contemporary trend that doesn’t do the medium any service. “Movies are inherently linear”, he says, and there’s no arguing about the fact that one frame comes after the next without us being able to help it, and that causal progressions don’t travel in time.

For this author, time disruption is only justifiable when it springs organically from the story. He evokes, of course, Memento: the main character has lost his memories and needs to retrieve them in order to find the murderer of his wife. This is a story about memory, about how essential yet tricky it is; so all those dips into the past make sense, there would be no story otherwise. But other than in movies about memory, or time, when is it “organic” to use non-linear storytelling? Ray Morton mentions The Usual Suspects, defining it as an intellectual puzzle that can be very pleasurable for the viewer but judging it “distant” because it isn’t straightforward. For this author, when we chose to go non-linear, it is always with a cost.

I believe this is a rather narrow view of non-linear storytelling. Sure enough, the hype of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction has tempted many inexperienced storytellers to create complicated structures instead of drama. But good storytelling isn’t just about events unfolding in time through cause and effect. It is about characters, theme, meaning, connections made through comparison and metaphor, not just causality.

This text by script consultant Linda Cowgill provides a broader, more insightful view of non-linear storytelling. Consider this paragraph: “Because action does not direct the plot in a nonlinear film, theme takes on even greater importance. Theme defines what a film experience is about. The more diverse and out of sequence the incidents, the more we need theme to hold the segments together. At the end, each scene and sequence contributes to the ultimate discovery of what the film is about”. This feels absolutely right. Non-linearity needs a strong theme and is a (not exclusive) tool for maximizing its scope. Citizen Kane illustrates this. Through the manifold exploration of its main character, newspaper magnate Kane, the film asks the questions: To what extent can we get to know a man? To what extent can we judge his deeds? Different segments of Kane’s life, chaotically out of order and offered by different narrators, come together to state how complex, contradictory and mysterious a man, every man, is. In Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible – told in reverse – we are reminded of how little we are in control of our lives and the world around us. Horrible things can happen to us, and we can do horrible things to other people, and the beautiful promises of life can vanish in the blink of an eye. Beauty is so fragile, and the beasts within us long to kill and destroy. This precariousness of all things human is conveyed all the more pungently through the reverse storytelling – the film closes with an image of happiness, security and great expectations, which has already been so thoroughly trashed during the first half of the film that you can only wish none of that had happened, and realize the futility of your good wishes.

So: non-linear storytelling is all about theme (just like films with multiple storylines).

For the sake of dramatic unity, besides the strong thematic aspect of the script, Linda Cowgill advocates something she calls a “framing action”. “In Citizen Kane, the reporter is assigned the task of finding out what ‘Rosebud’ means. This is the reason he goes to hear the stories about Kane. Thompson [the reporter] provides the link between the separate episodes as he pursues his goal”, she analyses. So the framing action is a segment that hosts all other segments, providing the dramatic reason for their examination. And she adds: “The framing action is stronger if there are obstacles and complications for the protagonists completing the ‘present’ task. In Citizen Kane, Thompson has no idea what ‘Rosebud’ means. […]The more dramatic the framing action, the higher the tension and more deeply involved the audience.” While for instance Irreversible has no framing action (but is in return perfectly consistent in its use of reverse storytelling), the use of this technique really feels like sensible advice. Linda Cowgill reminds us: “This unconventional structure doesn’t mean audiences understand film in a new way. Viewers understand by making cause-and-effect connections between the scenes. Each beat of information must relate to what comes before and after, even if a scene transcends the chronological order of time”. Maybe there are other options for ensuring the dramatic unity of a story, but that question should not be overlooked.

Now, back to my question: should I go non-linear?

Well – why not?

Even before I read about the “framing action”, I had envisioned anchoring the story in a segment featuring a meeting to which all the characters converge in order to explain and make sense of a certain number of events; the outcome of the meeting will be crucial for the character’s destinies. Thus – I already have a frame.

I am striving to give theme the central place in my film. My story is about the paradoxes of freedom: how restrictions to freedom (like my characters’ handicaps) can actually maximize it; how the quest for freedom can itself become a prison.

So far so good.

There are also practical reasons to go non-linear. I can use the meeting situation to have characters briefly explain or evoke things, thus building a bridge between periods in time or providing exposition that would otherwise require long set-ups. Maybe I’m being lazy; maybe I’m being smart and speeding/tightening the narrative. Also, I can use non-linearity to deliver early in the film a segment that sets a goal, intrigues and engages. After that I can go back and show how the characters met and came to establish that goal together (right now I spend lots of pages building up the improbable association of my three protagonists). I think this improves the viewer’s experience: there is a hook, a clear quest(ion) that the audience knows will be addressed, as opposed to a series of events that convey the characters’ motivations and show how their lives were thrown off balance – which are necessary, but lack direction.

Right now, I’m excited with the prospect of changing my narrative approach. I believe the gains may be considerable. I will keep you posted 🙂

Spectators and Story

madmenyourself

Most of you are probably familiar with AMC’s success series Mad Men. I recently found out that in 2008, roughly a year after it premiered on TV, someone started tweeting as Don Draper, the protagonist, who in the story is the creative director of advertising agency Sterling Cooper. He tweeted: “Drinking a scotch with Roger so that he doesn’t feel like an alcoholic”.

A few days later, Peggy Olson, the show’s timid secretary turned copywriter, popped up in the tweetosphere. Other characters followed. They are still active and have followers by the tens of thousands.

As it turns out, this was a spontaneous initiative by dedicated fans scattered around the United Stated and Canada, who wouldn’t reveal their true identities. AMC was surprised and unsure of how to address the situation. You can read a thorough account of the case here. The bottom-line is: fans took possession of the story. They quite literally made it their own, transposed it to another medium (tweeting as a character from the 60’s is a delicious anachronism), and took pains to ensure they did it in a way that was coherent with the show’s plot and the historical period in question. They moved into the story and enlarged the story world.

This, of course, is good matter to explore the relationship between spectator (or reader, listener) and story. Audience participation isn’t something new. In his book “The Art of Immersion” (in which I learned about the Mad Men twitterers) Frank Rose evokes Charles Dickens and the way that, in the mid-19th century, he would reshape the plot of his serialized novels (The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit…) to meet (or trash) his reader’s expectations. Much later, Star Wars fans made fanzines. Harry Potter fans created websites.

These initiatives raised authorship and copyright questions. Legal battles were fought. At least morally, the public has won each of them.

What does the Mad Men twitter initiative mean? That stories the way Hollywood and Television used to make – strictly one-way, meant to be passively consumed – are over? That digital media is empowering us with never-before-seen means of participating in the telling of stories, thus changing the essence of story forever?

Maybe. There certainly is some thinking to do about business models, and transmedia storytelling techniques.

But I believe story has always belonged to the public. A story ultimately happens in the spectator’s head. In that regard, he is its final and peremptory author. He gives it its final shape by putting it though his brain, filtering it with his memories and knowledge, charging it with emotions.

Writing in shapes

spiral_staircase_by_kt_m-d2xsmvh

Some days ago, I found myself fiddling with a bunch of scenes that were heading nowhere. These scenes came after the midpoint of my script; they followed a culmination point (the characters experienced a major triumph) and should lead to a deflation point (the characters would mess up badly and sabotage their own gains).  So I had a few scenes that seemed to fit in that part of the script, but were somehow failing to establish a bridge between points A and B. I had this thought: here I am, perpetually rearranging a bunch of squares when I should be drawing a line. I should get rid of the squares and draw a line.

The number of metaphors you can use to assess the writing process is endless. Mountain climbing, mining, sailing, juggling, dreaming… I’ve read, and appreciated, a large number of images meant to help us understand, tame, befriend, the task of writing. They provide insight and metaphorical tools. With those squares and lines popping in my head, I decided to see if I could find some wisdom in Geometry.

Soon enough, after briefly considering circles, squares and triangles, which are no good for thinking stories (because they’re flat and closed), I ended up with spirals and fractals.

Spirals are great. They start small and grow larger, layer after layer, revolving around one central point. They don’t go back to the initial point, but their movement always bears a connection to it. This point, in a story, is the idea – what we are saying, boiled down to one sentence or so. On a previous post, I reflected on this – on how this idea is elusive and, rather than a starting point, is a finish line. Contradiction? Yes and no. The thing is, we don’t draw our spiral only once – we keep drawing it until we get it right, seemingly simple and harmonious and eternal. John Gardner: “The organized and intelligent fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind. Through the process of writing and endless revising, the writer makes available the order the reader sees. Discovering the meaning and communicating the meaning are for the writer one single act” (in The Art of Fiction, 1984).

Trying to tackle fractals on Wikipedia, I quickly got lost surfing through Chaos Theory and other nerdy stuff. I’ll simply retain, for the purpose of this blog post, that fractals are complex patterns that show the same details at different scales. If we zoom into a fractal, we find the same pattern, deeper and deeper. I do believe that a good story works the same way. Each scene in a good movie actually contains the whole movie, in a simplified, stripped and flipped way. Like the scene from One flew over the cuckoo’s nest that I analyzed in this post. Or the final scene from the lovely Frances Ha that I saw a few days ago: Frances writes her name on a piece of paper, for the purposes of labeling the mailbox of her new apartment. But the piece of paper is too big for the slot in the mailbox. So she disposes of part of her family name (Halladay) and becomes Frances Ha. This scene reflects so perfectly what the movie is about – this girl that is brimming with generosity and appetite for life, a bit too free, too large, to fit in the world, and who learns, without losing her spark, her lightness, how to carve a path for herself, how to let go of some things, how to find her balance.

Interestingly (but I dare not go into detail because the mathematical complexity is prohibitive for me), one way of creating fractals is through a (partially) random, iterative process. Writing is much like this.

So, voilà – geometry. I’m now gonna twist those squares into something else. Maybe ovals 🙂

Fellow failures

broken-chair-400x400

My experience is that a story always resists being told. No, this isn’t right; it sounds as if it’s the story’s fault. I experience those difficulties as a personal failure. What am I doing wrong? Thousands of people for thousands of years have been writing stories and reflecting on the process of writing them. Knowledge is available. Since I’ve accepted (and that’s good) that “talent” is not the issue, I assume I didn’t read enough, didn’t practice enough, didn’t develop enough of a work ethic. This must be true to some point. But for every one of those stories that actually remained, there must be a hundred that didn’t make it. Writers dwell in a city  of dead ends. I regularly find myself in them.

It’s not because I rejoice in my neighbour’s misery that I experience warmth when reading about a fellow writer’s failures. I encounter kinship and solace. It’s not really the failure that triggers this effect, but the truth, the humanity that the acknowledgement of an endeavour unfulfilled always reveals.

I’ve just read a New Yorker article about writer Mark Salzman. After writing three novels, he spent five years working on a fourth one. Painfully. “Five years and it was the most terrible experience of my life”, he recalls. “I could not get my characters to act like real people. I couldn’t get them to talk like real people. Hell, I couldn’t even get them through doors: Her hand reached toward the handle of the door… Her hand extended toward the oaken knob of her… No no. Jeesh.” His writing self started to wither: “(…) any sound distracted me and just drove me crazy, so I took to wearing a huge towel wrapped around my head and stereo earphones on top of the towel (…). I have two cats, and they liked to sit on my lap when I worked, which distracted me. And so I made a tinfoil skirt, because cats don’t like tinfoil.”

Eventually, at the end of the fourth year, Salzman decides to start again from scratch, and on a sudden heap of confidence, finishes the novel in just one year. But he receives mixed reviews from friends and editor; he re-reads it and realizes it’s a bad piece of work. He is destroyed. He gives up.

I like the humour in his account, and I like this cruel second part, the apparent groove that led to a disappointing outcome. There’s actually a happy end – a short, five week act, when Salzman goes on an artist’s retreat and, freed from the pressure of achieving something, moved by the unusual sight of autumn leaves and a new-found simplicity, writes the goddamn thing, real quick. These epiphanies are alluring; they happen, sometimes, they can happen to you, to me. But they may also never come. I prefer to savour the tragedy at the end of act two: a writer who toils, suffers, and achieves nothing. Except, perhaps, that quiet, anonymous, humble contribution to the advancement of mankind that consists in joining the large ranks of tentative writers; because the more writers out there, the more memorable the works that will endure in time.

I came across Salzman’s story in Twyla Tharp’s book “The Creative Habit”, in a segment about the ruts (holes) and grooves (productive bursts) that creative people may find themselves in. We all want to be in a groove, but they are elusive. You can have the most wonderful work hygiene and still find yourself stuck. Acknowledging the rut is a first step towards getting unstuck. The hard part is getting back in track. I think Salzman’s story teaches an important lesson: look for enjoyable things, even if that means forgetting writing for a while. Do a little thing that is a little new, a little challenging; pick some of those autumn leaves.

Writing on the edge

brain_on_fire

I like watching Saturday Night Live. It is sometimes outrageously funny. And when it’s not sooo funny, or not funny at all, I’m still dazzled by the amount of effort and boldness necessary to stage, every Saturday, a brand new show that comes with that clear, alluring invitation: let’s laugh for an hour.

Although the comedy series 30 Rock (created by ex SNL head writer Tina Fey) provides a window into the creative process of SNL, there is some secrecy around it, and unquenchable curiosity from writers, comedians and fans in general. Actor James Franco directed a documentary about the making of one SNL show in 2008 (hosted by John Malkovich). Some of the fans who were able to see the movie (unreleased) took the trouble to share those insights on the web for other fans to enjoy. The information available is indeed scarce.

Writing for SNL is considered a great honour in the comedy circles, something that thousands of writers only dream of. It is also reputed to be very, very hard work, because of the time constraints, the high standards of the show runners and the competition within the team. Most sketches die before they make it to the screen. Not sleeping for one or two nights is standard procedure for writers, who out of ambition/desperation/perfectionism/possibly drugs, but mainly the sheer dynamics of the show, want to deliver the best they can. Or just something.

This crazy writing life appeals enormously to me. Not that I think I could ever do this job. But being a writer in an edgy, pressure-cooker environment such as this, one that resembles the Olympics and the Wall Street Stock Exchange, certainly seems like an experience I would like to have. My working life is exactly the opposite. It’s long term, with friendly deadlines, in a silent office, with no brainstormings and discussions and trial readings and hearts pounding with expectation and disappointment.

Boredom is an issue.

But there’s no way around it. In most kinds of writing, you are alone, and that’s it. You can, and should, look for other writers, or producers, directors, or plain old buddies with whom to exchange about your work. Riding a machine such as SNL, that kind of edge, is really just a fantasy. For me, it’s one of those fantasies that have value as such – reminding me to improve the dynamics of my writing life in a realistic way. That means, on one hand, getting the best out of my time alone – with feasible but ambitious quantitative goals – and going regularly out of the office for input – see some paintings, meet people, research a certain subject, do some associative work. I’m not always so disciplined and serious about this. But when I am, it pays off: I write better and am happier.

Scene design

1rom1

I watched One flew over the cuckoo’s nest again the other day. There are many unforgettable moments, but in this post I’ll talk about only ONE great scene. When we scriptwriters are actually writing scenes, it’s awesome: it means that we already have a story that kind of sticks together and makes sense (not as easy as it may sound). A scene can be easy to write if that particular part of the story is good and clear and exciting. When there’s fog in that slice of story, when we absolutely need to write a thrilling turning point that exposes emotions and gives the spectator insight – but don’t quite know what is actually going to happen – we’re on for some hours of frustration. We often find out that the scene isn’t working because of the story around the scene and must go back to mending some story bones. But I wouldn’t necessarily advise writers to refrain from writing a scene until they have it all figured out. Rule number one is – always – write. As much as you can. Why not that scene that you don’t really know how to write? Even if it ends in the trash bin you will most certainly have moved forward.

When writing or assessing scenes, I find Robert McKee’s advice very helpful. A scene must offer some kind of progression, i.e., change. Something must be at stake; its charge must be either positive or negative at the beginning of the scene, and have turned to opposite at the end. This change of value must be constructed progressively, a little tennis match between those values, a game of expectation, deceit and surprise, until a change occurs that fulfils the purpose of the scene.

In One flew over the cuckoo’s nest there’s this amazing scene in which McMurphy (Nicholson) tries once again to convince Nurse Ratched to let him watch the baseball game on TV. The stakes are: watching the game, i.e., having it his way. In the beginning the value is charged negative: on a previous occasion, a vote to change the rules of the ward so that everyone could watch the game had been organised, amounting to nothing. But he asks once more. Nurse Ratched suggests they do a vote again. This time all of McMurphy’s “friends” in the ward raise their hands, making it clear for us and for Nurse Ratched that the power balance has shifted (positive charge). Nurse Ratched declares that those votes aren’t enough, as there are more men in the ward – although, because of their illnesses, they are unable to express their will (negative). McMurphy sets out to have one of those men raise his arm somehow (attempt to change value to positive). He franticly goes around asking, although he knows that his chances of success are next to zero. The nurse declares that the vote is closed (further negative). But the big mute Indian chief ends up raising his hand. McMurphy shows it in triumph to nurse Ratched (positive) but she says it’s too late (negative). It’s the way the scene changes to positive again that makes it so unforgettable. McMurphy sits in front of the TV as if defeated; but he starts pretending the game is on, becoming the commentator and narrating the imaginary game with such enthusiasm that all the patients gather to “see” and cheer with him. Nurse Ratched’s cold rage is palpable. The beauty is that although she doesn’t let him do what he wants, he finds a way to free himself. His choice reveals character, moves the story forward and ultimately echoes the bare message of the film: that a free mind, even behind bars, is the most powerful thing.

A stake, its charge going from positive to negative like in a game of tennis, and a leap into unexpected change at the end. I find these are good tools to produce, understand, and heal, the scenes we write.

Reasons to smile

stern_look

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.

It all came to me like in a dream

dreamcatcher

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.