Thursday, April 29, 2010

How it Ends

It’s April 29. For those of you in the audience that have not been following along at home, here’s the story: I signed up for the Script Frenzy challenge ( to write a 100 page script in the month of April.

I took as my topic a fantasy screenplay with the intent of writing a better Dungeons and Dragons style movie than the actual D&D movie that hit the theaters. I like attainable goals.

Yesterday, I finished the script. I ran the formatting utility that set it into standard screenplay format. It was exactly 99 pages.

Now if the story is good and tight and complete at  99 pages, then that would be the place to stop. But I know this is only a first draft.

So I went back over it, thinking about what I could do better. One of the things that was weak was the character development arc for my lead. He started out strong and skilled and honorable. I didn’t want a story in which he got worse. That left the question about how he was going to change or improve. Who goes on a quest in order to stay exactly the same?

Now the major thing that happens over the course of the movie is that our team of heroes is assembled. When I wrote the end, I had them laughing and joking together, being friends.

I looked back at the very start of my script, which I wrote on April 2.  I had established my hero, Jon Warder, and his home village, but I hadn’t paid much attention to whether he had any real friends there.

So I went back, 25 days later, and rewrote the opening to show a distance between Jon and the farmers under his care. To show that he didn’t really have friends.

Then I rewrote the ending to make the final scene with the laughing and joking a little stronger.

And now Jon at least has something he didn’t have before his quest started. It sounds backwards and contrived when I explain it this way, but remember, the audience only sees it in the correct order, with the problem before the solution.

The result?


101 pages.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

No Worries

It’s the last week in April. As I write this, I have about 20 more pages to go to reach the 100 page deadline. I have no clue whether reaching that goal will bring me to the end of my storyline or not. Not sure what I’ll do if it ends at only 93 pages. Start the rewrite, I guess.

I hope my little experiment has worked for you, my readers. After several months of blogging randomly about the craft of writing fiction, it’s been good for me to have a single project to focus on. Helps me find new things to blog about.

I had forgotten, for example, how much I worry when I write. On this particular project, I have worried –

-- that my characters talk too much, that I am not trusting the actors to convey the meaning without too much explication, that I am not trusting my audience to keep up.
-- that my scenes are too cliché, too much things we’ve seen before.

-- that there isn’t enough magic, that I’m providing a fantasy world that is too ordinary and plain, and not taking advantage of the movie format to push for grand spectacle.

-- that there aren’t enough explosions. Currently, there aren’t any explosions. But really, I’m using explosions as a metaphor for big, screen-filling moments of pure awesome.

-- that my characters are not growing and changing through the movie – this is a tricky one because I chose not to start with the inexperienced hero archetype.

-- that my characters aren’t likeable enough, or relatable enough, and that may lead hero, particularly, is too bland.

So you gotta’ be asking – does this guy ever just shut up and write? And that is, of course, the answer. It’s a lot easier to decide if a scene is good, bad but fixable, or ready for the recycle bin if the scene actually gets written. Same with a character, a bit of dialogue, or a plot point.

It’s okay to worry. It probably even results in a better product.

But only if I don’t let it stop me from writing.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Protagonist Problem

Each new writing project brings new learning opportunities. My April movie project has brought me a challenge I never thought of before (although a little research shows that other screenwriters have noticed it). The challenge is not overshadowing my lead with more interesting secondary characters.

In my novels I focus on a single, significant hero. No problem there. In my stage plays I have a small cast of characters who are more-or-less given equal weight (not a bad formula for the stage). But for my movie, as I noted in an earlier post, I have an ensemble supporting a lead hero.

To use an extreme example, in the Star Trek movies, the invariably human captains have to compete with the all the aliens and psychics and shapechangers.

In my case, my lead competes with a mysterious thief, a big surly guy, and a know-it-all story-chasing bard. Jon Warder is pretty much the straight man to all these comedians.

So here’s what I’m trying: First, I’ve made Jon an extremely competent warrior. This means that yes, that early fight scene I discussed in a previous post will be rewritten. Any time there’s a fight, Jon needs to be ruling it.

Second, the secondary characters cannot be allowed to resolve all the conflicts. This one is a little trickier, because I want to show their special skills and abilities and I want those skills and abilities to be significant to the outcome of the story. And, you know, I only have so many conflicts.

But ultimately, if Jon Warder doesn’t shine as the hero, I’m doing it wrong.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Promise of a Pending Monster

In one of my earliest posts on this blog, back when we were discussing writing in the general rather than the specific, I wrote about keeping implied promises to the reader as a means of crafting a satisfying story. One of the points of this whole April D&D scriptwriting experiment is to show my writing process. And I’ve just found a great example to illustrate that point I made, so many moons ago.

I was writing a monster-fightin’ scene and I felt at the time that another such scene would be a good thing. So after all my monsters were all good and killed, I wrote this bit of sterling dialogue:

DARRION: The beasts of the Night Wood are old legends. There have been no accounts of them in living memory.

BARR DRUMHAND: Not really worried about their history.

DARRION: Nor am I. What concerns me is who may have woken them. And what else they may have awoken.

See that last line there? That’s the promise. Either something else has to have woken in the woods, or that line has to go. Sure, Darrion could just be flat-out wrong. Sure, I could have him speak and then have nothing happen. But the the audience will feel something is missing. They know the promise when they hear it.

Of course, when I got to the scene where I thought the next old night terror should show up and I realized there was something even better I could do instead. It’s actually a little confounding. I knew when I wrote the promise that I was doing it to set up a follow-up scene. I like the line (it’s a little hokey, but that fits with both the genre of the movie and the character delivering the line) and I don’t want to cut it. But I’ve overwritten the follow-up scene with something better.

So we’ll just have to see if I can squeeze another monster in there somewhere. My one consolation: If I cut the line, the audience will never know it was there (unless, of course, they read my blog). But, yes, I do fret that much over the implications of a single line. I do it because my audience will.

I guess I just have to figure out when the worst possible time for a monster to attack would be.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

My First Fight

One question I’m struggling with is: What to leave in, what to leave out?

When I wrote plays for the stage, I had the advantage of having acted on a stage. I’ve never been in a movie. For stage plays, I know that if I describe a door I don’t have to assign it a position on the stage. And if I want a character to move to the door, I simply write Bob moves to the door. There will be a director and a set designer who will decide that if the door is upstage left. They can note Bob crosses up left or even B. x UL.

In a movie, I presume, the director and set designer are supplemented with a legion of support staff – cinematographers, location scouts, fight choreographers, stunt coordinators, and so forth.

I know it is easily possible to go overboard with description and detail. And really, if this were a real movie, shouldn’t the art departments, directors, cinematographers, and actors, each bring their own take on the work? But I also know from stage scripts: If it is important to the writer, he better write it down, ‘cause nobody else is going to add it for him.

My first fight scene in the script is a paragraph stating simply who is fighting, that they are competent fighters, and who wins.

My second fight scene, written just shy of half a month later, is full of description. Who uses what weapon, odd things that happen in the fight, sequence and timing...  I wanted the second fight to have a different tone – it’s actually lighter and more comical, less lethal and serious. But the script doesn’t say “this is a comic scene.” It just describes the experienced fighters making fools of the incompetent ones.

So which is right, for a movie script? I really don’t know. I know there is a difference between a screenplay, which I think is what I’m writing, and a shooting script, which has camera angle notes and scene breakdowns.

I suspect I may go back and revise the first fight scene, to see if I can find ways to demonstrate that my fighters are competent, explain why they win. Because if I don’t, I’m essentially leaving it up to someone else to do that work for me.

And because the second fight scene is a lot more fun to read.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I’m off the map.

Admittedly, it wasn’t that good a map to begin with.

But I still feel lost.

What the map said was this: Jon Warder goes into the big city, sees the plight of the dwarves, feels responsible because he helped lead them here as refugees after a war, and decides to do something about it.  And since this is a fantasy movie, doing something will involve going on a quest and fighting lots of monsters.

I’m nearly half-an-hour into the film (by rough estimate). I’ve got Jon into the city. I’ve shown injustice being done to the dwarves.

But I don’t have the moment.

The moment that stands as a metaphor for all the cumulative injustices that are going on.  The moment when Jon says, enough, no more, I’m doing something about this.

Worse, looking for that moment was leading me on a downward spiral, where each bit of inhumanity was worse than the one before. I mean, I’m writing a D&D knockoff here, not District 9.

So I cheated.  I brought in a quest-giver figure to say, Jon, you must help us.  Take the McGuffin to the Dungeon of Doom. Fight a lot of monsters while you’re at it.

Had to rewrite three pages and I’m still not sure I like it.

But I know a secret: If I can get the plot moving again, I can move on to the end of the story. And once I have the end of the story, then and only then will I have the perspective to adjust the steps that lead up to that end.

This doesn’t end at the end of April. It doesn’t end at 100 pages.  It ends when I say it’s done.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Talkin’ the Talk

Normally, I love writing dialogue.  That’s one of the reasons I like the script format.  Nearly all dialogue, nearly all the time.

So, here I am, 28 pages into my screenplay, and I’m worried about the language my characters are using. I mean, English, obviously. But I’m talking about word choice, sentance structure, tone...

To begin with, I need to avoid sounding modern – I don’t want my medival warriors “downsizing” or “thinking outside the box.” And I want them to discuss themes appropriate to their world – honor and duty and whatnot. All while remaining accessible to the viewer, of course.

But it still not enough.

Personally I blame Joss Whedon.

I want the language of my world to have its own unique tone. Whedon’s shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly both presented unreal worlds – a California high school and an outer space frontier, respectively. And each world had its own lingo – new, amusing, engaging, and still fully comprehensible.

Really, this is something I should save for the inevitable re-write, but you know me. I worry.

So, what can I do? Well, here are a few tricks I’m trying:

1. To begin with, I want people to be a little more formal with each other.  One thing I’m trying is the occasional use of full names, especially early in the conversation. So my protagonist is often addressed as “Jon Warder” before the more casual “Jon” is used.

2. I’ve decided, after some experimentation, to include contractions. Not using them does sound more formal, but I do not want to completely lose all casual tone.

3. I’m avoiding the informal tense of the English language (i.e., no “thee,” “thou,” or “thine.”). It will just alienate the viewers.

4. I am constantly re-thinking words and phrases. For example, I’ve switched out the word “money” for “coin.”  Your money’s no good here becomes something like Keep your coin. Same sentiment, different tone.  “Aye” for “yes” is another one.

Results? Still no Whedonesque sparkle.  But I’m working on it.  Let me leave you with a line from the script...

I seek the house of Stonekind.

And the response...

Do you?  Think our royalty are on display then, for any man to gawk and jest?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Difficulty Leaving Town

So it’s April now, and I’ve actually started writing. But I’ve run into a snag.

I’ve written my beginning, just like I expected to – the tavern, the beastmen, the McGuffin (now called the Star of Mountain’s Keeping) – only I feel I need one more scene before I can get my heroes out of the village and on the next location in my outline.

I’ve had the attack on the village and it had consequences, but I think I need just little more emotional weight behind Jon Warder’s decision to leave. Something to show he’s doing it to protect his people.

I don’t have the write the piece in order, of course – and with a page count deadline I probably won’t have the luxury in any case. But I have to remember to come back to the village for that one last scene.

Another thing on my mind: I was on an interesting panel at Norwescon this year that discussed, among other things, the standardization of Hollywood movie development. Formalized act structures and character development arcs and the things that absolutely must happen by the halfway point of the movie.

And I don’t know a lot of this stuff.

I’ve decided not to worry too much about it. I’ve written four novels and several plays. I have some idea of plot, conflict, and resolution. And all those structures, used poorly, just straitjacket your movie, turn it formulaic.

But I’m also aware that used well they are valuable tools. And as this is my first screenplay, I maybe working without a full toolbox. Well, we’ll just have to see what the results look like.

On the plus side, writing all this down has given me an idea for my missing scene...

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why Dwarves?

I have a confession to make.  The point to the whole D&D movie project is to show the underlying decisions I make in the writing process.  But that implies a certain sequence, a certain causality.  The story needs X, therefore I make decision Y. It works that way some of the time, but not usually. 

Truth is, I usually start by daydreaming. Knowing what the story needs is a good test for deciding which dreams to keep, perhaps, but it’s rarely the true starting point.

I was picturing my heroes in my head, riding into the big city.  There are a lot of things I could do to make the city memorable, particularly in a fantasy world – overt magic on the streets, multiple humanoid races, maybe even have the city flying or something.

But what comes to my mind instead is a run-down city, where justice is suspect and the law corrupt.  Mean streets.  I don’t know why.

I picture my heroes, both human (or human and very human looking half-elf) riding through a medieval ghetto, surrounded uncomfortably by surly dwarves who look up at them and scowl.  A bit of dialogue comes to my mind:

DARRION: These were proud people once.

JON WARDER: They still are.  And they can hear you.

Going back from there, I can decide whether mean streets suit my story better than flying cities. (I’m thinking they do.)  I can contemplate the question – why dwarves? (Because I can immediately believe the pride and the surliness, for one thing.)

But none of these after-the-fact thoughts are the source of the streets, the ghetto, the dwarves. I don’t mind being thought of as a craftsman – if the story works in the end it will be because I put a lot of hard work into it – but it's important to remember that I start as a dreamer.