embrace the pain

Sunday, November 12, 2006

On Becoming Lucid

So my last script was a trainwreck. I climbed out of the wreckage, brushed myself off, and dove right back in with a brand new idea. I think my favorite part of the process is the outline, which is funny because in school I absolutely hated doing outlines on anything - I thought it stifled the spontaneity required to write well. I was, for the most part, wrong. You shouldn't have outlines for poems, or short little stories that hit you while you're sitting around watching leaves fall from a tree one day. But when you're writing as something as involved as a novel or a script, you have to have a general idea of your beginning, middle, and end. If you start out without an idea for an ending, you will find yourself with a story that goes on for 450 pages without a satisfying ending. Trust me, it will happen to you. You may get lucky a few times and manage to pull it off - but sooner or later, it'll catch up to you, and you'll be pissed off at yourself.

I think it's more vital that you have an outline for a script because the writing is so blunt. You have Scene 1, which is followed by Scene 2, and so on. Character A does this and says this, and so on. I am not saying your outline has to be very specific. It'll usually hold no dialogue, or if it does, it'll be one or two lines that just keep screaming out at you when you're thinking about the scene. But you should have a decent idea of the action in the scene and what it is trying to portray to your audience. Because in the end, that's what this is all for, right? The big laughs, the big crys (yes, you snobs, that is intentionally crys, not cries), the big hoo-hahs.

So anyway, now that I've babbled for a bit, I'd like to show you an example of a section of outline converted into script.

First, the outline section:

Opening sequence: Jake leaving home. The house is quiet except for him. He packs quickly, panicked. Leaves writing notebooks behind. Visits his mother in her bedroom. Leaves without goodbyes.
St. Francis, where Jake is now teaching English and Creative Writing. He's sitting at his stool, reading student work, his students listening attentively, when the door opens and Miranda Clark (a teacher at the school and his current girlfriend) leans in to tell him he's got a phonecall.
They're in the hallway. Miranda thought his parents were dead. His parents and he don't talk much.
Jake is in the office. He answers the phone, and his father tells him very bluntly that his mother is dead.

And now for the script. Please note that I cannot convert the format into the web very successfuly without a lot of headache work that I'm not going to put myself through, so the margins and centering of dialogue are not exact. If it bugs you that much, don't read it, wait a month or two until I'm finished, then take the finished manuscript and shove it up your anal-retentive ass.

TITLE: Rochester, Ohio - 1996

A two-story skeleton of a home sits atop a sloping hill. It rises bold and stark against the hollow night sky. The only sign of life: one light shines behind the blinds of a top-floor window. A shadow moves quickly behind the Venetians.

Posters smother the walls; Scarface, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Jim Morrison. A cluttered and nearly hidden desk sits stashed away in the back corner of the room, spiral notebooks and paperback books rising like skyscrapers toward the ceiling. A wrinkled graduation gown hangs forgotten on the desk chair.

JAKE WEATHERS, a desperate and pained 18 year old graduate, pulls open the remaining drawer of his now nearly empty dresser, grabs as much clothing as his arms can handle, and hurries over to the bed. An already overstuffed suitcase lies waiting for him. He haphazardly tosses the clothes into the suitcase and forces it shut.

Jake closes his door quietly and yet the sound still echoes through the narrow hall. He sets the suitcase down by the stairs and makes the next few steps to his mother’s bedroom door. He presses his ear against the door, knocks insincerely, and then opens the door.

Enter bedroom.

Darkness envelops the room, the blinds pulled tight, the lights dead. Two nightstands drowning in picture frames flank the king-sized bed that holds GAIL WEATHERS. She lay silent and still atop the covers in the middle of the bed, her head resting on a single feathered pillow.

Jake steps inside and starts to close the door. The darkness presses in on him and he leaves the door cracked instead.

He walks to the bed, apprehensive, scared. Gail lay like a corpse, inanimate. Jake sits down. The water-bed shakes considerably but Gail does not stir. Jake reaches out and takes her hand. Struggling. He opens his mouth to speak but the words are choked back.

A beat, and then he rises. He walks briskly to the door and leaves without a glance back.

The trunk of a blue ‘92 Civic gapes open. Jake struggles to fit the suitcase inside but manages. He slams the trunk down.

The back windshield is covered in marker. Class of ‘96, Weather Man, 1996.

He looks back to the house, which now lies completely dark. A shudder, and then he climbs into the car. It starts reluctantly and then lurches on down the street.

He unceremoniously leaves Rochester behind.


TITLE: New York City, New York - 2006
Students sit littered like leaves around the well-landscaped hub. A glittery ‘06 Graduation banner hangs above the doorway.

Flyers and bulletin boards line the stonewalled hallway. The fluorescent lights reflect blindly in the polished tile floor.

A door sits ajar, crammed between a bulletin board advertising summer basketball camps and a poster for the spring play, Carousel. The plaque on the door readers: 205 - Mr. Weathers.

Jake, 28 and polished, sits on a stool at the front of the room. His dress shirt and khakis match his clean-shaven face and straight smile. His short hair is combed and contemporary.

Students sit slouched yet attentive, interested in the man sitting before them. They respect him.

He reads from a piece of loose-leaf paper. Similar papers sit on his lap.

The boy was lost. After eighteen years he was
pretty sure he had just taken a wrong turn somewhere
and was now far, far away from where he was supposed to
be at the beginning of adulthood.

A knock at the door interrupts him.

MIRANDA CLARK, a wily woman too beautiful to be a teacher, stands in the doorway, concern plastered across her face.

Jake? Can I speak to you a minute?

“Oooh”s escape from the mouths of several students. Jake casts them a glance of rebuke.

What is it?

Your father’s calling for you. He says it’s important.

Jake and Miranda walk hastily down the hall toward the office.

Don’t take this the wrong way or anything,
but I always thought your parents were dead, honey.

We don’t talk much.


Or ever.

Jake rushes through the door to the front desk. A curly-haired secretary turns the phone toward him. He picks up the receiver and presses it to his ear.


RICHARD WEATHERS’ voice is raspy, stocky; his words belabored, drawn-out.

Jake? It’s your father.

What’s going on?

I’m sorry to interrupt you at school. I don’t have your
home number so I couldn’t call there.
I didn’t want to leave this on a message.

Leave what on a message?

It’s your mother, Jake. She died yesterday.
She’s... she’s dead and I thought you might
want to know.

Jake looks at the phone.

I'm excited about this story. I have a bit more confidence in what I'm doing (which I hope is a good thing and not just fool's ignorance) and I believe in this story I'm telling. The working title is On Becoming Lucid, and it is a collection of memories (while hopefully not completely abusing the flash-back technique) and present-day events that Jake experiences when he goes home for his mother's funeral. It's Forrest Gump meets Garden State meets a Nicholas Sparks movie, and it'll hopefully turn out better than that sounds.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Falling Victim to History

There's a joke among the literary community that everyone's first attempt at writing is often a self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical, melodramatic trainwreck. The joke is it's true.

I made the mistake of thinking I was past this rookie screw-up. However, when writing my first script, I fell right back into the old habits. I basically wrote my life, satirized and fictionalized, and the result was... well, a self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical, melodramatic trainwreck.

My first mistake was trying to "spin" my own life. I've said before that the first step to becoming a good writer is admitting you're a bad one. The second step, in my opinion, is to realize that we are nothing but observers. We're eye-witnesses, the people left behind, and we're here to tell the story - not spin it, not create it. I'm a firm believer that I don't make up stories.. they're there in my subconscious, in my imagination, and I discover them, I watch them, and then I write about them. Whether that's right or not, whether that's not giving myself enough credit or giving me just a little bit too much, I don't know. But I believe it wholeheartedly, and my most successful attempts at prose have been when I embrace this idea and go from there.

Storytellers are here to relay the stories, and that's it. I'm not saying not to find your voice - we all have different ways we describe things or structure a tale. But it's important not to spin your story. We see too much spinning in the media and in bad novels already. If you find yourself forcing a character to do something or say something, or forcing a situation, you've made a big mistake. You have to trust your characters when they show you where they want to go.

It's not always going to make you comfortable. You may spend six hours on a paragraph of a story simply because you're not comfortable with where your character is taking you. But it's in these moments that you can trust that you've got a pretty good story going here because your characters are thinking for themselves.

I didn't do that when I wrote my script. I forced things, I forced actions, and I was left with a contrived version of my own life. And trust me, no one wants to read that, or see it on screen.

So I offer you a piece of advice. Save the autobiography until the grey hair and arthritis is kicking in.