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Friday, February 5, 2010

Story Battle Plan

Before I begin, I’d just like to give a big thank to everyone who has been visiting my novel The Hidden Kitchen especially the folks at You guys rock!

Also give a special welcome to all my buddies at #scriptchat. Any screenwriter out there, it’s a great Tweetchat hashtag to follow. It happens every Sunday, well almost every Sunday at 8 PM GMT and again at 8 PM EST.

Lately I’ve been thinking that writing a screenplay is a lot like fighting a war. Well actually I don’t know anything about real war. But I played a lot of wargames growing up, so let’s say writing is a lot like a wargame. I’m finding a lot of writers I cover need to pay better attention to their “battle plans.”

Specifically I’m talking about when it comes to finding their story. At first you may think that’s easy and obvious. The story is what I’m writing about. Right? Not exactly.

Here’s the thing. In any given situation that you can come up with, there are a near infinite number of characters and plot threads you can follow, an infinite number of rabbit holes for you to fall into. But which one do you follow? That’s the question that confounds so many writers. Bad dialogue can be corrected. Typos and formatting problems just a matter of diligent proofreading. But bad choices made at the beginning of the writing process? Now amount of polish can change those or fix what’s wrong. You have to go back to formula, back to the very bones of your script to rectify that problem. Just like in a battle (or wargame) if your battle plan is faulty, you will lose no matter how powerful your units or how lucky you are at the dice roll.

So how do you create a winning battle plan? That’s a little hard to quantify since that depends on circumstance. But there are general strategies for avoiding a losing battle plan. Here they are.

Send in the right troops:
In battle you don’t send mountain troops to take a beach. Similarly a huge part of finding your story is choosing the right characters for it. A little while ago I was reading a script by a new writer. She had decided to make it a romance about a woman who needed something (sorry to be this vague but Confidentiality Agreements and all) and the person who could help her achieve her goal was her love interest. They were nice and romantic and dreamy together and there was absolutely no drama. There was nothing really serious to prevent Character A from falling head over heels for Character B. So in order to make it interesting, the writer was forced to tack on a lot of “reasons” that were in no way shape or form reasonable. The result was two adult characters acting completely illogical. But the writer had the solution in her own story. She had her heroine in the beginning walk in on her then boyfriend as he was cheating on her. The boyfriend hung on briefly as a villain but he was never effective in that role. Now what if the writer had made the simple decision that the one person who could help her heroine was the one person who had just betrayed her? Then sparks fly naturally. That’s the difference between choosing the right characters and choosing the wrong characters. You need to focus on the characters who generate drama/comedy automatically in the given situation. If the environment is unfriendly to outsiders, your character damn well better be an outsider. If the situation requires nerves of steel, you want somebody who’s nervous as hell. Yes they have to be likable but it’s easier to soften up an edgy character, you really only need one Save the Cat scene to do it, (TY Blake Snyder) than it is to put an edge on a bland, safe character.

Objective: In a wargame you can send your troops anywhere you damn well please just as in writing you can go anywhere you want to with your plot. But there are only a few spots on the map worth occupying. There are only so many ways you can win the game and defeat your opponent. Furthermore you only have so many armies to work with. There are probably more vital areas on the map than you can cover. If you try to be everywhere your forces will be too spread out and you’ll be no where. Thus it is with story. You can follow any number of threads in a situation but only a few of them are truly dramatic and (if this is a concern) commercially appealing. The big part of being a writer is learning how to identify the dramatic hotspots of the situation. This is related to choosing the right characters. Once you have your characters you have to give them a goal or a setup worthy of them. Usually it’s almost like wargame strategy in reverse. Instead of taking the high ground or the secure locations, you want your characters at a low point in their lives. The drama isn’t that they defend the high ground, the drama is in them having to battle uphill to take the high ground. Recently I read a screenplay that started out with a beautiful set up. It was an action film and had the two main characters in an isolated location with unknown enemies. It had the makings of a classic thriller. But then he left that situation for a brand new one. The new situation was more expansive but it ruined the script. In order to tell that story he needed to keep introducing new characters well past the halfway point so naturally those characters were never fully developed nor did they elicit any sympathy. It was the equivalent to a general securing a vital strategic point and then midway through the battle abandoning it to the enemy to chase some other objective. Only he discovers that he brought inadequate forces to take the new objective so he has to call for reinforcements which can’t arrive in time!

Interior Lines:
Take interior lines and bring superior forces, aka get there the firstest with the mostest. That’s a golden nugget of strategy and it applies to writing as well. Once you have set your objective get there as fast as possible with as much of army in tact as possible. Once you’ve settled on your characters and their situation you need to tell their story, quickly. This is the part that trips up a lot of writers, they don’t begin their stories quick enough. I was working a contest that emphasized beginnings and it was shocking how many writers just wasted the first 15 pages, strolling along like they hadn’t a care in the world. They seemed to be saying, “Oh don’t worry, we don’t need to get serious until we reach the first act break.” Wrong. Your inciting incident must occur between page 10 and 15 at the latest. Arriving late to a battle is to invite defeat. Not starting your story ASAP is an invitation for the reader to stop reading. Some writers also try to take the most complex and circuitous route possible to tell their story. They want to surprise the reader. This is a noble effort but more often than not what they end up doing is losing the reader. If a reader can’t follow your plot line, then it isn’t surprising, it’s incomprehensible. You have to make sure you don’t lose the audience along the way before shocking them. That’s usually why the best twists come at the end of movies. The audience has followed all the way through 90% of the story and has been thoroughly entertained then POW! Something unexpected happens that knocks them off their feet. Remember you’re a magician. A magician draws your attention, usually to the wrong spot but it’s all about drawing that attention. He can’t have you unfocused and confused, then you won’t see the trick.

A caveat however, sometimes you can be too direct. I worked on a screenplay recently where several vital decisions were just made without being built up to. That’s equivalent of dragging your army through a malarial swamp or a barren desert without water. You may reach your objective quicker but chances are you’ll be in no position to fight. You have to take the route that will get you there in one piece! You want your characters at their full strength as well. That means setting up and paying off their dramatic decisions.

Great generals are usually the ones who see a battlefield with clear eyes. In chess they call it seeing the board. As writers we have our own battlefields and chessboards to conquer. But we need to look at them with clear eyes and make our decisions based on that.

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