Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Metaphor Cannon earns its stripes

I was waffling about this topic, since I thought the Metaphor Cannon might not be up rapid-firing large-bore slugs, but we'll give it a shot and see what happens.

Today's metaphor is... the Unbent Paperclip.

Writing a bad screenplay is easy; you just pound out pages of whatever comes to mind. Worst-case, you're not following any kind of plan; just-as-bad-case, you've got a very basic plan, but it hasn't been refined at all, so you're making up all the details on the spot, and the overall plan may be misshapen anyway.

Writing a great screenplay, well... Even a writer as arrogant and inept as I can't give you an exact specification of what would make up a great screenplay. What I have figured out is that all great screenplays will have one thing in common, and that thing is really a meta-thing:

All great screenplays have every single element worked out in excruciating detail, and every element relates perfectly1 to every other element.

The inverse corollary is not true: A screenplay whose every stroke has been worked out, both broad and fine, will not necessarily be great.

And now, the Metaphor Cannon. *FOOMP*

Take a paperclip. Unbend it until it's more or less a straight line. Now try to work out the last few kinks: bend this segment just so. Well crap, now the segment above it is straight, but the one above that, which was straight before, is out of line. Now you have to bend just THAT segment, and hope it doesn't scotch your previous work. After a few minutes, you have a straight-line -- analogous to, say, one page of a screenplay.

Now imagine that your paperclip is ninety feet long, six inches thick, weighs thirty tons, and has six hundred kinked segments. That's a feature screenplay. And you have to bend it into a straight line. Using only your tonsils. And you had your tonsils removed last week.

I'm not sure how that dentistry reference got into the Metaphor Cannon, but the point remains: If you change a single element anywhere in your screenplay, there is a significant chance that you will need to change something else. Most likely, you'll have to change more than one other thing. And guess what happens when you change those other two things?

Four more things need changing. Wait, I see where this is going. Hm... what's two to the six hundredth power?

Oh, shit.

No wonder it's so hard to write a great screenplay.

1 Perfection not guaranteed.