Tuesday, September 27, 2005

To begin with...

Like all good screenwriters, I need a way to prevent myself from writing. Writing leads to madness, and so instead I have created a writing blog.

I've written five complete (which is Italian for bad) screenplays. The fifth is currently undergoing a complete, ground-up, atomic-level rewrite, that will hopefully make it less, er, complete, and more sellable (Italian for home ownership). However it is not so much currently undergoing a rewrite as it is sitting on the back burner while I work on an entirely different script. About a space pirate.

On the advice of a long-time screenwriter (Italian: house north of Montana) who is a friend of the family, I took a screenwriting class at UCLA Extension. I resisted the idea at first, seeing as how I've read every screenwriting book in creation, including -- put down the pitchforks -- Story, and figured that I'm probably past the point where book-learnin' would do me any good. (Italian: I am naïve.)

The class at first had a dozen people, all with varying levels of talent, writing experience, and involvement with the industry. By the end of the class, it was down to five or six die-hards. I speculate that the reason for this was that the class, the supposedly Basic Fundamental Introduction to Beginner Screenwriting 101, was 98% workshop and 2% book-learnin'.

The instructor was a screenwriter, in the neighborhood of 70, who cut his teeth on TV in the '60s. He professes that the best way to write is to just write. There was a lot of hemming and hawing over the details, but it boils down that your story is better when you know your characters well, and you can't really know your characters until you write them doing something. This of course hearks back to the standard outlining-versus-uh, not-outlining debate that flares up semimonthly on sites like Wordplayer, and are summed up by Terry Rossio's inimitable pith:
As we've discovered on this topic before, everybody outlines. Even people who say they don't outline, outline. Those writers who just sit down and bang out a first draft have simply found an incredibly slow and work-intensive way to outline.
Hard to argue with. Terry and Ted Elliott wrote Pirates of the Caribbean (and its impending sequels), which contain one of the most memorable and distinctive characters in cinematic history -- and they outline. However... just let me pull back this sheet... *whiff*

This is the Metaphor Cannon. It is a device designed to pound an idea into your skull until your ears bleed. This time, the Metaphor Cannon will be launching the idea of the writer's toolbox. I did not invent this idea, but I find it a useful tool -- a meta-metaphor, if you will, and if you won't, ALT-F4 -- for thinking about the writing process.

All writers have tools they use to write. I don't mean Final Draft on a Mac or a Mont Blanc on a legal pad; I mean mechanisms and techniques. And it seems to me that evangelizing the undeniable glory of outlining may, may, cause some writers to forgo another tool which is remarkably useful: A character exploration draft.

Big words! Hulk smash! Raar! I have a problem when I write in that my characters tend to be extremely realistic, which is Italian for boring. Real people do not run about tossing off witticisms à la Jack Sparrow. So as my first, largest step in writing a screenplay is laying out the story in excruciating detail, my characters tend to be boring. They do not do interesting, distinctive things. They do what the plot needs done; the plot drives them, not the other way 'round.

So once I work out the general bones of the story, I write some pages, usually from the beginning, trying to give these non-dimensional characters some depth and life. And after a while, I have some better idea of what the characters are "really" like, and how they'd respond to the situations in the story.

Then I go back to the story and start over, knowing that I've got Lively Characters A, B, and C who can now help drive the story by their lively, lovely actions.

Then I repeat this process until I go insane.

If you got this far, you are a special, special person. (Italian: Special Olympics.) The title of this blog refers to the third Snakes on a Plane film, which will be directed by someone who is currently directing Gap ads but will make a big splash next year with a kung-fu movie starring a rapper and an athlete. Said director will become sought-after by the studios despite his complete inability to tell a story, and Snakes on a Plane 3: Velociraptors on the Space Shuttle will feature only one of the original cast members, the one who wanted too much money to be in the sequel, but has since starred in several flopped romantic comedies/serial-killer detective dramas, and has learned how to properly season their crow. It will also star Steven Dorff and/or Skeet Ulrich.