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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sometimes Your First Idea Is The Best One

It's largely accepted that things change - and get better - as you draft and redraft. I'd be a nutter if I didn't say that feedback helps one's writing, not only because I am an actual script reader, but because I have seen my portfolio of specs literally grow and improve thanks to the tireless of efforts of other professional readers I go to, plus of course my beloved Po3ers.

Yet sometimes one can go off the boil whilst rewriting. Just as it's possible to be blind to a particular device's faults in your script, it is possible to reject a perfectly good idea or method of execution in your script just because it came early on in the redrafting process.

When I started writing my horror/action-adventure script Eclipse way back in 2005, it was only the second feature I had ever attempted. Looking back now, I figure I must have been crazy to try and pull off such an epic project: it includes a new take on the werewolf myth, a huge period-style arena and an array of secondary and peripheral characters, not to mention a fractured, non-linear structure.

And it certainly was a mess for a very long time. Characters changed their functions at will, there was expositional dialogue and general weirdness. I couldn't decide who should be the protagonist for a while and the story swung wildly from fractured to completely and utterly bonkers. Despite this, the script placed as a semi-finalist in the tenth WriteMovies contest back in '06, the very first screenwriting competition I had ever entered, justifying my belief this script had "something".

So with the help of many, many professional reads (I must have spent a fortune!), I managed to get my story under control. I realised what story it was I wanted to tell and I began to brainstorm cool, atmospheric ways of telling it. I am very fond of the likes of The Company of Wolves or Dark Crystal in which a framing story acts as the set up for both new worlds and I figured I would do the same, paying tribute to that eighties' device at the same time.

Yet nine months after I had supposedly finished the twelfth draft, I find myself revisiting it with new eyes. In terms of that framing story, what had seemed so cool nine months ago, suddenly seems clunky and expositional. What I had been so sure I had achieved seems a wasted opportunity: the beginning is not tight at all, but sprawling. This sneaking suspicion was compounded by the fact that despite that mental draft placing in a screenwriting contest, there have been no further bites from any other contest I entered it in - despite some praise from Bluecat and various encouraging murmurs from a couple of producers.

So I went back to one of the original drafts, the one that placed in WriteMovies. I took the beginning there and I placed it, whole, at the beginning of my most recent draft and made a direct comparison.

It works better.

Whilst the framing story does indeed feel atmospheric, it feels as if we are waiting for the story to begin. Okay, not for long, but it still feels not quite good enough. Perhaps framing stories died off because they are not suited to the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am MTV style generation? Perhaps I have quite literally fallen into my own trap! Whereas the old draft beginning was tighter, gave less away up front but still provided enough information to show that this was no traditional werewolf we were dealing with, as well as setting up the story.

Sometimes you have to have faith that you will crack the most troublesome of scriptwriting issues yourself - whilst other readers can give you plenty of ideas, there's no substitute for the passion of the writer for their own story. You also have to have faith that this sometimes takes time. It seems obvious to me now that this is what I should have done all along - combine that old, good beginning with a coherent story! - but Eclipse was one of my "learning" scripts. I might have dived in before I was ready, but I learned heaps. And it's still teaching me now.

4 comments:

Tom Murphy said...

Sometimes writing's like pub quizzes and Trivial Pursuit - you should trust your instinct and be careful not to talk yourself out of the right answer (once you've vetted it to make sure it wasn't something you saw in a film two days earlier).

Your post puts forward a reassuring point of view, Lucy; Matthew Weiner, formerly of The Sopranos and creator of Mad Men, claims that he throws away his first three solutions for any problem, so that he's digging deeper and becoming more creative. I must admit I've found that approach a bit daunting so far!

Paul M said...

Eery stuff, Lucy.

Not you or the timely article :) It just all sounds very familiar to my own life, and I watched "The Number 23" last night, too. Yikes!

The learning script ... painful, but also priceless for the journey as a Screenwriter. I have only now, gone back to my original script (you know the one), right back to basics or the heart of my story. But now I have a wealth of learned knowledge lapping at my toes and a few gem stones offered by readers such as yourself.

It is hardest of all, for the originator of a script, to see his own creation. Everyone else can, and can give you pointers. But they don't really understand where you have come from or where you are trying to get to. I think it takes time (like any good wine) to mature, settle down into its skin, before it truly knows what it is and wants to achieve, by your direction.

So like you, and I suspect many other writers, it's the fact that you feel that your story has that "something", and you just know it, that makes you persevere through the heartache and torture of re-writing.

Never forget where you've come from ...

Lucy said...

Normally I would agree that the harder one works, the deeper you dig, the better creative choices one makes.

However, every now and again, you hit the nail on the head first time - and every other way you try it comes up wanting. The key is in recognising those moments and not discarding them.

Paul M said...

I guess then, it's a case of whether the story is commercial enough. It may have ingenious slants on established norms, fantastic characters that jump off the page, but does it have overall commercial appeal? Does it fit into the pack of films already out there? This is what we are constantly measuring ourselves against or should be.

Then again, from my observations, it seems that a great script doesn't guarantee it will ever see the light of day. One thing I'm certain of though, is the worst mistake you can make, is to send something out that isn't right yet (apart from competitions). That nagging feeling is there for a reason.