Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Writing Is Not A Mystery - Go Organic

(We are so not done with the subject of Writer's Block, but we're changing it up this week. Writer's Block will come back - be assured.)

There are generally three choices when writing - obvious, organic, and inventive.

When I was studying the Spolin Technique and doing  experimental theatre (no, really), my director warned against being clever.  I had no idea what he meant.  What was wrong with clever?  Clever meant smart or witty or intelligent, funny with an edge - why not clever?

It took a while to see it, but clever isn't neccessarily those things.  It's a surface grasping to diffuse or change a situation from what it is into something else more manageable.  It's inventing a reality.  (I'm using invent here as a broader term to embrace clever and other similar modes.  I'm not at all trying to put down innovation or the creation of something new; I'm using invent in a more specific sense we can hopefully define as we go along.)

What's the difference between shows like The Wire with rabid fanbases across all boundaries, and network procedurals  which have fans who tune in to be lulled into forgetting their own world for 52 minutes?  I believe it begins with the writing.  Shows like The Wire, Sopranos, The Shield, Breaking Bad have a tremendously different approach.

The defining image for Breaking Bad is a middle-aged white guy out in the desert, shirt on, pants off, gun in hand.  This image is iconic because it asks a lot of questions and gives no answers.  It might be sad or funny or some new feeling we haven't approached yet.  If you've seen the first episode of the show, then you know how Walt got there - no pants on in the middle of the dessert.  How'd he get there?  Writer/creator Vince Gilligan put him there.

Think for a minute of the same image, only pants on.  Nothing, right?  Pants on, shirt off.  Something, but not the right thing.  Did the writer start with this image and work around it?  Possibly.  But he arrived at this state of being for Walt from spooling a story that makes logical and emotional sense for all of the characters in the situation.

Walt is wearing no pants because (SPOILERS) 1:  Walt cooks without his clothes on - odd, but reasonable in the cirucumstances - he doesn't want his family to know that he is doing this and he is afraid they will smell something strange on him; he doesn't want to have to make excuses.  2:  There was quite a fracas in the trailer, leaving Walt running around naked.  3:  He was able to grab his shirt.  4:  His pants went flying, leaving him in his skivvies.

So the iconic image is born from extreme, but real circumstances --- the choices are organic to the story and the situation these characters find themselves inhabiting.  It is not "Wouldn't it be cool if he didn't have any pants on," and it is equally not he's just wearing his regular clothes, a bit torn and burned, but nonetheless dressed (who cares?).

It's the kind of choice that makes Breaking Bad a very different show from every show that came before it.  Makes this world and these characters unique, but simultaneously believable - we start wondeirng if our next door neighbor the car dealer might not be running crack on the side.

Walt without pants is intellectually harder to write than Walt dressed, but it's not narratively harder to write.  It's easier.  Why?  Because Walt without pants brings with him a whole set of possibilities that can be addressed.  Situations open themselves up -- by constraining him to not having pants, you are also forcing him to deal with that problem.  Dealing with that problem gives you options for him to be humiliated, to be smarter than his situation, to be deceptive, to get into further trouble.  Any and all of these have the potential for raising the stakes, connecting us more deeply to Walt as a protagonist, introducing new characters, adding humour, adding real pathos.  They are juicy and filled with opportunity.  Zesty.

Writing organic seems harder, but in fact, it's easier.  When writers start to feel like something isn't working, or they don't know what to have happen next, the tendency is to go directly toward the extremes of obvious or inventive.  Either something entirely pedestrian happens, or something completely out of the blue, which has to be invented at great expense of time and brain cells to the writer.  Both options are used to serve the plot developing as it has been carefully pre-visioned, and prevent glitches that have to be handled later in the writing of a draft.

In a roundabout fashion (very roundabout), it is a choice made from laziness.  It's easier to circumvent the reality now, than have to deal with the fallout of a reality-based choice later.  Ouch.  Making this choice means the writer now has to write around reality for the rest of the draft in order to keep it on course, letting the plot's needs for events to happen steer the characters, instead of the characters needs and actions create the plot.  It seems an easier choice to make up front, but the back end is messy.  Not only does the writing of the draft become difficult, but choices become murky when there is no longer a basis for the right choice.  The writer circumvents gut and reality, and is left (hopefully, at least) with a story outline to follow.  Writing can become boring and lonely, and the draft that ensues is usually listless and lost.

When doing script consultations, I find this to be one of the biggest causes of the story derailing and the stakes being too low.  I worked with a writer who had a main character who had taken out a very large loan he couldn't pay back.  The crux of the story is that he was forced to pretend to be someone else in order to make money.  In the initial draft, there was no visible threat from the debt.  His house, car, and lifestyle were in tact.  The debt was mentioned in exposition as a problem, but no one ever came to collect.  Nothing bad happened to him, but still the character had to be thrust into this deception.

I began to ask questions, Well, what if they take away his car?  What if they take away his furniture?  What if he brings the girl home and there's a truck there to take away his possessions?  What if he suddenly has nowhere to live?

Questions like these that naturally arise in this situation can lead to some great new answers.  More conflict comes in, the stakes get raised, and the character becomes more accessible to the audience.  They may seem problematic at first - now I have to figure out where he's going to live? - but they offer opportunities, too -- what if a grown man has to move back in with his parents;  what if he has to impose on his best friend - ways to heighten the drama, create more tension, expose the gaps between characters.  You don't have to choose everything - one truly grave consequence might be enough to get the audience on board and propel your story, but choosing something that's truthful in the context of the story is always going to be a great option.  It's also going to have its own narrative engine - which means all you have to do is steer.

When you get stuck, try asking yourself a question, or two or three.  Specific questions about what would really happen here - what's the most likely thing to happen here?  What's the best thing that might happen?  What's the worst thing that could happen?  Your path may be down one of those roads.  It's true - movies, art, books - they are not real life.  But the ones that base their choices on real life choices are always the ones that have lasting relevance.

Write real to get to the drama.

This problem doesn't just occur in script writing and fiction.  It can happen in poetry.  The cute ending is an outgrowth of this.  It's an easy out, it leaves the audience thinking, "oh, that was a cute ending" and nothing more.  They won't remember the piece the next day and the rest won't resonate.  Why?  Because the ending, cute though it might be - matching your metaphor -  is not of the poem.  It's a smirk or a wink tacked onto the poem.  It's the idea of how the poem should end - probably one you had before tackling the actual poem.  It ends up undercutting your poem - making it less visceral and memorable for the audience.  Just when the writer's supposed to get in there and wrestle with the material, they jump ship - closing a serious poem with an ill-fitting quip, or other non-poetic devices that release the writer from the intimacy they have begun with the piece.

Just like a screenplay or novel, a poem is a journey.  It can be a tiny journey, a fragment, a picture without a frame, a frame without a picture.  Yet a good poem - no matter how short or long, no matter the style or intended audience - resonates.  It sings.  It does this by hanging in the air on its own vibration once it's done.  The cute ending tragically cuts short the life of the poem like performing euthanasia on a healthy body.  Follow the poem, let it lead you.  It has its own ideas - just like characters do, just like groups of characters do, like situations do.  Good poems have conflict just like good stories - don't insert yourself between the writing and the potential conflict, blocking the way to its expression - this is how to get pedestrian writing - stand back and expose the conflict -- it's the paydirt, the motherlode, it's where the drama is, where the connection to the audience lies.

"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
- Michelangelo

THIS is our job as writers.  This and only this.  The story, the poem, the novel, the script - when it's working, it comes right through you.  Get out of the way so you can see it, then reveal it.  That reveal is where all the hard work lies - like chipping marble with tiny hammers, it might take time - maybe years, but it is the work, and it can create something breathtaking.

Go out there and find your piece of marble and get to work.


(This blog is part of a series - you can look the others up on the side, or go to the blog search and type "writing is not a Mystery" - either should work.)

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