Friday, December 30, 2005

Don't Tell, Don't Ask

Every now and again I will buy a book on screenwriting. Even though most of the info is familiar, and I often don't need most of the content, just reading about other writer's processes can often get the creativity flowing and inspire me to get back to work. Plus I usually am able to glean a good technique or two worth trying.

So I picked up Alex Epstein's Crafty Screenwriting.

I tend to be pretty careful about whose books I pick up. F'rinstance, I won't read Syd Field. Nary a screenwriting credit to his name. On the other hand, Epstein, Tom Lazarus, David Trottier, Paul Joseph Gulino, Robin Russin--produced screenwriters all.

So I'm reading the book. It's entertaining, if not completely enlightening, but it contains some good refresher material.

But then I come to one of his big suggestions that he really pushes. He says that once you get an idea and work out a story, you need to tell it to everyone you meet, get their reaction, their input, see what works and what doesn't work as you tell the story, etc. Once you can get through the whole story and have your friends say, "Hey, that's great!" then you're ready to write.

My first reaction was "Bullcrap." I have never believed in telling your story out loud before you've ground it out on paper. Some of the writers I most admire have expressed the same in print here and there. I think Stephen King even devotes a few pages to the concept in his book "On Writing."

You see, my perception of this is kind of like sex. Let's say you and the missus are busy, one of the kids is sick, you're out of town for a couple of days, working late, whatever, and you two just can't seem to get into the sack at the same time. Now, you really want to do it, you guys are pretty hot for each other, but a week, then two weeks goes by without release. Finally you get the kids down early, the bills are paid, the work is done and there the two of you are. Watch for falling rocks, baby! You guys have built up all that pressure for all that time and go at it like you're playing naked rugby.

However, let's say all that is going on, but you're frustrated, so you go wank off every day, or worse, cheat on her, spending yourself all over the place... what are you going to have left when you finally get together? The passion will be gone, used up, wasted.

I feel storytelling is the same way. I have a pattern whatever I write. I let the story build up inside. I tell no one. I write a scene down here and there, a character idea, an incident, whatever. I mull it over in the shower, where I do some of my most creative thinking. It builds up and my mind forces me through the twists and turns to find a resolution. At some point, not when it's all worked out, but when it starts moving well, I start writing, and I follow where my heart and mind go. There's passion from all the pent up creative energy finally finding its way to the script page.

However, I'm game, you know? When someone has been more successful than I at something, I'm willing to give their way a try.

I recently finished one screenplay that I have a couple people reading, and which I'll start rewriting in a few weeks. In the meantime I'm well into another one. Not the writing phase, but the mulling phase. I've got character lists, the majority of the plot, the major conflicts, though I'm still working on the resolution. Well, I figured, here's a chance to try Mr. Epstein's idea.

I told my story twice in the last two days.

I will never do that again.

I feel so dirty. Really, it's weird, but I feel like I betrayed my story. It wasn't ready to be told. The energy wasn't there yet. The pressure hadn't built up to the steaming point. I examined my own heart on it and I found my reluctance wasn't born from fear, as Alex would surmise. Rather I felt... felt, I still feel mildly ashamed, like I exposed myself in public, showed something to others I had no business showing, and I can't take it back. There's a time to get naked, you know? But most of the time, you ought to keep yourself modestly covered and go about your business.

I'm not silly enough to think I've lost the story or screwed it up somehow. But I have learned something. I may not be getting half-a-million against a million for my screenplays, but there are parts of the process I've come to trust and understand, and sometimes you just have to do what you know works.

Epstein just wants to save writers the trouble of writing it down first then finding out it kinda sucks. For some of us though, it's the process of writing it down that makes us discover the real story we're telling.

Sometimes there are simply no shortcuts.


It's about me, dummy!!!


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