Among the sizable slew of ongoing projects of which I’m currently undertaking, finishing the edit/polish/rewrite of the pulp sci-fi spec was pretty high up near the top of the list.
Mostly because it was something I felt I absolutely had to do; sort of a “get it out of my system” thing.
And for now, it is. Finished. At least until the next sets of notes come in and the whole process starts all over again. No big deal. Par for the course.
Overall, I like how it turned out. As has been the case before, it was also simply just fun to write. That helped. And some of my readers from the previous draft were quite enthusiastic about what a fun read it is. That also helped.
Even though the story’s pretty much set in place, every once in a while inspiration would strike, or a suggestion would be made, and I’d come up with a way to potentially improve a particular moment, scene or sequence.
So off it goes to some very savvy readers, and my attention redirects to the much-interrupted overhaul of one of my low-budget comedies, which has been a sizable challenge on its own.
Creating amazing tales of thrills, excitement, and heart-pounding fantastic-ness? No problem. Trying to craft a smart, funny story? A challenge, to say the least.
A just-starting-out writer had contacted me, asking if I could take a look at their spec.
I did. It wasn’t easy, but I did.
The script had a lot of the usual problems. On-the-nose dialogue. One-dimensional characters. A story that was more a jumbled collection of random events rather than a cohesive series of scenes and sequences.
But even with all of that, what really stood out was the excessive overwriting when it came to setting up a scene, with excessive being a major understatement. The writer seemed to feel the need to provide an extraordinary amount of details – for just about everything.
Just to name a few:
-What kind of furniture is in every single house or apartment
-What kind of food is on the table during a dinner scene
-Why a character, who’s only in one scene, is wearing a particular item of clothing, along with what it looks like
-A detailed list of all the items of clothing a character removes when getting undressed
-The direction a character is driving, along with street names
Did any of these have anything to do with the story?
All together now – of course not.
Then why is it in there?
I posed this question to the writer as part of my notes. They haven’t responded yet, but it’ll be interesting to see what they say about it.
I can’t remember the specific joke/comment about sculpting, but it’s something along the lines of “Start with a block of marble, and then chip away everything that doesn’t look like a (whatever you’re sculpting).”
Screenwriting’s very similar. While it’s true you should describe what we’re seeing, there’s no need to drastically overdo it. Some writers don’t know the difference between “painting a picture with words” and “overwhelming us with information”. Or worse, think they’re more or less the same thing.
They are most definitely not.
Everything on the page should have a reason for being there. If it doesn’t, take it out. Trust me, it will not be missed. If you argue that it should stay, you better have a mighty good reason why. Helpful tip – saying “Because I want it to” or “Because I like it” will totally invalidate your argument.
When the writing goes into Overly Descriptive Mode, it simply slams the brakes on the momentum of the story; things really do come to a screeching halt. Wouldn’t you rather the reader stayed interested in what’s going on, and not think “Hold on a second. Why is this here? Is it relevant?”
For a lot of writers starting out, they think they need to cover all the bases and include as much info and detail as possible. Only through constant self-educating will they eventually learn what they should and shouldn’t be doing.
I sincerely hope this writer takes my notes to heart and is able to figure out how to transition from the latter to the former.
No matter what your screenplay is about, or what genre it is, it really comes down to one thing: telling a story about the characters and what happens to them.
While some may put more emphasis on the latter part with its vast number of variables and possibilities, it’s equally important to put a lot of effort into developing the former.
You want your characters to be relatable. Let us see ourselves, or at least part of ourselves, in them. How they act and interact. What they do. Even if it’s within a completely ridiculous or unbelievable scenario.
A good example: the works of Judd Apatow. “Comedies with heart,” is often used to describe them. By injecting emotion into what might otherwise be just something silly, he adds that extra layer of humanity. Notice you never heard the phrase “wacky hijinks ensue”? Because it’s about the emotion within the comedy, not just going for the cheap laugh.
Nobody only experiences one emotion, and neither should the fictional population within your pages. If a character’s happy, sad, or angry, show us why. Don’t hold back. Put it there for us to see.
Do they act like a real person? Is this how they would act in this kind of situation? Is it a real reaction or a “movie” reaction? Getting your characters to act using their emotions makes them come across as more realistic, which makes for a better story.
“The characters are too one-dimensional,” or “He/She’s just a one-note character.” Heard those before? If your character only acts one way, or remains static and never changes, or doesn’t even react accordingly, that’s what the response will most likely be. And you don’t want that.
A savvy writer knows how to use emotion without being blatant about it. Maybe it’s a subtle action, or a turn of phrase, or the subtext within a line of dialogue.
Find the way that works best to develop and advance the character both within their own story and the story overall.
I’ve mentioned before about my tendency to overwrite, which usually applies to both outline and actual pages. This time around with the pulpy adventure spec is no exception. There’s simply too much going on, so before the amount of material got too overwhelming, some significant editing was needed.
I don’t know how or why I do this, but sometimes there’ll be a scene or sequence that’s more or less a repeat of what’s already happened. Such was the case here. In the overall context of the story, the second one was more important, so thus began the great removal of the first one, along with reinforcing the connection between what came before it and the second one. It actually wasn’t too bad. It tightened up the story much more than anticipated and, in my opinion, kept that energetic momentum going.
My slightly unusual work schedule allows me to dedicate most of the early afternoon to writing, which is occasionally interspersed with some household chores. For this particular instance, it was laundry.
In some ways, I’ve been quite content with my progress, but there was something still nagging at me about it. Things felt…incomplete.
I was somewhere in the middle of that day’s writing session when the washing machine let me know the latest load was finished. While my body went through the motions of hanging stuff on the drying racks, my mind was barreling along a continuous stream of thought.
“What if THIS HAPPENED? Or THIS? Maybe I’m looking at this from the wrong angle. A lot of this has been about the protagonist. What about the antagonist? I don’t want them to come across as a mustache-twirling cartoon villain. Their goal seems too vague. Hey, I wrote a post about that. This is their plan, but why are they doing this? How about THIS? Hey, that’s not bad. Let’s take it one step further and make it THIS. Ooh! This would tie in perfectly to the rest of the story! Hmm. Would this make them see themselves as the hero? Whoa. It sure does. Hokey smokes, I think I’m onto something. I better write this down!”
And I did. It was like the satisfaction you’d get after finding the long-lost last piece of a jigsaw puzzle and snapping it into place. The more I thought about this, the more excited I got about implementing it. In fact, the editing/rewriting is already underway.
I cannot begin to explain what a surge of writing adrenaline (if there is such a thing) this created. There’s a line of dialogue in my western that even to this day still gives me chills. This new idea – same thing.
While all of this will no doubt push back the projected end date for having a completed first draft, this new development is totally worth it.
This is just another example of how inspiration really can strike when you least expect it. Embrace it when it does.
And if you’ve been sitting at your computer, frustrated that the words won’t come, maybe stepping away and doing something completely mundane might provide the solution you seek.
Plus, you’ll get the laundry out of the way, which is always good.
2017’s writing got off to a pleasantly rousing start with the commencement of the first draft of my latest project: the pulpy adventure spec.
Yep. After years of working on the outline, I finally decided to take the plunge and write the damned thing.
Seeing as how this is a genre near and dear to my heart, I dove into the opening sequence headfirst and just had at it, surpassing the original goal of completing at least 2 pages a day by two and a half times that amount. Add to that the 4 pages for yesterday, and that places me further ahead than anticipated. It’s not expected to maintain this kind of output on a daily basis, but no complaints so far.
That being said, upon reflection, the latest scene still leaves a little to be desired, so an impromptu rewrite is already being planned out and will be implemented straightaway.
A few alterations have also been made in regards to the overall writing process.
First, even though the outline needs to be rock-solid before starting on pages, the scene descriptions are sometimes a little vague. “Big fight happens!”, that sort of thing.
When that happens, the focus shifts to plotting out the beats of that particular scene. How do things play out so it tells the story and moves things forward? Is it accomplishing what it needs to? It’s quite helpful, and helps prevent a lot of frustration in trying to think up stuff on the spot.
Another is fully embracing the whole “just get it done” attitude. Write it down and move on. There’ll be time for all that fancy-pants editing and polishing stuff later. It’s also been noticed that sometimes the first idea is still the best.
And in what may be the most important development, seeing as how this is at its core my interpretation of the old pulp novels, I’m doing what I can do to really make it read that way. One could even argue that writing the western was just a warm-up exercise. The writing in this script might be a little more over the top than usual, but that could be exactly what it needs.
Even though it’s a screenplay, I take a certain pleasure in coloring things a slightly stronger shade of purple.
There’s no specific target deadline for completing this draft, but hopefully it won’t take too long. For now, I’m just enjoying the ride.