Writing a Story: Part 2 – Finding the Story
So, we have the inspiration – a film based around the idea of a snowball fight (because, as established last time, snowball fights are fun!)
Now comes the part where things start getting tricky, because, let’s face it, you can’t really make a film about snowball fighting. You just can’t. Snowball fights are fun, they are not inherently dramatic. They can be funny as hell (particularly if your bastard of an ex-housemate runs into a fence and quite literally flips 180 degrees when you’re in the middle of one) but, for writing a screenplay, they are not the best subject. There’s no real stakes that come to mind with them – you get very, very wet by home time and have a shedload of stories to tell at school the next day, but other than that, but there’s no real risk or reward with them.
So I created the Snowball World Championship.
Stakes? Hell yes! Win, you’re the Snowball World Champion! Lose, you’re not. Drama... bit trickier. I mean, no-one can die in a snowball fight. Snowballs can’t kill you, so that’s one of the biggest ways of getting drama into a script chucked straight out the airlock. So how do we get drama into a script like this? How do we make it difficult for our heroes? (‘Cause everyone likes making it difficult for heroes. Go watch any movie – Die Hard, Alien, any movie you like, and watch how hard they make it for the hero. Broken glass on the floor – no problem for John C McClaine – no, I don’t know if his middle name starts with a C, BUT WAIT! John C McClaine has no shoes or socks! Now broken glass is an utter, utter BITCH of a problem! Big bad alien killing your crewmates and making you piss yourself with fear? Problem! Blow up the ship – phew! You’ve escaped! OH BUGGER! THE EVIL BASTARD’S ESCAPED! Problem! Think, think, think – I know! Quick! Chuck him out the air lock!)
Well, to return to the original point, to make it difficult, we have reality. World Championships on the other side of the world (Montana, USA if I remember right) cost money. There’s the flights, the hotels, the uniforms (it’s a sports movie, you’ve gotta have uniforms!) So my heroes had to raise the cash for the trip. They were aided and abetted by a friendly newspaper owner, but it was still a nice little challenge for them to deal with.
As well as problems like finances, story comes from conflict. You want a good story? You have to have a great conflict. Avatar has a great conflict – the Earth army versus the peaceful Na’vi, and, even better, it has a secondary conflict related to that as well – Jake. Initially, Jake is a double agent, infiltrating the Na’vi to give General Quaritch intel on them, but then Jake finds himself conflicted between Quaritch and the Na’vi as he gets deeper in the cover, before he finally defects completely as Quaritch proves what an utter bastard he is by blowing the Hometree straight to Hell. This conflict is resolved on a big scale when the Na’vi win the battle against the army and boot humans off Pandora, and on a small scale when Jake abandons humanity and becomes Na’vi by transferring his essence from his human body to his Na’vi one.
Snowball, being a sports movie, already has a big-scale conflict inherent in its nature – the other teams that want to win the tournament. Specifically, in this case, it was the American team that took the antagonist role (now that would have been fun to pitch to Hollywood). But that only works for the tournament, what about for the scenes outside of the competition? Mighty Ducks (God, I’m showing my age, and, possibly, how sad I am) has a great personal conflict in the first movie – the Coach, Gordon Bombay, doesn’t want to coach the team! On top of that, he’s a failure! He failed at the level he’s coaching right now, playing for the team that takes the antagonist role in the film! Fantastic conflict, and that’s before you even bring in the team he’s coaching, a bunch of losers that are perennially rooted to the bottom of the league, playing in kit that’s not fit for the rink. Then, on top of that, Gordon’s training regime isn’t the most popular one on the block, and on top of that, Gordon exploits a rule change to bring in a player who is a, a lot better than everyone else on the team, and b, from the antagonists! And that’s only half of it! Great small-scale conflicts that add to the story, make things hard for the characters, and ultimately make it even better when they come through the penalty shootout and win the playoff final at the end of the film.
So, how to make conflict in Snowball? Tough question. As I mentioned earlier, snowballs don’t kill people, so I couldn’t kill a member of the team, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t kill another character, say the lead’s dad, who was fighting in Afghanistan. So I did. I made the lead as happy as I could by putting the team into the final, looking forward to it, having a fun time in Montana, and then I basically dropped a bomb the size of the Blitz on him. I killed his dad. From high point to low point, and vice versa, it’s a key point in writing, and one I’m going to elaborate on at some point (that list is getting longer...), and it’s brilliant. Now my hero is as low as he can get, driving himself mad with grief and it’s affecting the team. They got this far because they were friends, because they worked together, and now the hero, their leader, is letting that team fall apart from wanting to win the tournament. It’s hardly a disaster on a scale of the Titanic, but in terms of the story, it’s huge. Now my hero has to overcome his grief and pull himself and his team together, all in time for the big final against the home team in a day’s time (deadlines! Another topic for later!) Conflict! Drama! Fantastic!
And that’s your story. Conflict is drama and drama is story. Once you have that, the world is your sandbox. Now, go out there and find your story.
Writing under Duress
Despite what the title implies, I’m not talking about a situation like King’s Misery (I’m told it’s good, must did that out of my room, actually) or Alan Wake (yeah, that went right over my head. Spent five minutes pissing ammo up the wall on the end before I worked out what to do!), but a more mundane form of writing when you just aren’t up for it.
You know the drill; deadline in five days and Mr Mountjoy upstairs decides to shit on your head from a very, very great height by tossing a cold your way. Every writer’s had it happen to them, and every writer’s had to deal with it (particularly if, like me, you’re on a writing-intensive course. Then you’re doubly screwed because you have a lot of deadlines all at once and you’re stressed out, working all hours of the night trying to just get the poxy stuff done. Not exactly the best condition to be incubating a cold).
So, you have a deadline looming over the horizon, which is coming at you faster than Sebastian Vettell charging down the main straight at Silverstone, and you have a cold. Now, in an ideal world, you’d go to bed with a nice hot cuppa of your favourite beverage (hot choccy, marshmallows, lots of whipped cream, ta. Sprinkles on top if you’ve got ‘em), wrapped up nice and warm under your duvet, and burn the bugger out.
In case it’s not come to your attention, this ain’t an ideal world, and the aforementioned Mr Mountjoy does rather like to make things a tad tricky. So, instead, you’ll be in your bed, laptop on, caffeine and sugar practically on a conveyor belt, trying to bash out enough words in a somewhere-near coherent manner to reach your word count and keep Bob the Editor and Fanny the Agent happy.
The reality of the situation is this: There are gonna be times when you want to pretty much shoot your laptop, your editor, your agent, and the numpty in the PR department who came up with this utter bollocks for a deadline anyway, along with yourself for coming up with the stupid poxy idea you’re currently flailing wildly at trying to knock for six when, realistically, you’re getting clean bowled.
Three little words of advice: Deal. With. It. By and large, you’re stuck with what you get – you may be able to get an extra week or two, if you’re very, very lucky and have an awesome track record, like George RR Martin or Jim Butcher, but until then, you’re pretty much boned, sorry.
Nobody said this lark was easy. If it were, then everyone’d be making 20pentabillion quid out of it like Rowling.
I speak of this subject now because I’m coming off a cold myself. It wasn’t fun, I can tell you that much. There are clothes I’m debating whether to stick on my next barbeque, they’re so covered in nose gunk, and I’ve still got a bit of a cough writing this, but fear not, I am on the mend and am ready to write once more! I’ve also had a remarkable situation to the one described above in the last year.
Christmas, 2011. I have nine assignments spread over four units, all due in for the last Friday of term or the Monday after that. It’s pretty much bottom of the ninth, and I’m on my second strike with a week to go. By this point, I’m thinking it’ll be a minor bloody miracle to get it all done.
And I get a cold.
Oh, joy, your blogger writes with as much sarcasm as he can possibly muster.
God knows how I did it, I certainly don’t, but it was done, and done well, if my grades are anything to go by. It wasn’t fun, it certainly wasn’t easy, and it’s not something I want to ever have to do again (but I probably will), but it got done, and that’s probably the best way to say it: Keep calm and keep at it. Don’t go and kill yourself over it, it’s not worth it, but do what you can. You’re not going to be physically capable of working more than maybe a few hours at a time a few hours a day, but that adds up. If you can get a thousand words a session and have two sessions a day for five days, that’s ten thousand words (and, incidentally, if I remember right, that’s about an eighth of a novel by most standard word counts). Eight times five is 40. That’s just over a month... Actually, that’s not a bad schedule to keep if you’re healthy... Anyway, keep that sort of schedule up and you’ll have yourself a novel in about a month. Not bad for someone who’s sick as a parrot, eh?
Ah yes, the immortal first words of a screenplay. But fade in to what? There's so much to write about and so many ways to do it - do you want it to be funny? Dramatic? Tragic? That's up to you. It's your script. Your the one who makes the call. The director, producer, cast, heck, just about everybody in the film industry, can't do jack without a script. That's a lot of pressure to get it right, and often you'll find that time's against you because you'll have about a month to work up some little ten word sentence into a full fledged screenplay if your commissioned (and trust me, as someone who is well versed in the art of hitting deadlines, time will become scarce just when you need it. Like one of those "why bring a gun on a trip" scenarios: You'll definately find yourself in the "need it but don't have it category".
Personally, I'm a firm believer in the first ten pages (about the first ten minutes of the film, give or take, it depends on the content - action sequences usually take longer than dialogue based scenes) being able to draw a reader in, so that's what I've tried doing on two of the three scripts I'm currently working on (the third doesn't even have a "FADE IN:" yet so bear with me). In one instance, we have two gunfights happening in two locations on the far side of the world to each other (well, Baghdad and the UK, which seems pretty far to me), which can be best described as chaos (I did use... somewhat stronger language, shall we say, to describe it in the script, but I'm trying to keep this as clean as possible). The other has a bombshell (somewhat literally) dropped about two thirds of the way down page 8, which is always a good thing.
One thing I've heard most people tend to forget is that after the front 10, there's still about 100 odd pages or so to go! (I will admit, very much guilty of that on my part, I tend to get my beginning together, slap the ending on it and then spend shedloads of time working out just what goes in the middle). This is not a good thing to do. It's all well and good having a beginning of a film that rivals James Bond for it's action and intensity, but if it then peters out over the remaining 100 pages then, sorry bub, but your script pretty much ain't worth the paper it's written on. Which means that, if your anything like me, you've just wasted a bucketload of ink and paper getting the thing printed and a sack of cash buying stamps et cetera trying to get it seen by people. Actually, seeing as the only scripts I've ever finished are five minute shorts which were for an assignment I had to do for college last year and thus printed them out at college, I've never actually had to spend the cash on printing and ink cartridge replacements. Good job too, I'm skint!