Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Think fast!

Last weekend, I participated in the 48 Hour Film Project for the third year in a row. This year, our film company joined forces with Bay Area Pictures, a group that had also entered last year. What this meant for me was that I handed off the directing responsibilities to someone else and focused on writing the screenplay and editing the footage.

Writing for this contest is always a fun challenge. The elements of the screenplay are in place at 7 pm Friday night, and generally you need to have your script done by 7 am Saturday, when the filming crew is ready to go. Besides the time element, there’s also the collaborative element, which I actually find both immensely helpful and disconcertingly difficult.

When writing fiction, I tend to go off by myself and just work things out in my head until they feel right, then get them down on the screen and examine them as they come out. It is, as writing should be, a very solitary process. Editing is more collaborative, even if it’s not always what we used to call in the telecom business “full duplex” (that would be sitting in the same room discussing the work). The collaborative screenplay process combines the writing/revising/editing phases, so you’re throwing out ideas, kicking them back and forth, testing and adding to them, circling around to other ideas, presenting advantages and objections. Much as I hate to admit it, years of experience in corporate meetings is actually helpful in this process. Keeping things moving forward is essential.

By the time you’ve talked for a couple hours, you have a pretty good idea of which story “sticks” best. We were trying to come up with an idea for a “buddy film” this year, and the first idea we had kept coming back up as we brought up and discarded others. By about 9 pm, we were sure that’s what we were going with. Then it became a process of working out the story.

One of my weaknesses in writing is that I’ll have a beginning and sometimes an ending, and then a “here there be dragons” in between that I’m confident I’ll be able to map as I actually come to it. That doesn’t work so well in the collaborative writing environment. People kept asking “so what happens in here?” and then throwing out ideas as I was trying to think about it. This is the second part of the night where your intuitive sense of story becomes important. You have to be able to look at the individual scenes as assembled and hover above them, making sure the story feels right holistically. By about 11, we had the story nailed down enough to start writing.

The writing itself went smoothly. Mostly it was a process of creating the characters and throwing them into the story. Between myself and the others in the room, the dialogue flowed pretty naturally. I would write down the way I felt one scene going, and other people, looking over my shoulder, would offer opinions. If I liked them, I kept them. If not, we discussed them.

By 2, we had a first draft, which we read through. By 3:30, we had a draft ready to show the crew four hours later.

The takeaway from this writing exercise (which we did twice–we did a dry run the previous weekend) was the importance of several elements: character, planning out your story, and keeping everything to the bare minimum needed to tell your story. There were a lot of scenes that I thought would have been funny, but they didn’t advance the story, and with limited time, you don’t want to spend time writing scenes you won’t include.

I realize that this is starting to sound suspiciously like an endorsement of outlining. Far from it, unless of course it works for you. It doesn’t work for me, because as I’m writing, I discover new things and everything changes anyway. I’d rather jump right into writing and then go back and edit the story. But as you’re writing, you can look for opportunities to overload your story with tricks we’ve talked about before: subtext in dialogue, for one; plot elements in description, for another. As you write, look for those passages that are just pretty and either make them relevant or eliminate them. You’ll find that that will make your editing go much faster.

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