by Diana Black
That blank page stares back at us…if we’ve had the good fortune to land an assignment and there’s a serious deadline involved, Holy Crap! Okay, we take a breath; confident in our knowledge and understanding of what the hell we’re doing and we’ve got a kit-bag of kick-ass skills at our side. Like our hero/heroine, we will prevail.
As artists, we are at some fundamental level, observers and explorers of the human condition. Our job/compunction is to observe and interpret human behavior. We perceive ‘a moment’ in time, intimately associated with either our own human experience or someone else’s – real or imagined. It fascinated/horrified us. We then lift that compelling ‘moment’ out of the day-to-day and embed it within a dramatic narrative in all its ugliness, beauty, terror, gut-wrenching sorrow or triumphant joy. When we’re ‘done’, we reflect it back to the society from whence it came – “See, this is who you really are and this is what drives you.”
While we’ve learned and mastered the mechanical skills necessary to construct a teleplay that should stand up under the subjective scrutiny of the gatekeeper – at least structurally, does that mean we have the insight to recognize the salient ‘moments’ let alone the creative ability to weave them into a compelling narrative? Let’s assume that we do or at least, the potential.
A ‘high concept’ – one that’s unique and engaging, is beginning to crystallize in our mind. We get a dose of ‘the tingles’ – we’re onto something. But how did we get to this point and where do we go from there?
Keep in mind that the actual steps in the creative process and the order in which they’re taken may differ. The ‘greats’ in the creative writing field are likely to say, “Consider the guiding principles that we’ve discovered and developed – they seem to work – you’re welcome to them but, ultimately the steps and the order in which you take them is your choice. You walk alone – do what works for you. But just do it.” Many of the fine tomes on the subject of creative writing offer a basic road map, but it’s doubtful that any of ‘the greats’ would insist upon strict adherence to their exact formula with it being the only way.
We might start with a kernel of an idea – terrifying and/or fascinating and then ask a bunch of ‘what if’s – “what if such and such happened in this story world?” We address each question no matter how crazy the answer – now’s not the time to be cautious or practical. Then, who lives in this world – hero/heroine/villain? What do they knowingly want, what do they unconsciously need, and what are they hiding from themselves and others? What will come back to haunt them in their quest? What situation can we create that will not only challenge them, but raise the stakes so damn high that it’s ‘life’ or ‘death’ and no turning back? Now we can write the Premise/Log line. A brief perusal of entries on IMDB will help as a guide, but basically – a single sentence encapsulating the setting, protagonist, problem, antagonist, conflict and goal – ideally in twenty-five words – Good Luck!
Then the ‘design principle’? In Orange is the New Black (Jenji Kohan, 2013) the protagonist, Piper Chapman with a shady past, is thrown into prison – that wasn’t part of the ‘game-plan’. Fuck! But she’s stuck there and must navigate a way forward, this underpins the narrative.
So let’s be bold and experiment. When writing ‘specs’ we have all the time in the world to nut out a ‘road map’ that works – to make us efficient story-tellers. Evolution, the drive to perfection, is not underpinned by a slavish adherence to established rules and formulas, but once known and understood, they’re tweaked with us ‘pushing the envelope’..
So are you going to play ‘strictly by the established rules’ or be a ‘Game changer’?
Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer who has recently moved up from the TVWriter™ Advanced Online Workshop to Larry Brody’s Master Class.