by David Perlis
I doubt this one will be brief, but it will have to be quick, because I’m about four weeks behind on a deadline, and I thought writing something, anything, would be better than nothing. So I’m writing this. Single draft, quick bang, brain to screen, let’s do this.
Right now, this is me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wb3j2m31S6U
For four weeks this has been me. Writing, scrapping, starting over, writing, scrapping. I took a five hour drive up to Mountain View last week just to clear my head and see what the open road would do for me. Long drives always inspire me. This one was no exception. I probably had ten great ideas come to me, and they’ve each been scrapped for the subsequent better idea. Listening to writers online helps. It’s how the above clip made it onto this post, as I’ve been listening to a lot of Charlie Kaufman. I writer who says he knows nothing. And I believe him—yet he still makes it happen, and does it brilliantly.
Here are some things people talk about a lot with writing: theme; character arcs; act breaks; inciting incidents; obstacles; conflict; weakness; change…Let’s put those into some a basic ideology that all screenwriters (mostly self-proclaimed) pipe out from their lungs: Something happens. Characters go on a journey. Characters change. Characters have big final challenge that tests how they have changed. Denouement.
Books will tell you to start with a theme. To set up who your characters are! Figure out your act breaks, and how the character will change! Are other writers really just plugging this shit in?! Switching this character for that one, and this desire for that need?
Do I know how structure works? Yes. Can I just create it by following these guides?
I’ve got a few scripts in my pocket that I rather like. They give me those feelings of “oh shit!”—the sort that happen when your’e reading a great Harry Potter book. Until I get those moments, I can’t tell if what I’m writing resonates or not. So I search for and cling to those moments with absolute desperation. The thing is that those moments NEVER come to me from plotting out a story based on structure. I don’t know how they do happen, but it’s usually sheer dumb luck.
People say boil your story down to a central idea. Your logline, or your premise. I agree, this is good. “Vanilla chemistry teacher gets cancer and has to start selling meth to provide for his family.” Pretty straightforward. “Giant shark in the water eating people, but the sheriff is scared of water.” Got it.
But here I am with page after page of possible characters, their needs, their weaknesses, the tone, the setting, how all of this contributes to the theme, possible revelations, exciting twists…and yet I still feel like I have no idea of my beginning, or my character, or how to weave these stories…that single premise isn’t helping me.
In short, I’m proving once again that I don’t know how to write. And that I put it off to do other things. Like watch Adaptation clips. And eat muffins.
I guess the problem is that it all feels contrived until I’ve worked on it for so long that the characters feel real to me, and when that happens I’m finally able to sit back and enjoy it as an audience. But that only happens after I’ve stumbled through drafts and rambled on endlessly in different ways…
I could keep rambling on this one for much longer, but it really is time that I got back to work. I need a change of scenery first. Maybe a muffin. Banana nut. That’s a good muffin.
David Perlis is a screenwriter and former People’s Pilot Finalist doing his best to break into the even Bigger Time. This post first appeared on his very helpful blog.