Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.
Today: Waka talks about the upsides and downsides of becoming attached to characters:
About two years ago, I was introduced to a producer through a contact I made at a writing conference. Said producer liked my writing and was interested in the possibility of me doing a rewrite for WGA minimum (not tremendously big bucks, but a good deal more than the $50 and free seafood dinner I recently received for a 3rd place finish in a local writing contest. After buying my husband his dinner- $45 – and paying the babysitter $50, this contest success only left me $45 in the hole. So yes, WGA minimum excited me. Especially since I’m not even a member of the WGA. And yes, I digress). I couldn’t believe it – here was my chance to finally “break in.” After the first couple Skype calls, the team of men (incidentally, the job was to rewrite a script to make it into something women would like more) asked me to come up with some character outlines and a way I thought I would take the script. That weekend, I went to town. Although I wasn’t a big fan of the initial script, I thought and thought and thought and thought, then pounded out character outlines and 17 pages of the direction I’d take the script with these new/revised characters. I turned it in and had another conference call. They seemed happy at first with my material, but then I knew there were some issues when one of the guys asked me, “But where is the humor?” Another person mentioned that everything new I had written was good, but when I incorporated aspects of the previous drafts, I seemed “constrained by the previous material.” Even so, I knew I was one of three final writers they were talking to and at the end of the third call, it seemed promising. Very promising. But then one of them asked me something akin to “if we asked you to be freer and even more imaginative than what you’ve already given us, would you feel confident doing so?”
And this is when something very stupid happened.
I did not project confidence. (After all, I wasn’t confident). I instead sat on this question for a day, and wrote a page-long response about why not everything should be thrown out of the first two drafts, that there was some good stuff there, the bones were something I could use… You see, the problem was that I had already gotten attached to the characters.
Needless to say, I did not get that rewrite gig.
Now that I’m working on another screenplay through the Quest, and approaching it in a manner I’ve never tried before, I find myself trying to be wiser about the process. I think everyone who writes a screenplay gets attached, whether it’s to the plot, the setting… in my case, it’s the characters. You see, the magic for me is when I’m writing and instead of me writing their words, I merely transcribe what my characters say to me. Sometimes, there’s a “Don’t know where that came from… but I like it!” type of moment. For many writers, I know you’d agree – it’s one of the best feelings in the world.
And so with this character-based approach, as you can imagine, I am attached, once again, to my characters. Like I mentioned in a previous Dispatch, there has to be a reason why you feel a connection to a character, what in his or her story resonates with you. In order to write my characters, I have to understand them. And in order to understand them, I have to invest a lot of myself in them.
But I also understand, not only do I need to be open, but I need to be ready to “kill my darlings” so to speak.
This is a scary prospect. It’s like breaking up with someone you enjoy being with, but maybe isn’t ultimately the right person for you. It’s leaving a B-minus job in hopes of finding something that’s at least an “A” (but what if you end up with a “D”?). When I start to feel panick-y about this prospect, I take a deep breath, think about past mistakes, and tell myself, “This good character I have, if I’m open, can show me how she can be great. If I eliminate this character, then maybe there’s more room for this one to grow.” In essence, “When one door closes, another one opens.” (or is it “there’s more than one fish in the sea?”) I don’t know. I’m actually procrastinating as we speak. Scott just gave us a HUGE brainstorm list and my characters are huddled in the back of my head, dreading their boot camp of development. Wish me (them) luck. If they make it through, you’ll see them on the page.
This issue of writers getting attached to their stories and specific narrative elements is an ongoing thing. On the one hand, we hope we conjure up a story so compelling that we do feel attached to it, committed to it, passionate about it. On the other hand, there is a long path from a script becoming a movie and what may exist so well in script form may not necessarily translate to the screen.
This came up in my interview with Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Webber who followed up (500) Days of Summer with their adaptation of the novel The Spectacular Now. Before the movie’s released, I read the script and discussed with Scott and Michael. Here is a key excerpt:
Scott M: Speaking of set-ups and payoffs [in The Spectacular Now], let me jump to another one. The last line in the script I read – “Your forgot your coat” — evoked memories of one of my favorite movies, “The Apartment,” and the last line there, “Shut up and deal.” Is that still in the movie, where he shows up at the campus with the coat?
Michael: Scott and I both love “The Apartment.” That’s another movie that was a touchstone for us and our friendship and our collaboration. That movie is just perfect.
Scott M: I agree.
Michael: Unfortunately that last line from the script is not in the movie anymore.
Scott M: Really?
Michael: It’s funny, what you have to sacrifice to get a movie made. The baby steps of a career are really interesting, because first, you want to get a job, get hired for anything. Then you want to start to get hired for things you care about more. Then you want to get hired to write something that is definitely going to get made. And so on and so forth‑‑there’s kind of these little…you’re in the next club. The sacrifice needed to get the movie made‑‑we’re like, “We will do anything to get this movie made,” and unfortunately, sometimes things you really love have to be thrown overboard. I’m sure there are other writers, I don’t know, who throw fits or whatever, but at the end of the day, for us, really, the most important thing is getting the movie made.
That dichotomy — working so hard to make a script right, yet willing to sacrifice elements in order to get the movie produced — is, I think, pretty standard among most screenwriters.
So Waka, please understand there is a whole community of working screenwriters who sympathize with you and understand the challenge. Of course, there’s a whole other part of the conundrum: How to know what to cut and what to keep? Let’s save that for another discussion.
Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.
About Waka: Kansan turned Californian turned Oregonian. Fan of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, Richard Curtis, Tina Fey (who isn’t?), & I still use a $30 Tracfone @wakatb.