Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Have a plan - Know your theme and plot

As we've seen over the last few weeks, interesting problems result when you set out on your story without a clear plan. Before long, narrative threads are lost, character arcs loose cohesion, and the plot falls apart. Old characters are forgotten, or drastically changed mid-stream to fit the developing story, while new characters might be introduced to explain plot holes.

With Project Wilson Phillips, we had three groups all start with the same ten pages, the same main characters - and yet three COMPLETELY different stories of varying quality emerged. There were high points in each of them, and also there seemed to be details that got lost along the way in each of them. Without any direction, a lot of writers got stuck making the characters explain the story, just so there was some sense of everything fitting together. And if you go in each of the script, you'll find some small dropped threads that went nowhere. In a script with a plan, those all would have been pruned out.

And that's the danger of working without a plan. It's a little like tracing a maze with a pencil. Every now and then you'll take a wrong turn which leads to a dead end. You can back up and find your way out and to the right path, but that little detour is still going to be there, so that anyone who follows your path will see that run up to the wrong turn.

If you preplan, those mistakes don't exist.

One thing I could have done with Project Wilson Phillips to force greater cohesion would have been to assign a theme, or possibly give all the writers a logline that they had to adhere to. Such a rule would have kept the script more focused and on course, but at the expense of the freedom of the individual writers.

When you're working on a "real" script, it's essential that you know the themes and the story trajectory from the start. Let's take Back to the Future for example. If I wrote ten or fifteen pages that only got as far as putting Marty in the time machine and sending him back to the fifties, any writer that takes up after me could have taken that story in any direction. Maybe he'd get involved in the civil rights movement, or perhaps he decides to buy vintage comics and baseball cards that he knows he can sell for big bucks when he gets back. Maybe he uses his knowledge of the future to come up with inventions.

But let's say I give you those fifteen pages and also the logline: "A teenager travels back in time to encounter his parents as teenagers and after inadvertently messing up their first meeting, must get them to fall in love before he ceases to exist." Suddenly there's a much stronger spine to the story than just the novelty of sending an 80s teen back to the fifties, no?

Better still, what if I told you how the theme would be that a person's past - even small incidents in it - can have a profound role in shaping the adult he becomes. Then the subsequent writers might get that as Marty changes his parent's past, he affects who they grow up to be.

And I bet if I gave the groups those fifteen pages and those two pieces of information, the resulting scripts might have been a lot more cohesive, focused and similar to each other. There still probably would be the issue of the plot being made up as it went along, but there would be a stronger direction here than before.

So keep that in mind when working on your own screenplays. The best writers work from plans.

If we do another Collaborative Writing Project, I'm toying with the idea of soliciting loglines and themes from the participants, and then setting the teams to work with that information, just to see if it leads to a higher-quality result than the first iteration.


  1. I would actually love to do another one perhaps early next year or spring time where each team has a unique theme they must follow.

  2. Yea, I'd definitely be on board for another one in the future. I think a solid plot and theme would definitely make a cohesive story and make writing the pages even more fun.

  3. I'd give it another go. It was fun and a great way to write without my internal critic nitpicking for perfection because I'm too invested in the story. Working "on assignment" as an exercise helped to lift those self-crit demons and just let me write. It would be nice to have an outline or short synopsis or logline to target.

    Thanks for the fun!

  4. I'd rather do a collab tv pilot...shorter...fewer people per team....we could name them after x-men...

  5. Wow, I would think there would be more interest and imagine Bitter having to organize that many teams of scripts?

    It's a cool idea, though - a TV Pilot. Right in my territory of writing interests, but I would hate for Bitter to have to go through so much work just for us.

  6. What about submitting to Amazon Studios? That might be a lark.

  7. I'd love to do another one too. That was a great exercise. I wonder what will the scripts look like if there's a common logline? Will they look more like variations of one script, or will it still be possible for the scripts to look really different?