Thursday, June 05, 2008

Execution of Bad Ideas

Ever see something so obviously wrong in a screenplay that you wonder why everyone else doesn't see it? This occurs with readers all the time, especially if the reader has spotted this same issue over and over. He may feel like it's too no-brainer to even write in his notes and yet he must. Some bad ideas are just that blatant.

I know someone who reads for screenwriting competitions including the Nicholl. She sees so many screenplays that when something goes wrong, it jumps out at her. For example, if a character changes mid-story, she'll go back and re-read where's she's been so far, just to make sure she didn't miss what led up to the change, his motive, some subtext somewhere, or something, ANYTHING, that would explain or validate such an abrupt change in character. She reads so many screenplays that now and then, she does miss something but usually, the writer is just executing a bad idea.

Lucy has an interesting post about conflicting story notes. One of her blog readers quotes polar opposite comments on the same script from the same company. Clearly, if one reader says your characters have solid direction and the other says the characters are all over the place with no direction, one of them is mistaken.

Maybe. Maybe not.

How can they possibly both be correct? My theory is that sometimes readers think the story has lost direction when it takes a short sidestreet. Maybe the sidestreet is for comic relief, character development or suspense, but whatever the reason, the reader got lost. Some readers will jump right back into the story and some will be left wandering around waiting for a conclusion to the sidestreet. Sorry. But that's not just about inexperienced readers. It's a writing issue, too.

Recently, while viewing my latest Netflix rental, I puzzled over a scene that left me cold. It was well acted, had great timing and was beautifully shot but something wasn't right. I just didn't know what. At the end of the film, I went back and watched that scene over several times. Still no idea what was wrong with it. So, I started the film over.

This time, I had the big picture and knew the theme and conclusion right out of the gate. When I arrived at the scene in question, it was an easy diagnosis. The scene didn't belong there. It didn't belong anywhere. It was a brilliantly executed but really bad idea.

I've seen this problem before in my own writing and in screenplays I'm asked to critique. When I mention that something doesn't work, the retort is usually about what an awesome scene it is or how well it's written or how funny it is. All of that may be true, but there's a bad idea in there. That doesn't mean the scene is bad or the writer is bad but this particular idea? No workie. And, no matter how genius the execution is, it's still a bad idea.

Anything that takes away from the story is a bad idea, even if it's well done. Among its many crimes against the screenplay, a bad idea may slow momentum, contradict character, weaken the story or simply confuse the reader or viewer to a point of no return.

If I tell a story about my lazy secretary who keeps dropping calls because she's too busy checking her MySpace, I don't need to throw in a bargain pair of shoes I found on my lunch break. It may be a fascinating sidestreet about the shoes, especially if Wanda Sikes got in a fight with Chuck Norris over the same pair or Brad Pitt was in the store trying on lingerie, but the shoes don't move my secretary story along. However, if the secretary found my receipt and then faked an injury to take the afternoon off to go shoe shopping herself, it might demonstrate what a good for nothing she is.

Taking sidestreets is not a bad idea in the writing process. It allows the creative mind to go out and play. It may help build the story in the writer's mind, help him get to know his characters better, or allow him to explore some story options. It may even make the writer realize he needs to go in a whole 'nother direction. But writing a scene doesn't mean it has a place in the story. Some sidestreets bring something fresh to the story. Others are a wrong turn and will make the story wander, stall, or die a slow and painful death. It's the writer's job to sort out which sidestreet is which.

Why can't we spot our own bad ideas? We can. But, sometimes, especially if the scene is well done, it becomes about ownership and identifying with what we've written. That's our DNA on the page. Maybe the trick here is that once an idea is out on the table, it needs to take on its own identity so any criticism or attack is on the idea, not the person who came up with it.

None of this means that readers don't make mistakes. Some storynotes are spot on. Others are out of line. Maybe the reader is learning, having a bad day or just found out his wife had an affair with the pool boy. Who knows? We should. Don't run off and make changes solely based on something a reader said. But, be open to the possibility that a reader may identify a well executed bad idea.


E.C. Henry said...

Can't wait to get you the rom-com I'm currently rewriting and see what you have to say. It's not were I want it to be, but it is coming along...

As a writer you want to create something that's memorible. I'm not a slave to STORY, as you suggest writers should be. Your arguement falls apart when it comes to comedy. Consider Monty Python... Their success is all about the momment, NOT about the story.

Axioms will always get you in trouble, girl. I've seen this trend in many of your past posts. Maryan, from past posts, you come across to me as person who is bound by rules, that aren't really rules. "Write what you know..." What a crock of shit! How would C.S. Lewis ever have written the "Chronicles of Narnia" if he had followed that rule?

If that last paragraph jarred you, GOOD! Maryan, you have some misconceptions you have need to let go of (it will make you a better, more creative writer). Writing is freedom. Movies are entertainment. The sucess of some are just more weighted on plot than others.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Did you hit your head, E.C.? Movies are all about images and STORY.

I'm not a slave to three acts or even the ol' "every character must arc" rule but even comedies have a story. In the case of a Monty Python film, an example of a "bad idea" might be to include a scene that brings the rythm to a screeching halt. My argument still works.

And as for "write what you know", every word we pen comes from an accumulation of our interests, research, and knowledge so technically, everything a writer writes is something he knows - maybe not well, maybe misconstrued, maybe something he made up - but it's based on something in his heart, head, or imagination.

E.C. Henry said...

You shouldn't have singled me out in a post you made on the "Living the Romantic Comedy" website. THAT makes me angry, Maryan. IF I ever had a problem with you I would not try to take shots at you on someone else's website. You should TRY to be more respectful and coridal to people who are trying to be nice, friendly and supportive of you.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Are you serious? It was lighthearted rib.

Unk said...

Ya know...

Every time I come back here to keep up, I end up laughing my ass off.


Because this is the Internet.

That means it's all good.

As Mary said in BEAUTIFUL GIRLS...

"Take a chill pill Will."


Unk said...

I meant MARTY.

Fingers just can't keep up with the noggin'.