Ok. Yes. I have been away from this Blog for about 6 months. Not exactly a vacation, but kinda. I did have an awful lot of work last year and it was the best year by far I’ve ever had as a writer, but that’s no excuse. I just got away from it. So, hopefully you’ll let me weasel my way back into your good graces.
The Art of Backtracking. Some history...
Last year sometime in the fall when I was back in LA, I was lucky enough to find myself sitting across a conference table from the head of a pretty big production company. His development exec had brought me in to pitch a couple of things she liked. In the room were the development exec, a sofa full of interns, the head of the production company, his assistant, and a well known actress that came with me because... well, it made sense since one of the pitches was with her in mind and she’s a good friend so it couldn’t hurt, plus she’s great to be with. They weren’t unhappy she came with me.
After some introductions, mostly the interns, and some idle chatter, I got down to business and pitched the movie idea I had with this actress in mind. I got about a minute into it and the boss turned to his assistant and said, “We’re buying this, let the business office know.”
Yes, my jaw dropped. The actress’s jaw dropped. Afterward, she said she’d never seen this happen in 25 years in the business. But there it was. They also asked for a synopsis they could approve before I started writing. At that point I probably would have agreed to anything because shock. So I went home and wrote one. Did I like it? Absolutely. To me, it worked. It worked for them, too. They said, “Get going on it.” I said, “Where’s the contract?” and unleashed my Rep to make a deal. Which after an extended time period, he did. And... a week and a half ago, after a lot of planning, I started on the draft.
Was really happy with the first 10 pages. It flowed. My female protagonist was sharply drawn, I thought. So far the supporting characters worked well, too. I had an ending that worked for what I wanted to do based on the synopsis and my bullet points.
But... and this is a big but... when I got to my male protagonist on page 13 and began to work on the meat of the story with the both of them, I hated him and what was happening to the story. A story I had well planned out. He was a nothing burger. They had zero chemistry. My fault, because I set him up to fail in the synopsis but didn’t realize it. And yet, I wrote on and was painting myself into a story corner because this guy was so lame. Dilemma? You bet. The deadline clock was running and they approved this storyline based on my premise which I still believed was rock solid, so I forced myself forward. As I did this I found it harder and harder to motivate myself to write. The lure of the internet, playing with Rocket the Dog, little chores around the house, screeners to watch. Anything but writing. Guilt? You bet. Admitting I was wrong? Not yet.
So yesterday I forced myself to open the file. To waste more time, I decided to reread what I’d written so far. And there... on page 7, it was. My “what if” moment. A three line minor character I put there to help establish a location greeted me waving his arms wildly and yelling, “Look at me!! What about me!!” And I said, “What if this guy was the male protagonist?”
I sat, my brain finally fully engaged in this writing process I’d been avoiding, and thought about the possibilities. And like a beautiful lightning strike (are there beautiful lightning strikes?), the whole story opened up. A new much more meaningful emotional ending. A way to build this relationship surprisingly and with intelligence. The whole Magilla. It was all there. Zowie.
It also meant deleting 36 pages of script completely. Gone. Deleting 36 pages of hard struggle. Of hours and hours of work. And completely new story points to work out.
Took me about 30 seconds to think about it and do it. I hit the key. (I still had a backup) Victory was mine. Then I thought... “Uh oh.”
I needed to make the call to the producer to explain I was keeping the premise, the theme, and was completely changing direction in story and would you please let me. She was totally receptive as I explained exactly where it needed to go to work well, asked a couple of excellent questions as she always does, and then said, “I like it. Go and do it.”
I know it’s unfathomable to realize that writers, no matter how much they prepare themselves, can be completely wrong about their story after they’re into a second act. Sarcasm aside, you as a writer owe it to yourself, your characters, your story, to listen to that little voice that says “This is NOT working” when it happens instead of plowing ahead thinking you can write your way out of it. The delete key is your friend. “What if” is your friend. Don’t fear using them liberally if you have to.
This is not the first time this has happened to me, but never on this big a level or circumstances. I find new stuff and get new ideas, not just from me but from my characters, all the time in scripts as I write and go back and adjust. This time it was major. But after my Ah Ha moment I didn’t hesitate because you have to service your story before your ego. If I had kept going with my original storyline, the script wouldn’t have worked. And any rewrites would be based on a script that didn’t work. Plus I’m NOT going to turn in a script that doesn’t work. Neither should you.
Among all the other stuff you have to do as a screenwriter is question the honesty of your work as you go along. Be truthful with yourself. It’s not easy and it hurts a lot sometimes. But it also makes the big picture of what you’re trying to do better, healthier. If you see a character obviously not working, stop and fix it, even if it means radical change. Relationships in the story or conflict not working? Stop. If you force these things it kills good story and killing good story kills scripts, essentially wasting your time.
So, with a renewed sense of purpose I will plow new ground in this script, but this time won’t hesitate to zig in another direction if I think it gets off track again.
Glad to be back. Follow me on Twitter @bobsnz.