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Complications Ensue:
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Saturday, August 18, 2007

James refers me to this John August post:
Although I don’t do it on every project, I’m a big fan of writing off-the-page, which means creating character bios, alternate scenes and sequence chronologies to help me figure out the story and the characters. For example, I’ll write out the whole story from the villain’s point of view, both to track that the logic works, and also to gain insight on why they’re doing what they’re doing.

You don’t have to stop doing this once you begin writing the screenplay, either. If I’m getting frustrated with the script, sometimes it’s much more helpful to write up related pieces than to bang out another scene I don’t think is working.
I do very little of this. I like to discover things about the characters as I write them. More of the energy goes into the script that way. There are a couple of dangers in writing character bios. You can get locked into a vision of the character that isn't the most helpful one for your story. You can use up your creative impulses writing something that no one else will read. And you can hide in the character bios -- since no one will read them, it's a safe place to write.

I will sometimes write myself notes about "scenes I want to see." And I'll kind of arrange them in order. And start writing down scenes to hook them up. It's the equivalent of moving index cards around, except on the computer.

As for alternate scenes, well, they become alternate scenes when I realize the scene is wrong and I write a new version of the scene.

When I have a scene that isn't working, I tend to pound away at it until it is working. It makes me nervous to write a scene without knowing the scenes that came before it.

But there is no canonical way to write a screenplay. I suspect there are any number of guys who write the way John August does, and any number of guys who avoid "off-the-page" writing like the plague. Whatever works for you.

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As many of you are aware by now, I'm a huge fan of pre-planning. I write up all the peripheral stuff (backstory, character bios etc.) first, and then I start on the script.

My mindset is, if I know who these people are, where they're coming from, what their strengths, weaknesses and goals are, then I know how to write their story, their dialogue.

Now, that's not to say that I strictly adhere to this method. Sometimes, while I'm writing the actual script/outline, something brand new pops into my head that may -- or may not -- drastically alter my original "Master Plan". That's OK, too. But, for me personally, I need to have all that background shit laid out for me. Perhaps once I've become a screenwriting veteran, like Alex, I won't need that security blanket anymore, but...it's actually kind of fun, laying all that out beforehand.

KJC (who might soon be closing a tie-in comics deal with a major publisher)

By Blogger Kelly J. Crawford, at 12:37 PM  

I may be wrong here, but I'm guessing John August doesn't have much of a problem with the downsides of writing off the page (hiding in the writing etc.).

I'm actually writing a half-hour pilot right now and I realized that I had to write a set of character bios. Nothing fancy, but just something that allowed me to know who the important players are and how they relate to one another in the story. I was looking at Newsradio, and realizing just how important each character is to the whole. The loss of Phil Hartman was devastating, not because he was the show's main character (which he wasn't), but because his character was so integral to the show. Each character shows a truth or brings a certain characteristic that is needed to complete the ensemble.

As for backstory, I agree with Alex that sometimes that can simply stop you from actually writing. I usually let a script percolate in my head for quite a while before I start writing, and by that time I've done all of that in my mind.

Speaking of stopping me from actually writing...

By Blogger Unknown, at 11:52 PM  

I'm with Alex and Tim. I like to have a 'feeling' for the characters rather than know the nuts and bolts from a bio. It just feels more like I'm writing from the gut.

By Blogger English Dave, at 7:45 AM  

For the spec I'm writing now, I started with a basic plot idea in my head which then became an outline. Yeah, an outline like the ones we all had to crank out in high school.

I've tried note cards and they just don't do it for me. I find that I spend way to much time shuffling and rearranging cards until I've resurfaced the floor with them. An outline is something I can work on anywhere, on the computer, on the bus, in the living room recliner...all those places cards would be too cumbersome.

After finishing the outline, I also tried doing a few character bios for this spec. But after getting a couple of paragraphs into it, I figured it would be much more effective to just start writing the damned thing and let the characters tell me when I'm going down the wrong path.

And what's strange is that they actually do. I'll be writing some dialogue and, while this is the first draft and as Hemingway once said, "The first draft of anything is shit," I'll often hear a character interrupt me saying, "Are you freakin' kidding me?! I'd never say that! Change it now, you hack!"

Strange things, those characters.

By Blogger Alan, at 8:51 AM  

Alan, you mentioned you get a couple of paragraphs into the bio...just how long are your bios? I write a very small paragraph. Just something that tells me the basics of the character. Here is one I wrote:

Brent Hopkins (age 30)

Cal’s roommate and his opposite in just about every way. Brent is a successful corporate accountant with a steady girlfriend of five years. He is neat, tidy and has worked at the same company since he graduated university (where he met Cal).

That's it. Basically just a snapshot of him. Anything more, I think, would be counterproductive. For me, anyway.

By Blogger Unknown, at 2:12 PM  

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