Your Opening Moves

Every writer needs an Algonquin Round Table, if you know what I mean

Every writer needs an Algonquin Round Table, if you know what I mean . . .

A brief round-up of the most useful-sounding advice I’ve received, whether from people or books, on what we should do before we draft:

1. Watch great movies (with a stopwatch!):

It’s not enough to just watch movies or read screenplays, so say the practitioners. A great screenplay transcends formula by fulfilling viewers’ expectations in a novel way, but screenwriting has a formulaic element. As viewers, we expect, for instance, an illuminating sequence that will introduce plot, characters, setting, theme, and mood, and a three-act structure, formed from two major turning points and a midpoint, each of which will meaningfully change the values of the plot.

The click of a stopwatch — whether every minute or two, or at that point we think might form a turning point — forces a pause in the movie we’re watching and reminds us to analyze what’s happening and when it happens. It prompts us to ask: What’s the form, pace, and rhythm of the action otherwise streaming by on screen? And it encourages us to draw our own conclusions as to what’s satisfying and why, insight we can take back to our own work.

2. It’s never too early to start thinking in images:

Just as cooks handle food but must think in flavors, screenwriters set out to build images (and experiences!) with words. And I’m realizing that the word ‘image’ stands in for a multitude of ways that films strive to bring together visuals and sounds so as to stimulate all the senses, an idea I’ll expand upon in a future post.

3. First, build your story. Then, write your screenplay:

No, it’s not necessarily any easier if you’re working on an adaptation. A novel tells one version of an author’s story, but film must often tell another; different mediums, different needs. The same story, in transition from one medium to another, requires a different telling if the story is to evoke the same power when seen as when read (for instance). I wrote about the essential first step, defining your story, in The Creative Compass, and my thoughts are expanding and evolving as I continually experiment. More on that too later.

4. When it comes to adaptation, it’s helpful to first consider the ‘literal translation’ from source to script:

First, what’s a literal translation? When playwrights or screenwriters turn translator, they don’t always know the source language, so they might commission a sentence-by-sentence translation from a linguist; then it’s their job to transform functional prose into dramatic poetry. Likewise, it’s possible to excavate scenes and dialogue directly from a novel or other source material so as to consider which elements of the story in its original incarnation easily translate into film and which will require major developmental revisions.

And it’s not only adaptations or screenwriting — the metaphor of translation is a potent one for all writers, one to which I will return soon.

But why ‘useful sounding’ advice? you might ask.

I’m making my opening moves now, and I’ll report back on my own learning curve in the hopes that my experience, once processed, contributes to yours.