Friday, April 20, 2007

Don't spoonfeed; try drip-feeding instead

Spent the past few days writing a second draft of my spec TV pilot script. My first draft was guilty of underestimating the audience's intelligence, giving them far more information than they needed. Some sage writer somewhere once said you should only give your readers the least possible amount of information - enough to intrigue and entice, but not enough to save them the bother of thinking.

TV audiences have become increasingly sophisticated, they don't need everything laid out for them on a platter. I mean, don't you prefer shows that make you do some of the work for yourself? So the first half of my second draft was moslty cutting all the explanatory material back to the bone: I'm trying to drip-feed, not spoonfeed.

The second half is taking longer, because I'm having to create a lot of new material as well as editing what's already on the page. There were structural problems that only became apparent when I took my story to script stage. Funny, isn't it, how a detailed synopsis or even a full treatment can read fine. But turn that into script pages and suddenly you realise it doesn't work.

I knew I'd created a repeat beat, essentially having the same plot point happen twice in quick succession, so that needed fixing. But I'd gone one worse, having a secondary character come in to defend the protagonist from bullying police. That made my heroine appear weak and feeble, when she needs to step up and fight her own battles.

Then there was the ultimate crime: having my cast reveal important secrets without pressure or imperative. Conflict = drama. Characters telling each other stuff for the sake of the audience = lazy writing. Yes, they have to reveal things, there's a need for this exposition, but it had to be dramatised far more effectively. I know it's now fashionable to dismiss the theories and teachings of story structure guru Robert McKee, but one thing I remember from him definitely still bears repeating: use exposition as ammunition. Revelations should only be made when characters feel they have no choice, not simply to fulfil the needs of a lazy writer.

I think the second draft's a significant step forward from the first, but there's still plenty of work to be done. Had a nice eureka moment in the bath yesterday - don't know why, but these things always occur to me in the bath. Cleanliness is next to inventiveness, apparently. Anyway, I switched McGuffins while writing yesterday and now a briefcase has become much sought after by the protagonist. Way back on page one, her husband walks into the script looking for something. In my first draft it was his mobile phone, setting up a minor plot point that pays off later. While soaking in the bath I realised how much better it'd be if the husband was looking for his briefcase. It seems like a throwaway moment on page one; by page 50 it's crucial.

Been cutting back and writing forwards for three days now on the second draft. One thing's become apparent: I've no idea how long it takes me to write pages of screenplay. I've written enough novels to have a fair idea how long it'll take me to write a page, a thousand words or a chapter. But I'm still an absolute beginner with screenplays, so I'm clueless on how long it should take me to write a page, a scene or a second draft. I'm sure in time I'll become familiar with what I can do when needs must or inspiration strikes [sadly, these two don't coincide as often as I'd like]. For now, I'm scrabbling in the dark. Speaking of which, time I got back to work. Wish me luck, as I need to finish this rough second draft today.

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