Thursday, September 04, 2008

Giving it some attitude

Been rewriting the first ten pages of my WWII home front drama for the Red Planet Prize. Realised I wasn't making enough out of the massive turning point that had been happening on page 7. For the protagonist in this pilot episode it's the moment his world starts coming apart, yet my previous drafts underplayed the significance of that. Of course, pumping up the drama meant a total rewrite, pulling some scenes forward, throwing others out, etc.

But once I'd done that, several other things became obvious. A character who'd only been mentioned in passing suddenly became a much bigger, more significant presence. Several scenes were flabby placeholders, with characters appearing merely to mention plot points. Those got ripped out or rewritten. Does every character in a scene need to be there? If not, take them out. When you've only got ten pages to impress, every line's crucial - make 'em count.

Most importantly, I hadn't delved deep enough beneath the skin of how characters related to one another. My previous draft had a son bump into his father, exchange some pleasantries and hand him some cash from another, unseen character. Lame. Now the son comes home and there's immediate, mutual hostility with the father. Much more compelling, without going over the top. Why? Because the characters have got attitude and that brings conflict.

If all this sounds obvious, well, it is. You can sit in all the classes and workshops and seminars you like. You can read all the screenwriting books in the world. You can be told these things over and over and over. But sometimes you need to recognise the weaknesses in your own writing for yourself. Feedback is brilliant for forcing you to face flaws you hadn't spotted [or hoped others wouldn't notice]. But self-awareness is even better for honing your voice.

For example, I'm changing the way I describe characters. In the past I'd call a character portly or pretty and leave it at that. What does portly tell the reader about that character? The size of their waistline, perhaps a hint at lifestyle choices - too much food, not enough exercise. Pretty? They're good to look at, and that may influence how the world responds to them. But what does it tell you about the character's take on the world?

So in my WWII script, sixtenn-year-old Isabella has gone from being pretty to headstrong. In one word she's acquired an attitude, a belief that she knows best, that she won't listen to reason - that she could be headed for trouble. I've decided to leave the casting to those who do it for a living, I'm more interested in Isabella's character than her looks. Knowing that makes it much easier to write her dialogue, find the way she acts and reacts.

There may sound like the bleeding obvious to you, but for me it's like finding a new tool in my writer's kit or a tenner in the pocket of some clothes you haven't worn lately. Brightens up your day. Right, I'm off to give it some attitude. Onwards.

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