Friday, November 21, 2008

Play me a screenplay

I've been thinking about structure lately.

One day when I was 9, while my parents were searching for a hobby for me to take up, they brought home a nickel Bundy flute from the flea market and handed it to me. I learned to play it.

It seems like every girl was handed a flute at some point in childhood. I hear women all the time saying, "Oh yeah, I played the flute," when what they really mean is "Oh yeah, I picked up a flute and learned to play a scale and then forgot about it."

Not me. I actually learned to play the flute. I got a better instrument eventually, but I never got the B foot or the gold plated mouthpiece like some spoiled brats who think they're so awesome but have stringy hair.

I loved my flute. I liked the low notes best and always tried to get second part so I could play the harmonies. While the other girls were coming to blows about who gets first, I would volunteer for second. A band director once said it's probably because I'm an alto, so that's the range where I am comfortable.

I had a private tutor for a while and she thought I had enormous potential, but my mom stopped paying her because she said I didn't practice enough.

But here's why I didn't practice enough. Practice is boring. All those notes and scales and dippy little runs that you have to do over and over - they are not nearly as much fun as making up your own stuff. I was part of a flute ensemble and the band director who knew nothing about flute and never really taught us anything would hand us these little Mozart quartets to play. I don't care how great people say Mozart is, I loathe the man because of how many stupid little derivative flute quartets he wrote that all sound like an inverted "Eine Kleine Nacht Musik." That's right, I said it. Mozart sucks.

Anyway, I was never a very good reader. I'd go to auditions and contests and rock the prepared piece and play the scales just fine and then I'd go into the sight reading room. For those of you who don't know what sight reading is, it's when you get a piece in front of you that you've never seen before and you have to play it right then and there. I always sounded like I'd never even seen a music note before.

But at all those auditions they never had an improv category, and that's where I would have won. I used to start off during practice playing my flute and then I'd get bored with the piece in front of me and go look out the window while I made stuff up. And my mom would say, "Wow that was really pretty," and I wouldn't tell her I wrote it. The band director would overhear me do it sometimes but he never once mentioned it. And then one day I put it to good use by joining a rock band. Those were the days.

So you may be asking yourself, what the hell does this have to do with structure? Okay here it comes.

A screenwriting mentor of sorts has recently suggested I go back to my zombie script and do a new outline to restructure my script, and a member of my writers group is always asking what outlining method you use or suggesting everybody restructure stuff, usually using the Blake Snyder method because he's obsessed with Blake Snyder.

But I find that very, very difficult.

I outline, for sure. But it's a loose outline and as soon as I start writing I veer off and let the story take me through. I always outline, don't get me wrong. I would NEVER suggest starting a story with an idea and a cup of coffee and an hour of wasted time. But I like to improv.

When I play flute I know the notes and the key and the time and the tone I'm going for, and the rest is just filling in the gaps with what sounds right. I think the same way about writing. I know the basics of the story and of course I know how to write a screenplay like I know how to play a song, but I feel trapped when I feel like I'm interpreting too close to the lines.

But I'm trying to play the song the way it's written.


  1. Obviously every writer (or team) has his/her/their own method that works for them; it's all about finding what gets the best script out of you.

    Jul and I have discovered through much trial and error, that we work best from a VERY structured outline. Things will still change along the way, but a really strong outline allows us to "experiment with the music" while always having a very clear idea of where we need to go and exactly (more or less) what we need to accomplish in each scene.

    Exhibit #1 of happens to us WITHOUT a strong outline is my last post...and not a fun experience to go through.

  2. I play the flute. I didn't "used to play", I play. I've played since sixth grade and I have never put mine down. Other girls say "yeah, I played in high school". Well, I play. I play on my own. I play at weddings. I play at church or anywhere anyone asks me not to sing!

    I've got three decent flutes, a Yamaha piccolo, a bass flute, wooden flutes, glass flutes and one flute that's a piece of crap somebody brushed with silver and gold just to make it look pretty. It doesn't play worth crap but it looks great sitting on my piano.

    Some day, I'll buy that Haynes I've been eyeballing for 30 years.

    Oh yeah, and no, I didn't miss the point of the post.

  3. If a little structuring and a little improv works for you, then just do it. Only try to fix something if it's really broken - is your script broken?

  4. Anonymous8:11 AM

    I think you crossbreed method of loose outlining, but then let your mind carry you is the best (maybe because it is what I use) but I am of the firm belief rigid structure constricts the wonderful flow of magic -- magic being when you just sit there and you characters take you somewhere you never even knew about

  5. I hear you. I had the same problem with programming. They wanted flow charts before I wrote it. Since I could see the whole thing in my head, I didn't need one. I did, however, have to learn to reverse engineer them to make people happy.

    As for writing, I use the loose outline myself. However, now that you've got the script, reverse engineer it and make an outline of the script as is. It will allow you to note where you might have gone awry or you might have done something different. Outlines are useful; so long as they don't get in the way of creativity.

  6. Anonymous12:30 PM

    You should only go back to some kind of solid structure IF and WHEN what you've written isn't working.

    Good solid structure will almost always elicit the best emotional response from your reader and eventual audience.

    You start out with a good solid structure but just like you stated in your post... You veer off.

    Only YOU shouldn't be veering off...

    Your characters SHOULD.


  7. Emily:

    I've had the same experiences as you. First off... I played piano as a kid and besides taking lessons, I'd freelance on the piano, but I was very slow at sight reading. When I got to college, I was thinking about seriously studying music but I got an "F" in my college Musicianship class -- the entire class was about writing down the notes that the teacher played on the piano. I didn't have the ear for it. (And honestly, I didn't practice enough either.) I didn't continue with my music studies, but I did continue to compose / freelance my own music in college and after college.

    As for screenwriting, like you, I also do a rough outline, and I just go from there. However, I'm currently taking an advanced screenwriting course (UCLA's Professional Program) and they require you to do a beat sheet (step outline) and it was very helpful -- and although I wound up deviating from my original step outline, it did save me some time and made things a bit sharper and clearer. (I also had to do a first person character bio of my protagonist and that also helped.) My strategy now, is that after I finish a script, I'm going to go back and see how my script matches up with regards to the "accepted structure for screenwriting" -- I'm going to use Save the Cat and UCLA's structure as my guides. If my script doesn't match, then I'm going to edit it so that it matches, or at least is close enough. Because whether we like it or not, there are readers who will analyze scripts in a "paint by the numbers" kind of way, and they regurgitate Blake Snyder or Syd Field or whomever... By making sure the structure and screenwriting elements are there, you can go one step further toward "bulletproofing" your script.

    Steven Lee


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