Thursday, July 30, 2009

Geometry, Writing, and Astronomy

Oh, I know. Sounds like this one's going to ramble a bit. Stick with me, honest, it's brilliant.

No, seriously. Brilliant.

Okay, as we all learned in school, geometry tells us you need two points to define a line. A at this end, B at the other, giving us line AB. Now, as it happens, there's no difference between AB and defining the line the other way, which would be BA. It's the same line either way.

With me so far? Okay, just keep that image handy for a few minutes...

Now, what I really want to talk about here is plotting out your work. I think the easiest way to describe the plot of a story is to think of it like getting directions off MapQuest. It's going to tell you exactly how to get from A to B, with all the turns, stops, and sudden twists you're going to encounter along the way. The plot is also like those directions because you tend to get them before you actually go on your journey. Very few people run to MapQuest to check out the trip they just made, but many drivers (and writers) want the directions in hand before they start the journey.

Perhaps an even better way to put it would be this-- plot is when you tell the story without actually telling the story. For example, it takes 115 minutes to tell the story of Raiders of the Lost Ark (longer if I don't have a DVD player), but I can tell you the plot of Raiders in five or six minutes.

In screenwriting the plot is often created in an outline. If you're not familiar with Hollywood, it's a very
standard thing for producers to ask for an outline first. Not like the thing you learned in grade school, with I, II, C, D, 5, 6, and all that. A screenplay outline is a complete summary of the script, from the opening scene to that little tagged on bit at the end with Nick Fury swaggering out of the shadows. They can range anywhere from four to forty pages. For the movie Duplicity, writer-director Tony Gilroy told me his outline was close to sixty pages long.

Everyone with me so far? Seeing the link-ups?

Now, here's where it gets interesting...

I was chatting online with a novelist I know, and he brought up the point that he was stuck on his new book. I suggested skipping to the next bit, and he said he couldn't because he wouldn't know what the next bit was until he wrote this one.

Oscar-winning screenwriters Charlie Kaufmann and Ronald Harwood both loathe plots. As they see it, how can characters have any sort of organic flow if they're forced to stick to a rigid, pre-decided structure? Kaufman has gone so far as to say anyone who knows the ending before they start writing shouldn't even be considered a real writer. Harwood laments the fact that once you hand in your outline to a producer that is the story. It doesn't matter if you come up with a better character arc or a more satisfying ending-- you have to turn in what you told them you'd be turning in.

On the other side of this coin is Russell Davies, the screenwriter who brought back Doctor Who from oblivion. He frequently starts at the end (for episodes and whole seasons) and works his way backwards to figure out the best path to reach that end. I've heard a few mystery writers take this route as well (as does Lisa Simpson's hamster).

I find myself on the edge of this coin. Not a bad place to be, because I understand Stephen King hangs out here, too. I have ideas, and sometimes they're of a cool way to start a story, other times they're random scenes, and now and then it's just a great punchline for an ending. When I started jotting down thoughts for the book that would become Ex-Heroes, the first chapter I wrote out fully was actually near the middle of the book, "The Luckiest Girl in The World." This was followed by a bit near the start where two characters debate how strong Spider-Man was, and then most of a flashback that occurred between those two points. I had a few vague ideas where I wanted it to end (although I had no idea how), moments I wanted to see, character ideas, and so on. I think when I actively sat down to start writing it, I had maybe twenty-five pages of that sort of random stuff. And about 30% of it I never used as the story began to firm up.

Now, in the opening of his wonderful book The Day the Universe Changed, James Burke relates an apocryphal tale about Ludwig Wittgenstein--

(No, we're still on course. Honest. )

Apparently Wittgenstein was out for a walk one day-- or maybe he was at a party. It might've been a funeral, now that I think of it. Anyway, he definitely wasn't at home-- when he found himself in conversation with a young man who was shocked at just how ignorant and arrogant people must have been before the Renaissance to believe the Earth was the center of the universe. It was so painfully obvious to look up and see the orbits of the Earth and the Moon in relation to each other and the Sun. How could anyone possibly think the Sun revolved around the Earth?

As the story goes, Wittgenstein wryly commented, "I agree, but I wonder what things would look like if the Sun was revolving around the Earth?"

The point being, of course, it would look exactly the same.

Y'see, Timmy, in storytelling it doesn't matter how you get from A to B. Because storytelling is about the end result-- the line-- not which point you started at. How the words got on the page is irrelevant. A reader isn't going to throw your manuscript down in disgust because you started at the end, or in the middle. They don't care if you used an outline, covered a wall with index cards or Post-Its, or just dove in on page one. They couldn't care less if it was plotted out, improvised page by page, or written by a million monkeys with a million typewriters. The only thing the reader cares about is the finished story.

So any school of thought that says you must write this way, in this order, can't be taken seriously. Anyone who makes a point of bringing up their method or process definitely shouldn't be taken seriously. Every writer has to find the method that works best for them. It all comes back to the golden rule-- what works for me probably won't work for you. And it definitely won't work for that guy.

That being said, next time I'd like to talk about my method and process.

Until then, go write. Do it any way you like, but write.


2 comments:

gilliebean said...

Awesome! In my recent projects, I've been experimenting with new methods of getting from idea to finished screenplay. I think it's fun to hear how other writers do it. If only so that I can try that method and see how it works for me.

In so many of the Creative Screenwriting podcasts, I've heard the writers of my favourite screenplays talk about "listening" to their characters and writing what is *true*. When I do use an outline (which I find works for me really well), I don't require myself to stick to it if the characters truthfully want to go somewhere else.

Good thoughts.

Matthew Baugh said...

I usually start in the middle, but can write a pretty decent outline when needed, and am currently about 1/3 done with a collaborative project that is so organic neither of us has more then an inkling of how it's going to end.

One think that I'm starting to see is that different approaches yield different kinds of stories. Starting with an outline tends to yield a well-plotted story (at least for me) while the organic method develops deeper characters. Probably I like the middle approach so well because it seems to balance thee aspects.

That's over-simplifying, but I do think the method sometimes depends on what you're going for.

Oh, and Wittgenstein had the proportionate strength of an arachnid, which gave him the ability to lift a weight equal to 35 Austrian logicians.