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Just Saw [Insert Movie Title Here]...

...or how my MFA in screenwriting ruined any chance of enjoying a movie like a normal person. If I apply what I've learned to existing films, would it have made a better film?

SPOILER WARNING: Please be advised, I plan to discuss plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.

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Location: California, United States

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Between the Step Outline and the Pages

I outline. I didn't use to outline but I outline now. Prior to screenwriting, writing was how I explored and discovered. Scripts would wander and meander through long soliloquies and meditations with complete disregard for structure and form. A first draft would take a year or two to complete. I let the artistic expression dictate the form.

Screenwriting is a little different. There's less "discovering" and more "knowing." That's why I outline now. That's not to say I don't let pages rip when the muse strikes me (I believe everything is valuable eventually), but I have to know where the story is going before I write pages. Therefore, I outline.

Writing for UCLA has made this a necessity. A quarter at UCLA is 10 weeks. Figuring that the first week is lost pitching for classes and the second week is spent discussing story ideas with your teacher, you're left with 8 weeks to write the screenplay. If you have an instructor who critiques during week 10, then your script has to be finished by week 9. So that leaves 7 weeks for pages. If your instructor spends a week going over your step outlines, then you have 6 weeks for pages.

Typically, there is a month during the quarter where we are squeezing out 30 pages a week, either by design or necessity. Unanswered emails, missed phone calls, long stretches of time between blog postings, a steady diet of pre-cooked foods from Costco... you get the idea.

This is when I developed my love/hate relationship with the three act structure. As much as I love to follow my muse where ever it leads me, the reality is that I (and all my classmates) have to finish a script by the end of the quarter. Valuable time and energy is wasted questioning the loss of creative freedom under this restriction. It simply is what it is and you deal with the task in front of you.

What helped me during this process is the page count. Once I've completed the step outline, I estimate how many pages are needed to realize each step. For example, suppose this is one step in my outline:

  • When CARL arrives at his apartment, there are seventeen messages from ROCHELLE demanding that he meet her.

I'll begin thinking: How many pages would it take to realize this scene? Carl checks his messages but what really happens? What does Carl want and what do I, as the writer, need? Does he listen to all 17 messages? Should the scene start when Carl enters his apartment? Where does the scene end? What does Carl do as a result of hearing the messages? What does this scene look like?

And then I'll jot some notes in the margin, and think, "I can write this scene in 1 page." What's good is that I force myself to justify the existence of each scene by asking the fundamental questions that most screenwriting books advise you to ask: What does my character want, what action does the character do, what is his obstacle, is there conflict, and how does he feel about it? Believe me, it's much easier to ask these questions at this stage than while you're cranking out pages.

What you also discover is that your 40 step outline will yield only 60 pages. That everything between the midpoint and the end of Act II is only 7 pages long or Act I is 45 pages long. Again, it's much easier to fix this before you write your pages.

The outline is a tool to help you see if your story will work before you write pages. Using it to estimate your page count is one way to use this tool. In the UCLA program (to quote Khan), "Time is a luxury you don't have."

By the way, the step above ended up being 3 pages long before I realized I didn't need the scene and cut it.


Blogger Enzio Pesta said...

"Between the Step Outline and the Pages" lies the abyss.

April 28, 2006 6:41 AM  

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