Category: revising (Page 1 of 2)

Endings Both Good and Bad

Over the course of my last two screenplays, The Inhabitors and Peripheral, I’ve noticed a trend: Endings are not my strong suit.

Endings are extremely difficult to do. Ideal endings are thought to rise organically from whatever has happened throughout the story. They perfectly tie together characters, plots, and theme into a seamless tapestry of art. That’s not an easy thing to do, especially if you have a complicated plot or your characters refuse to cooperate with their fate.

Many writers, perhaps to circumvent the problems associated with conceiving endings that fit and are satisfactory for the story and the audience, say to have your ending figured out before you even start writing. I disagree. I believe there needs to be flexibility in a story. If you have everything plotted out beat-by-beat-by-beat where does the spontaneity lie for the characters and their (hopefully) unique personalities? My fear is that a story will read as if the ending is predetermined if the ending is, in fact, predetermined. That being said, I’ve also found that some stories lead to certain endings more easily than others. For example, in The Time Bubble the entire story was leading to a confrontation between the Government and the Revolution at the heart of the story. The script I’m currently working on, a Western, is leading to a conflict between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, for lack of better descriptions. Those are the most logical endings for those stories because the conflicts are fairly straightforward. To throw a twist or deviate from that would either feel like cheating, or completely underwhelm the audience and leave a bad taste in their mouth.

Nicolas Refn’s Only God Forgives is guilty of this, but the climax to that story is purposefully underwhelming. The entire movie builds to a confrontation between Ryan Gosling’s character and the Policeman that killed his brother, and then (SPOILER ALERT) Ryan Gosling has his ass handed to him. The fight isn’t even shot in a way that’s satisfying, instead taking a bird’s-eye view of the action so it’s difficult to see the details of the fight. Refn seems to be saying, “Betya thought something else was going to happen here, huh? I got you good!” But on a deeper level, if you feel the work deserves that sort of analysis, the fight underscores that Gosling’s character and his family are awful people and deserve to get their asses beat, but also that sometimes vengeance doesn’t work out. Sometimes things are just as they are and there is no changing them.

But those are stories with clear, unambiguous conflicts at the center of their stories. What about stories that are ambiguous? The Inhabitors and Peripheral both fall under this category, and both have given me two different problems with the endings. The Inhabitors runs the risk of being underwhelming (because the story seems to be setting up a final confrontation when it’s not), but also became a forced ending. Peripheral, on the other hand, was anti-climactic. In both cases, I had to go back and rewrite the endings from scratch.

Forced Endings

This goes back to predetermining what your ending will be. In The Inhabitors I had themes I wanted to touch on, and secrets that needed to be spilled. The main kinda-sorta antagonist, Seth, was the mouthpiece for this. The problem was that everything he said as clearly the writer speaking through him. The dialogue between him and the two other characters in the scene was haphazard at best. They would ask him a question, or say something pertinent, and he would rant at length about a completely unrelated topic. It was sloppy and totally sucked the drama out of the situation. He may as well have had a soliloquy all to himself.

I ended up rewriting the ending from scratch. I did a much better job of focusing on the events that preceded the confrontation and allowing the characters to speak to one another. The story was never in a position to end in violence, which is always easier, so the characters had to be revealing and wounded without being forced. I’m not 100% sure if I succeeded or not, but it’s definitely better now than it was through the first few drafts.

Anti-Climactic Endings

The Inhabitors, because it’s a climax of characters talking through their hurt feelings, will probably end up feeling anti-climactic to a lot of readers. That’s fine, because that has more to do with audience expectation than artist intent. Peripheral‘s ending, on the other hand, is the physical manifestation of a psychological/emotional conflict that runs through the entire story. It needed to escalate to a bigger level and the first draft fails.

For one, the entire ending is very quick. It builds and builds and builds and then the story cuts away to return only when the fireworks have already ended. I had to rewrite just to stay with the action and give the audience more bang for their buck. Another issue was with where the characters were. The (for lack of a better term) protagonist, Jon, takes his daughter Awa away from the house before the climax. They’re our emotional base for the entire film and they’re not even there for the climax. I had to get them back.

So it came down to rewriting again. Now they are in the midst of trying to leave the house, preserving some sense of realism in the story (otherwise people might say, “Why haven’t they left? The characters are so stupid I can’t relate to them and therefore hate this story.”) while also allowing me to put them in harm’s way. I hope the physical danger they’re in now leads to a better emotional release at the end of the film.

Conclusions

Endings are hard. Harder than beginnings, where you have the freedom to go in any direction you want. Endings are more of a choice. But choosing the best ending can be a difficult thing depending on where the story beforehand went.

Which is why one should never be afraid of revisions.

Confidence in Writers

My blog-mate Daveler has been writing about criticism quite a bit recently. You can say it’s something of an interest for her to receive and learn to give valid, respectful criticism. It should be for any writer. Oftentimes criticism can be misleading, petty, confusing, or unhelpful. She does an excellent job breaking down how to give constructive criticism and how to parse through the bullshit to find the kernals of criticism that can help you with your writing.

But what I think it comes down to, for most writers, is confidence in their own work. Daveler calls it “trusting your gut” but I’d like narrow that down a bit. I recently fell into this trap with The Inhabitors. I took the advice of one person a bit too far and it was detrimental to one of my revisions. This was because I lacked confidence in my own vision. It was only when I received a middling review that I realized all of the things I had done right, but maybe not perfectly, before I got rid of or changed beyond recognition. This only caused more work for me.

Many writers aren’t confident in their own work. How can you be? We’re constantly faced with rejections and criticism and in the world of the story we’ve created we have the freedom to make anything happen but are at the same time bound by the chains of our own creation. We rely on other people to help us separate the good from the bad, the right from the wrong, in order to make our stories the most resonant they can be. And this is where many writers go off the rails.

It takes a special skill to be able to separate the good advice from the bad. But a large part of that skill is actually just confidence. What helps me when faced with criticisms I don’t necessarily agree with is whether or not it fits with the story I want to tell. If someone tells me my climax needs more action when I think the story works best if my characters simply talk it out quietly I need to be confident in my decision. Now, as Daveler says, if several people tell you it doesn’t work then it might be at least diligent to revisit the decision. Maybe even take the time to write it out another way just to know for sure. It never hurts to get it down on paper.

The most important thing to remember, no matter how beaten down you may feel as a writer, is that the only person you’re really accountable for is yourself. It’s your story. Tell it the way you want to tell it not the way other people want to hear it told. What’s unique in your writing is your decisions, your voice. And those decisions and that voice are what is going to separate you from all of those writers that do take every piece of criticism they’re given.

My Least Favorite Draft

On the 28th I finished another revision of The Inhabitors and entered the Nicholls Fellowship Competition in order to hit the early deadline and minimize the cost of something I have a low probability of recouping my costs in. The Inhabitors has seen at least three fairly substantial revisions and I am pretty happy with where it’s at. Hopefully it will do well in all of the contests I’ve entered it into, but with this being what I feel is the strongest draft I’m hoping for an especially good showing in the Nicholls this year. At least better than washing out of the first round like I did last year.

Now that The Inhabitors is on the shelf for now, I turned my attention back to my psychological horror spec Peripheral. I’ve been putting it off for a little while because I know it needs a lot of work. Which is exactly why I’m procrastinating right now and writing this blog post instead of working on the revision. I feel like I’m going to have to substantially rewrite large parts of the script and, to be honest, that seems like a lot of work.

The second draft (or draft 1.5 for me – because my first drafts are always more akin to super-detailed outlines than actual drafts) is the worst for me. It’s coming down from the high of finishing that first draft, where you’re still excited by the ideas and the characters and proud that you’ve accomplished something. The second draft is where shit falls apart. In the case of Peripheral I already knew there were some substantial changes I wanted to make near the beginning to add weight to the ending. Things I discovered while I was writing and made a note to change instead of halting my momentum on the initial draft to double back. That was why I took so long at getting back to it.

And when I did – I realized that I made some pretty major errors. I went through my character sheets to re-familiarize myself and realized that as I was writing the script I had, for some reason, gotten away from what I originally wanted these characters to be. This explains why I felt like something was majorly off with the first draft. It’s not always a bad thing to let your characters discover themselves a bit while writing, to let them dictate the story, but I went pretty far off the rails with this one. All that prep I did up front won’t amount to much unless I fix it.

That’s where I am. I’m confident in this story and its characters, I’m just lacking some confidence that I’ll do them justice. But, like myself and bajillions of others before me have said, the only way out is through.

Guess I’ll go work on that revision now…

Procrastination

It’s a well known fact that writers procrastinate. Like, a lot. It comes with the territory. But recently I’ve been wondering why I, specifically, procrastinate. Is it the fear of a blank page? Difficulty settling into a groove in which to write my magnificent prose? Or something else entirely?

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Megan McArdle writes:

As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.

This is true, and the true writers among us (those who are successful, say) may be the type of people she describes in her article thusly:

… the people who dislike challenges think that talent is a fixed thing that you’re either born with or not. The people who relish them think that it’s something you can nourish by doing stuff you’re not good at… For growth people, challenges are an opportunity to deepen their talents, but for “fixed” people, they are just a dipstick that measures how high your ability level is. Finding out that you’re not as good as you thought is not an opportunity to improve; it’s a signal that you should maybe look into a less demanding career, like mopping floors. 

 She makes a lot of interesting points in her article, and goes on to discuss the culture the Millenial Generation has grown up in which takes her to the increasing difficulty with which we (Millenials) deal with failure. Those things are not what I want to talk about.

For me, I’m not sure it’s the fear of failure that makes me procrastinate. That fear is definitely there (as evidence by all the posts I title “Notes on Rejection”) but I don’t actively consider it when I’m writing. I expect what I write to be crap. That’s why revision is so important. Of course, I’m 27 years old and there was a point in time when I wondered why I had such a hard time writing as well as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Bradbury, or McCarthy. It took me a long time to realize that A.) I shouldn’t try to write as well as them, I should only try to write as well as I could and B.) It takes a lot of effort to write well, and I wasn’t putting that in.

Yet, despite having these realizations, I still procrastinate. For example, I’m procrastinating right now. Why?

It’s easier. I know I just talked about putting in the effort, but this is a bit deeper. Writing is very much like juggling. Except instead of three balls – which is difficult enough – you’re juggling two flaming chainsaws and a puppy while herding cats. It can be a lot to keep track of, a big mess if you make too many mistakes, and the initial glance at the task can be overwhelming. You have to keep track of characters, plots and subplots, MacGuffins, styles and formats, all sorts of things that lead to a story. It’s not all immediately important, as there will always be revisions to play with it, but sometimes to sit down and immerse yourself in the chaos of the world you’re building is too intimidating to do. It’s easier to write a stream-of-consciousness blog post, or clean, or just watch/read a story that’s already completed.

That’s what scares me more than failure, more than not writing well enough, it’s putting so much time and effort into something I care deeply about only to mess it up and have to try to patch it together again. It’s related to fearing I’m not good enough, I suppose, but not in the sense that I’m comparing myself to those great writers of antiquity.

Simply put, writing is hard work that is very easy to mess up and create more work. And oh so tiring. What to do about that? I think the only thing any writer can do when faced with such a situation is the one thing all writers can do when faced with any situation – continue to write. Power through it. Try your best. Prepare accordingly. It will turn out alright in the end.

I guess I should take my own advice and get back to the story I’m writing. Where was I?

The Importance of Theme

I mentioned in my last post that because of the critique I was given on my latest project I was able to nail down my theme, which had changed from what I originally intended partway through writing. This was an important step for one huge reason that I will helpfully state for you bolded and underlined.

Theme Dictates Story

Essentially, the theme tells your audience what the story is about. Don’t confuse this with a moral, those are different. The theme is the message of the story, the final summarization of the actions of the characters. It can often be boiled down to one word. For example, one of the themes of Cloud Atlas is Jurassic Park is that nature will always have the upper-hand over mankind.

The theme is the culmination of actions and events. In The Inhabitors I had a serious problem with theme. I thought the theme was about death. Grieving. Coming to terms with your own mortality. I tried very hard to write to that, but there is a part in the script where the theme just shows up without my realizing it.

It takes place after the first major turning point in a conversation between the antagonist and a supporting character. It’s a well-worn theme, but I think it’s approached in a unique way here. The theme is redemption, and the question posed by this theme is whether or not someone can find redemption by explaining the reasons for their digressions. If who we think is a bad person has a reason for every immoral thing they’ve ever done, can we find forgiveness in that understanding? Is there empathy to be had? On a greater scale, can God forgive us for our sins if those sins were done for a reason? Are any of those reasons merely rationalizations?

The theme often bleeds into the moral of the story. This is what causes confusion when speaking to theme in an academic sense. It is also another reason why it’s so important. How can you push your characters toward something without knowing what that is? I’ve read from different people that you should either know your theme before writing, or find your theme through writing. Personally, I don’t think it matters too much. The theme will find you and if it doesn’t there might be a problem with your story.

The reason being is that storytelling is about having something to say. Something to add to another person’s understanding. Yet another reason why theme is important to your writing. The question of what an artist is trying to say dictates how the story is told.

I understand this post may seem a bit scattershot. That’s because I went into it with a clear idea of my theme for the post: Why is theme important? But as I wrote I started to realize more about its relation to other aspects of storytelling. Morals. Execution.

My point is, theme can be a sneaky bastard but its imperative to good storytelling. Stay open to changes in theme through the first draft, as your characters may open themselves up to a more coherent or deeper theme than the one you initially started with.

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