Well, my treatment is done. It’s a big, steaming mess, a heapin’ helpin’ o’ present-tense crapola, but it’s done. And the teacher liked it (thinking it’s crap is perfectly normal, he reassured us). Such a relief. It lasted three hours.
That’s how long before we got our next assignment. We have a week to write a step outline — the list of the 60-80 separate scenes that make up a feature-length screenplay. We were told, "What you’ll do is sit down and outline all the scenes in your treatment" — keep in mind that the treatment tells the entire story of the movie, beginning to end — "and then you’ll finish and you’ll have 35 scenes. That’s not a movie, that’s a TV show. So you’ll have to make up some more scenes."
Scenes, you may be wondering, are not, "Bob walks down the street for a while, waving cheerily to passersby." Scenes must a) have a beginning, middle and end; b) have conflict, in as many layers as possible; and c) raise the stakes. There’s probably a d) and e), but I’m working without notes here.
Sigh. Drama is hard.
Some of this bitching is for show. Believe it or not, a lot of this is familiar, albeit in different form. If you read much long-form journalism — that is, stories longer than your basic one-car fatal — you learn the importance of this stuff. Beginning, middle and end is a concept a lot of writers find hard to grasp. (At one end they’re the people who think the secret of journalism it to pack in all in the first four paragraphs and let the copy desk cut from there. At the other are the ones who just want to empty the notebook, and justify it by claiming that part about the city councilwoman gardening is sort of, you know, symbolic of the greater theme, which is the city budget.) Raising the stakes is another way to say, Stick to the point and keep things moving forward. A friend of mine used to coach writers. He’d tell them what the story was about in a sentence, and then instruct them to make every other sentence in the story illuminate that topic sentence in some way. It was a way to head off diversions, detours and shilly-shallying at the pass, although a few cattle always snuck through. This is a concept like the Chinese game Go: It takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.
We’re not supposed to worry — too much — about the three-act structure, famously described by one of the Epstein brothers as "Chase the cat up the tree, throw rocks at it, get it down from the tree." This will resolve itself if we make sure there’s a life-changing choice in pages 25-30, and … oh, I’m tired of this.
Predictably, the great Mr. Carroll had a thing or two to say about this a while back, and did so amusingly. In discussing the screen adaptation of his wife’s true-life adventure book, he considered what it was like to be a disposable minor character in the story: The book features floods, hunger, bad insects, near-drownings, heroism and international fashion models, and it’s all true. It’s darned dramatic. Alas, however, not dramatic enough for Hollywood. No one dies, for one thing, which is a bummer. The main character (that would be Tracy) does not fall in love with anyone on the trip. She does from time to time think good thoughts about her husband (that would be me), but they are boring and uncinematic thoughts. She does not consider hiring a hit man to bump me off, for instance. Neither do I appear to her in a dream telling her not to climb that big boulder because “death awaits beneath.” If only.
The column’s called "My Chance to be Murdered." Snicker.
I wonder if a struggling writer could sell shares in a screenplay. For money, you could write your investors into your narrative. For enough money, they could dictate whether they’re heroic or not, gorgeous or not, male or female. A big pile of dough, and you can basically commission the whole story. It’s just crazy enough to work.
Actually, speaking of Jon Carroll, he’s on vacation for some outlandish term — like, until the second week in November or something. But all is not lost; the Chronicle is running some of his greatest hits, and my, but they’re great. One of my favorites, "He’s Your Gentleman Host," ran today. I recommend it. I recommend them all.
So now I have to crack open the package of index cards I bought for my Russian vocabulary and start outlining scenes. Oh, and study the Russian vocabulary in the bargain. So I guess this is goodbye.
For now. Back again tomorrow.