Those of you who have read my post on planning will know that I don’t really do it when it comes to writing. I only need the vaguest notion of plot to start a novel, and as long as I know what the end of a short story will be, I can write it. But when it comes to writing scripts, you will find me sitting down, breaking the plot into individual scenes, and describing what happens in each of those scenes.
So, why does someone who hates planning, and finds it a borderline painful experience, do all this preparation when it comes to scripts?
Waffle, with a side order of waffle
With a novel, you can waffle. Think about the number of fantasy books that run to 700 pages, but only feature 350 pages of story. The great thing about prose is that you have room to manoeuvre, room to go into detail. Scripts don’t have this luxury. They have to be tighter than Russell Brand’s trousers.
With novels or short stories, I find it very easy to just write out a first draft and worry about the editing later on. It’s a skill I had to learn, after getting into such an editing frame of mind that no project could ever get more than a paragraph in before I declared “It’s rubbish!” and deleted the whole thing.
With scripts, if you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t get there. Scriptwriters have an immense challenge in that they have to tell a story almost entirely through dialogue. They don’t have the option of suddenly flying into the character’s heads and spending several minutes listening to the character’s internal voice as they explain everything they are thinking to themselves. They have to get all the information they think you need to know across to you in as little time possible.
Think of this classic example, which I personally think is a masterclass in good writing:
I love you.
In a novel, you’d have the luxury of being able to draw out Character 2’s internal thoughts as they ask the question ‘Do I still love Character 1?’, thinking about perhaps the other person in their life, or the side of Character 1 that they have now seen, and questioning whether that changes their feelings for them. In a script, ‘I know’ is about all you can afford to have, and says it all perfectly. We all know the required response to ‘I love you’, assuming it’s coming from your loved ones, not your boss, a judge, or a stranger on the bus who smells like beer. Which means we all know what’s wrong when Character 2 doesn’t issue that required response.
Keep it moving
With scripts, you have to talk your way through a scene. Not in the same way those teenagers at the back of the cinema do, but as in dialogue has to get you from the beginning of the scene to the end. You’ve had conversations, right? Ever phoned someone with a purpose, hung up after half an hour and then realised you didn’t ask/tell them whatever it was. “Yeah, I do love London, especially going on the Eye, you just get such a great view. Anyway, which emergency service was it you wanted?”
It’s so easy when writing purely dialogue to get massively side-tracked, and given that so much of the story has to come through what the characters say, you have to make sure that the plot doesn’t get diluted underneath superfluous dialogue. By having a plan that says ‘Scene 8. Tim and Sara realise they have to get rid of the gorilla’, you have a clear point to aim for. Writing blind can be useful when writing novels or short stories, as you can stumble across alternative/sub plots or new characters. With scripts, you just haven’t got time.
Is it getting funny around here?
The other reason is that the scripts I write (and am writing at the moment) and comedies, or some bizarre blend of comedy and something else. On top of the usual scriptwriting challenges, comedy throws up another one.
When I first tried writing a sitcom, and for several attempts after that, I made the mistake I expect all newbies make. I tried to make it funny. That may sound counter-intuitive, but I forgot about the story and just focussed on putting as many jokes in as possible. To that end, I ended up with scenes in which nothing happened, apart from an endless stream of jokes that digressed and struck out on tangents like one of those flies that gets in your house and is really confused by the whole ordeal.
Each scene in a sitcom has to do two things; it has to move the plot forward, and it has to make the audience laugh. Without knowing where the plot has to be moved from and to, it is incredibly hard to put the jokes in without losing the narrative structure and flow. Hence the planning.
There is another reason planning helps. Sometimes I find if I am struggling to think of jokes for a scene, I will go back to the plan, look at what needs to happen in the scene, and then devise what I call a Comic Complication. There’s probably a proper and better name for it, but I don’t know it. Basically, this is something that provides you with ‘fuel’ for your comedy, if you like. It is especially useful in scenes in which you need to get across really important information, and so it is hard for your characters to joke around, and impossible to include a typical ‘sketch’ scene.
For example, a scene in which Sara goes into the coffee shop where he works in order to tell Tim that she loves him could be complicated by the fact that an impatient queue begins to form behind her, and she ends up having to order something whilst giving her big speech in order to shut the other customers up and avoid being thrown out by the management. Her speech takes a lot longer than she thought, and the customers won’t give her a second’s room, so she keeps having to add cakes to her order. By the end of the scene, she can no longer see Tim behind the tray on which her coffee cup and a huge pile of cakes and muffins lies.
It’s hard to decide how to complicate a scene if you don’t know what actually happens in it, which is why planning is so important.
A help, not a hindrance
The reason I plan scripts but not novels and short stories is that with the former it actually helps the writing process,whereas with the latter I begin to wonder why I am writing plans about something when I could be writing the actual thing itself. Because scripts have to be so sharp, so precise, I find a framework is essential. This is especially essential for comedy, where jokes and story have to intertwine perfectly without one compromising the other.
So, are you a ‘one-plan’ policy kind of writer, or does it depend on medium?
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