Friday, September 3, 2010

keeping it real

Empathy is the key to being a good writer.  I've read plenty of stuff from writers that was clever, that had good jokes, cool action sequences or great images but if it's lacking empathy for the characters it always falls flat. In screenwriting instruction for some reason there's not as much emphasis put on empathy as there is on "the rules." You know those rules, "no voice over, no flashback... etc." Empathy should be the one and only rule. If you don't care, we don't care. Developing empathy and getting it on the page takes time to do but it's worth the effort. First of all you have to honestly ask yourself, "how would it feel if..." moment by moment through your story. How would it feel if a recently dumped guy who hasn't been able to get hold of the direction of his life ran into his ex-girlfriend while buying comfort food? The quick answer is "shitty" but we're not looking for quick. We're looking for a way to dramatize those feelings. To explore as much of it as deeply as possible.
We've started the semester at AFI and the students are making their first short films. So I've been reviewing scripts and working with teams to make sure they have a really polished draft before they go into production. I've read the first drafts and they're all like first drafts should be -- not perfect.  Sometimes you've just got to write a draft of the script in order to understand the story -- but for a rewrite, I don't think jumping right into the next draft is always helpful. Particularly if the team hasn't figured out exactly what they want out of that second draft.  It's time for an expanded outline that includes a scene by scene exploration of the subtext.  Of course to write the subtext, you've got to have empathy.
So a scene that could be described in terms of plot, "He goes to the 7-11 and runs into his ex-girlfriend" gets expanded to include all the "interior" stuff. There she is, looking better than ever and she's with her friends. And him? He's got a giant Kit-Kat in his hand, childish and well -- he's not getting any skinnier. She's the one he thought he might marry. He hasn't told his parents  yet and they love her -- he suspects they love her a little  more than him. At first he hopes maybe she didn't see him, he's almost out the door when she calls out to him, "Jerry?" Shit. How is he going to get out of this with his dignity intact? He tries to act nonchalant, waves in a way that is both erratic and effeminate. She's going out -- one of her friends has a connection to get into the extra, extra VIP club in the W. What's he up to? Isn't it obvious, he's wearing his high school sweatpants he referred to as his "eating clothes." He makes up some absurd story about his grandiose plans for the evening and slips out the door. She knows he's lied to her but is too embarrassed for him to challenge the lie.
Explore it in Word before you explore it in Final Draft.  Something about writing prose seems to free the writer from having to figure out the exact dialogue, the exact descriptions and allows them to empathize with the character.  Empathy is key here -- feeling the real and honest emotions of your character, moment to moment -- not letting the plot drive the story, but putting the needs and feelings of your character up front so you discover what you need to do next.

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