Saturday, March 24, 2007

Chronicles 42 - Dialogue is easy ...

... and plot is difficult, that's what David Mamet said and I agree with the man.

I recently delivered the first draft of an adaptation to a UK producer 2 months ahead of deadline. The good news is that the producer is very happy with what I've done and now wants to go out to directors after I polish and prepare a pitch and character biogs for the package.

The underlying true-life story is really a historical who/why dunnit and contains a lot of expositional information; information that could potentially:

a) Induce the audience into collective coma
b) Create a feeling in the audience that one of the main characters is a jerk
c) Turn the film into a 3 hour seminar rather than 90 minutes of entertainment

My approach was to find the story first, the central spine, and I then took an executive decision and threw out any true-life/historical info that deviated from this spine. Once I had decided on what the story was I could move over to plot and out of those tinkerings came premise and theme (actually maybe they came first...?)

Initially the producer had approached me to do a character/dialogue polish but I convinced him that it needed a whole new re-think, a page one rewrite and he agreed. Luckily I seem to have pulled it off. I say luckily because again, this was a new genre for me. I wasn't sure if I could pull off all that 19th century Jane Austen speak but I think it works well.

I did a whole load of research. Watched every period drama in existence, read a number of historical books and also read some 19th century literature to get a feel of the language.

Essentially those 19th cent (as opposed to 50 cent) folk are saying the same things as us but with bigger words! So, "Cor, I fancy 'er" turns into, "Indeed she is endowed with a pleasing physiognomy". The end effect being that the dialogue in the period section of the script is chunkier.

Having watched all those period movies I found a common theme. They mostly all contain:

1) A death or illness scene - I have both.
2) A ball or opera scene - I have a ball scene, not just because I wanted to throw one in, (which I did) but it was historically accurate - a crucial location for the 'cute meet'.
3) A high speed stage coach or horse gallop scene - yup, got one of those too. Usually these are linked to point 1.

The other challenge was the amount of information that needed to be communicated to the audience. Being a historical detective story it was important that this was revealed in an interesting way in the form of clues, revelation and exposition.

There was no avoiding the fact that this info had to be communicated and the feedback from readers who have no prior knowledge of the story will determine whether I've really succeeded here or not. I tried as much as possible to reveal the exposition either visually or through dramatic conflict but some of it I had to communicate in a sort of Sherlock Holmes-Dr. Watson style interchange.

Once I'd found the story spine it was then a question of reading and re-reading the underlying true story and marking the sections which for me were crucial to the story. Once I'd done all that I transferred the key scenes onto index cards and started structuring the outline using Blake Snyder's beat sheet as a guideline which I must say really helped.

I didn't succeed in sticking to his page numbers exactly and even though he insists I really don't think you have to. My mid-point and all is lost moment hits the mark but my first act is short - turning point 1 comes on page 20 but for me it reads fine. Why should I pad it out? I've introduced all the characters, set up my theme and my protag finds herself in another world on page 20. So what if it's early? The job's done, let's move on with the story!

Once I'd juggled the index cards into a 3 act structure I was ready to go and I started writing a scriptment in MS Word. This was a mix of scene headings, treatment-like prose and dialogue. I sent it to the producer, he really liked it, gave me his notes and then I fed it into Final Draft.

What I didn't realize was that bringing the Word doc into Final Draft format expanded it from 35 pages to 80 pages which was great! Three quarters of my script was already written! Another week or so of flat-out work and I had the first draft screenplay.

So back to Mamet. I was surprised by how quickly I'd written the script but looking back it's no surprise. I had an underlying story. Once I'd separated the wheat from the chaff as it were it was just a case of arranging the scenes into a plot. I wasn't starting from a blank page and generally once I have a structure and know the characters I can write fast. In the prior months that I'd spent researching the project I'd come to know the characters well so it was just a case of joining the dots with dialogue, which, as the man said is easy, but plotting? Now that's something else.

Ciao for now