Editing Principle 15: What Improves Fiction (and Screenplays) Improves Nonfiction Too
Notes made in preparation for a client meeting, 3/17/10:
—Seems obvious, but: a character must be trying to do something
—At heart of all narrative film: "Somebody wants something badly and is having difficult getting it." —Frank Daniel
—In a three-act structure, second act = immense pressure to change
—Writing with the audience in mind ≠ pandering to the audience
—Our interest in whether the protagonist gets what she or he wants is (usually) proportionate to that character's interest in same
—The nature of the goal determines the audience!
—Ask yourself: "What's the conflict that will tell the story you want to tell?" —Walter Bernstein
—"You always come into the scene at the <em>last </em>possible moment." —William Goldman
—Distinguish between conflicts and hassles
—Attempts to fashion a story in order to present a philosophical position leads to cliches, so be careful
—Supporting players don't know they're supporting players
—Revelation (the audience knows something a character doesn't) requires subsequent recognition by that character (or the audience feels robbed!)
—"The writer must know what a character wants, consciously or unconsciously, and the writer must know what a character is in pursuit of at any given moment, even if the character is oblivious to it."
All of the above, incl. that last quote, thanks to David Howard and Edward Mabley’s The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer's Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1993
UPDATE: Here’s a characteristically all caps passage lifted from a memo by David Mamet to the writing staff on a since-canceled drama called The Unit. That’s not important but the advice is; it adds some layers to the Frank Daniel advice above:
QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER [sic] DON'T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.