Replacing the Turd (or, A Story Breakthrough)

Tonight I had one of those moments that makes me so happy to be a writer.  As you might have read in yesterday’s post, I’ve been having trouble getting into the rewrite of the Domestic Comedy.  The script reads like I jammed it out in eleven days — which is only fair, since I DID jam it out in eleven days — but the haste in which it was written gives the rough draft a nice energy, a few scenes work pretty well and there are some nice moments that I came up with off the top of my head that I never even imagined during the plotting stage.  So there’s plenty to work with there in terms of raw material… or so I thought, until I actually tried to rewrite it.

After much headbanging (and not the fun kind), I zeroed in on my main problem: the third act is awful, centering around a would-be set piece that was intended to be a great trailer moment and instead just lies there like a giant, steaming turd.  But I had no idea what to replace the turd with.  For the better part of a week I’ve pondered this issue, to no avail.

Then, tonight, as I was sitting on the couch, bottle-feeding the Peanut in my lap with my left hand while attempting to scribble brainstorming notes onto a pad with my right, it hit me.  It was one of those lightning-to-the-head epiphanies, the kind that always brings to mind the image of John Belushi getting zapped by the ray of light in the church in THE BLUES BROTHERS.  I realized that my solution was this:

In coming up with the climax I wrote, I was working from the outside in.  Oh, sure, I’d set it up earlier in the story (albeit in a ham-fisted, amateurish manner, but what the hell, it’s a rough draft), but in practice it felt arbitrary.  It didn’t feel true to the characters; you can practically hear the gears of the malfunctioning plot grinding against one another while you read.  What I needed to do was work from the inside out — think about who the characters were, what they wanted, how they got in the way of each other in trying to attain their goal, and how it brought them to their respective low points at the end of Act II.  By establishing that, I could then figure out how they had to change during the climax.  And by establishing THAT, I could begin to work out a climax that felt more organic to the story and actually paid off the character arcs in an emotionally statisfying fashion.  As a bonus, I also suddenly had an idea of what the climactic set piece should actually be.  It was so perfect, yet so obvious, that I couldn’t believe I never thought of it earlier.

Moments like that feel so great; the whoosh of inspiration lasts only a few seconds but the warm and fuzzy afterglow can linger for hours.  I still have plenty of story details to work out and it all could still fall apart, but at least now I have a solid foundation, something to build on. 

(Of course, when I pitched this new climax to the Missus, she liked it but pointed out that it’s basically a thinly veiled fictionalization of her job situation in specific and our lives in general, albeit exaggerated to comic effect.  This, of course, never even occurred to me, once again proving that I’m possibly the least self-aware writer in the world, or at least my neighborhood.)

So anyway, why should you care about any of this, aside from the fact that I hope you think I seem like an okay guy and you’re rooting for me to succeed?  Well, if nothing else, it’s a good reminder of something to keep in mind with your own screenplays: when you hit a dead end, go back to your characters and rework from the inside out.  The people should drive the narrative, not the other way around, and more often than not, a story doesn’t work because the characters don’t work.

It’s a good thing I finally wrote that all down, ’cause god knows I forget it often enough.

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6 Comments on “Replacing the Turd (or, A Story Breakthrough)”

  1. If your new third act has anything to do with Micheal J. Fox playing guitar on Johnny B. Goode at his teenage mom and dad’s prom…it’s been done. Just thought you should know.

  2. WriterDad Says:

    DAMN IT.

  3. matt Says:

    You raise a great point, and it points to the problem most writers have before they find the magic to produce a screenplay that gets them a big break: an over-reliance on structure. My biggest problem (and I think many would agree) for years was — beats are all in the right places, but it still doesn’t work.

    It’s a sickness in screenwriting produced by what is supposed to be the narrative panacea: screenwriting books. We are taught that each beat must land on a certain page, that the end of the second act must be a low point, that every character must be passionately pursuing a goal at all costs. Now some of this is true — but it teaches writers to write from the outside in. If you write from the inside out as hard as you possibly can, you will find that your script does have a structure — every good story has a beginning, middle and an end — but the structure seems to have been dictated by the characters, not a screenwriting guru.

  4. WriterDad Says:

    Matt, I totally agree with you. I’m a big believer in structure, but now that I understand how it’s supposed to work (not that I don’t still have plenty to learn), I find myself more concerned with the people of the story rather than hitting the right beats at the right moments. It’s just as well — my mentor once told me I was more of a character guy than a plot guy anyway…

  5. Désirée Says:

    These moments are SOOO great. Don’t you feel almost divine?

    I too had a mentor once. She gave me feedback that was straight to the point without fuss. I miss her.

  6. WriterDad Says:

    Yes, I do almost feel divine… then later I reread my genius efforts and wonder what I was thinking. 🙂

    A straight-shooting mentor is definitely an advantage, if you can find one…

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