Saturday, April 21, 2012

What Do You Want to See?

The last few posts I’ve discussed some questions that I frequently pose to students who are struggling with their stories – which are often the same questions I ask myself when I’m struggling. There’s another question professional writers ask a lot that I seldom hear from beginners:

Given this premise, what do I want to see in this movie?

When you ask yourself this question, you are putting yourself in the place of the audience. Imagine you bought a ticket to this movie. You’ve seen the trailer and poster and read a review. What are you looking forward to seeing up on screen? Better make sure that’s in the movie!

Sounds simple, but in the outlining phase we can get so caught up in structure and character and plot we forget why we wanted to write this particular script in the first place. (Hopefully that reason has something to do with it being a movie you’d actually want to see!) We craft a perfectly logical story but forget to pay off the potential of the initial premise.

You don’t just have to ask yourself what you want to see. I’m part of a screenwriting group made up of professional, working writers. We often bounce ideas off each other, and it’s not unusual for someone to ask what the others would want to see in such-and-such a movie. It helps cement what the concept is, and ensures that people are getting the premise the way you intend. It’s also a great way to generate some cool ideas.

Structurally, a lot of these want-to-see things will go in the “fun and games” part of your script – the first half of Act Two. You’ve got your story and character set up in Act One and it’s time to have a little fun with your premise. As I’ve mentioned, usually you exhaust most of these ideas by the Midpoint, which is why that’s a good place to throw a wrench in the works. But you can’t exhaust the obviously cool events of your premise if you don’t stop to figure out what they are!

Another place this question can help a lot is with your ending. Chances are your premise promises some spectacular climax. When you go see Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) you are expecting a wedding at some point. When you go to Captain America: The First Avenger (screenplay by Chirstopher Markus & Stephen McFeely) you are hoping for a spectacular battle between Captain America and the Red Skull. When you but a ticket for Hoosiers (written by Angelo Pizzo) you want to see a major basketball game. When you go see Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) you are expecting a child beauty pageant.

Think it sounds obvious? Me too, but sometimes writers get sidetracked and take the story away from the promised ending. Maybe they are writing a comedy about an impending wedding and they decide the wedding should get cancelled. The movie ends with the lovers reuniting in a restaurant. Perhaps the writer thinks subverting expectations will be unpredictable. Usually it’s just disappointing.

But speaking of unpredictability, this is a good time to think about what you might do to play off audience expectations. They expect a child beauty pageant? Let’s give them a pageant, but one that’s very different than what they expect!

“What do I want to see” is more than just a way to generate ideas. It’s a way to remind yourself that you’re not engaged in a technical exercise, you’re writing a movie. A movie you hope one day people will go see in a theater on Friday night. Every once in a while it’s a good idea to step back and think about that theatrical experience.

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