Linear writing for non-linear films

When writing a narrative that jumps back and forth throughout time and events (ie. PULP FICTION, THE KILLING) is it standard operating procedure to write the story in a more traditional straight ahead format then re-arrange the script; or is the script written in a non-linear format as we see it in the movie?

–Matt Higgins

While there have been cases where a film’s timeline was juggled after-the-fact (HEAVEN AND EARTH was one), the vast majority of scripts are written with the non-linear elements in place. It’s a cliché, but screenplays are really blueprints for making a movie, so the two forms should match up scene-by-scene.

If you’re planning to write a story that will ultimately unfold in a non-linear way, such as GO or MEMENTO, it’s a good idea to make a second outline of the story as it happens in "real time," to make sure the logic tracks. In fact, this kind of outline is helpful with any kind of story, because even if a script moves forward scene by scene, inevitably characters will refer to things that happened "earlier," and it’s important to make sure all these events could have happened in the sequence you propose.

Personally, I find that non-linear structure is often just a flashy trick to disguise bad storytelling, or worse, a boring plot. It demands that the audience pay closer attention in order to figure out what’s going on, but rarely rewards the effort.

An analogy: When laser printers first arrived, they gave people access to calligraphy fonts like Zapf Chancery Italic, a typeface designed for wedding invitations. Suddenly, people printed entire newsletters in 9-point Zapf Chancery Italic, without any consideration of whether it was the right tool for the job. (It’s not. It’s almost unreadable.) Now I cringe whenever I see the font. It’s been ruined for me.

What these novice designers – and many novice screenwriters – failed to recognize is that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. I wrote GO with three overlapping chunks because that’s the only way it made sense; to intercut between the plotlines would have slowed everything down too much and made it confusing. In short, I used a strange timeline because that’s what the story required.

Always ask yourself why you’re choosing a particular way of telling the story. Used well, and with the right material, non-linear structure can be a very powerful technique. Used poorly, it just makes a crappy movie harder to follow.

(Originally posted in 2003.)

Where to begin a script

When you start writing, or right before you start writing, what do you know? What do you know about the story and characters before you start putting words on paper?

–Dustin Tash

Although I don’t do it on every project, I’m a big fan of writing off-the-page, which means creating character bios, alternate scenes and sequence chronologies to help me figure out the story and the characters. For example, I’ll write out the whole story from the villain’s point of view, both to track that the logic works, and also to gain insight on why they’re doing what they’re doing.

You don’t have to stop doing this once you begin writing the screenplay, either. If I’m getting frustrated with the script, sometimes it’s much more helpful to write up related pieces than to bang out another scene I don’t think is working.

Just make sure this prep-work doesn’t keep you from actually starting your script. You don’t have to know everything about your story and characters before you begin. Discovery is the best part of the writing process.

(Originally posted September 10, 2003.)

Summer Reruns

Over the next two weeks, you’ll notice a bit of deja vu at this site: old articles suddenly popping up on the front page, with new dates and old comments. It’s not a technical glitch. I’m putting the site into reruns while I’m out of the country and off the grid.

Malawi MapI’m going to Africa — specifically, Malawi. I’ll be working with an organization called FOMO, which runs programs to help the orphans of Mulanje, a district in the southern portion of the country. U.S. Doctors for Africa is one of their partners, and the trip is somewhat under their auspices. While there, I’ll be teaching English and helping repaint a school.

“Why?” is a fair question. A few months ago, I was talking with a student who was just graduating from college. When I asked her about her summer plans, she enthusiastically described an upcoming trip to Uganda. I said something like, “Wow, I wish I could do that.”

Not more than 10 minutes later, I realized there was absolutely nothing stopping me from doing that — other than a bit of fear and inertia.

This isn’t research for any particular project, but it’s homework just the same. Part of a writer’s job is to imagine. I can imagine giant chocolate factories, conjoined chanteuses, and epic sky battles. But I honestly can’t imagine what it’s like to be an orphan in a landlocked country that’s lost a generation to HIV/AIDS. So I’m going to see what that’s like. I’ll end up writing about it here and in other publications, but the main reason I’m getting on the plane is to get some grasp on a situation that is, to me, unfathomable.

While I’m gone, Matt will be minding the store. Please be nice.

Summer Sundance, part two

questionmarkWhat exactly do you discuss at Sundance? They’re entering with completed scripts, which I assume are perfect to them at the beginning, so where to next? And if you participate in the Screenwriting Lab are you automatically given a Directors Lab spot, if that is what you so choose to do with your completed work?

– Christina Shaver

The scripts the Fellows are bringing to Sundance are completed drafts, but they’re still works in progress. The advisor meetings aren’t notes sessions, but rather a chance to talk through ideas with experienced writers, whose fresh eyes can identify problems and opportunities. It’s like therapy for your script.

Over the last two days, I met with Braden King and Dani Valent, whose script HERE is a road movie set in Armenia, and Sophie Bartes, whose COLD SOULS is an existential comedy.1 Both projects went through the Directors Lab, so the filmmakers had a chance to see how the scenes worked when put up on their feet, which left them with new questions and ideas.

Over the course of the lab, each writer has five meetings with different advisors. In some meetings, I’ve gone page by page with the fellows, looking at how this line on page 19 is setting up an expectation that never really pays off. In other meetings, I’ve left the script in my backpack, instead talking in broad terms about character POV, balancing tones, and the rewriting process. It’s a conversation, and all based on what the Fellow needs. One of the smartest innovations in the Sundance Labs experience is that the advisors meet each morning to talk through the previous day’s sessions, thus building on each other’s work.

I screened THE NINES last night for the group. It was strange to see it in one of same theaters as January, but with a completely different crowd and set of expectations. (And a new, vastly better digital projector.) Atom Egoyan had screened THE SWEET HEREAFTER the second night, and it was terrific to finally be able to ask him questions about his movie and his process.

Sundance doesn’t change much year-to-year, but there have been a few adjustments this time:

  • There’s a documentary lab running concurrently, so we’ve gotten to mingle with some editorially-oriented folks.
  • There’s wireless, and thus blogging.
  • In an effort to reduce waste, they handed out water bottles and coffee mugs upon arrival to use instead of paper cups and disposable bottles. It’s been remarkably effective. Because you’re at altitude, you have to drink a lot of water, and having a container with your name on it makes it simple.2
  • They got rid of wine at dinner, but added receptions to (partially) make up for it. Again, you’re at altitude, so it doesn’t take much.
  1. My final project is Richard Montoya’s WATER AND POWER, adapted from his acclaimed play. I lucked out this year in that all of my assigned projects feel like Actual Movies I Would Pay to See.
  2. We recently banned bottled water at home. Our water cooler was using $145 worth of electricity each year, and that’s not counting all the energy wasted packaging and delivering the giant bottles. It’s surprisingly easy to adjust.

Summer Sundance

I’m up at Sundance for the summer filmmakers’ lab, where I’ve worked as an advisor for the past seven years.

For those unfamiliar with the labs, it’s a workshop in which newer filmmakers (generally writer-directors) meet with established screenwriters in one-on-one sessions to sort out issues in their scripts. There’s a winter lab, which occurs right before the festival in January, and a summer lab, which includes a three-week directing component before the week-long screenwriting portion. Many notable films have come out of the Sundance labs, including PARADISE NOW, BOYS DON’T CRY, and HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH.

This year, there are 13 projects, five of which I’m reading. This morning, I met with James Ponsoldt on his script REFRESH, REFRESH. In the afternoon, I met with JJ Lask on THIS IS NOT A PIPE. They were both challenging projects, and great meetings.

What I love about the labs is that it’s a completely safe place. There are no agendas, no secret motivations. The advisers all genuinely want to help the fellows make the best movies they choose to make, with no “shoulds” or “oughtas.” There’s not a single movie up here that I would have written, yet they’re all fascinating, original, and deeply personal. You end up learning as much about the filmmaker as the script.

I have a hunch that an unusually high percentage of the films in development at this year’s lab will make it to the screen. You can see a complete list of the projects here.

Watch out for Dana

Hearty congrats to Dana Fox, who shows up in Variety’s Ten Screenwriters to Watch feature this morning. Dana was my assistant between Rawson and Chad, and has worked steadily since. Her latest script, What Happens in Vegas, goes into production soon.

In the picture which accompanies the article, you can see her with the SafeType vertical keyboard which looks like a joke but has saved both of our wrists. If conventional ergonomic keyboards aren’t working for you, the SafeType might be worth a try.