Thursday, January 06, 2005

Writing - Whose viewpoint?

... well, it was going to be about adaptation, but in the meantime, an interesting situation popped up.

I've been working with stand-up comic Elizabeth Beckwith on a TV show pilot. Frankly, Beckwith's been doing most of the heavy lifting while I chime in with the TV formatting and occasional buzzkill. "Yes, that is wildly original. Yes, that would be cool. No, they would never let you shoot that in a million years. Think of something else."

The premise is based on her childhood in Vegas. She and her very Catholic family lived right across the street from their ... ah ... "connected" cousins. People happily listen for hours as Lizzie tells stories about growing up in Sin City in the 70's. The structure of the show (something for another little post) was always great -- two families, very different attitudes, plenty of conflict ...

And yet, we'd had a bitch of a time getting the thing to work, for damn close to a full year. The network notes, for once, have been quite good. The character balance worked, the plot choices for the pilot worked, and yet ... it never quite got there. In it's various iterations it was always funny, certainly a show, but never quite gelled. We were staring down the barrel of the last rewrite with zero idea of why we kept missing the mark.

I reviewed it one last time. (Our mutual manager, Will Mercer, was crucial here, a fresh set of eyes on the pages.) We followed the father's emotional turmoil on moving to a strange city with his family. His conflict at trying to raise good kids in the city of sin. Good ... we saw the oldest son drawn into corruption by the cousin ...

Well, wait a second. The show was done through the father's viewpoint. From a purely theoretical standpoint, that made sense. He was the one who moved the family to Vegas. His choices led them here, he was responsible, he was the one who had to deal with the consequences of his actions ...

But talking over the source material, we realized that whenever Liz told a great story about her childhood, it was about the kids. Unburdened by the need to balance characters, act structure, blah blah blah, the fun stuff was always about she and her cousins lost in this morass. The kids were dealing with Sin City. The Dad was dealing with the ramifications of the kids dealing with Sin City. Although he was the central hub of the driving story, he was once removed from the interesting conflict. From the natural viewpoint of the story.

We shifted viewpoints. Structurally, as in scene-by-scene progression, this wasn't a cataclysmic change. The same sequence of events occured -- it just wasn't the same story. (Do not confuse what happens in a story with the story. ) The eldest brother, Paul, became the viewpoint character. We started with him. We focused on his reactions. We spent a little extra page weight on his conversations, his thoughts.

And now, it works.

Hey, don't get me wrong, it may never see the light of day (welcome to television). But universally, on this rewrite, we smacked our heads and said, "Ah, thats's the show we've been waiting for."

On a practical young writer's grind-level, here's the tool out of the toolbox:

Changing viewpoints.
Not to insult your intelligence and go back to the 6th-grade English lesson on conflict, but blah blah blah, every scene between two people, in every story, screenplay, novel, etc. boils down to:

Character A: "I want something."
Character B: "You can't have it."

Yes, simplistic. But this is the shit that gets you,when you're elbow deep in a text. Now, the natural inclination is to come into each scene in the head space of the "I want something" guy. Human nature. The passion you have for telling that character's story is often what motivated you to write the story in the first place. Fine.

But as a result, we often find Character B coming across as either a passive obstacle or, even worse, making story choices based on what we, the writer, think would be the most interesting obstacle for Character A. (This seems to crop up a LOT in romantic comedies. I think that's because love is so blindingly personal: men write romantic comedies to get across a specific POV men have on love, and women write them to get across specific observations about women's experiences with love, and so the opposite gender really is only there to service the story.)

A much more useful way to look at conflict is:

Character A: "I want something."
Character B: "I want something else."

Moving into a scene in this headspace makes it much easier to do one of my favorite little tricks when writing: switch viewpoints, and write the secondary character as the lead for one scene.

Switch gears. Sit down, and pretend that, say, a huge actor has just been hired to play the OTHER role in the scene*, and your job is to make the role more interesting to play. Or put yourself in as Character B. Make Character A the asshole who's interfering with what YOU want. Now, Character B has an agenda, has a drive, and will make Characrer A's life that much harder. Now, you have conflict. You have a SCENE. Maybe Character A will have to work a little harder, be a little more interesting to beat you. And maybe you've created a character, found another voice in the script or story you weren't anticipating. Rarely, but it happens, you discover you're telling the wrong character's story.

Besides Beckwith's script, I can think of two times this came in handy in practical, deadline-writing circumstances. Working on the shooting draft of The Core, Aaron Eckhart's character Josh was humming along nicely (of course he was. He was a scientist based on, frankly, me and my friends in physics). Beck, the shuttle navigator, was the opposite lead. She worked just fine, but there was still something missing. Objectively, she had goals, obstacles, conflict, an arc ... but she just wasn't a real human yet. At a script meeting, Jon Amiel nodded as I babbled on, and then asked: "If Josh didn't exist, what would Beck's story be? Pretend Josh doesn't exist ... would we still watch Beck's story?"

Well, heck no. That brought about a different conflict for Beck, and the rewritten character managed to win over Hilary Swank to play her. Score one for the smart British director, zero for the geek writer.

The second time (actually, earlier in my career), I was adapting a spy novel, Jack Higgins' Angel of Darkness. The spiffy assassin-turned good-guy was charming as hell, and to tell the truth his female Scotland Yard partner was fine too. I was just plowing along in an exposition scene, letting Spy-Guy explain the convoluted and cunning plan to outwit the villains -- all lifted pretty much verbatim from the book. On a lark, though, just to break it up, I wrote it through the viewpoint of the Scotland Yard detective who didn't much care for Spy-Guy. She's edgy, and is going to try to punch holes in his plan because she's still pissed at him from a little stunt he pulled earlier in the movie. She's going to heckle, be snarky. My job, for this little two-page scene, was to make this secondary character as amusing as I could, because she had no real story weight to pull.

And I found myself typing her objection: "Well, instead of all this complicated crap, why don't we fly him straight from A to B?"

I stopped. I literally stood up. Fuck me. She'd found the plot hole. Not only had she found the plot hole in the movie, she'd found the plot hole IN THE BOOK. A gaping damn logic hole myself and the producers and the director had missed over the course of a year's worth of outlines, ripping apart a book that'd been published a decade earlier. I don't know if Jack Higgins missed it to, or just did a little hand-wave and moved on, whistling in the dark, but there it was. I had to restructure the entire third act.

Switching viewpoints. Is this some great revelation? Hell no. It's just a little three-quarter inch wrench to yank out and try when a scene just sits there on the page for a day, stinking like dead cod.

*(This happens all the time, by the way, and motivates many rewrite jobs)


Sizemore said...

I like the idea of making all the characters work hard for their existence.

It's nice because even the guy collecting the shopping carts in the rain from 9 to 5 would probably cast Steve McQueen to play himself.

Anonymous said...

Great post. On my second drafts, I normally troubleshoot characters by imagining the story through each of their POVs. Everyone imagines themselves as the main character in the movie called life, so it's a way to check to make sure everyone's being themselves and not acting as scene fodder for someone else's moment.

- Chris Arrant

Anonymous said...

Writing is a hobby of mine. Just for fun, ya know. I don't think I have the chops to be a pro.

Anyway, what you're saying here is really good advice. I really enjoy playing with POVs, but out and out switching the whole story to someone else's perspective never crossed my mind. I wished I'd thought of it myself.

Thanks for the good advice.

david golbitz said...

This isn't something I've ever really given much thought to. It makes all the sense in the world, and while I always try to get my characters to be fully-realized, with their own motivations, etc., I don't think I've ever really nailed each one's own POV. Definitely something to try out...

Kevin said...

See, that's the problem I've had with all of Higgin's books - it simply takes Hannah one question to blow the story out of the water and Higgins never takes her there; he's just fascinated with Dillon pulling his usual act (and it's always done the same way, when you read them) and being Ferguson's beast.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the advice on changing the viewpoint... even though the novel I'm working on is in first person, I'm finding a way through my current block by putting myself in the position of the other characters and seeing what they want.

I'd also add that hopefully EVERY neophyte writer will step into the shoes of their antagonists/villains at least once or twice to make them work. One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever came across was from Mick Foley, who suggested that "No matter what, the villain has to think he's right. It doesn't matter how out there and insane his reasoning is, but he has to think he's justified." I think that's helped me to get away from the stock, take over the world type villains in my work, and into more compelling antagonists that readers can actually sympathize with.

Rebecca said...

Awesome advice. You make it clear that writing is not just about inspiration and a stroke of genius making everything work together--it takes hard work and persistence to make things work.

Humble suggestion: If you might consider changing the template of your blog to something not such high contrast--the black and white is killer on the eyes. I have to look away from your long entries every couple paragraphs to make the tracers less intense. (I've never had drugs either, honest!) I wouldn't suggest it if I didn't think other people had the same problem. Content's worth it though!

Anonymous said...

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