I recently read a script for a consulting client that was pretty good except for the ending, which didn’t work – it wasn’t a logical conclusion to the story that had come before and it didn’t pay off any of the narrative’s key elements and so it wasn’t satisfying. When I gave the writer my notes, I strongly encouraged him to come up with a new ending that better fit his story. So I was surprised when the client sent me his next draft and the ending was exactly the same.
This happened again with the next draft and again with the draft after that. I finally confronted him and asked him why he was hanging on to this ending that didn’t work and was keeping the script from working? He finally admitted that the real reason he didn’t want to give up the ending because it was the very first thing he thought of for his story and he really liked it and didn’t want to lose it. He explained that after conceiving the ending (which was – by itself – actually pretty cool) he went back and constructed a story he felt that led up to that ending. Except that it didn’t. What had happened was that in constructing his story it had begun generating themes and plotlines and characters and ideas that eventually took it to a place where the original ending no longer fit.
As every writer knows, one of the strangest things about the writing process is the way that characters take on lives of their own and stories go off in surprising and unexpected directions. And it can be frustrating when a character – a fake person that you created – develops in a way in which that character will no longer do what you want him to do. Or when a story – that you are making up – won’t go in the direction you want it to go in.
Strange and frustrating, but also cool.
The truth is that characters and stories do have lives of their own. Sure, they spring from us, but as we create these people, through the weird alchemy of the creative process they develop personalities and traits and ways of behaving that make them uniquely who they are. And as we invent these tales they begin to unfold in their own bespoke worlds that have their own bespoke logic and their own bespoke rules that govern them just like the laws of physics govern our world. They also develop narrative structures that, once established, demand to be followed, as well as themes that demand to be explored.
When those characters behave the way we need them to and when the stories go in the directions we want them to go, there’s no problem. It’s harder when the characters can’t or won’t do what we want them to because to do so would not be true to who they have become. Or when the ways we want to take the stories violate the logic and rules of their worlds, run counter to their theme, or undermine their overall structure. When that happens, we can’t force our imaginary people to act against their nature any more than we can force real people to. If we did, the result would be characters who are inauthentic and unbelievable, in the same way that people in the real world act when they pretend to be someone they are not. In the same vein, we can’t create incidents or plot developments that violate the tenets of a story’s invented world just as we can’t violate the laws of physics in our own. Nor can we take the plot in directions that counter the story’s themes or violate its narrative structure, lest it collapse into incoherence.
As a writer, when our characters and stories won’t go where we want them do, it is not our job to force them to. Instead, it is our obligation is follow them where they want to take us – to go where the script takes us. This can be difficult, because it requires us to rethink and rework our plots, which is never an easy task and can frequently lead to frustration, feelings of inadequacy (“Why am I not smarter?”) and a great deal of pounding of heads against walls (“Why can’t I figure this out?”). It can also be painful, because it may require us to cut favorite scenes and sequences and eliminate cherished concepts, themes, and plot points. This was what my consulting client was struggling with – he loved his ending and was trying to hold onto it even though it no longer fit the script as it had become.
As challenging and painful and difficult as this can all be, it’s actually a sign that you’re doing something right. If your story and characters are going places you never expected, that means that your work has come to life – that it’s become a vital, living organism – and that’s a good thing. Formulaic characters and stories are easy to write, but they are also usually pretty flat, uninspired, and uninteresting. Living scripts are much harder to write, but they also have a much greater chance of being exciting, energetic, and compelling. And that’s ultimately what we’re all after, isn’t it?
If your script is trying to lead you someplace, let it. Chances are it will be much better than your original destination.
Copyright © 2021 by Ray Morton
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