In the classic adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark, intrepid archaeologist Indiana Jones is trying to discover the location of the lost Ark of the Covenant so he can gain possession of the supernaturally-powered object before a group of evil Nazis (and one evil Frenchman) can. Indy arrives in Egypt only to discover that the Nazis have apparently already determined where the Ark is buried and have begun an excavation to recover it. Indy is obviously disappointed to learn this until he and his friend and ally, Sallah, both realize that the Nazis have obtained incorrect co-ordinates for the Ark and so are excavating in the incorrect spot. Delighted, both Indy and Sallah exclaim in unison: “They’re digging in the wrong place!”
This scene comes to mind whenever I find myself trying to solve a seemingly unsolvable script problem.
Every screenwriter runs into problems when trying to craft a workable narrative – story elements that won’t gel, plotlines that hit a dead end, characters that won’t do what you want them to do, etc. These problems require lots of brainwork on the part of the writer to solve. Sometimes the solutions comes quickly – in minutes, hours, days. Sometimes they don’t.
When I first began writing, I would sometimes find myself stuck trying to solve script problems for days, weeks, months, and even years. On occasion I was so stuck that I abandoned (sometimes temporarily; sometimes permanently) entire scripts because I couldn’t solve a particularly vexing issue.
Over the years, however, I’ve learned a really valuable lesson: If I find that I’m stuck for more than a short time trying to solve a particular problem in a script (or a book or a column) I’m writing, it’s not likely that I’m stupid or untalented or a miserable fraud or any of those other things writers start thinking when they can’t figure out something that on the surface seems like it should be fairly easy to figure out. Instead, it’s likely I’m trying to solve the wrong problem – that I’m digging in the wrong place.
So, if I’m digging in the wrong place, then where is the right place? Well, it depends on what sort of problem you are trying to solve. There are three basic types of problems that dramatic writers tend to encounter:
1. The story won’t go where you want it to go.
2. A character won’t do what you want him/her to do.
3. An important concept or idea doesn’t fit easily into the story.
Therefore there are three basic “right places” to look for solutions:
If you are trying to get a story to go in a certain direction and you’re having trouble doing so, then the place to look is earlier in the story. The great Billy Wilder once said “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.” He is correct (he’s Billy Wilder– of course he’s correct). Every fictional dramatic story exists in its own unique world. The rules by how that world operates and the narrative develops within it are established in the story’s first act, as is the starting point for the story’s narrative trajectory.
Dramatic storytelling is a progressive process. You begin in a certain place and then each scene moves the narrative forward. Each new scene builds on all the preceding ones. So if you reach a point in your story where you can’t get it to move forward in the direction you want, it is likely you are trying to advance the story in a way that violates the rules you set up back at the beginning. Or that you are trying to send the plot on a trajectory that doesn’t conform to the one launched in the first act. So the place to dig is Act I.
If your story’s not working, go back to the first act and change the rules or the narrative’s launch point. Or else leave Act I alone and take your story in a different direction than the one you were initially planning.
Like a story’s rules and launch point, a character’s traits, opinions, principles, and capabilities are established in Act I (or, for supporting characters or bits, at whatever point in the story the character is introduced) and must develop in accordance with those established elements. So if your character won’t do what you tell him (one of the stranger bits of screenwriting alchemy is that quite often fictional people you make up at some point refuse to do what you want them to), odds are that you are trying to make the character behave in some way that is contrary to who that character has been established to be. To solve the problem, either go back to Act I and change who the character is – give her/him the traits, attitudes, or abilities that will allow them to do what you want them to do – or else change what it is you are trying to get the character to do.
If you’re having trouble getting a certain idea or a certain concept (a plot point, a scene, a character) to work in your story, the question to ask yourself probably isn’t “How do I get this to work?” but rather “Does this belong in the script at all?”
When a writer first begins a script, s/he comes up with lots and lots of ideas that s/he is eager to feature in the piece. Usually all of those ideas go into the initial vomit draft, which in most cases is an unwieldy, unfocused mess. As rewrites proceed, the narrative, characters, and themes are pared, honed, shaped, and focused. As the piece becomes sharper, there may no longer be a place for some of those original ideas. However, writers are often reluctant to give up on a cherished concept, especially if it’s one of the seminal ones that got them going on the script in the first place (it’s another one of those weird quirks of screenwriting that quite often the idea from which the script originally sprung often turns out to be irrelevant to the final product) and so will often twist their narratives into impossible pretzels to accommodate these beloved bits.
If you find yourself having to contort your plot into shapes not found in nature to incorporate a specific element, then the problem probably lies with the element and not the story. At that point, the solution is to follow the time-honored writing dictum to “kill your darlings” and cut it.
So if you get stuck while you’re writing, don’t give up. Instead, solve your problem by digging in the right place. If you do, hopefully you’ll find the Ark. Just don’t let it melt your face off.
Copyright © 2020 by Ray Morton
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