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When I first started thinking about writing this book, I wanted to find some kind of tool that the screenwriter could use in order to recognize and define various problems of screenwriting. But as I began writing, I became aware that I was really writing about the solutions to various problems, and not really identifying them. It just didn't work. So I began to rethink my approach. To solve any kind of a problem means you have to be able to recognize it, identify it, and then define it; only in that way can any problem really be solved.
The more I began thinking about the "problem," the more it became clear that most screenwriters don't know exactly what the problem really is. There's a vague and somewhat tenuous feeling somewhere that something is not working; either the plot is too thin or too thick; or the character is too strong or too weak; or there's not enough action, or the character disappears off the page, or the story is told all in dialogue.
So I began analyzing the Problem-Solving process. The only way I could make this book work, I realized, was to recognize and define the various symptoms of the problem, very much the way a medical doctor isolates the various symptoms of his patients before he can treat the disease. When I approached the Problem-Solving process from this point of view (and it is a process), I began to see that there's usually not just one symptom, but many symptoms. It soon became clear that many of the problems in screenwriting share the same symptoms, but the problems themselves are different in kind; only when you analyze the context of the problem can a distinction be made, and it is those distinctions that lead us on the path of recognizing, defining, and solving. For the truth is that you can't solve a problem until you know what it is.
With that in mind I began to understand that there are only three distinct categories of The Problem; when you're writing a screenplay, all problems spring either from Plot, Character, or Structure.
The art of Problem Solving is really the art of recognition.
You can look at any problem in two ways: the first is to accept the fact that a problem is something that doesn't work. If that's the case, you can avoid it, deny it, and pretend it doesn't exist. That's the easy way.
But there's another way of approaching the problem, and that's to look at any creative problem as a challenge, an opportunity for you to expand your screenwriting skills.
They are really both sides of the same coin. How you look at it is up to you.
"The World is as you see it."
The Art of Problem Solving
A few weeks ago, during one of my screenwriting workshops, a student turned in some pages from her screenplay with a somewhat worried and concerned expression on her face. I didn't say anything, I simply took the pages and read them.
The scene she had written took place at the beginning of the Second Act, as the main character, a lawyer, is investigating the mysterious and unexpected death of her mother, who had died while recovering from a simple surgical procedure in the hospital.
Stunned and grieving, she is trying to find out why her mother had suddenly died, but no one has any answers, and no one is talking. The doctors placate her, the nurses know nothing, and the hospital administrator is concerned and suggests she join a grieving group. Her grief turns to anger, and she's determined to find out what happened. Pursuing lead after lead, she manages to locate one of the nurses who had taken care of her mother right before she died. The nurse had mysteriously quit the hospital a few days after the mother's death, had changed her address and literally disappeared. But through her own persistence, and some lawyer friends, she manages to track the nurse down. And now, she's going to talk to her. This was the scene my student had just written. As I read her pages, I began to get some insight into why she appeared to be concerned about it. She had written the scene like an interrogation; the main character questions the nurse, who is reluctant to say anything about her mother's death.
This was an important scene, and it had to be handled in such a way that it both moved the story forward and revealed information about the main character. She's tough, feisty, and smart, and she's not just going to accept what happened, but she's determined to find out why it happened. And this scene is the first real clue the main character has which confirms her suspicion that some kind of cover-up is going on. Somebody made a mistake here, and because of it, her mother is dead.
I waited until the people in the class had finished reading the pages, then I turned to the young woman who had written the scene, and asked, "What do you think?"
She was very quick to answer. "I think something's wrong," she said, "it just doesn't feel right."
She was right. She had a problem.
Problems are common in screenwriting. The old expression "Writing is rewriting" is very true. But in my experience there are two ways you can look at a problem:
The first is to say that a problem is something that doesn't work. Very simple.
The second way is to say that a problem is an opportunity, a challenge that will allow you to ultimately improve your craft of screenwriting. Two different points of view. But any way you look at it is the same: a problem becomes the fuel of creativity. You either view it as an obstacle or an opportunity; either a problem is something that doesn't work, or an opportunity for you to move up to another level.
It's up to you.
For some people the simple knowledge that they have a problem in their script can create a panic attack; it's a horrible, much-to-be-dreaded experience.
I have traveled all over the world conducting screenwriting seminars and workshops, and I hear the same thing in country after country; screenwriters describe their scripts in terms of the problems they are encountering. "Well," they say, "my problem is that my structure's not working," or "my character's weak," or "the dialogue's flat."
And I tell them there are no problems, there are only solutions. They laugh at that, because they think I'm kidding. But I'm not.
I think what scares most screenwriters, or anyone for that matter, is that most of the time they know there's a problem, they just don't know what it is. They can't define or describe it. It exists only as a vague sense of discomfort, an imprecise dissatisfaction, a knot in the gut or a lump in the throat. My student knew, or felt, she had a problem with these pages, she just didn't know what it was. The art of Problem Solving means being aware of those hazy and undefined feelings, and using them as some kind of a guide to lead you into an examination of the cause or source of the problem. The art of problem solving is really the art of recognition.
In my student's case the main character, the lawyer, has knocked and entered, and she and the nurse have a dialogue scene. The scene was smooth and well written, but the overall effect was really somewhat dull and boring. Basically, talking heads. That's not screenwriting. That's playwriting. There was no sense of threat, no tension. And when I read pages that are slow and boring, the first thing I do is look for the source of conflict. And in these pages there was hardly any conflict at all.
I wanted to find out what her feelings were about the scene, so I looked at her for a long moment, and then asked, "What do you think?"
"I think something's wrong," she replied, "something's just not working."
"Like what?" I said, wanting to get specific.
"Oh, I don't know. It just feels like there's something wrong."
"So what do you think it is?" I persisted.
She thought about it for a moment, then said, "I think it's soft; it feels fuzzy."
Soft and fuzzy. That's a pretty accurate description. It lets you know that something's not working as well as you think it should. And if you don't pay attention to that little "itch," that little "soft and fuzzy" feeling, the chances are it could evolve into a much larger problem later on.
Writing a screenplay is such a specific and demanding craft that when something doesn't work, whether a scene, or sequence, or character, it casts a long shadow across the page. It becomes the seed that will erupt into a full-blown problem later on. So it's important to catch and take note of these symptoms as they occur.
If you feel you have a problem, and can't articulate or define it, there's not much you can do to fix it. That's just a natural law. You can't fix something if you don't know what's wrong with it.
When you get down to it, the art of problem solving is the art of recognition. And it is a definite skill that relies on the writer's sense of recognition and self-awareness. If you feel there's a problemmaybe the script is too long, too talky, or the characters are too weak or too thinwhat can you do to fix it?
Nothing. At least not until you can accurately describe it. Until you know what the problem is, all you can do is piddle around with it; you can't fix something until you know what's wrong with it. There are many screenwriters who piddle around with a problem without fixing it, and it will probably remain as one of those scenes that never seem to work, no matter what you do. And you just let it go and hope no one notices it. It happens all the time. The ostrich syndrome.
But if you know how to define and articulate the problemmaybe the main character is too passive and seemingly disappears from the action, or is too unsympathetic, or maybe the dialogue's too directyou've got a handle on it and you can solve it to the best of your ability.
So, in this process of what we call problem solving, how do we go about fixing "soft and fuzzy"?
First, define the problem. That means generally rethinking the material. Go back into the material; analyze your intentions. What is the purpose of the scene? Why is it there? What is the character's dramatic needwhat does your main character want to win, gain, get, or achieve during the course of the screenplay?
It's usually something that can be described fairly simply; in Thelma & Louise (Callie Khouri) it is their need to escape safely to Mexico. In Dances With Wolves it is John Dunbar's dramatic need to go to the farthermost edge of the frontier and adapt to the ways of the land and the people.
So, what is your character's dramatic need? Define it within the context of the scene. If you can illuminate this dramatic needeither through action or dialogueyou gain more subtext and texture, and thus add more dimension to the scene.
The first step in Problem Solving means to rethink the needs of a scene; you must take it apart in order to isolate and define the emotional forces working on, and within, the dynamic of the scene. The scene is the living cell, the hub of dramatic action, and serves two basic functions in the screenplay. One, the scene moves the story forward; or, two, reveals information about the main character. These two elements of story and character must be served in each and every scene, visually, if possible. Look at any scene in any screenplay, study any movie, and see whether this is true or not. It's very common to read the pages of a screenplay and find pages and pages of extraneous scenes devoted to incidents or encounters that have absolutely nothing to do with the story line.
By definition, a screenplay is a story told in pictures, in dialogue and description, and placed within the context of dramatic structure. This is something I never get tired of repeating, because for some reason we always seem to forget it. Each scene always has to move the narrative line forward, from beginning to end, beginning to end, even though it's not necessarily in that order, as illustrated by Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino), or Courage Under Fire (Patrick Shane Duncan), or The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, beautifully adapted from the book by Michael Ondaatje).
The scene my student wrote, which she could only describe as being "soft and fuzzy," is really a key scene that moves the story forward. But the way she wrote it was not sharp enough; the dialogue was too nice, too direct; there was no tension, no subtext working, and it washed out. There was not enough definition or dimension in it. So I had her redefine the character's dramatic need. In this particular scene the character's dramatic need is to find out any information she can about her mother's sudden and mysterious death. Was there any wrongdoing? A mistake of some kind? Why did the nurse suddenly quit and leave the hospital? Is there a cover-up going on? What's happening here?
These are all important questions within the context of the scene. And context, remember, is the space that holds something in place. It is the space inside the glass that holds the contentwater, coffee, tea, milk, beer, soft drink, grapes, nuts or raisins, whateverin place. The space inside the glass does not change: it holds the content together. It is the gravity of the scene; it is context.
I knew my student had to make the scene sharper, more defined, with more tension, and the only way to do that was by generating more conflict. So I made some suggestions: maybe the nurse is not at home when the main character arrives. Maybe the first thing she has to do is wait. Maybe in her car. Maybe a couple of hours. This provides a back story to the scene. It lets the character enter the scene with some built-in tension.
So let's add some more conflict. The main character has had to wait a couple of hours. So what else can we do to create conflict in the scene? What if the nurse has a boyfriend, and maybe the guy's not too bright and he lets the main character, the lawyer, into the apartment before the nurse arrives home. He assumes they're friends. So she could already be in the house when the nurse arrives home. These elements would add a great deal of conflict to the scene. The nurse arrives home, she's pissed at her boyfriend for letting a stranger, the lawyer, in, and we can see by her defiance and attitude that she's frightened. For sure this woman knows what happened to the character's mother and does not want to say anything about it, for whatever reason. Maybe she's even preparing to leave town. But she's tough and doesn't want to give anything away.
What does that do to the scene? Obviously, it sharpens the dramatic forces within it. What had been soft now shows more potential for tension and conflict; there's an edge to it.
And there's a way to get even more out of the scene; throughout this book I'm going to be referring to the value of writing short essays about your story and characters, defining and expanding events and relationships. Even though the nurse