Sunday, April 15, 2018

Diagnosing problem scripts

This is a repost from five years ago.  But it's a Friday Question worth an entire post and an encore:

It’s from Charles H. Bryan:

Are there times when you look at a script (yours or someone else's) and think "There's something missing, but I don't know what?" Or can you always pretty specifically nail down the problem?

I only wish in my dreams that I could detect all script problems and what the fixes are. But the truth is, there are plenty of times something’s not working and I’m completely stumped as to why.

This is another reason it’s good to have partners or a writing staff. And I’ll be honest, there have been many times during a rewrite when as a group we arrive at what we think is the problem, spend six hours rewriting, and then send the script to the stage not having a clue whether we really solved the problem or just did an alternate version. Generally, we’re right about 75% of the time. But once or twice a season we find ourselves right back at square one the next night.

Why do we find ourselves in these pickles? Because we strive to be original, tell stories in a fresh inventive way. If you just follow the same story structure week after week you rarely have these problems. Personally, I think the trade off is worth it. (Of course I say that now. Sitting in a rewrite at 5 A.M. I may not be such an artiste.)

On one show I worked on early in my career we would have a scene that didn’t work in a runthrough or a story that was problematic and one of our producers would say “Don’t worry. I got the fix.” So we would just move on to the next scene. Then we'd get back to room and say, “What’s the fix?” and he’d say, “Oh, I was just saying that so we could move along. I didn’t to stand on the stage debating this all day with the actors there.” We wanted to kill him… and then ourselves for letting him fool us again.

But if you find yourself in this situation, you can take great comfort in knowing you are not alone. Practically all writers face this, even the great ones.

In his autobiography, the great Neil Simon talks about mounting his classic play, THE ODD COUPLE. They had their original table reading before the first rehearsal and the first act played like gangbusters. Huge laughs all the way through. Same with the second. During the break before the third act, Walter Matthau (one of the stars) pledged to invest a lot of money in the play. it was a can't miss!  Then came the third act. Big laughs until the last scene and then it just died. Playwright Neil Simon and director Mike Nichols (no slouch himself) were stymied. Neil rewrote and they took the show out of town for tryouts.

Night after night the same thing would occur. Monster laughs until the last fifteen minutes. Neil and Mike would then sit in the hotel lobby staring at each other. They would decide on a course of action, Neil would sit up all night rewriting, and the next evening the new version would be presented to the audience. And the cycle would be repeated. Night after night after night.

Finally, a Boston critic casually mentioned he really liked the Pigeon sisters – two characters that appeared in a second act scene. He wished they had come back. A lightbulb went on. Yes! Bring the Pigeon sisters back.

Neil wrote them into the last scene and suddenly THE ODD COUPLE played through the roof. The rest is (Broadway, motion picture, and television) history.

When geniuses like Neil Simon and Mike Nichols can't put their fingers on a problem, what hope is there for the rest of us?  

So when you get stuck just know, there is no Dr. House for writing. At times we’re all Frank Burns.


Jeff Alexander said...

The late, great Billy Wilder once commented that if there is a problem in the third act, maybe the problem actually is in the first act.
I guess that isn't true in all cases. This apparently was one of them.
Wilder also commented that, as a director, never shoot a scene from the fireplace looking out -- that is from the point of view of Santa Claus.

E. Yarber said...

I've been on both sides of the situation, having gotten notes and written them.

I don't think it's ego talking when I say that in most cases the notes I've received have not been helpful. Generally, the reader is trying to reshape my work into something they're more comfortable with instead of trying to figure out what I was trying to say in the first place. For example, I once wrote a script in which a rather passive character was drawn to commit a horrible act of violence after being blocked at every other turn. I have actually seen people shot and stabbed, which has affected me deeply, and the story was my way of exploring how much it would take to make me personally commit such disgusting acts.

The reader, however, was approaching my work from an action film perspective, not direct experience. I was rather horrified to find that the ONLY thing he approved of in my lead was the bloody climax of the story. I'd considered this conclusion a total breakdown of the character, a failure. For him, the violence was cathartic, and he wrote, "At last this guy is finally DOING something." I'm sure he'd feel equally approving if someone actually did the same thing to him. The experience left me wondering if I had failed to make my point or needed to find someone with a broader view of storytelling than the formula to an entirely different genre of writing.

On the other hand, I've been lucky to give feedback to some incredibly talented writers, including a few Pulitzer-Prize winners. How do you deal with someone at the top of their profession? "Too many jokes, Mr. Simon"? "Lose the potty-mouth, Mr. Mamet"?

I don't try to second-guess major players, not because I'm a toad but because they don't need the sort of interference that studio executives inevitably feel they have to contribute. Writers are often blocked by the very process necessary to get the story to the point where they're locked up, following a specific line of narrative logic which seems to lead to a dead end. What I do is try to recreate and articulate that logical development, interpreting the work more than trying to rethink it.

In the case of THE ODD COUPLE, for example, the perceptive critic was able to point out a piece of the puzzle that had been introduced and set aside without really meeting the audience's expectations. Identifying that piece was all Simon needed to complete the work. He'd established a necessarily airtight conflict of the two leads which seemed impossible to break. The very strength of the setup made a satisfying conclusion maddeningly hard to find. The solution was to bring in an outside factor in order to change the logjam. If the Pigeon Sisters hadn't already been introduced, such a factor would seem contrived.

That's a perfect example of how a writer's logic can be perfectly sound in getting to the strongest possible narrative tension, yet leave them feeling stranded. The answer is not to fight that logic but understand how to take it a step further to its proper destination.

Dr Loser said...

Just a thought: name a piano (or violin, or even cello) concerto where you don't think ... "Hm. That third movement was a bit flat." Forty out of forty one Mozart piano concertos fit that description.

I suspect this is an inevitable part of writing anything other than an absolute classic, in any sense of "writing." In which case, a 75% rate of "dragging it back to acceptable" is, in fact, a triumph.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Once again you kept my walnut-sized brain from melting. Its such a relief to know that even the pro's have this problem. Even if you're just writing a sketch its sometimes impossible to figure out why some parts don't work. Yet, its also a little disheartening to know that that bloc is something you'll never get rid of. Now I know why so many writers DRINK!

Craig L. said...

I'm halfway surprised the theatrical trope known as "Chekhov's Gun" (if you introduce an element early on, it must come into play before the end) hasn't been renamed "Pigeon Sisters".

Pat Reeder said...

I have to throw in my favorite example of a play saved by an outsider pointing out the obvious that eluded the authors: in "Act One," Moss Hart describes the writing of "Once In A Lifetime," his first collaboration with comic genius and ultimate play doctor, George S. Kaufman. Neither of them could figure out why the play kept dying in the last act.

Finally, after another dismal tryout, the producer said to Hart, "This is the loudest goddam play I've ever produced. People are always running in and out and yelling. Nobody ever just sits down and talks it over." Realizing he was right, Hart put a pause in all the frenzied wackiness by inserting a quiet scene of two characters talking about what had happened and how it all went haywire. And that fixed it.

Buttermilk Sky said...

This is why almost every Shakespeare comedy ends with a wedding. He could never figure out the last act.

Charles H. Bryan said...

I used to ask worthwhile questions. What the heck happened to me?

Thanks again, Ken. I know that I speak for many of your readers/listeners when I say that it's always a kick to see a question used. Be well! How 'bout those Angels?

Filippo said...

The Odd Couple story shows how much creativity depends on occasion, that is how much it ‘happensʼ in a specific moment. You can prepare it, but you canʼt decide when it is.

Plus, it shows that it doesnʼt belong to anybody. Those who we call creative are just people who are preparing all sorts of rites (like dedicating their whole life to it) in order to summon it. Maybe a single person can come up with a good idea, but it seems to me that any great and wholesome work of art is rather a collaborative effort, even though many contributions donʼt get proper aknowledgement.

Another thing The Odd Couple story shows is how much a creative work is a living being on its own. It must have all its pre-intended parts in order to work. One has to respect it.
This means also that a creative perso, as it is, must serve it, not serve his or her own ego.
Works of art are pre-existing somewhere in the invisible. Our duty is just to find them and bring them out to the visible side of the world.