February 28, 2005

Character Counts

As you probably know by now, I want to be a screenwriter (among other things). The following post is about a very important aspect of writing that I learned over the past month. Because this is a discussion of my art, and some of you may not give a crap (and it's really long), I'll put it in the extended entry. But I have to share it, because it changed my entire perspective on fiction writing.

Click if you're interested...

Anyway, my birthday was last month, and my awesome parents sent me a copy of Final Draft as a present. This is the software the pros use, folks. It does all the script formatting for you so you can concentrate on the story. I was excited.

When I got some free time, I decided to install FD and take it for a spin. I didn't have any particular ideas in mind, so I just put two guys named Bob and Joe in a room and had them say some random lines. After a couple pages of stream-of-consciousness, I realized that there was a plot developing, so I kept it going and built on their characters until Bob and Joe were two unique individuals (Bob is a naïve, dumb guy, and Joe is a cynical, pessimistic guy). But I still wasn't done.

Over the last month, I've been adding more and more to this script that started out as a test run for my new software. Since the b@stards at SU decided that I should take a business class this semester instead of a writing or production class, it was my only creative outlet. I just finished it last night, and it's 97 pages long.

97 pages. That's about an hour and 40 minutes. In other words, I just finished my first full-length screenplay ever.

What does this have to do with anything, you ask? Let me explain. I've written a couple scripts before (and I posted two on the blog, if you feel like tracking 'em down), and I've enjoyed creative writing since...well, since I was able to pick up a pencil and make words with it, basically, but I've always done plot-based writing. I would come up with a story, plan the entire thing from start to finish, and then add a few characters as an afterthought. This made it really hard to keep the plot interesting, since I had to force all these fictional personalities into roles I had given them before they existed. But that's all changed now.

For this script, I had no expectations, and I had no idea that it would extend beyond a couple pages of random crap when I started, so I had no plot in mind. It was completely centered around the characters, their personalities, and their interactions with each other.

Did I mention that this was a comedy script? Before this thing, the only humor writing I did was satire. The closest I've come to something that could be considered genuine "comedy" is that weird Nigerian spam sketch I posted over the summer. But as the plot progressed and I added more characters, the jokes started writing themselves.

Read that again: The freakin' jokes were writing themselves.

I'm not sure how to explain it any other way. It's really something you have to experience to understand. See, I decided that I would just come up with characters and leave the plot to them, so I had no idea where the story would go. As a result, I was forced to actually think about character development, as opposed to my previous plot-centered style.

It changed everything.

I found that when you have strong characters, the clashes between their personalities and interests will create a humorous plot without much input. And these are good characters, in my opinion. For example, there's Joe's brother Jukebox, a white guy who talks in Ebonics and owns an airplane that he calls "Wings of Bling." There's also Howard U. Dewing, a businessman who owns a successful lumber company, and Leonard Blundersmythe, a jungle explorer.

This is good stuff.

Anyway, long story short, it's a month later, and these characters practically wrote the entire 97 pages for me. I did come up with a plot, but even after I did, they still surprised me. There's a huge twist near the end that I didn't even see coming until it happened. And I was the one writing the freakin' thing. But more importantly, the jokes were funny! I hardly ever laugh at my own writing, but these guys kept surprising me with comedy gold. It's a really weird experience, but it works.

So, I learned that character-based writing is the key, especially in a comedy like this. If you have really good characters, it's almost like you're writing a documentary. Instead of coming up with the entire plot, you're putting the characters in a situation and recording what happens to them. It saves time, it's more fun, and it's just plain better. I just wish I'd figured this out earlier in my writing career.

(By the way, I'll spare you the posting of the script unless you want to read something really, really weird. We're talking "Billy Madison" or "Family Guy" levels of weirdness here.)

Posted by CD on February 28, 2005 07:09 PM
Category: Writing
Semi-Intelligent Comments

Well? Let's have it!

Posted by: Army NCO Guy at February 28, 2005 07:56 PM

I'm really not sure you want that. Seriously. It's nothing like my usual writing, since the characters were basically coming up with their own lines, but if you can deal with a lot of R-rated humor (and about 70 F-bombs)...maybe I'll consider uploading it sometime.

I'm warning you though: It's very strange.

Posted by: CD at February 28, 2005 08:11 PM

So am I.

Posted by: Army NCO Guy at March 1, 2005 10:13 AM

I still don't know...here are some fun facts about the script:

- It contains, at my last count, about 160 obscenities.
- One of the major plot points involves trees with psychic powers.
- For about 1/3 of the screenplay, Bob is convinced that he's a character in "The Matrix."

...Seriously. I have no idea where this crap came from.

Posted by: CD at March 1, 2005 02:47 PM

Just a little hesitant CD? I think you should post it. We have fair warning about any obscenities that might, or likely won't offend us - and you're not forcing anyone to read it.
I second NCO Guy's "Let's have it!"

Posted by: Katherine at March 1, 2005 05:03 PM
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