Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Editing Of Story, Narrative Exhaustion, And Using Your Voice

Story Editing. I do a fair bit of it, though what I do exactly is still a question I hear often...especially when it comes to editing feature screenplays. You see, since there aren't really any 'studios' in Canada per say, our funding agencies allow for a producer or in some cases even a writer to hire a senior screenwriter or story editor to give notes and feedback to help guide a script to a place where it can successfully be optioned, sold, or produced. I believe it was John Rogers who once said: "In Hollywood we call that 'lunch'."

Currently I have six screenplays on my plate...all different writers, all different genres, all at various stages of development, all needing unique thoughts, notes, suggestions, and advice. It can be a little overwhelming keeping track of each of them, kind of like showrunning an anthology TV series but without the deadline of 'it shoots tomorrow'.

So what do I do. I collaborate, to a point, but mostly just guide the writer, and help them shape their story into a screenplay until it starts to feel like a 'movie'. That may sound obvious, but there is a real fine line between a story told in a hundred pages in 12 point Courier and script that reads like a that's arrived at the 'almost a blueprint' place. I don't want to write it for them, but assist them to find the most efficient and effective way to tell the tale they want to tell, while always keeping in mind the audience for the story, and the potential ways to fund or finance said project.

There's a rather dry but fairly complete overview of the gig HERE. And last month Trevor Cunningham laid out in his own indomitable style how he works/writes, and sent some love my way. Go read about his method (and madness?): Part I and specifically Part II (working with a story editor).

Anyway, so much of successful story editing depends on 'getting' the story, and connecting with and establishing a trustful bond with the writer. They need to believe you are nudging their idea in the proper direction. But it can be tricky business, especially when you consider the 'narrative exhaustion' we as writers AND viewers feel these days, or so says screenwriter Paul Schrader in the Irish Times:

For a storyteller, it (narrative exhaustion) means that’s it is increasingly difficult to get out in front of a viewer’s expectations. Almost every possible subject has not only been covered but covered exhaustively. How many hours of serial killer plot has the average viewer seen? Fifty? A hundred? He’s seen the basic plots, the permutations of those plotlines, the imitations of the permutations of those plotlines and the permutations of the imitations. How does a writer capture the imagination of a viewer seeped in serial killer plot? Make it even gorier? Done that. More perverse? Seen that. Serial killer with humour? Been there. As parody? Yawn. The example of the serial killer subgenre is a bit facile, but what’s true for serial killer stories is true of all film subjects. Police families? Gay couples? Corrupt politicians? Charming misfits? Yawn, yawn, yawn.

This becomes painfully clear to any writer who attempts to orally tell his story (screenwriting is closer to the oral tradition than it is to literature). You start to tell a story, try to catch the listener’s attention, then watch as Ollie Overwhelmed packages your story and places it in a box. He has seen so much storyline that he has the boxes already prepared. Just drop quote marks around the premise and file it: oh, that’s the “two couples on a road trip” movie or the “six men in a lifeboat” film. I know that film. Ollie’s mind operates like that of story editor. “And then he goes to her place,” you the screenwriter say, “and he finds her hanging naked from a hook in the bathroom,” Ollie the listener thinks: I know that film.

Read the rest of this interesting article HERE.

Shrader's right, it's a bitch battling those boxes...especially when grasping for common ground to not only bond with the writer you're story editing but also to try to give tried and true examples of directions their story could go. And therein lies the rub...sometimes the way a story should go is the predictable and familiar route. I'm not a big fan of breaking the rules just to be different, or I feel you should at least feel know the rules and be able to tell a coherent accessible entertaining story first, then you can go off and mess with the mold.

It's really difficult to be original these days, and there are only so many ways to skin a cat (or save the cat even - sad news indeed), or tell a story as it were. But sometimes the best way to tell your tale is by fitting it into those boxes Schrader references...because that's the right way to tell it. Then you can try to combat some of the exhaustion of narrative that exists out there by going back and finding a unique spin for some of the ingredients (characters, locations, dialogue, etc.) within each box in an effort to make it feel more original. That's where 'style' and 'voice' come into play.

Your voice battles narrative exhaustion, and that's something a story editor can't give you notes just gotta have it.

1 comment:

ron oliver said...

very interesting piece here Will -- and something i've battled with as a writer from time to time. Constantly fighting "the box" leaves one almost inert; i think quite correctly you've stated here the most successful films we see are the ones that are well "inside the box" but the characters, the location, the style of story telling are in fact well "outside" that same box.

nicely put....