Thursday, May 17, 2012

How to Re-Write, Part 6: Pair Off Your Problems

It’s important to get lots of notes piled up before you start fixing any of them individually.  The danger is that you’ll deal with notes one by one, adding dozens of “fixes” to your screenplay that don’t integrate with each other or the story as a whole.  

For example, let’s look at my old series The Meddler, where I suggested fixes for problematic screenplays and books.  In each of these cases, I suggested ways to fix two huge problems with one simple change:
  1. In The Ghost Writer, We never get to see the supposed charm or Brosnan’s Tony Blair-like character, and McGregor’s hero is a passive protagonist who doesn’t really care about the mystery.  If we saw Brosnan charmingly seduce McGregor into joining his cause, then the revelation of Brosnan’s lies would feel like a personal betrayal and give McGregor a stronger motivation to investigate. 
  2. The title character in Hugo has no reason to assume that the automaton will have a message for him, and his good father and bad uncle are inert characters who serve overly-similar roles in the narrative.  If they were combined into one complex father-figure who lies to Hugo about the automaton, his quest would have more motivation, it would be more touching, and the backstory would be more streamlined.
  3. In “Harry Potter” Book 4, Hermione’s “pet cause” of freeing the house elves is too awkward, and it’s weird that the kids suddenly stop caring that Sirius Black was falsely accused.  It would be more streamlined and compelling if her pet cause was a new trial for Sirius Black. 
  4. In “Harry Potter” Book 5, the flashes of Voldemort’s doings that Harry gets are overly convenient, and his Occlumency classes are too passive. Instead of merely trying to block out Voldemort, if Harry was being trained to pry into Voldemort’s mind, then he can actually earn the useful flashes he gets, and feel more culpable when it turns out that Voldemort has been trapping him as well.
Don’t just dive in and start fixing your problems one by one.   First make a list of every problem, then brainstorm a list of dozens of possible solution to each problem.  Truly brainstorm: If you’re trying to avoid the dumb solutions, you’ll block up your mind.  When you write your worst ideas down, either you’ll realize they’re not so dumb, or you’ll spot how to improve them, or you’ll open up a blocked neural pathway and discover a better solution hidden behind the dumb one. 

Now you have dozens of problems and dozens of possible solutions for each one.  Scan through them all to find those solutions that will eliminate multiple problems.  What if the person trying to kill them was changed from an angry postal worker to a corrupt cop?  That would explain why they can’t go the police and also how the killer was able to identify to track them down (by using their fingerprints).

Now you’ve got a list of fixes that are each doing double-duty, but you’re nevertheless going to be making a lot of changes.  How do you keep track of them all?  Tomorrow we’ll look at what happens when you start rolling a snowball down a mountain…

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