Story Editing Tip November 7, 2014

This is the kind of thing I often see in early drafts of scripts:

Several characters sit across a table from each other talking about how broke they are. Eventually the characters head outside for a walk through the woods or alley, largely because the writer knows they can’t sit in the kitchen forever. Outside, they argue about who’s fault it is they’re broke. Then, because we need another change of scene, they sit on the porch and argue even more loudly, revealing a long backstory about their mutual grievances.

scissorsFinally someone has an idea: They should rob a bank! So in the woods, on the porch, or back at the kitchen table, the characters plan the robbery, leaving no detail to chance. Finally they get in the car and rob the bank as planned—usually after the audience falls asleep.

How much more interesting would it be if, as the film opens, the characters are in a car driving to some unspecified place. They’re in the middle of an argument about whose fault it is they’re broke. The argument grows heated as the car makes a couple of turns—then stops. Your characters look out the window at something we don’t necessarily see. Without saying a word, they pull on masks and rush out. Only then do we realize that they’re going to rob a bank. Inside the bank, they’re back to arguing, guns drawn and grievances boiling as the customers cower.

Thing is, the writer has to get from A to B. In early drafts, a writer is almost always telling the story to herself. Her characters sit and talk, do a walk-and-talk, then sit and talk some more as the writer eavesdrops on their conversation. This is often the way the writer learns what’s going to happen in her script, whether the characters are going to rob a bank, conquer the universe or get laid, once or many times. All good, especially if the writer recognizes that it’s a very early draft and doesn’t show the script to anyone, calling in help only when it’s needed, and meanwhile getting the bank robbery underway early.

Yet in micro-budget films—which make up a sizeable percentage of films getting made these days—the writer feels she can’t afford to write much apart from characters sitting and talking, or walking and talking, preferably someplace free like the woods or an alley.

Two questions.

What can you do that’s cheap? What favours can you call in, what locations can you get? Does your brother-in-law’s cousin’s partner own a dog-racing track? A hot air balloon? How can you use that? Making it intrinsic to your characters and story.

Second question. How deep can you go?

By this I mean, how deep into the characters, since they’ll inevitably make the biggest impact. You need to make their issues utterly individual, detailed and unforgettable while, at the same time, ensuring that the audience recognizes them. They need to know these people. They need to be these people, and want to jump through the screen into the story giving your characters a good shake.

Like the Before and After Midnight series, writer/director Bill Taylor’s film Don’t Get Killed in Alaska is a demonstration of what you can do with a great script, wonderful actors and little else. As we open, Liney’s boyfriend Dan has screwed up a drug deal, and she’s using her savings to bail him out. But the dealers want more money, and Liney has to descend on to her scattered family to beg, borrow or steal what she can.

Tommie-Amber Pirie is Liney, a forthright, clear-sighted and secretly scared young woman confronting the realities of the modern world, which isn’t kind to girls, especially when they come from working class families. With a Canadian Screen Award nomination under her belt, Tommie-Amber is a rising star. Paired with Ben Lewis of Scott Pilgrim vs The World, she clashes with her mother, a home-care worker played by Rosemary Dunsmore, her ambitious brother, Rob (Gianpaolo Venuta) and finally her father, played by Oliver Dennis, one of the founders of Soulpepper Theatre.

For writers, it’s a demonstration of how much you can do with how little.

For film lovers, it’s opening this week at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto, playing for a week starting tonight, with both a matinee and a 7 pm showing each night.

Check it out.