To say I’m busy at the moment is UNDERSTATEMENT OF THE YEAR, but there will plenty of exciting news from Bang2write Towers in the near future… In the meantime I’d like to leave you in the very capable hands of Script Consultant Pippa Best, who is discussing the power of the right question. Enjoy!
I think the most exciting part of my job is finding the right questions to ask writers, and then going on to discover the answers together.
My questions aren’t trying to catch you out, test you, or scare you. Instead, the right question can prompt a new idea (of staggering genius, hopefully) or a clever solution to an impossible problem. It can help you discover a fresh perspective on your work that helps you move forward.
(And just so you know, the right question is NEVER going to be “what on earth possessed you to think anyone would want to read this abomination…?”)
A good editor won’t say, “No one will know what the hell’s going on in scene 12, your characters are talking rubbish here”. We assume the writer knows what’s going on (consciously or otherwise) and that’s our starting point. If we don’t understand what the characters are saying, we need to find out why.
We’re more likely to say “In scene 12, what do you want the audience to understand about these characters’ relationship, and how can we hone that further?” We might reflect our interpretation back to the writer too, “The dialogue implied this was their first meeting, but the action hinted at some previous physical intimacy – did you want the audience to think they’re secretly shagging?”
Comparing my interpretation of a scene with the writer’s original intention always prompts useful questions. And equally often, that discussion takes us somewhere neither of us expected.
Questions are softer and much more useful than statements or opinions. They prompt discussion. They start from the basis that the writer knows more than the editor about this story. The editor may be perceptive, with a Mary Poppins’ bag of theory and story tricks, but we know that the writer has the answers – and it’s our job to help them find them.
So where do we find these pertinent questions? Well, firstly, we take as much time as it needs to read a screenplay carefully, (that’s at least twice…)
The first read, I experience it as a film – I ‘see’ it. Afterwards, I capture my instinctive responses. I analyse this – what I understood, where I cried, laughed, what I felt about that character. I start to think about the questions I’m left with.
The second read, I try to interpret the writer’s intentions, and monitor my interpretations of every little action, word or image. I note down queries as I go. Why does that character do that then? Why do we shift perspective there? What happens to that story-line or character journey?
In addition to these specific questions, there are some questions that come up again and again – here are a few of those for you to ponder:
• What does your lead character want (externally) and need (internally) – and how does the audience come to understand that?
• What do you want the audience to feel at the end of this scene/sequence/film?
• What message/idea/question do you want your audience to take away from this film?
• What most interests you about that character? How can we share that with the audience?
• What’s stopping that character from getting what they want, and how does facing that obstacle change them?
• How can that moment become more visual?
Ask yourself how these questions might apply to your screenplay. Do you know all the answers? Would your audience? How…?
It’s your screenplay, not the editor’s. We don’t know the answers to our questions. All we can do is share our experience and our big bag of story tools as we chip away at the question together. Most of all, we want an inspiring conversation that will help you to find the answers yourself.
So what will that nice editor ask you about your story?
Pippa Best’s short course, Screenwriting Story Workout: For Writers and Developers takes place from 12 – 16 July in Falmouth, Cornwall.
The Story Workout offers 2 programmes – one for writers and one for those who work with them (editors, producers, developers): inspiring, focused development of your skills and knowledge, active work on individual projects, and professional guidance from industry tutors. For more information, visit University College Falmouth or Pippa’s own website.