The Novice Screenwriter Refuses to Conform

by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, June 2003
As a novelist, occasional poet and a writer of quite a few short stories, I've developed some good working practices, learned to use and stimulate my subconscious, acquired skills of rewriting and reasonably objective self-appraisal. I've discovered when to use heart/gut/sexuality-driven writing, when to apply a slightly harder left-brain control.

I've managed to learn the difference between shooting off driven by an idea so vague that of course it's brilliant, and deliberately allowing myself free writing, uncontrolled moments, even writing while drunk, over-tired or just being plain perverse, deliberately un-writing, unplotting, trying to disturb the various grooves I've been working in and stop them becoming ruts.

When I began writing I thought rewriting was cheating -- that genius was supposed to be instantaneous and complete, that great art came fully-formed. It took twenty years of scratching, showing only faint flashes of talent and then more then five years of concentrated work to discover that my early entrenched beliefs were amateur, naive, maybe self-indulgent, certainly egoistic and that I did need to read more, did need to think, to consider, and perhaps, plot, plan, outline, test and so on.

So, from being a total one-draft, seat-of-the-pants writer, I changed. I did not change completely but I became aware at least that some control, some pre-thinking was not negative or anti-art, nor did it necessarily threaten originality. I learned that this was a necessary part, separating the vague lights (somehow always the brightest and most attractive) from the dimmer, less alluring, but often ultimately more illuminating quiet candles in the darkness, the ones that were precious, delicate at first, but ultimately capable of creating true substance, sharp light, deep shadows, permanence, color.

So I learned to be a little more serious about what I wanted to do and I redesigned (pretend for a minute) what kind of writer I was. Except of course, I didn't. If I'm a wholist, I'm a wholist; serialist, serialist. Once an idiot, always. well you get the picture. What I discovered -- and this is as ill-defined as this essay -- was that in the actual writing of a piece I worked as a serialist, more or less, working ABC through to Z and that I did not work well with a concrete whole view, a proper outline.

At the same time I discovered I needed some kind of overall view, a feel, a sense, a vague encompassing plan. I needed a wholist plan, but not detail. I needed to know everything but nothing of the finished piece, to have a sense of the whole, not vague, but undelineated, not intellectually tamed. It was gut-feel, accent, tone, point-of-view, but very real.

Now, just like this essay would be utterly different if I outlined it, so many of my shorts and novels might superficially have better structures if I planned them. But I learned that anything too rigid, too planned, anything too formalized, too detailed, too worked-at, was the death of meaning for me. Writing an outline made me ordinary, samey. Even if I managed to fill in the skeleton, and get published, I wasn't producing stuff which came from the deep places, stuff which surprised, excited, disturbed me or readers. If I worked like this I might produce The Bill but not LA Confidential.

So gradually I learned what "gestation" was (four kids too late!) and I learned something about the things in me that made me want to write, why I thought X, wanted to say Y. I bought white-boards, one for downstairs, one for upstairs, and ding!! Ideas went on there, not detailed, not expanded, not thought out -- commonly a word, a phrase, very rarely more, just enough so that I knew the kernel of the idea was "safe".

These snippets were saying to me, "I want to be a story" but now I realized that which story, what kind of story, what theme, what meaning, exactly what resonance, was also bubbling under, and that was my key to the kingdom, that was what I needed to coax to the surface.

It was my SFW, my so f---ing what, the thing in me that made the incident ring a chord within, suggest some extra meaning, something to say. And the story's "why" is not to be pushed or pulled, it has to be coaxed out or allowed to float to the surface. I had to discover the answer to SFW without imposing my superficial self which is all falseness and trickery and masks.

An aside -- or is it an example? I might get an image or insight -- the moment when the relationship started to end -- a girlfriend walking one yard behind on the way to passport control. Now I can see-hear-feel-smell a story, it's about how leaving a family (wife, kids, responsibility) is almost always dooming; there is too much baggage, especially guilt and remorse. But this is plot or substance, the chemical substrate of the work, not the work, not the meaning.

Now I can force this story (and I have) and pop out with a competent piece, but, because I pushed too early I ended up with more-of-the-same writing. Even with super images, good style, great dialogue, it's ordinary.

The core meaning, the message, the theme, the lingering memory of the piece, there's nothing there, it's just another guy's left his wife. The nuclear core, the real meaning fails the SFW question. I mean, are we surprised that a guy leaves home and then misses his kids?

But if I wait. If I let this image live in me and breathe and whisper, if I let its personal power begin to beat -- yeah I know there's some autobiography here, some flashes of my life, the lives of friends, six vital seconds from Casablanca put through the filter of Star Wars but distorted by reading Chekov -- if I wait and I don't lose the kernel, then sometimes I discover there is a deeper, more real, more scary (repressed?) story underneath.

Is the writer secretly glad that his girlfriend is walking behind? Is he punishing her for making him feel guilty, is he punishing himself? And is that because she's the best lay he's ever had and he can't handle it, or is it because she's Church of England and he's a Catholic? Perhaps he's a misogynist, or maybe a latent homosexual, maybe both or neither. Maybe he wants to hurt.

Now I would never directly ask these questions, never push the thought or pull so blatantly. The moment I do this I produce psychoanalytical rubbish, pseudo stuff, trite (like the preceding paragraph!) Instead, I have to feel the story. Here I may sound full of arti-farty literarti bull, but learning to sense the deeper story, to feel the real core was the key for me, the moment when I began to write less conventionally, to go deeper, be braver.

I had discovered that outlining, control, left-brained thinking, was all Anglo-Saxon missionary position stuff producing competent, mechanical writing. And now I'd discovered that taking on the search for meaning too crudely produced competent but superficial meanings and themes. I had learned that the driving forces, the germs, had to be allowed to fester, a little rot was good for me, I had to let the cancer develop, I had to be patient.

If, say, the inner thing was latent homosexuality: well, the fact is it's not called latent for nothing! A head-on questioning would not reveal this. But what is suppressed or difficult to bring out, well, that's where the power lies, where the bigger truths reside. If I just write, or bung out a filled outline everything is level one, in the case of this story, boring eternal triangle stuff.

If I try a little harder, ask the questions, maybe if I'm persistent I might get some level 2 or 3 response, "Ah, he doesn't really like women, which is why he always leaves them, learns to hate the next one too." But the psyche isn't stupid, it knows people probe. These answers are the ones it gives when we pretend to get at the truth. The psyche knows that sometimes we'll try to go beyond the obvious. It has plenty of bull in reserve. I liken it to the dance of the seven veils. A lot of writing doesn't lift a veil, and fully clothed the dancer is just another dancer. Level two is a trick too, the psyche only pretending to let you in on a secret. But level three? Maybe things are getting interesting, and four, five, six? Now we have some real stuff.

So I wait. Every day I see my white boards. Once I had the line, "There are more plastic flamingos in the world than real ones." Or it reads "LMF" "Pigeons-allotments", "Porno-Magazine-teardrop", "Magic Visa Card".

Every time these basic prompts are noted, each of them is vibrated internally, re-energized, and all these deep ideas, grow, cross-fertilize, deepen, thicken, smatterings of Shakespeare collide with a Benneton advertisement or a sit-com, and a shard flies out, into the growing story.

But then the idea feels as if it's coming to the surface. This can be an awkward time, like trying to tame a wild animal. I may need to use the idea, but I still can't force it. Here I resort to a bottle of wine and a hot bath (once upon a time it was a long run) and I begin to feel for the voice, the tone, the music, the point of view, the smell and taste of the opening page. Gently.

This is a certain mellow, detached, (shattered, drunk, whatever, is good) time when I look sideways at the emerging story but try not to "confront" it. I keep thinking around the idea, circling the fuzzy center, hearing voices, a character, an attitude and about now I try to hear openings -- still only in my head -- and here is where I realize that the opening voice I'm searching for, whether it's the soft Welshness of Ernie the Egg or the in-yer-face hack-hack-hack of Dirty Pictures is like a divining rod for the source.

When it starts to quiver, when it comes close, I just know. Everything is shimmering but then, when the music/tone/voice of the opening comes it gives me the vehicle and the route of the whole. Why? Because the story's core meaning demanded that opening, that particular approach and it came unforced.

The voice is like an echo of the deep purpose, the deep intent of the story. It "suits", it's right. I believe this happens because the writer is expressing the unarticulated deep sentiment through the voice which has emerged naturally as an echo or symptom of the deep sentiment. When this cuts in, the opening feels linked by an invisible thread to the right ending; a chord has been struck. Now I know all the story while knowing almost none of it. It feels complete and waiting, but as yet unexplored. I can't get to the computer quick enough now. I write fast, almost error-free in a burst of mental energy.

I was once attending a screenwriting course. I had a nice idea, one which is still on the back-burner even now. We were asked in class to talk about our ideas, and I did, politely, and typically vague. Oh great, said the teacher, yes! And the psychiatrist -- if she's a woman, then she could maybe be interested in Tom -- and the boy, Tom's son, he needs to be ill, but not too ill.

In minutes the class was a babble: "So the father could fall in love with the woman psychologist?" "So the boy, he's got an affliction, right? He's autistic, deaf maybe, but he's isolated."

What had been gestating, forming unusual or surprise connections, had, in these few minutes been hijacked. "Fly me to Hollywood," the class seemed to be saying, "or the cat gets it. Land at cliche airport, pick up your stock characters, then on to me-too land."

Thanks but no thanks, class. No way teach.

I hadn't wanted to talk like this. This was typical left-brained thinking. I was afraid, afraid, in particular, of writing cliché. But why? Because the work would fail to find a publisher? Because it would be too commercial and "beneath me", because it would not be literary enough?

Everyone had presumed that big business was the bad guy in my story. Isn't it always? But maybe I had a feeling, deeper inside, something about big business for once not being the big bad wolf. Maybe the boss of the invading company saw something more important, a bigger picture, and perhaps these so-called good guys were Luddites?

But, forced as I was to interact and expose my story, I had articulated stuff, pushed too early. I could see some definiteness and I didn't want it. Now I couldn't culture the germ, couldn't grow the story in the compost heap of my psyche. It was out in the glare of the sun, a very different flower.

Now I'm not a prima donna and I do need to produce work. I do produce as it happens and I don't procrastinate. but here I was working against the grain, against my natural and proven way of doing things. And I felt it acutely.

As it happens, about this time I was struck down by the flu and was unable to write. (Breathing was tough for a while). Well that was my excuse. In fact the small amount of screenplay produced was less due to this illness than due to a deep sense that the story wasn't ready to come out yet.

I was trying to forget. What follows is what I entered instead of the screenplay:

As can be seen from the first part of this essay, I didn't yet want to do more of this screenplay nor did I want to synopsize it. It's a hot day in Bath, I'm sitting outside Pizza Express with a whole bottle of wine to myself, intending to get slowly mellow. Maybe, maybe what follows will satisfy my examiners, maybe not. If not, then fail me, it's the screenplay which matters, not the MA.

Just because we have little paperwork, doesn't mean the screenplay isn't being worked. Frederick Forsyth wrote that he "worked" Day of the Jackal, exclusively in his head for many years before committing to paper. The physical writing took two weeks!

You see, half of me can feel a huge story here, the other half is scared to death of writing too early, too forced and producing a string of cliches.

When I think ahead I think in cliches, when I write with just a feel for the type of drama, I avoid them.

See? Should I sit and work through this, filter, alter, alter, or should I experiment more with the process, let the film evolve in the way I have managed for 60-70 short stories and five novels?

I know this film, but I'd rather not think of details. What I eventually produced came after a number of false starts but now the whole thing has been allowed to sink back into the morass of psychotic turmoil called my unconscious, it was beginning to feel powerful again.

I was back to feel, and tone and image and character.

The throb of a helicopter, a city river, we swoop, a dark, sexy commercial helicopter roaring up the river like a triumphant sperm. The cityscape here is medium and big buildings. We lift, soaring over a bridge, and there, we see it, where we are going, the Shark Building, name displayed, glorious!

Now the passengers, a handsome, dark-glassed exec pilot, his co-pilot, and behind, john shark, head of the corporation, older, intelligent, hard-nosed, and his female assistant, severe, early forties, maybe pretty once.
CUT TO

A city car jam, honking, a gleaming sports saloon, paul briggs, just-made-it-to-the-big-time lawyer. At first he's just another sheep in the ruck.

CUT TO (Paul's POV)

The helicopter zooms down the street silhouetted between buildings.

CUT TO

paul briggs sees a side-alley, turns down it, gunning the engine, being brave and resourceful, NOT one of the crowd. He slams down another side-street -- another -- emerges on a harbor road, then a service road and now, looming up ahead is the Shark Building. He smiles but it's non-committal, an unsure smile of mixed emotions

THROUGHOUT THE CREDITS, STIRRING MUSIC INTERCUT.

Now the mood and the music changes.

CUT/FADE TO.

Time spirals backwards. The building was not always here.
Nope. You're not having any more, because I won't think any more. The film is back in the cess-pit, still brewing.

And is there a happy ending? Remember I had said "The screenplay is more important than my MA." So the screenwriting tutor promptly failed me! I appealed, got a pass, eventually picked up my fancy degree, with a distinction, publishing some forty times along the way.

And the screenplay? Bubble, bubble.

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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