Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Emotional Structure

The hot weather is forcing me to adjust my schedule. Normally I do errands in the early afternoon, but this morning I hit the library as soon as it opened, then got to the bank, a couple of shops and the grocery store in time to get home and exercise for an hour before lunch. Now I can focus on work the rest of the day.

I've just read yet another writing book that has stuff I may try to incorporate into my process. One of the weaknesses I've identified is that I don't handle emotions well or omit the emotional response from scenes that should be emotional (probably because I, myself, tend to go into totally calm robot mode in a crisis. That is my emotional response, but not every character reacts that way, and it's hard to convey that on paper without making it look like a lack of a response). So, I found a book called Emotional Structure by Peter Dunne on Amazon and thought I'd give it a try. This is a screenwriting book, and the structure mentioned in the book is specifically for feature film screenplays, which doesn't translate exactly to novel structure, but there were still some good concepts in the book that apply to novels.

For one thing, his premise is that plot is the events that happen, while story is the characters' emotional reactions to those events, which is what the movie (or book) is really about. The plot events force the characters to take an emotional journey. The events and emotion are intertwined. He gives a pretty good step-by-step process for developing a script (or book) with this in mind, illustrated with a script he's developing to show how the process works as he goes from a three-line summary to a three-page outline, to note cards, to one-liner outline to more extensive outline to a script.

On the down side, I wish he'd given more varied examples because while I think that a lot of these ideas could apply to just about any kind of story, he seems very focused on love stories or stories that have a strong romantic plot. Granted, most movies do have some kind of love story in them (and quite a number of books, too), but I think you can have emotion and emotional development without having romantic love. I was watching Lethal Weapon 2 on HBO this weekend while I was reading this book, and a lot of what the book says about how the middle of the movie is where the emotional stuff comes to the forefront actually fits that movie, but with the partnership/buddy love between the two main characters rather than with a romantic relationship. I think you could tell a similar story with love between family members, relationships between co-workers, etc. Even in a movie with a romance in it, the relationship that brings character growth may not be the romantic one. All the examples in the book, though, are of the romantic variety.

Meanwhile, I hope his sample script was really just a hypothetical to illustrate the steps in the book because I didn't think it was very good, and it was rather obvious. The romantic plot in it didn't ring true to me. It seemed like your typical, standard Hollywood "there's a man and a woman in this movie, so they have to fall in love with each other, and they really ought to come to their big emotional moment while they're in the shower together because we need some skin" relationship. He also dissed The Terminator in a way that made me think he hasn't actually seen it because he said that was the kind of movie that was all about destruction instead of emotion, and it didn't have the quieter, reflective scenes in between action scenes because what is the Terminator going to reflect on? But actually, that movie fits all his principles, since the main character is Sarah Connor, not the Terminator, and the middle is where the love story develops that affects the way the plot comes out. The first act ends with Kyle Reese telling her "Come with me if you want to live," and then the middle is mostly about their developing relationship as she first thinks he's crazy, then finds out he isn't, so that they're then working together, and she wants to learn more about him and about the person she's destined to become. They do have the quiet, reflective moments where they get to know each other in between action scenes, like under the bridge where he tells her about his world, and then in the motel after they make the bombs.

However, I've yet to find a writing book that I agree with 100 percent. What I do is find what works for me and then incorporate it into my Frankenstein's monster of a process.

I think I'm going to give the screenwriting process a try with The New Project, using his outlining method. That goes back to my big weakness, which is impatience. I'm in a rush to get things down on paper (well, virtually, as I try to be paperless), but then once things are written, they feel more set in stone, and it's harder to revise when a scene isn't working. Maybe if I go through all the outlining steps of developing a screenplay, down to writing a detailed outline, that will address my recent problem of not knowing what the book's about until I've written it, but without having to actually write it in book form. I can play with the content and structure of all the scenes before I commit them to actual narrative.

In other news, after my lament a few weeks ago about the disappearance of the Bermuda Triangle from pop culture, today's TV listings show that our local PBS station is showing something about the Bermuda Triangle tonight. Yay!

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