My script, my beloved story, has died. I can’t understand what happened. We were just together last week and it was wonderful. Now, when I look at its battered pages, I feel nothing. The symptoms were easily recognizable but I couldn’t accept the truth. Instead, I consulted with expert script doctors and their prognosis is unanimous…my story is dead. It’s time to let go.
Despite its glorious beginning, the subtle slide into oblivion began with a sudden disconnect between my protagonist and his goal. He started doing things just to be funny, just to stand out among the ever-growing crowd of notably unique supporting characters. I allowed this experimentation, hoping that he would find himself eventually. One hundred and seven index cards later, he had gone from chugging beer at a Christmas party hosted by a transvestite opera singer to robbing a bank dressed as an elf. And his height varied by as much as a foot throughout the script because even his physical self seemed to be in flux, too. By the time I received the official diagnosis, he was headed for Stuttgart…does it really matter why?
How did this simple holiday movie get so off track? Well, I make the mistake of confusing entertaining moments with enlightening scenes. My protagonist does have a unique perspective on the world. He has a flaw that enables him to make a myriad of wrong turns on his way to the finish line. But he also has a support team of characters who challenge, and often overshadow him. His opponent unfortunately, shares my hero’s lack of focus, making their conflicts wacky, instead of tight, tense, building to a final battle that brings visual and poetic closure to their conflict. But these are merely the symptoms…what is the problem?
My intrepid hero lacks an essential element that every life, real or imagined, must have to be worthwhile…a purpose. No matter that he may misunderstand or be completely unaware of his ultimate goal, my protagonist must still have a purpose at the beginning, middle and end of the story. My pals and I read self-help books and attend seminars. We Facebook our deepest thoughts and debate the existence of life’s master plan over bottles of wine. Heroes in any genre should have the same existential angst that we have because that’s why we identify with them. We root for them. We think, maybe if SHE can find a way to go on living after losing her husband, dog and award-winning mathematical theory in a horrific moped crash, then I, too, can quit my job and move to Fiji.
“The Birdcage’s” Armand Goldman battles his twin desires to be a loving and respectable father to Val, while also making a deep emotional commitment to his lover, Albert. In “Unfaithful,” Diane Lane’s suburban housewife actively explores whether she is on earth to be a devoted family woman or a sensual, carefree creature of pleasure. And the search for one’s purpose always seems intrinsic to a superhero story. Common sense, right? Well, I blew it.
To ensure this tragedy never happens again, I do a writing exercise called, “what would poop do?” The name actually came from a young child but how could it not stick? To do this exercise, I pick a subject, a noun of some sort, and I attribute an existential quandary to it. This morning, I smacked a fruit fly out of existence and that got me thinking. This guy must have known what was coming. He’s been in my kitchen for hours, watching me squash his little winged Waterloo one soldier at a time. Why did he go for the piece of apple as I lifted it to my lips? Was he creating a diversion for his buddies to break open my organic bananas? Was he so hungry that he was beyond whatever rational thought a fruit fly usually thinks? And who did he leave behind? Did his widow watch him twitch his last twitch? What does his self-sacrifice mean to the fruit fly cause? And did that make me a god to him or just a cruel bully?
Here’s the thing: if I can’t do this for a fruit fly, then how can I do it for a creature completely of my own making? A creature that must draw the audience into its passions, faults and battles. Without a goal or purpose, how can I determine interesting milestones along that journey? How can I plant the right obstacles and always tie the right consequence to the train tracks? Entertaining + enlightening = memorable scene work.
So while the rest of you are tapping Solitaire on your smart phones, I ask “what if that phone could somehow gain control of its human operator?” And would it be working on its own or would their be an alien server somewhere in space controlling its evil sim card ? See, now I’m afraid of my phone.
For now, I must harvest whatever’s viable from my doomed project and then bury it with respect.