Writing Downhill

by Daniel Heath

There are times when writing is an uphill march (barefoot, with snow and wolves). There are times when we have to write something, fail, come back, do it again, fail, come back, do it again, until we've got it right.

Now is not that time.

We have only got one month to write a script. We need to write downhill. We need to steer around obstacles, not through them.

So, we wrote that opening scene. The one with the snowmobile chase through Minneapolis-St. Paul, with leopards. (Or maybe our idea of a big opening scene is some guy sitting down with some wife who doesn't like him and complaining about the grapefruit–it doesn't matter what kind of script we're writing.) Our big idea for an opening is done, and now...

Look, stop checking your page count every five minutes. It does not actually help. It actually makes things take longer to write, okay?

Now, what?
Now comes the exposition scene, right? Where the heroine takes off her snowmobile helmet and flicks some leopard fur off her vest, and explains what it's all about, why there are snowmobiles and leopards and...

No. Did you see what was happening just there? We were writing a boring part. We were starting to bore ourselves and our audience. Which brings us to:

1. Skip the boring parts.
We're writing a draft here. For all we know, by the time this thing is finished, it may be about something else, set somewhere else, with bears instead of leopards, and with a cynical, time-traveling robot as the protagonist. (Or maybe our unhappy couple will be quarreling over a totally different kind of fruit.) So, skip the boring parts. Skip the exposition entirely. If it bores us to write it, it's going to bore other people to read it. Later on, when we come back to this thing, we may be able to avoid the boring parts altogether. For now, we're better off skipping ahead to the next good bit.

But what happens if we're out of good bits? What if all that's left are boring parts? Sooner or later, this will happen. What next?

2. Make the most of what you've got.
When we hit a boring part and we don't have an obvious way around, it's time to think back over the characters and situations we've already created and look for a way downhill. Is there an interesting small character? A conflict we haven't explored? An argument that happened offstage that should've happened onstage? What if we decide to tie our two favorite characters together and drop them into a room filled with poisonous snakes? Or mischievous otters?

Don't keep your powder dry–use it. If you have a payoff coming later and you run out of steam, try it now. I'm not saying we should ditch our plot structure and rush everything together if things are going great. If things are going great, we're still zooming along and we're not even worrying about this. But if things are not going great, let's have that light-saber battle in the Library of Congress right... now.

If we have a good character or two, great, let's explore what makes them interesting with another scene. If we have lame characters, let's drop a piano on them or find a way to make them useful. This is no time to be sentimental.

3. Change course wildly if necessary.
When all else fails, we should always remember that this is a draft. We had an idea when we started out, but that idea can (and probably should) change once we're in the thick of it. You should not struggle through writing boring scenes solely out of mis-guided loyalty to an idea that you had a week ago that seemed hilarious when you were all hyped up on Rockstar and Lucky Charms. There is no change too radical to make to plot or characters.

Whenever we are not writing, we should be thinking--especially if things are not going well. Imagine casting aside fundamental plot points and see if you can find something interesting. Shed characters. Bring in new ones. If we need to, we can always call upon William Shakespeare's best stage direction:

"Exit, pursued by a bear."

Clear the stage. Don't slog along for the sake of consistency, because at this stage there is nothing for you to be loyal to. Feed your bad ideas to your good ideas and get on with it.

Our goal here is to get to the end without boring ourselves into stopping. For me, pretty much the only time I'm writing well is when I'm writing easily and having fun. When I'm writing uphill, struggling with a difficult character or scene or theme, I'm usually writing badly, and I usually end up tossing the scene in favor of something I wrote ten times faster, having ten times more fun. If we follow the good parts, then maybe, by the end of this month, we'll have found the beginning of the real story that we should've started all along. A draft can serve no more-noble purpose, even if every character we started out with ends up eaten by bears.

Daniel Heath is a San Francisco Bay Area playwright. His play, Forking, staged by Pianofight, recently completed a run in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Forking is a fully-scripted, choose-your-own-adventure play in which the audience votes at key moments. His next play, which does not involve voting, is Fifty Years Hungry; it was commissioned by Playground as part of the 2008/2009 Playground Fellowship. His short plays have been performed throughout the Bay Area and as far afield as Toronto, and he is a three-time winner of the Playground Emerging Playwright Award (2007 / 2008 / 2009). He is a lapsed fiction writer and thinks plays are way more fun. (You can find a little more of his advice from Scriptfrenzy '08 and Scriptfrenzy '07.)