This past summer I flew out to Santa Fe for the week-long Glen West Workshop run by Image Journal, a literary and arts quarterly currently in its 25th year. Over two hundred writers and other artists gathered to share their work and creative ideas in a glorious setting high on the New Mexico plateau. Although the elevation of 7,000 feet set me back for a couple of days (my meager 2,000 feet in New England didn’t give me a running chance not to be affected), it was the script writing workshop that I was invited to run that truly kept me going. I thought it’d be interesting to share why it was so productive.
My approach to the workshop was to have all nine of my participating writers arrive the first day of the class with two or three story ideas–ideas that as of yet were not really developed beyond a simple description of a couple of sentences or a short paragraph. That was it. No writing samples to share or finished scripts to dissect or discuss and analyze. Just a couple of simply stated story ideas that each student had a strong hunch might be something they’d like to develop into a play or screenplay.
We spent the first few days going around the room breaking down each idea into the basic structural components that in one way or another have to be present in any good script:
–a single central character
–his or her dominant want and need
–the other principle characters that have to be in the story
–the major conflict that the central character is facing that sets up his or her primary dilemma
–how that conflict manifests itself in action
–how the conflict is ultimately resolved
–how the central character is changed by the end of the tale
–and stating what the premise of the story might be (the statement it is ultimately making)
We went from story idea to story idea and kept applying the same basic questions to each one. It wasn’t long before it became clear what structural components need to be in place for any story to really work. All the stories were miles apart in terms of setting, place in time, theme, and general situations, but the structural framework holding each together was the same.
I kept thinking about the preparation process involved in laying the foundation for a building up here in New England. It has to be planned out and designed and the concrete needs to be poured deep enough to get below the frost line. If these principles are ignored the building constructed on top of it will not stand the test of time (or even the first winter deep freeze).
What also came to mind was the analogy of lining up a hundred different people–all different nationalities, races, sizes, etc., all with different names and personalities, backgrounds, hopes and dreams, and so forth. Each individual is unique and interesting for who they are. But if you could reduce all 100 of them to just their skeletons, it would be difficult to tell much, if anything, that differentiated them other than height, age, and possibly sex if you were an expert. The structural components are all basically the same.
After this we spent considerable time on character and backstory work. However, to my mind, the workshop was already a big success in that all the participating writers had walked through the most critical early phase in developing a story idea. And they each went home with much more than an idea in hand–they had a work in progress with solid structural underpinnings.
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In addition to being an independent film producer and script consultant, I’m the Program Director for a low-residency MFA degree in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.
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