This week has been another one of adapting real-life stories. Last week I wrote about how I have been hired to create a treatment based on an Arabic woman’s life and how I gathered all the pertinent information from her.
Since then, I have written a rough draft using a classic framework: the character is onstage waiting to receive a major honor as she flashes back to the events that led her to this proud moment. Because my client’s story is so epic, my first thought was to arrange the events in linear order, dramatizing the increasingly difficult challenges she endured. I knew that I still needed an active plot, but I also needed to let the story percolate in my mind.
I sent the draft off for her review, with the caveat that it was still very rough. I knew from experience that I needed to let the work rest for a day to gain some distance. I distracted myself and completed other projects, and the following night I went to sleep asking myself what was needed to make this story “pop.”
As a side note, I used a technique I’ve long found helpful when I’m having trouble answering an important question: Just before you go to sleep, take a glass of water and place your hands around it so that your fingers almost touch but not quite. Then ask for help. For example, you might say, “I want to know what happens in the next act of my new story.” Then turn your eyes upwards and drink half the water. Then say, “This is all I need to do to get the answer to the question I have in mind.” Now cover the glass—so no wildlife finds its way in—and sleep. Remember to put a pad and pen, or your phone, next to your bed so that you can write down any answers you receive.
When you wake up, if you have the answer, write it down. If you don’t, still write your first thought. Then drink the rest of the water and say, “This was all I needed to do to get the answer to my question.” If you got it, great. If not, then be alert all day—it will show up! Sometimes I have to repeat this technique a couple of times, but it almost always works—but caveat emptor: you may NOT LIKE the answer!
Anyway, in this instance, it worked, and I woke up the next day with the answer to my question: Find where there’s the most struggle. So, with that in mind, I reread what I’d written so far.
Because I’d begun by organizing my client’s life events, and was now armed with my dream answer as well, I could easily see where the most conflicted part of this interesting story was: During the period where she earned the honor that is the climax of the story. (We writers are always looking for trouble; it makes for a good story.)
So, my next task is to get the details of her everyday life during this period, as well as any disruptions. I must learn the cast of characters who helped or hindered her, how she was affected by the culture shock of traveling to a new country, how she dealt with the casual mixing of men and women in Western society, something so alien in her own. And since our goal as writers is to create conflict, I know I have to ask certain questions, such as: Did she have trouble with teachers, students, or landlords? Was her husband hostile to or supportive of her desire for personal growth? What were the hardest moments?
Interestingly, I am using the same technique to “get to know” the secondary characters in my new novel. I am “interviewing” them as if they are real people, and it is working well. I will pose a question such as “What is your dream” and then I will answer the question, writing for 10-15 minutes in the first person, as if I were the character.
If you are working with a big story that you need to both compress and dramatize, I recommend you try my book, The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting. I actually keep a copy open on my desk and am constantly asking myself the 4MQS to help me organize both the character arcs and the plots in my work. Also, give the dream technique a try and see how you make out. I think you’ll like the results.
Here’s to your successful writing!
Professor Marilyn Horowitz
Copyright (c) 2015 by Marilyn Horowitz