By Olga Agafonova
Back at the end of October, I got a professional screenwriter to review my first screenplay. The good news: the science-fiction elements are fresh and exciting and merit development. The bad news is that nearly all the dialogue has to go as does the entire second act. Also, the main character is too detached for the audience to care about him. Lots of work to be done.
And that’s what I’ve been up to in the last few weeks. I’ve read Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain for sci-fi goodness, I’ve signed up for a structural writing class to address plot problems and I’m using Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing to bring my characters to life.
The Lajos technique asks the writer to describe each character’s physiology, sociology and psychology in detail. For example, my protagonist Ryan Callaghan is a 40-year old male with a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Johns Hopkins. His mother died when he was three, his father was never home; he was raised by his maternal aunt who encouraged him to study the sciences. He is an agnostic who doesn’t care about politics, a scientist who enjoys the company of other straightforward, talented people, a private man who recoils from violence and fanaticism.
The idea is that if you provide enough background for a character, he will begin to do certain things naturally in the play while avoiding others. In other words, the character will be true to himself. So, I can’t have my guy join a religious cult half-way through the play because that’s not in his nature. I can, however, have him behave in an arrogant and judgmental way because that’s one of the weaknesses I’ve built-in to his psychology.
In the structural writing class, we are being taught to chuck Syd Field’s three-act model and to instead use as many as nine acts, each escalating the conflict somehow. The point here is that using so many acts, each with its mini-escalations building up to the climax in Act VIII, makes for a more dynamic screenplay. So, if the play is about Joe Schmuck’s miserable life, in Act I an old lady backs up into his car, in Act II, he is passed over for a promotion, in Act III his house burns down, and so on until in Act VIII he’s ready to jump off a bridge but then something happens and it all works out in Act IX.
Having invested six months of effort and a bit of money into my screenplay, I really do hope all the work pays off and I get a better result in the second draft. I’d like to enter the play in a couple of competition next year and see what happens. The West Coast beckons and I’d like to heed its call.