I spent the better part of last week reading proposals and watching films for The Fulbright Scholarship program which subsidizes filmmakers who want to go abroad to make films. It was a fascinating experience to review the many proposals that were received.
The criteria for submission included a 10-minute video sample, a proposal for the project, a personal statement and resume. While most projects were for documentaries, the good proposals had three things in common:
1. They targeted an interesting location.
2. The films would explore some important universal question, e.g., “How does a new highway in a remote area of Nepal change the culture?”
3. The films would focus on some interesting group of people, in this case, the Nepalese natives and the foreign highway builders.
It occurred to me that these three questions were relevant to a screenplay or novel as well.
By translating the questions to the fictional arena, you can enrich your script, hopefully, in the early stages of a new script BEFORE you write it. By reframing a fictional story as if it were a documentary and answering these three questions, you can generate strong creative ideas because you are looking at your material from a different viewpoint.
For example in my book, The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting, I use the film, Witness, as my teaching example. This film answers the questions in this way:
Q: Does the film have an interesting location?
A: Yes, it’s set in Amish Country in Pennsylvania.
Q: Does the film explore an important question?
A: Yes. Is one’s duty more important than romantic love?
Q: Does the film focus on some interesting group(s) of people?
A: Yes, an Amish widow, her son and a homicide detective in Philadelphia.
Here's the exercise:
Step 1: Set a timer for 20 minutes.
Step 2: Read whatever you have written about this new project, or re-read as much as you can in 20 minutes of an old or current project you’ve stalled on.
Step 3: Ask yourself the three Fulbright questions:
- Does my film script have an interesting location?
- Does my screenplay explore a universally important question?
- Does the script focus on some interesting group(s) of people?
Step 4: Reset the timer
Step 5: For 20 minutes, write about your script or story idea, describing your location, premise and storyline as if you were describing a documentary film. Discuss what makes the setting and characters unique, and how the important question will affect the audience. This is an especially helpful exercise when you are writing about people and places you know well, but your reader might find as exotic as Nepal if presented well enough.
Step 6: After a break, re-read your work, and decide if what you have meets the criteria. If not, consider two types of adjustments. One, if you are in the creating stage, you may want to change one or more of your creative choices. Two, if you are further along, find a way to make your choices more interesting by adding specific details and unusual events. For example, to use the film, Witness, again, John Book is shot and must spend time recuperating among the Amish, who have opposite views on justice.
So now, when you begin a new project, or are stalled on a current one, try this exercise, and even if you don’t actually do the exercise, always ask yourselves these questions.
Here’s to your successful writing!