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What I Learnt From Failing – Part One of Infinite

November 27th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments
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I’d like to take a step back and really examine some of the basics of writing, really get down to brass tacks, so to speak. The reason? Well, this week, during a bit of back and fourth on a long gestating collaborative project, I felt like the project had burst, and I couldn’t take it any further.

We’ve all been there right. I mean, we can’t write good material that works all the time, can we. So I would like to examine where this project went wrong, the whys and wherefores, and use this as a focal point to improve my (and by extension your) writing overall. 

face palm

Doh! all over again. Image courtesy of hobvias sudoneighm.

Back to Basics

Where to begin. Well, this project started out as an amalgamation of ideas both I and my collaborator had, that came in from different directions. We had world ideas, a bunch of characters, and stuff that happened. Unfortunately, none of it really clung together. A major reason is because this was a planned screenplay, where you have much less time to convey ideas, compared to say, prose. So what mistakes were made? 

  • Have Clear Plotting – Basically, figure out what is the A plot and the B plot, why the major players are in each, and how they intersect with each other. This was a major problem. We had characters, and they were all doing stuff, but none of it was really leading anywhere. Some events didn’t connect very well. And the B plot had a lot more prominence than the A plot.

    ‘Why not switch them round?’ you might ask. The B plot had less of the events, but it was just more focussed.

  • Who is your Protagonist and Why – This was the biggest downfall really. There wasn’t a clear idea of who the actual protagonist was. We had an antagonist, but not a real protagonist.

    More critically, the motivations of the antagonist and protagonists were muddy and unclear. You’d have thought this would be the first thing you figure out right? Who the central character is, and what their goal is, what the obstacles are and how they overcome them.

    Well none of this was very apparent. There was just a whole bunch of characters passing through an arbitrary series of events, just ‘because’. There are exceptions of course. If you’re writing something epic with lots and lots of characters, then you can get away with not having a central protagonist. Insert obligatory Song of Ice and Fire reference here.

    A Game of Thrones

    One A Song of Ice and Fire reference coming up!

  • Service to the Plot – I guess this is more applicable to scripts than prose (though it still serves in the latter), where you have limited screen-time and budget, but you have to look at every aspect of the piece and ask yourself ‘does this service the plot?’ If it doesn’t, then get rid of it.

    There were a few sequences we conceived because they were aesthetically pleasing. ‘Title sequences’ so to speak. But as the ideas progressed, the sequences became more and more elaborate, and would have eaten a lot more of that effects budget.

    Everything has to service the plot, in some way. What to include and what not to include is a key part of the editing process. What historical details can you include, and how? How are they relevant to the plot? Is that offhand remark someone just made key to some aspect of the story later on? And if so, how do you deliver said detail without screaming ‘IMPORTANT PLOT POINT, TAKE NOTICE FOR LATER!’?

  • Connect – When you get right down to it, you have to make the story something people can relate to. Since this was a broadly fantasy piece, with a great deal of new and unusual concepts, we didn’t really have anything the audience could relate to. We didn’t have an audience avatar. Now, I hate clichés as much as the next person, and I’m not saying it’s right to have some clueless character that needs everything explained to them, but in a world so different, we should have had someone the audience could relate to, to go on the journey with. Which ties into the problem of not having a central protagonist.

Lesson’s Learnt

If I were to continue with this project I would sit down and actually draw up a plan. That’s right. Me. Plan. I would draw out a decisive A plot and B plot, I would have a definite protagonist and antagonist in each, I would most certainly invest time into figuring out their motivations, and the obstacles in their path, and I would align the secondary characters into each plot, and work out at which points they would overlap, and have some really clever and interesting way to tie the two plots together at the climax. 

All pretty basic stuff, when you think about it, but I think that lay at the core of the problem with this project. We kinda jumped in at the middle step, and progressed from there, and it has become much too late to go back to the basics now. 

In all honesty, I don’t think I have the heart to continue with this. As much as I’ve invested in it, I no longer find the project feasible, and I may well have ruined a friendship because of it. Oh, I guess that’s another point I could make: 

Never write with Friends – bit of a strange one, I admit. But this has been sort of a rule of mine for a long time. Never work with friends. If you make friends with someone you work with, that’s fine. But never work with previously established friends. That’s asking for trouble. 

One of the reasons I get along so well with Matt is because we became friends at university, where we both studied writing. Which is why I trust his opinion, and know he will give me honest unbiased feedback, and I likewise. Another reason this collaboration fell apart was because there was this pre-existing relationship in play, and that was always in the back of my mind. It didn’t allow me to be entirely honest or unbiased, which – as I say – has probably destroyed the relationship I had with this person. 

Over to you:
Any writing disasters you’ve been working on? What lessons have you learnt from them? Any additional points you could stick onto the list above? If so, drop them in the comments below.

  • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

    It does rather seem like you came at this from the wrong direction. The received wisdom is to start with character (and you say that you didn’t have a proper protagonist) and a situation. Then whatever the character would do and whatever they come up against is basically your plot.

    Having said that, you’ve obviously done a lot of work on it. Having discussed the project with you I know that an awful lot of world-building has been done. I still say that if you could think of a way in for the audience, you could create some good stories in this world.