Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The Maybe

I'm just about to start writing my first episode of Holby City. Actually writing. Putting the words down on the page.

I got notes back on my treatment at the end of last week. Not bad. But they want some changes. And they themselves have made some changes to the storyline and the characters which means, in turn, that I have to make further changes to incorporate their changes.

And then, of course, there's the enormous gulf between the stuff you put down on a scene-by-scene treatment, and what you put into the script itself. As soon as you start thinking about writing those scenes you realise how hopelessly unrealistic your treatment was, and how unimaginative, and how... boring.

So, I've spent the last few days winding myself up to the point where I can take all that input (the treatment, the notes, the changes, and the realisation that it all needs more oomph) and channel it into an opening scene. And then I just hope to God that the momentum takes me forward and all the way through to the end.

Russell T, in his new book, talks about "the Maybe".

by the time I come to write, a lot has been decided. Also, a lot hasn't been decided, but I trust myself, and scare myself, that it'll happen in the actual writing. It all exists in my head, but in this soup. It's like the ideas are fluctuating in this great big quantum state of Maybe. The choices look easy when recounted later, but that's hindsight. When nothing is real and nothing is fixed, it can go anywhere. The Maybe is a hell of a place to live. As well as being the best place in the world.

Not that I'm comparing myself to the man himself, but I know what he means. As soon as you commit anything to paper, then you narrow down your options - the Maybe becomes a more restricted space. Every creative choice you make shuts off certain alleyways, guides the narrative away from... well, from who-knows-what? Who knows where the story might have gone if you hadn't made the choices you make?

The Maybe contains great stories. I mean really great stories. The best stories I or anyone else could possibly tell, the iconic myths of the future, are all contained in the Maybe. And every time you try to extract them, the result disappoints. It's prosaic. Boring. It doesn't live up to that vision of the story which floated around in the Maybe, goading you.

And that is why I procrastinate. It's why I'm writing this Blog rather than getting on with Scene 1. As soon as I write the opening words, I'm beginning the process of destroying the-story-that-never-was. Of course, I'm also beginning the process of writing the-story-that-will-be. It might not live up to my hopes and expectations, but it will actually exist on paper and, hopefully, on screen. The-story-that-never-was only exists in the Maybe, and it's the sacrifice I have to make if I'm going to produce this episode of Holby City.

But can you blame me for wanting to delay the destruction of something so beautiful, for the sake of something so flawed and mundane?


David Lemon said...

I think the RTD book is great and wish other big writers could be so honesty about their uncertainties, fears and infatuation with actors dressed as sailors.
You're absolutely right; once you get into something it quickly stops being the 'best thing ever' and becomes a battle to write the 'least terrible' version of what's in your head.
On the plus side, the scale of the 'Maybe' must surely be smaller when you're working within an existing format and ongoing story elements that aren't your own?

Then again maybe not...

David Bishop said...

The Maybe - that really is the gap between hope and reality, aspiration and ability, talent and tripe.

How about a new category - the Betterment. That's when you have a promising first draft [sprinkled with dodgy scenes you hope nobody'll notice] and your script editor comes back with notes that can only improve the next draft.

Now you've got to get the best out of those notes, while hanging on to your original story...

Andy Phillips said...

"Between the idea and the reality, between the conception and the creation, falls the shadow”

The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot

Don't know if that applies, but it sounds kind of bad-ass.

John said...

Great post, Paul. I feel this every time I write something. If only I'd held back a bit and waited in the Maybe a bit longer, maybe I would have come up with something better.... but then there's the deadline. That's life.

script doc said...

The Maybe would indeed be the Maybe if the writer had any freedom of choice. But you yourself admitted that, with their usual aplomb, the production team have just changed your storylines and characters. At that point, the Maybe shifts from a 'Maybe I can write a genuinely glorious script' to a 'Maybe I can salvage something from all this'.
Been there myself, many times.


Great post, Paul.
Now when Mrs S asks what I'm daydreaming about this time, when I have "the gaze," maybe I can tell her about "the maybe"...

Kay Sexton said...

Oh boy, I live in the Maybe, but I think it's a worse place for screen and scriptwriters because so many other people can come and mess with your soup! At least novelists get to do the whole thing and then hand it to an agent ... you're allowed to be closer to the Actuality before the meddling begins.

Anonymous said...

Good Post. Perhaps 'Maybe' is the stuff which lives in what the poet and children's writer Philip Gross calls the state of "not knowing", and Keats called Negative Capability: "when a man [sic] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

It's terribly important, and sometimes terribly threatening, because you don't know what will come up from the depths, and you don't even know if anything will come at all, and you don't know if you can begin to do it justice. But you won't get anywhere if you don't stay with the not knowing until... something does come. The translation into words will never be completely satisfactory, but we've nothing else. Jumping in with solutions ("I'll just play Solitaire for a bit," "I'll buy a book which will tell me what to do") will rescue you from your confrontation with the void, but it'll never get the piece even close to satisfactory: only staying with not knowing till you do know gives you a chance.

It's a huge and fairly obvious element of the early thinking and first drafts, but it's easy to forget that it still matters later, when you're contemplating your editor's notes, and the brute fact that you now know Chapter/Scene/Act/Part Three really doesn't work.