Day 36: An Epiphany
I mentioned the other day that I would like to add some pages to a novel I'm working on over the course of the month. While I have close to 50,000 words completed on that project, I haven't spent any time on it recently. But now that I've added it to my list of goals, it's been turning over in my head once again. One of the problems I had with the screenplay version of this story, Nightfalls, was a rather weak protagonist. He wasn't very active, certainly not proactive, in reaching his goals. He would rather slink back in to the shadows and disappear, which is actually very characteristic for this character. It doesn't make him someone to root for, however. Try though I might, I just couldn't come up with something for him to do. This was due in part to the nature of the story I had set up. I didn't want certain aspects of his nature to be revealed until the end. That sort of hamstrung me as I can't show him doing something without revealing his true nature and destroy the 'twist' ending.
The story revolves around a series of grisly murders in NYC and is apparently the work of a serial killer. The police investigation begins to focus on a bartender in Greenwich Village, Michael. He's the protagonist, unless he really is the killer and then he would be the antagonist. But we learn about an unsavory character from Michael's past -- Damon. Damon is a much more likely suspect as our antagonist and it becomes a battle of wills between the two -- good versus evil, or are they two sides of the same coin. The backdrop to all this is there was a similar string of murders ten years earlier in which Michael may or may not have played a part. That brings in my B Story revolving around a retired detective, Vicelli, who investigated the earlier murders and, despite making an arrest, believes the real killer got away. Is it getting complicated? Yeah, try writing a logline for that.
The script is decent. It's one of my earliest attempts, but has had a number of rewrites as I tried to resolve the Michael dilemma. With all the various rewrites, I have created a dense, rich world for the characters with lots of details that have come and gone over the different iterations of the script. I decided to do a novelization of the script for two reasons. The first resulted from an entertainment lawyer I heard speak at a writer's conference. He said he likes working with projects that can be both a novel and a screenplay for the dual marketing aspects. If you have a screenplay that can be a novel, write the novel and vice versa. Nightfalls seemed a good candidate for that process. The second reason was because I thought I would be able to incorporate all the moments that I couldn't include in a screenplay because of time constraints. A novel would allow me to be more detailed and explore other possibilities within that world and maybe find the philosopher's stone that would unlock the problems with Michael's character.
Although people who have read my early pages have been intrigued, the problems with Michael showed up early. As the protagonist, he doesn't even show up until around Chapter 5. That's kind of late to be introducing the hero. And he still didn't have a good objective other than he wants to remain out of the limelight. This problem was highlighted early on in some coverage that I received on the script. The reader had mostly favorable comments on the script overall, but the Michael problem was a major sticking point for her. She felt the Vicelli B Story was dominating and taking focus from the main conflict between Michael and Damon. She suggested I downplay Vicelli to bring more focus on the two men. I did that and the script suffered in later coverage. There just wasn't enough there to hold the audience's interest.
I began considering this problem again the other day as it relates to my current project Come Ups. I have a similar issue with Shep in that he is not a particularly strong hero. I need to beef him up a bit. It's proving easier to do that in Come Ups, but it seemed to indicate that I might have a problem creating strong, dynamic leading characters. My secondary characters seem to be much more interesting. Such is the case with Vicelli in Nightfalls. He shows up early and has a clear goal-driven purpose. He wants to catch the serial killer. Wait, Vicelli has a clear goal-driven purpose? He wants to catch the serial killer, the antagonist of the story, the super villain? Could it be that Vicelli is and has been my protagonist all along? Eureka! It suddenly all made sense. I had even written a scene for the novel where the killer challenges Vicelli to 'find me,' it's a catch me if you can scenario. I was so focused on Michael that I didn't even catch it. The reader who provided the coverage so long ago had her finger on the problem, but misidentified it because I was trying to direct her focus onto Michael and Damon.
Even the logline suddenly came into focus. A former NYPD detective is forced out of retirement when the serial killer he thought he had captured suddenly resurfaces. So in a sense, working on the novelization did give me the answer I needed. The beauty of it is it won't require a lot of work to shift the focus of the story.
The elements are already there. Even the twist at the end makes sense now. I kept trying to play it for the audience, when the twist should happen for the characters. Think about the ending of The Sixth Sense. Yes, the ending catches the audience unaware, but we see it through the eyes of Bruce Willis' character when he makes the realization that he is in fact dead. In Nightfalls, the twist should not come between Michael and Damon (who already know), it should be discovered by Vicelli. His shock at the discovery is the onscreen mirror to the audience's reaction.
This epiphany has me incredibly energized and excited to tackle this project once again, but I need to keep my focus completing Come Ups. Jumping around will result in nothing getting completed, but Nightfalls may the next project up after wrapping this round of rewrites on Come Ups.