the note butler

Last week, I wrote about how I pace the reader's experience using a standard manuscript page format. However, I forgot to include my inspiration for that essay. In an interview about his process, director Christopher Nolan discussed the pacing problem in the context of screenwriting:

I try to write scripts that really will be a page a minute, which if you tend to over-describe things or describe things in too literary a way, the scripts are going to get very long … I like to be able to look at the bones of it and know when I’m describing that stained glass window that’s behind you right now, that doesn’t take any screen time. I try to write in a way that reflects screen time, that reflects the kinetic energy.

In other words, Nolan avoids using space on the page to convey information that would be conveyed instantly on screen. That way, the pace of the reading experience matches the pace of the eventual film. Using standard screenplay format, every page should translate to a minute of screen time. When things get verbose—lengthy stained-glass window descriptions, for instance—the equation sags. A tight, propulsive scene loses its feeling of momentum. This is a problem when you need actors, producers, investors, and other stakeholders to understand your vision for the film.

The conversion from manuscript to typeset book is much more straightforward, but the same logic applies. Once you've seen manuscripts become books a few times, you develop a sense of the eventual reading experience. Stick to the same format when you write, and you'll learn to spot areas that will drag in the finished book at a glance.

Something else struck me from the Nolan interview (which is worth enjoying in full for any film buffs). In developing a project, Nolan takes plenty of notes. For Oppenheimer, these notes were mostly about the Oppenheimer biography American Prometheus:

My approach was to read it, not take notes, nothing, read it again. I read it a couple of times and then just spent a lot of time thinking about what had struck me about it, about what I was interested in, what I would tell somebody about this story. Based on those notes, I started to feel out what were the things that were going to give me the structure I wanted. 

This deep engagement with the source material is par for the course for any serious creator. Unusually, however, Nolan put the notes aside when it came time to write:

I don’t use the notes. I’ll write the script. If I get stuck, I’ll then go back through pages and pages of notes, to see did I miss something, was this something. 

Consulting notes bog me down horribly during the writing process. If I have the courage to write unencumbered by my notes, I include at least 80 percent of the ideas in them from memory.

The right approach is to do as Nolan does and put the notes aside until I complete a first draft, or get irreparably stuck. Unfortunately, I get paranoid and compulsive, returning to the notes as I write to see what I've left out before continuing to the next page. Next thing I know, a week's gone by, and I've only added three hundred new words to the manuscript. It's worse than social media!

Nolan probably has a note butler who hides them in his mansion when it's time to write the screenplay. Must be nice!

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