This year I wrote and submitted to a writing competition a screenplay about Dale Evans. In the aftermath of this seven month project, I decided to use my experience with this new form of expression to kick start my dormant commitment to write a weekly blog. Writing about writing allows me to evaluate my work by drafting a coherent statement for others to read and – if successful – to understand the what and the why of my effort.
My preceding messages in this series shared a little bit of insight into how Dale’s life touched mine in a way that had little to do with her Hollywood celebrity. Personal tragedy and the faith which sustained her influenced my mother, which in turn shaped in part how mom raised my brothers and me. I was as unaware as any angel of this sequence and its significance on our family when I was a child. Looking back now, from the perspective of a white-haired survivor, I can better appreciate what motivated mom in how she dealt with us.
But that is not the point of the screenplay. Dale’s emergence from the valley of the shadow of death is, especially as it served as a catalyst in altering society’s perspective about people born with various physical and intellectual differences from what we consider the norm. Mom’s tenuous connection with Dale inspired me to share Dale’s story in the most appropriate manner concerning a prominent movie and television personality, a script. Writing the screenplay allowed me to close the loop of influence from Dale to mom to me and back to Dale. It’s been a precious journey.
Screenplay’s have their own format of which I was totally ignorant at the outset. I started writing anyway as the desire to tell Dale’s story exceeded the depth of my ignorance. Word processing is very flexible. My document took on the look of a short story with paragraphs resembling one-liners. I knew to separate dialogue from narrative, but that was about the limit. It was a start, which allowed me to pursue my goal while waiting to overcome my professional deficiency as a writer. This deficit, though, had to be remedied if I had any hope of meeting the submission standards for the writing competition sponsored by MovieGuide.
The source of my deliverance from screenwriting ignominy was The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. His book met my expectations and then some. All the formatting rules were there, though cumbersome to replicate in a Word document. My resolution to create some efficiency in the process was to purchase screenwriting software, Final Draft being the most highly recommended. What a marvel. We misers miss out on a lot since we fail to see the value of investing a little in order to receive a meaningful return on our investment. Fortunately I played against type and spent the money to gain some literary success.
Trottier’s advice inspired me to analyze my story from more than a mere formatting perspective. His key word was structure, which has as much to do with technique as it does with the placement of the words on the page. My first challenge was to conceive of my story as having three parts – beginning, middle and end – with major events or turning points, providing a bridge between segments. This goes against my past management philosophy, which emphasized looking at the organization I managed as being of one seamless piece. Segmenting was not in my methodology. For a business organization, whose name is intentionally derived from the word organism, everything works but not in linear sequence. You strive instead for a state of perpetual unison. To write my screenplay I jettisoned the old mindset for the new.
Then there was the need for a catalyst – the singular event that launches the main character into a quest to reestablish their equilibrium. And overall was the awareness that movies and television are visual media. The challenge becomes one of show versus tell. Again this posed an innate conflict with my management experience, where reporting on performance might include charts and graphs, but the emphasis was on verbal and written elucidation for the purpose of suasion. I did my best to follow Trottier’s advice in this as in all other things of movie wisdom.
Making use of Trottier’s premise that all screenplays have three parts or acts, Act One for my screenplay, Angel Unaware, follows Dale’s story from the night Roy proposed to her at a rodeo appropriately enough in the fall of 1947 (the catalyst) to the birth of their daughter, Robin Elizabeth Rogers, in August 1950. The big event, which launches us into Act Two is the decision to defy the doctor’s well-intentioned, though unacceptable recommendation, to have Robin committed to an institution. This was common practice in the day for an infant like Robin, who was born with Down syndrome. The prevailing wisdom was to make a severe separation at the outset so that the parents, particularly the mother, would not develop an attachment to a child who would ultimately drain the family of its emotional strength and potentially its financial resources.
To convey the depth of Dale’s emotional commitment to her daughter, I did my best to create a visual aspect of the scene to supplement the dialogue. In a gesture of intimacy between Dale and Roy, I crafted a moment where a vulnerable Dale, lying in her hospital bed, draws Roy close by grasping the lapel of his western jacket. This gesture, by the way, foreshadows a similar one (another Trottier device), which takes place at the end of Act Two.
With Roy close, Dale whispers her plea for Robin’s benefit. This entails a brief revelation of her backstory, which is the topic of last week’s message, and her own decision to abandon her career for Robin’s sake. Having Roy stoop down to hear his wife’s plaintiff cry, requires him to stand up straight to express their resolution to the doctors, “We’re going home. The three of us.”
This visual/verbal combination is our entrée into Act Two, which is next week’s message.