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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Needed: Quirks & Edginess

Got an excellent question from the lovely Caroline:

I was at a pitching masterclass yesterday and [the company] mentioned in passing [prodcos, schemes etc] look for writers with ideas for films (or TV drama) that are "edgy, quirky, a bit different"... I realised that I'm not sure exactly what they mean by edgy or quirky or even a bit different. Obviously I have my own thoughts about what is edgy, quirky etc... but this seems to come up quite a lot at events and I wondered if you had any thoughts on what it is about a story that would be seen as edgy/ quirky/ a bit different?

Obviously what constitutes a "quirk" or "edginess" is up to interpretation on so many levels - personal, cultural, whatever. But as everyone knows, I'm not one to balk at a huge question, so I'll give it my best shot.

Seems to me as a reader the "edgiest" and "quirkiest" writing I've seen comes from those screenplays that take a message, an opinion, belief or issue right to their heart. In other words, the writer REALLY CARES about what they're writing about and strives to present it in such a fashion that they make the reader care too (or at least appreciate what the writer's saying). I would argue the spec "merchandised blockbuster" you've conceived to "fill a gap in the market" or "jump on the bandwagon" is neither quirky nor edgy. That's not to say either of these DON'T have a place by the way - they are just not quirky or edgy, because you're doing it with a view to the market, as opposed to pulling it out of YOURSELF.

I think being quirky or edgy is writing about SOMETHING IMPORTANT to you, that either a) no one has ever touched on before (very, very difficult) or b) the writer presents something in such a way no one has ever seen or appreciated before (more realistic).

One of my favourite films is ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. In essence, it's about relationships and a person's memories and sense of self - one of the *oldest* stories in the book, really. There are stacks of films like this on the DVD shelf at your local video store. What makes it different is Charlie Kaufmann's unique take on this "old" story, his way of seeing it and executing it, thus drawing us in.

Putting your own unique take on something is just as hard as it sounds - especially when sometimes loads of people have the same idea as you. This year, identity theft and terrorism are the big two subjects - which was why I wasn't surprised by what Northern Lights said in my rejection yesterday. Ditto mental health and vigilantes (particularly when it comes to stabbings and youth crime). Last year, it was vigilantes again (but with paedophiles), mental health, gay rights. Sometimes it's a particular arena: about three years ago I got lots of medieval stories for some reason. Another time, it's genre: SF (time travel in particular) bounces in and out of my tray at certain periods and several drafts nearly always come together, which is odd. Weirdly, in my history of reading I noticed one staggering fact when I trawled through my lists of titles yesterday: I have read only four Westerns since 2002; two of which (half!) contained cowboy vampires and 100% were set in the past. Very interesting.

But putting your heart and soul into a script doesn't guarantee quirks or edginess in my view; I think your script also needs to have something specific to say about your view of the state of the world. On this basis then, teenage pregnancy always comes up. Roman Catholic Priests falling in love with women - or men. Gay Priests, paedophile priests. Gangs. Adoption. Child abuse. Rape - particularly a woman's revenge on rapists. Transplants - particularly kidney, but recently liver has started to come up too, as have blood transfusions and Jehovah's Witnesses. Sometimes I will read about divorce (not often, surprisingly); other times cancer, usually Leukemia. Sometimes infidelity will make an appearance but not as often as I would expect.

Seems to me that anything deemed topical by the news will be a big "thing" in scripts of that year - that's why I'm not surprised I've had three scripts about the recession recently; I'm sure I will get more. Ditto on the youth crime thing and stabbings given the appalling statistics in London and other cities in the last year.

I've written about my most "successful" spec script on here a lot, Thy Will Be Done. It's been praised as "edgy", but it's *only* a serial killer narrative when you boil it right down. There are of course squillions of films about that have serial killers in them, but I wanted to co,bine this serial killer narrative with my own thoughts on how these people come about: how broken down and depraved our society is, where children and women are lost in the seedy underbelly of Britain's Vice Industry. I talked to a lot of prostitutes whilst writing Thy Will Be Done, not to mention mental health experts and pathologists. I discovered stories that sickened and inspired me and some elements of these made it into Thy.

But it's also important to remember what is "edgy" or "quirky" to one is not to another person. Lots of people have liked Thy, it has got me attention and even a couple of jobs and collaborations. However it wasn't enough to get me an interview at The BBC Writers' Academy last year (even though they wanted "edgy" scripts with "something to say" and I think it does, obviously!) and its first ten pages didn't make it past the first cut in Red Planet last year. You just have to hope others care for what you're writing about the way you do - and when they don't, you just have to let it go. That can be hard when you've poured everything into it, as I found when someone said to me regarding Thy: "Have you thought about using the traditional three act structure here and actually resolving this narrative?" Me... Think... Three Acts??? Besides, it WAS resolved!!! Grrr.

My advice then, if you want to be quirky or edgy:

1. Really care about your subject matter. This story could be true - yours or a close friend's - or maybe it presents a viewpoint that's important or special to you. Whatever it is, if it means something to you, chances are you can communicate that meaning to others.

2. Present your view of the world in a way we haven't seen before. This could mean challenging our expectations within the story itself via the characters or plot; it could mean the structure and how you present it that way. You could have a twist in the tale or maybe the most surprising thing is there is no gimmick at all. Whatever works, but don't force it.

3. Make sure your voice shines through in your writing. Don't copy writers you admire or do things that don't feel natural to you. If you're not the funny type, don't force yourself to write comedy. If you're not the type to write asides or quips, then don't. If romance makes you want to poke your eyes out, avoid it. If you don't like horror, don't write one just because you've read it's an low-budget indie producer's genre of choice. If you get INSPIRED and REALLY want to write one though - go for it!

4. Stay away from the main headlines. If you want to find inspiration, this is exactly what everyone else is doing - going for the front page news. I would search out headlines from medical journals and newspapers, specialist areas, that sort of thing. Talk to people who are REALLY involved in a certain issue you're interested in - that way it makes it feel more "real" and less as if it's come out of a newspaper, so if you end up writing about whatever everyone else is writing about (and it does happen), yours will be better.

5. Don't be preachy. This is one of the most difficult things to do, because if you're writing about issues of teenage pregnancy, religion, terrorism, whatever, the first thing you're going to want to do is impose your viewpoint on the audience. But sounding the alarm long and loud for your opinion may just end up having the opposite effect: your reader might just reject the story if you get up on your soapbox. Subtlety is everything if you have a point to make. You need to walk a very fine line when it comes to "issues" or inviting your audience or reader to make judgements on characters or their actions. I think SPOOKS *generally* does this very well - they present the Jihadists' case whilst still condemning it, so we never feel as if the antagonists are *just* bad guys; we can even see their point a little bit whilst still being repulsed by it. The Simpsons does this equally admirably (if not more quirkily) on many subjects, but with none more relevant in my view than the Judgement Day episode in which Lisa is insistent the "angel" she digs up is not an angel at all and a judge ends up issuing a restraining order between religion and science!

This contrast in stories like this is based on the concept of moral relativism, a philosophical standpoint that recognises our sense of "morality" as being subjective, dependent on where we grow up in society, the situation, who we are, etc. Recognising this can help avoid "comic book villain" stereotypes in particular: no "evil" character should wake up thinking they are evil or wrong in your spec - they should believe absolutely in what they are doing, even believe their motives are hopelessly misunderstood or their enemy (our protagonist) is the one who is "evil", even.

What do you think makes a spec "quirky" or "edgy"? Over to you...

9 comments:

Laura Anderson said...

My screenplays at uni last year were all described as "quirky" in the feedback, a label I hadn't actively sought whilst writing them. I think your 5 points probably applied to them all, on reflection.

Edgy, however, my scripts ain't.

For me, I think quirkiness is pretty much as you've said: writing about something from a different perspective. I avoid headlines as I want my scripts to stand out, and I (hope I) never preach.

As for edgy? I think I need more sex and swears to accomplish that.

Lucy said...

Funny you should say that Laura because Thy had LOTS of sex and swearing in it!!! Seems to me "edgy" is also a euphemism for "saucy" ; )

Caroline said...

Oh no - you mean I've got to write some sex scenes to make my script edgy. My greatest fear :o

Really helpful post Lucy. Thanks

Adaddinsane said...

Acherly I think it's rubbish - not what you said Lucy, sound advice as always.

I don't think "quirky and edgy" means much when spoken by a TV exec.

Probably: "This isn't what I'm looking for; although I don't know what I *am* looking for; but I'm sure I'll recognise it when I see it. In the meantime I shall use the phrase 'quirky and edgy' to describe what I think I'm looking for because that's what my boss says he/she/it wants. (I wonder what it is.)"

M J said...

I think 'quirky' means looking at the world a little differently than normal - that's sort of vague I know, but anything can be quirky if you turn it upside down and put it in an unusual place - that sounds rude... I think I'm writing too many sex scenes. 'Edgy' is one I have trouble with - it's too subjective, and in my experience seems to stand for 'difficult to watch'.
Interesting post! BTW What's a Bionicle?

Lucy said...

Cheers Adaddinsane, there may just be some truth in that...

MJ, you can NEVER write too many sex scenes! Come on Caroline, you know you want to.

For anyone who's interested like MJ, these are Bionicles. They're like Transformers, only 1000% better. My son adores them and I do too because it gets him off the damn playstation and making stuff.

Sally A said...

Yep. I'd agree that quirky is having your own individual take on a situation which feels "fresh". but not bonkers just for the sake of being bonkers.

Edgy I think is just the opposite of soft - so no easy options are ever taken, characters aren't "nice" - maybe things are a bit more open ended and certainly not easily wrapped up. Edgy, I think, is dark, a bit disturbing, certainly uncomfortable.

And I certainly agree that it's really important to show an issue/theme for a number of opposing view points - letting the audience draw their own conclusion. Letting them be intelligent.

Any road up that's my two penny worth!

Loving the new front page Lucy!

Lucy said...

"dark, disturbing & uncomfortable" - I would definitely agree with that as a definition of "edgy" Sally, nice one. As to the new front page - you're too kind! : )

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