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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Plot Construction #2: Dangling

There once was a time when I would get only feature scripts to read and the odd novel; in the last two years then, I have received A LOT of TV drama series specs. This has been quite an education for me; I had assumed that people would automatically "get" the structure of television. After all (I thought), most people are surely only going to have time to go to the cinema once a week maximum or watch a film on DVD once every couple of days, whereas most people (especially those who want to be writers) must watch TV for at least two hours every day, right? That *must* mean that TV spec scripts are less likely to have the kinds of problems of film specs?

However it would seem that daily exposure to various techniques does not mean Scribes necessarily absorb them like osmosis. There can be the same issues as spec features in character, dialogue, arena or anything else you care to mention. Now one might argue that's because we write so much shit TV in this country, but not only do I think that's not true, that's not actually what I'm going to be talking about in this post.

There is one issue a TV drama spec *can* have that a feature spec does not however: what I call "dangling structure". In other words, the Scribe involved wants a cliffhanger at the end of their pilot episode, so they set everything up in that all-important first episode, but crucially do not answer any of the questions they pose in the plot.

So what's the problem with that? Mystery is good, right? Let me illustrate why it's not:

Your friend has been out shopping and has dropped by at your house on his/her way back. They've seen something AMAZING. They start to tell you about it, but every time you ask a question about what happened, they don't answer. Instead they start another description of something else related to *that thing* that happened, only you still don't know what happened and by the time your friend has been talking for nearly sixty minutes about *this amazing thing* (without actually saying what it was), the people who were involved and what they said about it too, you STILL don't actually know what happened.

Annoying, right?

If this really did happen to you, what would you do? You'd switch off mentally (and make a note to be out next time your friend decides to drop by I've no doubt).

If your friend was a TV drama spec then, you wouldn't be engaged. You would look at these mysterious set up elements and say: "But who is who in relation to whom? Why did s/he do that? Why did that change? What was that bit for? Why did this happen?" I'm sure it might "be obvious" if you look at the pitches for the next episodes, but everyone knows readers hate reading pitches. In any case, every pilot that makes it to screen demonstrates that you don't JUST set up the situation, you have conflict AND resolution too - even if you DO have a cliffhanger. And that's the problem with a good 80% of the TV spec series I see: they leave everything dangling from the offset (oo er); they completely underestimate the power of conflict or resolution within the episode itself.

A lot of writers I've spoken to do not understand how you can resolve stuff when there is a cliffhanger and overarching serial storyline, so here is my take on how TV drama series work according to the various "models" I've seen or discussed with people. Obviously you may have read these ideas with different names or seen people describe TV structure in different ways: this is how I understand it, so it may not work for you too. However I've tried to break it down in as simple a way as possible, so hopefully it'll prove useful if you're having trouble with a TV spec yourself... If not, nothing to see here: move along now! ; )

First off, here's the two elements of plot construction I see in TV Drama:

STORY OF THE WEEK

Every drama series needs a story of the week: this is what gets us hooked, brings us in. Maybe the story of the week will be responsible for bringing in infrequent viewers too: I don't watch Grey's Anatomy for example regularly, but recently it came on and the story of the week looked interesting and I watched it. Think of the Story of The Week as the FOCUS of your episode: examples could be a particular case for CSI, House, Boyd in Waking The Dead; a mission for Dr. Who or the Torchwood Team. Usually this story of the week can STAND ALONE, though strands of it may break off into the serial element, which is why I think this element is confused in specs sometimes (next). It is this element that will need resolving in your pilot.
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SERIAL ELEMENT

The serial element is obviously something that runs throughout a series (thus does not need resolving), but crucially this is usually subordinate to the "story of the week", the serial element is not the main plot (though they can become stories of the week).

Whilst Gray's revenge formed the main story of the week as the series finale of Torchwood for example, who Gray was and why Jack was tortured by his loss ran throughout series two from the offset: even Captain John's appearance in episode one was not about Gray himself, but rather to introduce that serial element. A similar thing was undertaken with Luke and Boyd in the last series of Waking The Dead. In the latest series of Dr. Who the return of Badwolf aka Rose is an obvious sub plot serial element; we *just know* she's going to turn up soon and bring a story of the week with her, as did the 333 caller in CSI:NY.

Sometimes serial elements are more obviously subordinate and do not form an exact story of the week, but add to another one: Lost's scary unseen monster for example in series 1, Grissom's deafness in CSI, or Dr. Dave's mission to discover what really happened to Dr. Weaver's foot in ER all those years ago.
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Secondly then, I think it's useful to consider how people construct those two elements - and how they add to them too:

UK MODEL # 1 (OLD SCHOOL)

The UK model in 60 minute drama used to be very specific and does not seem "fashionable" at the moment so much, though I have seen this style in crime dramas like Trial and Retribution or Silent Witness recently. Basically, the Old School UK style seems to be composed of a "Story of The Week" and a secondary element, which sometimes incorporates a serial element, sometimes not. It ends up like this:

PLOT A: Story of the week - main case or mission, why the characters are involved, usually on a professional level (probably why this is popular within crime drama).

PLOT B: Sub plot. Can include a serial element (like Leo's dead family in Silent Witness or The Guv's errant son in Trial and Retribution). Sometimes however that sub plot can stand completely alone, which is worth remembering. The striking thing here is that if characters are involved on a professional level in this style of TV plotting, which they nearly always are, then usually the serial element is dedicated to a personal issue one of the characters has to face.

UK MODEL (US STYLE)

This is the style of the moment it seems - and accounts perhaps for some Bloggers' issues with UK TV at this time I wonder, in that UK TV is emulating the US but not enough? Waking The Dead and Torchwood are the most obvious examples here, (as mentioned previously) since they seem to be laid out plotwise like this:

PLOT A: Story of the week. The case, the mission, the problem etc facing the characters as always.

PLOT B: Serial element. If you consider the Luke storyline in WtD, this ran as the subplot in every episode of this past series; interestingly it was never a story of the week either, though it seems the norm it becomes one (and often for the final episode), as in Torchwood with Gray. Other serial elements that have become stories of the week (though not always season finales) include Adam's near death experience, diminishing sanity (and worries for son Wes) in Spooks; the hatch in Lost; House's disability; Sam's realisation in Life on Mars and Alex's parents' demise (and who was really responsible) in Ashes to Ashes.

US MODEL

I think what is important to remember with the US Model is those 22 episode runs: I never recommend Bang2writers undertake a series bible with a such a lengthy run in mind, for what's the point? If the likes of Babarba Machin, Tony Jordan, Tony Marchant, Ashley Pharaoh and Matthew Graham cannot secure such huge runs for their highly successful and celebrated writing (having already had huge chunks of success), then what chance do we have as people with no TV credits yet? Also, I'm unconvinced that the 22 run is something the networks or producers want to commit to: even if there was the money, I'm not sure the (non writing) audiences' interests would be held. TV culture here demands that "less is more", perhaps due to neccessity, perhaps due to lack of imagination, perhaps because psychologically British people LIKE being made to wait? Perhaps all of the above.

Whatever the case, a 22 run series needs an acre of hard work and there's a reason writing teams do it over in the US I think - they need twice the content and it's twice as complicated to structure. Do you really want to put yourself through that on your own? If you do, the US model seems to run like this:

PLOT A: Story of the week # 1. This is the "major" case, mission or problem and usually runs across the entire sixty minutes, resolving just before the end of the show.

PLOT B: Story of the week # 2. This is the "minor" case, mission or problem and usually covers three quarters of the show where it will resolve in either a) the 45th minute OR b) it will merge with the major story. Sometimes, but infrequently, the major and minor stories will run parallel all the way through, or the major story will not resolve.

The most obvious examples that do these two stories of the week are the three CSIs: they will have two lots of investigators running two cases that are sometimes related, more often not. House is a less obvious example of the two stories, usually because Story #1 involves his patient and Story #2 involves his team of doctors and colleagues, plus the various backbiting and general politics as they pit themselves against each other for whatever specific reason each week.

PLOT C: Serial element. Those story strands that run throughout the series as before - Grissom's deafness or relationship with Sara; the 333 caller in CSI:NY; House's disability or Thirteen's possible Huntingdon's Chorea; the Lost monster, etc etc. Some of these will become stories of the week, others will fade away.
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What do you think?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Vote!

One of my Bang2write clients Mark has been in touch: he and pal Jonathan entered Doritos' recent competition to make their next TV ad - and have got down to the final 5! There was a whopping 900 entries, so this is a brilliant achievement.

Obviously though, with £20,000 up for grabs the lads would like to WIN, so they're appealing to peeps everywhere to vote for them. Here is their ad:



If you like it, please click here to vote for it: click on VOTE and then VIEW FINALISTS. (You can view all the other videos there too if you prefer before making up your mind).

Well done Mark and Jonathan!

Monday, May 26, 2008

No I Am Not An Affiliate Of This Contest

Robin posts about this contest today: it's called "Write Here, Write Now".

I've already had one email this morning asking me why I would "lend my (blog's) name" to such a contest that costs EIGHTY QUID to enter, plus postage of no less than THREE hard copies to the judges.

The short answer: I wouldn't.

Maybe it's good, maybe it's not - but it's nothing to do with me. For another thing, the contest is for IRISH writers and I've never even been to Ireland, let alone been born or raised there.

Does raise some interesting questions though:

If there was a Bang2write script contest for features, would you enter?

What would make you want to enter? (ie. prizes, reads from specific people, specific companies/people as affiliates, etc)

Would you pay to enter? If so, what is a "reasonable" fee?

Would you want feedback, regardless of placing?

Over to you.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Just What The Doctor Ordered

KEEP LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE!









ANTARES IS THE 15TH BRIGHTEST STAR IN THE SKY. IT IS MORE THAN 1000 LIGHT YEARS AWAY.

THIS IS A HUBBLE TELESCOPE ULTRA DEEP FIELD INFRARED VIEW OF COUNTLESS 'ENTIRE' GALAXIES BILLIONS OF LIGHT-YEARS AWAY:
BELOW IS A CLOSE UP OF ONE OF THE DARKEST REGIONS OF THE PHOTO ABOVE:
KEEP LIFE IN PERSPECTIVEAND DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF!
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Thanks to Adrian Mead for forwarding me that! I think most of us are guilty at sometime or another of losing sight of the notion we're ALL cogs in a gigantic machine: this is a handy little reminder it's not *all* personal when those rejections come through or projects fall into difficulties. Keep writing and keep improving!

Something For The (Bank Holiday) Weekend

I'm quite used to people dropping by this blog looking for "werewolf sex" and "talking dirty scripts" by now: you're even welcome to "take a bubble bath with no pants on" whilst "having flashbacks all day." Please - make yourselves at home.

Could this be, however, the craziest Google Search ever?

"The horse's bits were covered in foam."

WTF? What in the name of all that is holy could this Googler actually be looking for? And how on earth did Google direct them to MY BLOG? I have no recollection of dicussing foam or horse's bits or covering any bits with ANYTHING now you mention it. Seriously, we Bloggers should have some kind of Google Search Oscar. I reckon I could win. I could blub just as well as Gwyneth too.

On a completely different subject, everyone else seems to be doing it - so I will too: post a music video on a Friday you dirty pervs, what did you think I meant???



I like this one because its random randomness feels like the inside of my brain, plus I like the song, I plead guilty yer honour! Showed it to my son last night, his verdict? "Not bad for the olden days." Ah yes, the prehistoric era of 1986...

Enjoy the Bank Holiday!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

10 On TV Drama: UK versus US

SPOILERS: CSI & WAKING THE DEAD

Many thanks to the one person a week average who has emailed me over the last couple of months, telling me that my "10 on TV Drama" series has only 9 articles. I had noticed, ta: it was all part of a deliberate plan. Honest. Basically I wanted to see how the latest series of CSI and Waking The Dead would pan out before concluding this series in the hope that it would help me decide, once and for all, how I feel about the state of UK drama versus the US model.

It's been discussed many times in The Blogosphere and the general consensus of opinion *seems* to be (at least in the blogs I hang out on regularly) that the US do it better. I've read that Bloggers feel the UK have too few writers writing too many programmes; that we're choking in admin; that we should have a US-style writers' room system; that UK drama is underwritten; that we don't spend enough money on adult UK drama; that series runs should be longer; that initiatives like The BBC Writers' Academy is keeping new people out and doing veteran writers out of jobs; that we don't celebrate diversity or new writers enough; even that most drama in the UK is just plain drivel.

I am not a professional television writer, so I do not feel I can comment on the politics of television drama because I have not experienced them first hand nor had them impact my writing. However I have watched thousands of hours of television and responded to them as a both an audience member AND a writer, so I will talk about that instead with reference to CSI and Waking The Dead.

So, Warrick is dead. I actually already knew that thanks to the 40 people a day surfing in here over the last couple of weeks via Google looking for "Warrick's death spoilers" or variant. Thanks for that. However, it was inevitable: I'd already figured that Gary Dourdan's real life arrest for drugs surely meant his days were numbered. CSI and its offshoots have a long history of putting its characters in jeopardy for the end series finale (Sara in the last one courtesy of The Dollshouse Killer; Nick in the one before that, buried alive; Mac and his friends in CSI:NY taken over by terrorists; Horatio's revenge in Miami are just a few examples). Yet I'm struggling to think of one that's actually died, so it made a welcome change that SOMEONE in the team finally bought it. How paradoxically unlucky AND lucky are these guys??

And that's just it: Warrick is TOO lucky I think. From the offset, he has behaved as "recklessly and self destructive" as the interrogating police officer points out during the episode, yet he never comes to book for it. When he succeeded in getting Holly killed, right at the beginning of CSI, Grissom is told to get rid of Warrick, terminate his contract. He says no. Why? "He's a good CSI." That's lovely, but he's also "reckless and self destructive" and even a rogue as it turns out, going behind the department's back by hiring the PI as we discovered in last night's episode. And guess what: this behaviour continues. Not once but TWICE this series just past Warrick has been framed for murder, yet his buddies in CSI have come to the rescue.

You know how much I love CSI and Warrick was a good character. THAT'S why I wanted his exit to have more "bite". When Grissom became convinced that Warrick had been framed, I turned to my husband and said, "Yeah, but that's what happened when Joanna was killed, so the twist will be this time he's actually guilty." I was so convinced of this, that when Grissom came in and told Warrick about the evidence and how it was all set up and Warrick hugged Grissom, crying, I was waiting for him to pull back and say something like: "Thanks for believing in me...Again. You've been like a father to me, (blah blah - come on they like their schmaltzy stuff in CSI don't they??)...But it's true. I killed Gedda." Can you imagine? How cool would that be! One of their own ranks, a self confessed murderer! How would each of them deal with THAT bombshell??

Except it wasn't like that. Warrick got off again, thanks to his mates (again) and whilst it was a nice touch that it was the under sherriff (we think?) who kills Warrick and not the other supposed rogue cop, it all fell rather flat for me. It sets up the next series rather inevitably too, for that will undoubtedly be its serial element - find Warrick's killer and Gedda's mole, but more importantly, WHY the mole turned killer to the point that poor Warrick was implicated.

And that's a recurring problem for me with US TV characterisation: it's like they don't want to think badly of their characters; no matter how badly a character behaves - and Warrick really has over the years - we're asked to understand, no matter what. It's like the parents of the obnoxious child: "We don't want to stifle him." In lots of ways, it can really work; Grissom's favouritism over Warrick in the early years in particular caused some major conflicts, especially with Catherine, yet recently that seems to have faded away - just as Warrick really steps up with his errant behaviour. Quite a few things seem to have gone the same way this series: what's happened to Grissom's deafness by the way? Did he have some kind of miracle cure in an episode I missed somewhere?

What I admire then about UK TV Drama is it's not afraid to give its characters unlikable character traits. Whilst Grissom is an interesting character and team leader, ultimately it's Trevor Eve's character DSI Boyd as the leader of the Cold Case Team (the UK's CSI equivalent, in effect) who really captures my attention. Why? Well, in comparison to Grissom's geeky boyish charm, Boyd is irascible, even downright nasty sometimes. He will shout and swear, he will humiliate his staff, he will dismiss their observations, the works. As he says in Adrian Mead's episode I think it was: "Thanks but that is not even remotely helpful." He is, I think, THE BOSS FROM HELL. If it were real life, his staff turnover would be high on sick leave from the stress alone. In lots of ways, Boyd reminds me of Fitz, the similarly irascible and enigmatic psychologist from Jimmy McGovern's Cracker.

Yet Boyd's unlikable character traits are not apologised for: we're not asked to excuse him because of any tragedy in his life (and he's had plenty), he is just a git. But those horrible traits are contrasted against an array of other qualities and attributes. His good ones include a concern for others and fearsome bravery, rushing in to help in rescues, particularly that of women and children. But more importantly, those grey areas are included too, like his impetuous nature: his notion of "protecting" his junkie rent boy son Luke was by hanging a punter out the window for example. He can't talk about his feelings, even to the only woman who really understands him - Grace Foley: she had to hear about Luke's death from the team's pathologist, a woman as cold as she is efficient.

I love many things about CSI, including Warrick, and as a character study of the whole team I think it's brilliant as you know from this post. However, it has never involved me in the same way as Waking The Dead. It's like characters in US TV have to be heroes, even when then they're doing bad things - and when they can't get themselves out of it, their best bud will. If a a character is an antagonist in US TV, then they are that from the offset it seems...Here it seems to me we have more a yin/yang thing going on, with characters evolving into antagonists, or antagonists and protagonists at the same time (like Boyd) and even back again sometimes (like Adam in Spooks).

Funnily enough, I don't always like the stories in Waking The Dead (whereas I generally do in CSI); I can find WtD's a bit *too* covoluted sometimes, with MacGuffins aplenty, yet the characters and their stories - usually the "smaller" serial elements - have more impact for me. This last episode of Waking the Dead, with Boyd confronted with Luke's body at the morgue was a case in point: I cried. Like a baby. Now some of that was obviously Trevor Eve's excellent acting - he's always brilliant - but more than half of it was the investment in his character in the series. I BELIEVED this strong character, this guy who cannot express his feelings (unless they are irritation or anger) would be reduced to a blubbering wreck, for Luke's death WAS his fault. Had Boyd not been so busy saving everyone else, he could have saved Luke... Yet crucially that was left unsaid.

So - which do you prefer: US or UK TV drama? Why? Just because I prefer UK Drama doesn't mean you have to btw, all opinions welcome! Over to you...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Needed: Your Delicious Brain

I'm writing a new magazine article and doing some research...I need to talk to produced or commissioned writers and filmmakers of genre movies (sorry, no unproduced spec writers at this time, but if you want to chat about genre with me on many of the posts on here about it, please feel free... I get alerts even on old posts, so promise I will pick up any messages. Or drop me an email).

So, have you been involved in a genre film? It doesn't have to have been massively successful (though that would be great!), it doesn't even have to have distribution -maybe it ended up in the can for years? Maybe it didn't even get that far and is STILL stuck in development hell? Just as long as you've had an experience of writing and/or making a genre film, I want to talk to you... I'm particularly interested in speaking to people with experience on Rom Com and Horror, though all genres, writers and filmmakers are welcome.

If you would like more information about me or what I'm after BEFORE committing to an interview/informal chat via email, please feel free to contact me first - I'm happy to send more info, a CV, small bribes, etc (as long as the small bribe involves my general appreciation, I'm skint ; )

You can reach me on my usual email Bang2write"at"aol"dot"com, add me to your MSN contacts as bang2write"at"hotmail"dot"co"dot"uk or I'll see you on Facebook if you want to add me.

Thanks!

New Links For List Of Wonder

I've updated The List of Wonder! Kudos to Robin Kelly, Sir Daniel and Phill for their words of wisdom: consider yourselves archived. I've also given the List a general clean up and added some new sections so it should be easier to find what you're looking for... It's getting bigger! (ooo er). Remember, if you've seen a post that's helped you or think an entry on your own blog deserves to be added, email me. Enjoy!
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The Technical Posts:

Good Examples: Voiceover, Flashback, Montage, Intercut - okay it's by me but it does have some wick links in it by a load of other people

Killing The Hero by Robin Kelly

Creating Characters That Jump Off The Page by Robert Gregory Browne (Thanks to Lisa at Script Sanctuary for the link)

Imaginary Notes for Fawlty Towers (thanks to James Henry)

Basic Screenwriting Format - thanks to Film School Online

The Inspirational Posts:

Ivory Tower by Phill Barron

Confidence And Attitude by Danny Stack

Synopses: Which To Choose?

It's said that synopses are damn hard to write, which probably explains why so many scribes don't want to write them. Over the years I have a created an inadvertant and sweet sideline for myself: "I will read your script and write your synopsis for you for a fee". Catchy, hey?

I don't find synopses that difficult to write. Whether they're any good is another matter; having said that, I get plenty of read requests myself and the small (but increasing) pool of writers who get me to write theirs report they too get requests, so they can't be all bad. And though I have been accused of writing rubbish scripts more than once, no one has ever said to me: "Oi! That synopsis TOTALLY SUCKED!"

Maybe one of the reasons I don't find synopses hard could be because I write so many of them on a regular basis, either for myself or other people: practice makes perfect? I'm always surprised by writers' squeamishness about these things when they will dive into a 90 page script more than happily. Face your fear my friends and it will set you free. Honestly.

But what IS a synopsis? Like treatments, beat sheets and step outlines and whatnot, it's another of those things that no one really seems to know enough about, writer or producer alike. I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked for a "short synopsis" and the person in question means a logline for example. Sometimes they mean a synopsis like one you'd see on the back of a DVD box - 40 words or so, without spoilers for the ending. Other times they want every last detail (so more of a treatment really). As in the previous post then, here are my thoughts on the various types I see most regularly. Hope it helps any synopsis dilemmas you might be having... If indeed you're writing them ;)
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THE READER'S REPORT SYNOPSIS

If you've ever had a professional Reader's Report from somewhere like The Script Factory, Screen Agency or writing initiative, you will know you get included a one page (approximately 500 word) synopsis of your story. Except it isn't actually a synopsis: it's a BLOW BY BLOW ACCOUNT of every event in your story. If synopsis means "summary" (and it does, according to the dictionary), then this is clearly a complete misnomer.

Whatever the case, it's an accepted "type" of synopsis and I see plenty of Scribes emulating these Report-style synopses when sending them out with their scripts. My take? Don't. They are SO BORING to read. I think these type of synopses have a place in the reader's report so a scribe might see how their story has been interpreted, but a reader HATES writing them... How are they going to feel about them boomeranging back to them? If they're anything like me, they'll want to poke their eyes out. Worth risking, when there are other less irritating ways to write a synopsis? Up to you of course but I would say nein.

THE SET UP SYNOPSIS

This is the kind of synopsis where the characters and scenario are outlined, yet the resolution is left hanging: maybe a bunch of questions will be at the end hinting at how it might be resolved, but you'll have to read the script to know how it ends. In other words, you might get something like this:

BLOODY HONEYMOON

KATE and BEN have been going out for three years and when Ben finally proposes, instead of being pleased Kate suddenly realises how much time she has wasted on this loser. She decides to take bloody vengeance on Ben during their honeymoon, hunting him down aboard the luxury cruise liner they've boarded destined for the Carribean. Will Kate succeed in hacking her lover to bits? Will Ben escape? BLOODY HONEYMOON is the story of true love gone horribly wrong.


No that's NOT one of my specs or anyone else's, relax. I just made it up now (Thank God).

One of the major issues I've seen with this type of synopsis however is clarity. Just like treatments *can* be a catalogue of visuals, I find writers sometimes tie their synopses up with poetic prose. The end result is the same however, I havem't got a clue what is going on. Sometimes scribes will not make it obvious who is performing what role function or hint at a twist that is obvious, undermining potential drama. Other times it just all seems rather dreamy and random - they don't get to the "heart" of the matter, the seed of the story.

I was taught to write synopses this way at university and it did work for me quite well until about eighteen months ago. Then suddenly I was getting feedback from producers along the lines of "I want to know how it ends". "How it ends?" I said, "WTF? Don't you want a surprise???" Of the producers I spoke to, the answer was a resounding no. Why? Because they want to know, from just the synopsis, whether it's *worth* reading the script or not. And The Set Up Synopsis can't answer that. So they'd rather pass than waste a load of time on a script that may - or may not - be their bag it seems. I suppose in this case the synopsis is a kind of "guarantee" for them: READ THIS SCRIPT OR YOUR MONEY BACK. (Thank God that's not real else I'd be in serious negative equity by now).

THE ONE PAGE PITCH

It's these puppies I love now. Adrian Mead taught it to me and a whole bunch of us at his various courses and I've never looked back. What's refreshing about them is they set up and resolve but crucially don't tell the story beat by beat. In essence, you have the best of the old two synopses, neatly wrapped up in a vibrant little package. What's more, they're not boring to read. Result!

So, what's in your Pitch Doc? It's boiled down to 8 small elements:

Title
Time and Place
Genre
Protagonist
Goal
Obstacles (including Antagonist)
The Theme
"In The End By..." (Resolution)

Suddenly one's synopsis seems much more manageable.

I've used these for features, shorts, series, the works - and though my work is yet to BREAK ON THROUGH to the fabled "other side", it's been these that have got me attention, sometimes more than the script; only recently a producer rang me up and said "We've gone with another writer for the actual script but we'd like you to write the pitch stuff for when we submit it to the networks". It was paid work, better than nothing - and has got me another pitch-writing job. Can't grumble.

Of course, maybe pitch docs don't work for you - and maybe you don't do any of what I've outlined above. Just as there's no industry standard for treatments, there isn't one for synopses either. So what do you do? What troubles/successes have you had with them or the above? Over to you...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sharps Schenanigans

So like everyone else in the known universe without a TV credit, I have been writing a 30 minute script for *that* BBC initiative, Sharps.

My effort however has turned out total pants.

Shame really, 'cos there's lots I like about the script, including a talking cat who has a serious attitude problem. I was trying to go for an Ashes to Ashes/magic realism slant, but it's now just plain weird. End of the day, it just doesn't hang together over thirty minutes. Ten, it could be good. Thirty it's just pants. Hey ho, you live and learn.

No point flogging a dead horse though and I have a short to put away in a drawer, nice one. Time to get out another idea I put in a drawer over a year ago that I had forgotten about, but thanks to a weird (and random) comment from Him Indoors I have resurrected. I plan to get a draft done this week and maybe some Po3 action on it next week, so if you're interested in doing a swap, register your interest now Daily Mail style, though I promise I will send you only a script and not a supposedly wonderful partwork on Victorian engineering or some other sick-making souvenir. Enjoy your writing and if you're off to Cannes, have a productive (and fun!) time.

Oh - and the random comment of my husband, you ask?

"We really should go line dancing."

Interesting...

Friday, May 16, 2008

Outlines, Beat Sheets & Treatments

Many people ask me what is the "best" way to go about writing a feature in particular. My answer? There is no "best" way. But it's definitely going to help if you've done your prep first.

It would seem the tide is turning when it comes to treatments and outlines; when I left university in prehistoric times (all of five years ago), the general consensus in my class seemed to be that outlines and treatments were for anal wimps. They take the spontaneity out of it! We are artists! We need to BREATHE, man.

But we were, like, wrong. Man. You have to be a mentalist to not write an outline or treatment first, because an outline or treatment actually HELPS your writing. Those specs that are outlined and treatmented (word?) first ARE better scripts. Why? Because they are not streams of consciousness. Events make sense. Characters do stuff that pays off and are generally more rounded. Arena is better developed. It is *just generally* better. Plus all the *really* sucky inevitable first draft crap is gone, because the writer has excised it as s/he works out what will happen already. That makes a reader's life a WHOLE lot easier.

But what is the difference between an outline and a treatment? What about Beat Sheets? Scriptments??? There's such a vast array of names out there, it's no wonder writers and producers alike are confused as to what the other is doing or asking for. As a general rule, whenever a producer asks me to write preliminary stuff like this, I always ask them what they are expecting: one page? Five, ten? A breakdown on characters, plot? A list? A short story? What?? It's a system that seems to work well, since I've never known anyone to say anything along the lines of "WTF are you asking me for, you should somehow see INTO MY BRAIN and know automatically, YOU'RE FIRED!" Whereas I AM haunted by one instance where I SLAVED over a fifteen page "pitch" about four years ago for one guy (who I'd had a very long meeting with a week earlier), transcribing all my notes from that meeting into a workable storyline... Only to be told he'd only be looking for "twenty five words or something, you know, a logline; the story's not set in stone yet, I'm not even sure I want to go this route." OUCH.

There is no "industry standard" when it comes to pitch packages, so setting your own perimeters with your producer or knowing what others put into theirs might help you get started. So here are my thoughts on what they all are. Hope it helps...

OUTLINES

I think of outlines as writer-only material. It's the document in which YOU work out your storyline, though you can share it with script readers and editors, natch. Five or six pages should do it for a feature; less for smaller scripts obviously. Since it's all about story, I don't think you have to stress too much about character in an outline; it's all about making sure the story is coherent and in the right order. I recommend to Bang2writers generally that they write an outline in the style of a short story, even starting "Once upon a time..." if that helps (and it does some people). However I've seen outlines written as bullet points, mind maps and all sorts (though I HAVEN'T done coverage on these btw). As long as it makes sense to YOU and in turn means a coherent script will come out of it, who cares what it looks like? Better to start with an outline that looks like hell than write a script with no outline at all my ol' grandma always used to say... Actually that's not true, she said the rainbow men were coming 'cos she was totally barking, but you get my drift.

TIP: If you cannot finish your outline or have a problem with something in it, it's wiser to work on it THEN than just gloss over it and go to script regardless.

BEAT SHEET

I think of a beat sheet as a list of everything that will happen, in order, throughout your screenplay. Some people call a Beat Sheet a Step Sheet or a Scene Breakdown. If you work in TV, especially soap, there's a good chance you will be expected to submit a scene breakdown to your script editor for approval before going to script. If you go on a long screenplay course like a degree or mentorship, you may be asked for these too. I think Beat Sheets are brilliant because it's a way of diagnosing "flabby bits" in your screenplay or seeing in advance that one effort is better placed somewhere else in order to pay off later. They are however incredibly dull to write AND read. But they really are worth doing. You just have to grit your teeth and get on with it. I like to write my Beat Sheets with sluglines so I know where each scene takes place AND it's all there ready for me when I start the script so I never get lost, but you don't *have* to do this.

TREATMENTS

A treatment can be prep; you may write one to explore your story or to submit for a particular initiative or funding source. This will become your SELLING document. It is this you will use to get your producer and hopefully your deal. This is why the treatment must be uber-polished and must totally rock.

I get loads of treatments now, either through private clients or Scottish Screen. The key to a good treatment I think is not only in hooking the reader in, but remembering it's all about STORY. You can do this any way, but I think the short story idea is a "goody" again here because it's a simple format that is hard to screw up: if you use something like Grimm's fairy tales as your template, you have an automatic Three Act Structure to give you a hand. However, I have seen treatments that divide up Acts that have worked well; I've also seen treatments with introductions by producers, character lists, or written supposedly by the characters themselves - letters, diaries, biographies and suchlike. Sometimes a well-thought-out accompaniment helps, like a photograph of the lost place, character or pet which iws the focus of the piece. Once someone had gone to the trouble of making a fake front page with the news that kicked off the story, another wrote the treatment AS a magazine article, complete with pictures of the characters.

When these fancy ideas work well, they can be brilliant. But beware of covering up a poorly conceived story with fancy artwork. The treatments I read are so often just a series of visuals and this means I haven't got a clue what is going on. you need to make every action of your characters' journey obvious, it's like scene description; don't think about the LOOK of the scene, but how your STORY fits together. Character is often undersold in the treatment too, which is why I'm a big fan of what people sometimes call the "scriptment", which appear to be treatments with dialogue in, something I've only seen spring up in the last two years or so. The key here is in making sure that you don't go OVERBOARD with the dialogue; using a little to characterise certain people works wonders - use too much and the reader wonders why you bothered submitting a treatment, why not the actual script?

NEXT: Synopsis or Pitch Doc, which should I choose?

LINKS

A Rather Good Collection of Treatments, Step Outlines, Scriptments from the lovely peeps at Simply Scripts

How to Write A Step Outline (eHow Guide) - a useful breakdown

How To Write A Treatment by Kristen - Some straightforward points here and short

Formulating The Treatment - some useful points on the difference between synopses and treatments as well as loglines

Writing Treatments - my favourite site, contains everything you need ever know about treatments

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Short Film Scripts Wanted

I saw this on Talent Circle this morning and thought some of you peeps might be interested... If you're not a member of Talent Circle already, WHY NOT?? This is the kind of great opportunity featured on there all the time. Register today!!!
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From Solarmonite Productions:

I am looking for a short film script, 10 pages or less, that deals with either of the following:

1. Contemporary social and/or polital issues affecting British society,
2. Social and/or political issues affecting immigrants or immigrant groups in the UK

If you have written a short film script that you think may address these topics, please forward them onto me. The script I choose will be shot with a £10k budget and £500 will be paid to the writer if the script is chosen to be made.

No CVs, just scripts please.

Please just attach the scripts to your email. NO SPECS OR TREATMENTS, JUST SCRIPTS.
Send to: solarmonite"at"googlemail"dot"com

Thanks,

Nick Tyrone

The Man Who Would Be Queen At Cannes

The Cannes Film Festival opened this week and writer/director and friend of this blog JK Amalou is off to the other side of the Channel to flog his new film, The Man Who Would Be Queen with sales agent Visual Factory. I'm lucky enough to have seen this film already and can tell you it is a stellar hoot and has one of my favourite (not to mention outrageous) lines of dialogue of all time in it.

But don't take my word for it: watch this clip. Enjoy and keep an eye out for the release because I have faith that it won't be long now before it's out in a cinema near you.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Character Vs. Plot

No I'm not dead -- thanks for asking. Just VERY busy and generally distracted. And teaching EFL 'cos super broke. Joy.

Thanks for the comments on the coincidence post: some useful stuff there. Seems the general consensus is coincicidence is an absolute no-no UNLESS it's a small issue AND gets your protagonist into some kind of trouble.

So here's another for you: character or plot - which is most important? After all, we read loads on creating great characters and loads on killer plot and structure. It's all well and good saying they MUST go hand in hand, but it's said that audiences don't remember plots, they remember characters. On the flip side, you can have the greatest character in the world, but if the plot is rubbish your spec is going nowhere.

So does character have the upper hand in a spec? Or plot?

So what is it to be? You can be on one side - or the other. Not both. Over to you...

Saturday, May 10, 2008

What A Coincidence!

Many thanks to Richard who indulges my fantasy that I am John August's long lost love child with this question:

When does coincidence become a cop out in a plot?

This is a good question. Certainly I read lots of scripts in which coincidence figures as a necessary part of the plot which ultimately lets the piece down; I end up writing "how convenient" a certain event is in clients' coverage and pose other ways for the same ends to come about. Sometimes coincidences happen for no apparent reason too - especially when it comes to character and/or dialogue: "You're a Virgo? So am I! What a coincidence!" So the knee jerk reaction would seem that NOT EVEN THE TINIEST level of coincidence is deemed any good, every single plot move must be completely, 100% organic or bust.

But this is not true. A certain (small) level of coincidence, used at the right time, I think is fine. The overheard answer machine message or eavesdropped conversation might be a tad overused, but in the right place in the narrative, they can slip past readers with no worries at all.

And that's the key issue here. If you're going to have a coincidence in your plotline, not only does it need to be a small issue, it needs to be employed when there is absolutely no other way the story can be advanced. For example, I wrote a script recently in which one character needs to find another and I used a small coincidence to ensure he was put on the right track. I was a little iffy about this, I was unsure the reader would be willing to accept that this could occur. So in addition, I used a diversionary tactic WHILST the coincidence occurred, so it wasn't ALL ABOUT that coincidence in the scene itself.

And it worked. Of seven readers, only one even noted the coincidence, but - get this - said it was no biggie, even if I beefed it up a little. Now of course this is not a huge scientific study and essentially proves very little, but having read many scripts in which coincidence figures strongly, I think that by confining coincidence to SMALL issues and ensuring it is in the right place, you can get away with it. Just don't do it more than once!

What do you think?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

BBC's Academy of Crime...

...Drama, that is. Hot off the press from Broadcast and as rumoured by various blogging attendants of various Q&As and courses at the moment:
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The BBC is extending its successful drama academy to serials, with a special focus on crime drama.

Each year it will take on eight writers with experience on long-running dramas and develop their skills in more prestigious short-running series over a two-week course. Together, they will develop at least one new crime drama and graduates could work on Waking the Dead or Silent Witness.

"It is a step up in that sense," said Ceri Meryck, development producer, new talent and co-tutor at the academy.

The BBC is also planning to sponsor writers from the nations and regions to take part in the main drama academy, which takes place in London over three months every year.

The moves follow the launch of the Comedy College, which aims to develop new sitcom writers and has had over 1,300 applicants since it was announced at the start of this year.

They also join the successful Writers' Academy run by Meryck and John Yorke, which develops new writers on soaps like Holby City and EastEnders. The academy is now in its fourth year.
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I'm obviously not eligible with no TV credits, though plenty of people floating around the Blogosphere are... What do you think of this move by Aunty? A fantastic opportunity or telling you how to do your job? I'm sure there are some strong feelings (or will be!) about this scheme, so let's hear 'em.

My application for the regular Writers' Academy has alreayd gone off... for the third year running. I'm hoping for an interview this year. But we'll have to wait and see. As always. I've also got an application in for Guiding Lights. Anyone else gone in for that? Over to you...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Buy May's Scriptwriter Magazine ...

...Or this cute bunny gets it! That's RIGHT! It will be pulverised by my guinea-pig-poking daughter. So buy this month's Scriptwriter Magazine TODAY!

Why? Oh, there's just an article in it you might like, 'tis all. By yours truly. About script reading and why writers write, including insights from the likes of Adrian Mead, Marc Pye, Danny Stack - and let's not forget blogging faves Dom, Elinor & David, amongst others.

So do it!

Do it today!

Or blood will be on your hands my friends, oh yes.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Genre or Die, Pt 8: Art Film - More Than Meets The Eye?

SPOILERS: Memento, Dust Devil, Angel Heart
Okay, Art Film isn't *strictly* a genre on its own. But it's a "type" of film and though Art Film can incorporate all types of genre (though it's often horror/thriller, but not always), it's something scribes are very often interested in. Not only did Elinor ask for Art Film to be looked at as part of Genre or Die, such films as Pi, Lost Highway, Hellraiser and Existenz [amongst others] have come up for discussion on this blog more than once. But what is Art Film? I don't get a lot of art scripts, has to be said. What I do get is scribes making this assertion:

"I'm trying to do _______________ with the story and if it doesn't work out, I can always pass it off as being an Art Film!"

Art Film is not the "easy" option or the option to take if your story does not make sense or your structure has gone to pot. I can see why some writers might think this: after all, looking at the work of David Lynch one might be forgiven for thinking he does exactly what he likes and be damned. Bill Pullman becomes Balthazar Getty in Lost Highway: why? Because he does??? I'm not a of the surreal to be honest: there are many Art Films that literally do my head in. The moment in Pi when the protagonist drills into his own head?? Yikes, no thanks. Totally not my bag.

But there is more to Art film than madness or the surreal. In fact, many films that carry the "Art" tag are those you would not expect. Memento is a good example. This was a HUGE film, is there anyone left who hasn't watched it? Art Film can be massive film, it doesn't have to be on the fringes. What separates Art Film from Hollywood fare is its willingness to take risks. Can you imagine Christopher Nolan going into MGM, Universal or whatever and saying: "I have this idea! The main narrative goes backwards, the sub plot goes forwards..." They'd have stopped him right there. NEXT!

Art Film is a notoriously hard sell, full stop - but when it does sell, it's nearly always the indies that make it. The hassle doesn't end there either: you don't just make a film and it comes out, it has to get distribution too. Art Films often spend ages languishing in the can, waiting for sales agents to pick them up. THEN you have to get your audience - luckily, audiences interested in Art Film seem to be more open-minded than average: they seem more prone to watching anything and judging it on its own merits, as opposed to making assumptions about the material in advance. What's more word-of-mouth helps Art Film: we saw this with Memento. On the flipside of course, if they think your film sucks that will spread like wildfire too, especially on the internet via message boards, ebulletins and of course, blogs.

Yet why do scribes persist with the notion that Art film does not have to make sense? As far as I see it, a good Art Film has two layers: it's LITERAL layer and its SYMBOLIC layer. The literal layer could be surreal (like Lost Highway or Pi) or it could be quite straightforward, but done in an unusual way (like Memento). Symbolism then is employed to give the film "extra meaning": if you have Memento's special edition DVD as I do, you will have seen in the special features section Nolan's interest in presenting the narrative as a kind of Mobius Tape (though he never uses this term). This is a mathematical concept that talks about the possibility of other dimensions - and given Memento's preoccupation with the different truths of different people (including Shelby's "old" perception before his injury and his "new" one afterwards), it could be argued that Nolan did this as a representation of his own perception of those dimensions.

Or maybe not. Maybe I've read a completely different perception in there - maybe if he were to read this blog entry, he would say "That wasn't what I meant EVEN VAGUELY." Whatever the case, my reading of that symbolic layer - if it's even there (or not!) - makes ABSOLUTELY NO DIFFERENCE to how the plot plays out on a LITERAL level: Leonard Shelby's wife is murdered and he seeks to avenge her by killing the infamous John G. In other words, I believe Art Film has a straightforward way of taking it - and if you want to dig deeper, there is something more HOWEVER you want to take it.

Two of my favourite films are Dust Devil and Angel Heart. Both are thriller/horrors and both focus around the concept of facing up to who you REALLY are. On a literal level both include protagonists who go on a quest or journey: in Dust Devil, a woman leaves her abusive husband and drives out into the desert where she runs into a murderous hitch hiker. In Angel Heart, a detective is hired by the enigmatic Luis Cipher who wants him to find a client of his, Johnny Favourite. In both films, it means the protagonist's literal death and the symbolic taking of their souls for they both meet their doom at the hands of The Prince of Darkness, Ol' Nick himself.

Both these films resonated with me on a symbolic, rather than literal level. I've watched many films that involve women running away from husbands and I've watched many films where detectives are employed to find someone. What was different about these was the fact that I took something from that symbolic layer that meant something to ME personally. From watching those two films I made my own story in fact: an arty thriller called Thy Will Be Done which ironically has gained me the most reads and most opportunities, despite the fact Art Film is always a hard sell.

I believe that extra layer, going beyond just "added extras", "in jokes" or clever allusion is what separates Art Film from "usual" film. Or I could be talking rubbish. It's all a matter of perception, after all ; )

Any personal faves of yours? What do you like/not like about Art Film? Over to you...
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LINKS & CLIPS:

An excellent short history of Art Film, including a look at notable films decade by decade

Dust Devil - plot synopsis, summary, photos

Angel Heart, including an in-depth look at its more arty and symbolic themes

Trailer For Angel Heart:

Trailer for Dust Devil:

Friday, May 02, 2008

Genre or Die, Pt 7 (2 of 2): Gangster/Crime Specs

I've always been interested in crime and read lots on the subject: I'll never forget my year 9 English Teacher Mrs. Robins' face when I gave in a discursive essay - with gory photocopied pictures, no Google images then! - on serial killers. But hey, I got an A.

So it's kind of inevitable then that I LOVE gangster films. And though gangster films have "peak times" when everybody's doing 'em, they never *really* go away. Maybe less so for me, since one genre Bang2write gets A LOT is gangster. You may remember I've already posted about Marc Pye's Act of Grace (debuting at the London Film Festival! More on that soon) and of course JK Amalou's Hard Men only the other day as the last post in this series.

One thing I have learned from the plethora of gangster specs that I've read over the years is that it's really hard to do well. This is probably the most "movie-like" of genres in that MOST scribes seem to use OTHER MOVIES as their reference point in terms of content, rather than real-life experience. Whilst other genres - even those with high bloodshed like horror - seem to draw on people's real thoughts and feelings in the very least, the gangster specs I see often seem to attempt to recreate other successful movies. I've seen Reservoir Dogs rewritten the most time by my generation, whereas Get Carter appears to the fave amongst slightly older writers. Layer Cake is another favourite however, as is Lock, Stock.

One thing all these specs share however is the fact the scribes concerned have mistaken the fact the notion of "gangster" is essentially the arena, not the actual subject matter. We are not potentially going to watch this film because there are gangsters in the world; examining how this happens is WAY TOO BIG for one film alone. Besides anything, as audience goers we are interested most in the minutaie of life: we want to see one character's journey into BECOMING a gangster (Goodfellas); trying to leave his gangster life behind (Sexy Beast) or fighting gangsters (The Untouchables). In short, "gangster" is the backdrop - this is the world your character lives in and what we want to see is his journey (because it usually is a male protagonist) through that world.

So copying films already in existence is not going to cut it. Gangster films have that same arena in common anyway, what we're looking for is the NEW way of looking at it THROUGH a new character's eyes. What really grabbed me about Sexy Beast for example was not Ben Kingsley, as great a performance as that was - it was Ray Winstone's character, Gal. When all those Brit gangster films reared up in the late nineties/early noughties, most of the leads had been super hardcore nutters like Vinnie Jones in Lock, Stock. Instead then, as a contrast, here was Gal who LOVED his wife, cared about his friends, had achieved his dream of moving to Spain - in short, he was a NORMAL BLOKE. We probably all know fellas a bit like Gal. When a crazy bastard like Don turns up then, is it any wonder Gal and his wife would do ANYTHING to protect their dream, including not only murder but grand larceny?? I know I would.

In short, making your gangster spec stand out is not looking at gangster so much, as at character. Granted, your backdrop must *feel* authentic, but you can get away with a fair bit of leeway here, since I would venture 99% of your audience aren't going to really understand what it's like to BE a gangster anyway. But every one of us knows what it's like to be HUMAN and it's this human element that is so often missing from gangster specs. Make us believe in your character and we will believe in the notion of "gangster".

Let's have a quick breakdown of "types" of gangster:

Old School Gangster: These are the grandaddies of the genre and required watching for anyone serious about writing a gangster spec. As JK recommended, Brighton Rock is an obvious choice, as is the likes of Get Carter and The Long Good Friday. Get 'em on your LoveFilm/Netflix list.

New School Gangster: These type of gangster films often pit one person against the rest of the group, upping the stakes in a "me versus them" way, as in Hard Men or The Departed. Whatever the case, these gangster films often make personal preservation the name of the game, above heists or deals.

Mafia Gangster: There are so many of these they really deserve their own section and no one does it better than Ol' Scorsese I reckon. The Departed was a real return to form, but the likes of Mean Streets, Casino and Goodfellas are top notch examples. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro really dominate this element of the genre: The Godfather, Heat, The Untouchables. Once Upon A Time In America all show what great gangsters or gangster-fighters they can be. Sometimes it's not the Mafia that is involved, but other organised crime like Triads in AoG (Chinese organised crime), Yakuza (Japanese, Showdown in Little Tokyo) or Eastern European Gangs. It could even be argued that the multiple Agent Smiths employed by The Matrix to track down Neo are a form of Mafia.

Surreal/Comic Book Gangster: Sometimes gangster will mix with the surreal as in Sexy Beast as Gal contemplates that weird rabbit guy. Other times gangsters will start their lives as computer games like in Hitman. What these types of gangster films share is a curious sense of "unreality" as the plot plays out, though this does not mean they necessarily sacrifice character to do so.

Biopic Gangster: There have been some real larger-than-life gangsters in REAL life, so it's inevitable they've been recreated for the screen. The Krays is the most obvious Brit Choice here and Al Capone in The Untouchables, though there are plenty of others to choose from. Sometimes real gangsters end up in gangster films too, like Mad Frankie in Hard Men as Pops Den. Art imitating life!

What about your favourite gangster films?

LINKS AND CLIPS

Top Ten British Gangster Movies - weirdly includes Reservoir Dogs, though I suppose Tim Roth is in it

Top Twenty Gangster Movies According To List Universe - nearly all American, with photos and clips

The Ultimate Gangster And Crime Film Website - some GREAT stuff here

Film Essay On Gangster & Crime Films - this describes key characteristics of the genre and notable film examples, including silent films

Marc Pye's Act of Grace, a gangster film about Triads in Manchester - includes photos, synopsis and a clip