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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

One Page Pitches: Concepts and Character Journeys

So my Red Planet Reflections threw up this intriguing nugget from the marvellous Bingethink:

Interested to hear what you say about character journeys and their importance in the one-page pitch.

What would you say about the character journeys in Doctor Who, Ugly Betty, Lost, New Tricks or Holby City in a one-page pitch.

By which I don't mean that there are no moving / dramatic / artful / engaging character journeys in those shows - just that the way I would describe any of those programmes in a one-page pitch wouldn't focus heavily on any one's character journey.

For me, a TV series is about the concept of the show. The concept should allow for a multitude of stories to be told. The key characters should be designed to best inhabit those kinds of stories. I'm not sure any of that demands a character journey as such - that sounds to me far more relevant to a finite serial or movie screenplay
.

I think there's two aspects to consider here. First off, what exactly is a "concept" when it comes to a drama series. Secondly, what is meant by a "character journey"?

I agree absolutely with Bingethink that concept is everything when trying to sell a story via the one page pitch. When I read pitches I'm often struck by the fact that scribes can very often nail their characters but not actually the *point* of them - why we're watching. However because there is no *set* way of describing how we see these elements, we can get confused on what we're actually trying to achieve or even explain, but I'll try to unmuddle my own thoughts on this one...

For me, concept IS the very story you're trying to sell - ie. the premise. It's this that will drive your logline: after all, you don't say to a producer, "Hey, I have this great story about a bloke!" You say, "I have this great story about a bloke who_________" or "About the world of____________" or even better, "about a bloke in the world of_____________".

If we think of Dr. Who then, one of Bingethink's examples, for me it would be roughly something along the lines of: "About a time-travelling humanoid alien in a phone box who helps human beings out a variety of historical, future and present (often doomsday) scenarios." (I know, pretty crap. But you get the gist - that couldn't actually be anything BUT Dr. Who really, could it?). It's this idea of the premise then I often find is "missing" from pitch docs - scribes don't sell this enough, preferring instead to concentrate on who the story is about, neglecting WHY it's about them, in essence.

So if concept is in fact the whole premise you're trying to sell to someone via your pitch doc, then for me character journey is something that DRAWS your reader in, makes them WANT to invest in your story. After all, I'm not a big fan of the PREMISE of Dr. Who as everyone on this blog knows (Police phone box? What? Never got that), yet there have been elements of that show I've adored, Silence in The Library/Forest of The Dead being two episodes of FANTASTIC television. I absolutely loved those - and one of the reasons for that is not just because Stephen Moffatt is a God, but because I loved the journey we saw The Doctor take with River Song.

However, if we were to look at a pitch doc for Dr. Who, then no doubt it would make no reference to River Song. She is part of the plotting WITHIN the show, not the concept OF the show. This is a returning drama series after all and it would make no sense at all to suppose that all that was laid down in advance (especially considering Dr. Who was created donkey's years ago). Writers have to have some room to breathe and create AS they go along in drama series, that's the whole point of TV drama in my eyes.

The character journey in the pitch doc to me then is inevitably connected to concept. In other words, you have the concept or premise of the show - the WHY of the story, in effect - then you build UPON that by saying in a *more general way* WHO it's about and WHAT they do.

So if going back to the "bigger" part of Dr. Who then for the pitch doc, it would be his motivations for trying to save the human race I suppose - he's the last of his kind, he looks like a human, knows a lot about them (so can presumably relate to them); maybe he's "making up" for his failure to save the rest of the time Lords (I'm guessing here, I have only really watched series 4 of the last lot of Dr. Who and watched virtually none as a child, so if that's far off the mark Who fans - soz.)

Of course, something like Holby City then is completely different to Dr. Who. Dr. Who is the lynchpin of his series, he is really the whole point of it. There have been episodes in which he has not figured as the most prominent character or even at all (Donna's episode where she turns the wrong way the most obvious example), but without him there would be no show. This is not the case with Holby City: any of the characters can be replaced at will - and they have, for I think I'm right in saying now that not one of them is an original cast member from the start in 1999. Plenty of other shows like Holby City share this similarity. So how they hell do you write that in a pitch doc?

Well actually, I think you can still do it the same way. You still need a concept and you still need a character that will START your drama off; even if they can be replaced further down the line, their journey is still important in the meantime, else why are you asking us to watch? But if that doesn't sit well with you, you could write the cast of characters as a whole, relating the story to their individual threads in a more general, loose way - dependant on what the characters do for a living or within the storyline, you can relate their journeys to the movement forward of the concept.

So, the way I see it in "nailing" the pitch doc is: you're selling a story, so first and foremost you need to underline the premise for the reader, make sure they know WHY we're watching. Secondly, ensure they know WHO that concept is about and WHAT they're supposed to be doing, linking it back to that WHY. You can try and tick as many different boxes as you like, but end of the day I see those as the most important two elements - and it's nearly always concept that suffers in the pitches I see.

What do you think? Over to you...

Bizarre Phone Call

Tuesday. Lucy sits down at laptop, about to start reading for the day.

LANDLINE: Ring, ring!

LUCY'S BRAIN: No one ever phones me at 9am on the landline. Panic. Something's wrong. Maybe the FTSE has exploded and the bank is ringing to tell me all my money has spontaneously combusted? Oh wait a minute: I have no money. Well, maybe The Girl has been biting other kids at nursery again like the bloodthirsty vampire child she is. Must. Not. Pick. Up.

Landline stops.

Phew.

MOBILE: Ring, ring!

LUCY'S BRAIN: Oh, cripes. Witheld number. Definitely not answering. Could be the school to tell me The Boy has insulted his teachers with a flagrant use of adjectives from his massively extended vocabulary... Oh, LCD flashing... Keeps ringing... Can't resist--

--Lucy picks up mobile.

LUCY: Hello?

Beep.

LUCY: Hello, is anyone there?

INDIAN MAN: One moment, please.

LUCY: But you called me?

Beep.

Lucy drums fingers on the table.

LUCY'S BRAIN: Why in the name of bloody hell are you waiting? Put the phone down, you muppet...

Click.

INDIAN WOMAN: Hello! Hello, it is a pleasure to talk to you.

LUCY: Er, thanks. What's this about?

INDIAN WOMAN: You have won.

LUCY: Oh... Won what?

INDIAN WOMAN: One moment, please.

Beep.

LUCY'S BRAIN: Right, this is crazy. If you can't just put the phone down because you're too English, just say you're not interested when she comes back.

Beep.

Beep.

INDIAN WOMAN: Hello!

LUCY: Er, hello. Listen, I--

INDIAN WOMAN: I have exciting news, you have won.

LUCY: Yes, I know, you said. Thing is...

INDIAN WOMAN: I need to confirm a few details, will this be possible please?

LUCY: Well, that's just it, I have work to do, I just--

INDIAN WOMAN: You are Cerys Mitchell, yes?

LUCY: Um, no.

INDIAN WOMAN: Oh. Then you have not won.

LUCY: Oh.

INDIAN WOMAN: Thank you for calling! Bye--

LUCY: But you called me.

Dial tone.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Making It As A Screenwriter

As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I don't have a lot of time for the dreaded "how to write" screenwriting books as they get right up my nose half the time and bore me to death the rest.

However, I DO have a lot of time for what Adrian Mead has to say - and he's only gone and written an e-book like a true Guru! I'm lucky enough to have read it already (though he seems to have left off MY official recommendation - I'll KILL YOU MEAD! UPDATE: I'm on the website! Adrian lives), but can recommend it most heartily. It's NOT one of those smug, do-it-like-this-and-all-will-be-roses-and-you-can-be-the next-Shane-Black, far from it. Instead it's about STRATEGISING - talent is not enough, nor is sending three million scripts out in the post and crossing your fingers. YOU NEED A PLAN. Adrian helps you to formulate one. Simple - so why hasn't anyone done this before?!?

Best of all, proceeds of MAKING IT AS A SCREENWRITER go to Childline, one of my fave charities.

You need this book.

Download it now.

----------------------------------------------------------------------
“In the confusing forest of screenwriting books here is a sturdy oak: simple, honest and true. Highly recommended.”Ashley Pharoah
Co-Creator of Life On Mars. Ashes To Ashes. Where The Heart Is.

We are pleased to announce the launch of the much-anticipated MAKING IT AS A SCREENWRITER. This not a “how to write” book but a manual that lays out exactly what you need to do in order to achieve your goal of becoming a professional screenwriter.

“Every aspiring writer should be forced to read this, at gunpoint. If I'd had this when I first started writing, I'd have cried a bit, but would have been so much better prepared. You need to read this book immediately.”
James Moran Screenwriter
Severance. Doctor Who. Torchwood. Primeval

"I love this book, it just tells you how it is and what you need to succeed."
Tony Jordan Screenwriter
Creator of Hustle, Holby Blue. Co Creator of Life On Mars

Getting your hands on a copy of MAKING IT AS A SCREENWRITER couldn’t be easier... but first I’d like to tell you a story.

I pressed the button on the phone and the first sound I heard in the headset was a child sobbing. She was barely able to speak, kept saying the same thing over and over…”I just want it to stop.” It was Monday morning 7.30 am. My very first call as a ChildLine volunteer counsellor.

When I first heard that ChildLine were opening a new office in Edinburgh I started to think about volunteering. Their website stated, “ChildLine is the UK's free and confidential, 24-hour helpline for children in distress or danger”. What would I be letting myself in for? I mean, play me the scene where the mother elephant reaches her trunk through the bars to caress Dumbo and I’m bawling like a baby. How would I cope?

The interview process and training was fascinating. Yes there are calls about abuse, however children also call to talk about bullying, family break ups, exam pressures, homework, puberty, and pretty much anything they feel unable to discuss with parents, teachers or friends.

The fantastic training and the short time I have experienced as a counselor so far has definitely given me new skills and an insight into my own psyche. I’m convinced it’s also made me a better writer and director.

Okay, at this point you may be thinking, “What’s all this to do with me? Well, here’s where you come in. Apart from a tiny admin cost, all proceeds from sales of MAKING IT AS A SCREENWRITER will go to ChildLine. By making it exclusively available as a download we can maximize the funds the charity will receive.

Here’s a few more professionals who think you should get hold of a copy.

“I will recommend this book to all the aspiring writers I work with – it’s practical, honest and inspiring.”

Carly Rich-Conway –
Red Planet Drama Executive and writer

“Lots of other screenwriting books do the ‘Go! Screenwriters!’ cheerleader routine. Adrian Mead is more the hard-bitten coach in the dressing room, slapping you in the face and telling you exactly what you have to do to win. It won’t make you write better scripts, but it will help you sell them.”Andy Conway
Shooting People Screenwriters Network'

'Hard graft doesn't always get you what you want, but used in conjunction with this book as your guide, the chances are it'll help you turn that dream into a reality.”
Marc Pye Screenwriter
Credits include The Street, Eastenders, The Bill

"… jam-packed with honest and life changing information that could only come from a successful industry insider. I highly recommend it to anyone serious about making it in TV or film."Geoff Thompson
Author, Screenwriter and BAFTA winner

The simple truth is talent isn’t enough. You need to know how to get your work into the hands of people with money and then to continue to build a career beyond your first commission. MAKING IT AS A SCREENWRITER will teach you all this and much, much more.

"Practical, insightful…It's all about the nuts and bolts of how to get ahead rather than any grand posturing about 'how to write'. I wish I had something like this when I was starting out, it would have saved me a lot of time and frustration."
Danny Stack
Scriptwriter

MAKING IT AS A SCREENWRITER is now available for the price of £7.79. You can download your copy from our site www.meadkerr.com

Your purchase will enable ChildLine to continue to offer support and help to children throughout the UK.

Best Wishes
Adrian Mead
Writer, Director and ChildLine volunteer telephone counsellor.

Red Planet Reflections

Well, Red Planet closes tomorrow, so suffice it to say most of you will have got your entries in the post by now. I sent mine last week, but am now telling myself I forgot to include the one page pitch doc and will now be disqualified (this is despite checking it three billion times, plus getting my husband to check it and my son - after all, it might have turned invisible INSIDE THE ENVELOPE and somehow got out on the way to the postbox).

Of course, I was in the privileged position of having a squizz at my competition, being a reader - I read even more Red Planet entries than last year; at my last count it was approximately sixty different versions, either through Bang2write or Po3. I thought it would be of interest to share a few of my reflections on the whole process.

Many writers came back to me several times, so I was able to see the evolution of their ideas; one chap came back no less than five times between July and last week and actually ended up submitting something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT to what he had in the first place. Fellas it seemed were either completely organised or completely last minute, with most of the laydeez plodding steadily on, though it was interesting to see many men willing to go back to page 1 without a second's thought. Also, many of the women writers had a complete downer on themselves I noticed: they kept saying there was no way they would finish in time, that they couldn't get a grip on the whole drama series idea, that their ideas were shit or convoluted. Oi Ladies no!

Alot of the series dealt with the supernatural - at least in part. Some dealt with disaster, genocide, teachnology, Hell, but ALL had a dystopian view of the future or the near-present. Interestingly, not one had vampires or werewolves in, though plenty dealt with witches and ghosts. If the series weren't supernatural, then they were period, ranging from approximately from the year 1200 to WW2. Great figures from history (particularly kings and queens but also politicians and literary greats), often figured prominently within these period dramas, either as protagonist or antagonist. A couple were both supernatural AND period. I saw just one cop show and even that was period. There were no medical shows at all - mine is a medical show (set in present day!) and I had feared that Red Planet would be swamped with this genre. If they are, it won't be from Bang2writers!

Almost without exception scribes struggled with the pitch doc. Troubles ranged from syntax and grammar obfuscating the story right through to the story being incoherent or missing altogether. It seems to me that many scribes have no problem identifying characters, but have issues making their journey (and thus the plot) obvious. As I said to several, we're selling a STORY: characters are of course part of that, but a character without a premise and a journey is just that - a character, floating in space.

But then of course, I can talk: I had my own problems with my pitch doc; not so much with the story but the fact my protagonist at one point apparently sounded "like a whiny, do-gooding bitch" according to one Po3er, LOL. I ended up doing no less than eleven versions of my pitch doc - which ranged from "dull" to "confused" to "meh" according to feedbackers. It was the sixth attempt I actually managed to interest people and ninth before it was even half-ready. On my eleventh draft of the pitch doc, I sent that and my ten pages to a particularly harsh reading friend of mine who came back with:

"Fabulous pitch. Pity about the pages."

OUCH!

I actually rewrote the first three pages of my ten pages the most - there were four different openings. Confusingly, everyone had something positive to say about each version, apart from the third that went haywire. It was only when my harsh reading friend half-liked one of the versions that I realised I might be onto something. Not because his judgement is the only one I listen to, but because he made the good point that an opener needs to reflect the tone of the show. It was then I realised that as an opener for a comedy drama, I needed some comedy. Sounds obvious, but sometimes you need someone to smack you in the face with it. The first attempt I made at comedy then raised a few laughs, but it was too long. The second (which was my terrible third attempt) wasn't funny. The third - that was what I was going for. Unfortunately, my last (unconnected) reader said he would have done something else entirely, but then sometimes you also have to realise that you're not another person, you're you - and you can't change that, so you can't change the script.

So what have I learned? Well, first off - you have to follow your heart. Cheesy I know, but cheese and truth often go hand in hand. Secondly, make sure you put story above all else in pitch docs, 'cos that's what you're selling: it doesn't matter how great or intriguing your character is, if the reader doesn't know what that character is doing, all it becomes is a mad mix of words and images and that's NEVER as enticing as a good story. Thirdly, start as early as possible. I began my drafts in July and thank God for that, else I'm sure I'd still be writing now and missing that all-important deadline. Plus the drafts that have had many rewrites are always, always better - and that's even if you write good first drafts. I had several professionals come through for this contest and of course their first drafts were very accomplished: but you can still tell a first draft, even from them.

What about you, what have you learned?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Writer Song Meme

Though I'm swamped with reading work, it's all quiet on the Western Front this week blog-wise thanks to various Bloggers' trips and last minute RPP entries and other studff it seems... So perfect time to invent a meme, then! Here's how it goes:

Find a song that sums up what you think it means to be a writer and post the lyrics on your blog and why you've chosen it. NB: It doesn't have to be your favourite song, it just has to express how you feel about writing and/or being a writer. It can be literal, metaphorical, about a particular form or aspect of writing - whatever you want. Then tag 5 others to do the same (reprint these instructions).

Here's mine, then.

I chose The Logical Song by Supertramp. I love the metering on it, but the real reason I chose it is because I've often been accused of having my head in the clouds over the years - by teachers and people in authority mostly (always HATED teachers, kind of ironic I trained as one... I was going to change the system from the inside, man! Yeah right, lol). I've always wondered why having your head in the clouds is seen as BAD thing? There are plenty of people who believe there is no value in fiction, that it can't teach us anything and this really saddens me because not only are those people missing out, the world is to by not having other people to add their dreams to it.

Here are the lyrics:

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful;
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily,
Joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.

There are times when all the world's asleep,
The questions run too deep
For such a simple man.
Won't you please, please tell me what we've learned?
I know it sounds absurd,
But please tell me who I am.

Now watch what you say or theyll be calling you a radical:
Liberal, fanatical, criminal.
Won't you sign up your name? We'd like to feel you're
Acceptable, respectable, presentable, a vegetable!

At night, when all the world's asleep,
The questions run so deep
For such a simple man.
Won't you please, please tell me what we've learned?
I know it sounds absurd,
But please tell me who I am.

I TAG: Davey, PDiddy, Sir Daniel, Lianne, Lara and Dom. GO!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Undercover Girl - New Me TV

It would seem internet serials and drama series are the way to go. If you're interested in this phenomena as a writer or are a teenage girl (or both!), you may well be interested in the latest drama series, Undercover Girl.

Taking its lead from such internet classics as Kate Modern and Sophia's Diary, Undercover Girl has a real difference: it's a whole lifestyle magazine! Whilst Undercover Girl follows the fates of four very different girls making it in the fashion world, its hosting site New Me TV has articles, contests, problem pages, the works.

And oh yeah: one of its columnists happens to be your truly. You can read my article this week here.

You know the drill: read it or the Bang2write bunny (I keep it specially for these occasions of blackmail)GETS IT. Plus you will find some insights on what men want from women from bloggers such as the lovely Dazza aka Evil Twinz, David and English Dave. What more do you want?!

Ta.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

If ALIEN Were Made in 2008...

It's hard to believe that Alien will be thirty years old next year. Barring a few special F/X and props, I think it still looks better than some movies produced only ten or fifteen years ago and story-wise it is still one of my faves. Here's my tongue-in-cheek look at some of the elements that make up this great film and how they might be viewed from today's perspective by a (totally barking) script reader... The first thing that really jumps out at me is the fact these characters seem really larger than life. All of them have unlikable traits, none of them really strike me as the "hero" type, even sole survivor Ripley. In short, it's as if they're TOO real - I don't have any trouble imagining coming across any of these guys, with their 3D problems and prejudices. Is there any way we can make them a little less "gritty" and make them a bit more movie-like, something for the audience to aspire to: tougher, not as scared, with less bickering amongst themselves? After all, these characters are used to travelling together, surely? Would they really be reduced to school-like exchanges and petty squabbling? They're adults for God's sake.

Similarly, I wonder if anyone here could be better looking - especially the women. There's not even any mention of whether they wear make-up, let alone their cup sizes. I like the fact Ripley strips to her underwear however when faced with the creature in the resolution - but don't think this goes far enough. What if she was the type of girl who likes to wear sexy lingerie under her boring boiler suit, just like many women do under their office clothes in reality? Whilst we're on the subject of appearances too, the actual spaceship seemed a little too grim to me. I would have liked more polished chrome and steel. Similarly I would have preferred the characters to curse and smoke less, for it just made them appear uncouth when surely they have had to study very academic-based subjects like astro-physics to go into space, just like our current astronauts?

Secondly, another troublesome factor for me is that for the first forty minutes approximately, nothing much happens! As nice as it is to establish the story, its scenario, characters & arena, plus the characters' predicament meaning they are forced to land on The Forbidden Planet, the story doesn't really get going as far as I'm concerned until the Facehugger attaches itself to Kane. What if the movie started at this moment? Open movie - big egg - creature jumps out - POW! In his face... Better still, why not start with the chest bursting sequence! We could really go to town with the CGI on that, plus it would have the added bonus of distracting the audience of how the chestburst actually came about story-wise. Perhaps Ripley could mention something about it when Dallas goes into the vent later (like that by the way, keep that); something like, "Wow, what bad luck Kane brought a chestbursting alien on board from that horrible planet we landed on earlier" should do it. Better than that, obviously; you're the writer.

Another issue I had was suspension of disbelief. The first concerned Ash and the fact he was a robot. Why was he frozen then along with the others, couldn't he have maintained the ship whilst they were in hypersleep? And how did The Company know that they would need a robot aboard in case of running into aliens like this? Are they psychic? Also, considering Ash is a science officer, he must surely have detailed files of the human anatomy - yet he chooses to attempt to strangle Ripley with a rolled-up porno mag, rather than strangle her with his own hands which surely would have been more successful? I think we can still get the porno in there, (like your thinking that it should be literally shoved down women's throats because they moan about it all the time), but I'm sure there's a better way. Perhaps we could have Parker or Brett masturbating to it earlier on in the movie - and perhaps that's why Ripley comes down to yell at them after they've crashed, because otherwise there's no reason for that scene when she says "You'll get whatever's coming to you." That line also has a nice hint of irony with the word "coming" too now by including it.

The second suspension of disbelief issue I had concerns the actual creature. Considering the crew of The Nostromo don't exactly keep quiet after the alien has grown large - they're yelling at each other, screaming, sounding alarms and setting fire to homicidal robots - how come Parker, Lambert and Ripley have so much time to decide to blow up the ship AND collect fuel? Surely the creature could have picked them all off very easily, yet after dispatching Lambert and Parker in the cargo hold, the alien decides to simply go for a nice walk up and down the corridors. What's more, despite running directly into the path of the creature, Ripley is able to retreat simply because the alien is more interested in Jones, the cat. This seemed unlikely to me - when faced with a sausage on a stick or a prime steak, which are you going to choose? When I discovered that the alien didn't even eat the cat, frankly I was disappointed.

Finally, one definite change I would consider is to the ending - I think it would be far more interesting if, instead of hiding in the shuttle, the alien waits by the doorway and ambushes Ripley on the way in. Ripley dying - and that bloody cat! - is something the audience would never expect. And it's not like Ripley's shelf life will be extendable anyway - nice as she is, she IS a woman and everyone knows female protagonists are not really in demand these days in anything other than secondary roles, especially those where they can be raped or killed, preferably both... Right?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Tyranny of Typos

So I decided my entry for Red Planet was done over the weekend.

I've been writing the thing since July; I even have a revised first draft of the pilot and will be doing a workshop with some lovely actors on it in October. David Bishop has given it a veritable script-kicking as only he can "Capital letters, WTF? That word's wrong! Are you insane, this character is!", as has Tim "you can do better than this" Clague, JK "You British people are all crazy" Amalou, the gloriously picky Scott the Reader, the divine Michelle Lipton and an offline, real-life friend of mine who mysteriously calls himself Flub for reasons known only to himself and his shrink.

So in all fairness, I think it's been feedbacked to death. I do anything more at this juncture, it may just spontaneously mutate into a complete different script like those people who got chucked into vats of industrial waste in Toxic Crusaders.

Sending stuff off to contests, producers etc goes something like this with me:

1) Print it out
2) Read it
3) Bind and put it in the envelope - but crucially: DON'T seal envelope
4) Wait approximately 1 - 2 hours
5) Take it out again and read again
6) Decide the margins of a certain page or a word is wrong and can lose you the whole opportunity
7) Print out new page, re-bind
8) Put back in envelope
9) Take to Post Office immediately or risk going through the whole palaver again

My mistake? I printed the bugger out on a Sunday night, so thus could not go to the Post Office immediately: I've just returned from teaching this morning and discovered a typo on page 4.

Now I must return to my OCD-induced cycle once more!

DAMN IT!

Friday, September 19, 2008

I'm Going To Kill You All

Sometimes, life just doesn't go right. In fact, sometimes life sucks. This might be because you've had an argument with someone or because you've had a warning at work; this might be because you're not getting on with your partner, your children have inexplicably become devil spawn or things just aren't going the way you want them to in your career, your writing or anything else. This may go on for a couple of weeks, maybe a month; sometimes it may go on for an extended time until before you know it, life just IS that way and you can't even remember what it's like not to have so much hassle in your life.

Lap it up.

You heard right. Drama is conflict, right? So embrace conflict in your life. Make a note of it. Remember those times you want to kill your husband or lock your mother-in-law in the cellar. Remember those moments where your workmates are evil incarnate, where your children seem more like those flying monkeys out of The Wizard of Oz and your siblings resemble Scar in The Lion King.

It will be these moments that are useful.

I see a lot of scripts in which nothing much happens - or stuff will happen, JUST LATER ON IN THE SCRIPT. No one wants to see a movie about dancing through the forest and singing; we don't want to be surrounded by fluffy bunnies and tweety chicks, where nothing bad happens and everyone lives very happily, thanks very much. Nor do we want to wait until later on. We want conflict and we want it there, from the start. Feelings of foreboding are good, but make it obvious this is what you're doing; give us a sense that all is not well in this world. After all, people want to see movies where difficult choices have to be made; where people are killed or maimed; where families have to overcome terrible events; where space aliens will kidnap you and stick things where they shouldn't. Movies where serial killers are the norm, where mother-in-laws are from outer space and clashes of culture present all kinds of convoluted problems. If your set up doesn't match the tone of your story, all that will happen is an abrupt genre change.

We want to see conflict because conflict is part of our everyday lives. Most of us will not have to deal with literal life-or-death, but we still deal with conflict. If yours is a story in which no one dies or could die, that doesn't mean nothing much happens. Some of the stories out there richest in conflict do not include ACTUAL death after all. Personal, metaphorical tragedy is sometimes greater than the worst kinds of movie character genocide (AVP: Requiem anyone?! Good Lord).

So don't make the reader wait for the conflict in your story. Give it to us with both barrels. Dazzle us with it. Don't tell us that it will happen in a minute - hook us like those fishing hooks in that horrible NHS anti-smoking advert, bring us in, stick it IN OUR FACE. That doesn't mean you can't be subtle. But don't be so subtle that it's not there.

That is all.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Specs I've Seen # 3: Technicolor By Martin Adams

Technicolor, a feature by Martin Adams is a particularly interesting project for me, not only because I have been script editing it on London Metropolitan University's Metlab course, but because it originally came to me as a short film script well over a year ago.

Martin is a particularly able short film writer - it's a style I have never mastered myself (I find it difficult to think "small" enough, if that makes sense) - and when Technicolor first came through the doors of Bang2write, it was approximately ten minutes long. The tale of a man haunted by the ghost of a forgotten, dead silent movie star, it was interesting but fairly typical of the sort of supernatural-style shorts a reader sees. Basically, it didn't stand out particularly to me, but though it obviously had its problems, it was a very good, very well-rounded, short - perfect fodder for the BSSC, I thought. I was unsurprised then when it reached the semi finals of last year's contest, along with another of Martin's offerings, The Gibbet, which I had also read for him.

I thought that was the last I would see of Technicolor: Martin is very prolific and seems to rocket through his shorts projects. So you can bet I was surprised when John Sweeney of Metlab contacted me with the short list of those chosen for Metlab - and there was Martin's name, plus Technicolor as a one page pitch doc for a feature! I don't mind admitting I was a little dubious. Could Martin really re-imagine Technicolor "big" enough for the big screen?

The first thing Metlabbers had to do was an exploratory draft. They had roughly three months or so to churn *something* out which John and I could then work through not only on a creative basis, but also from a practical, business-based model. The exploratory drafts came in... And though Martin's draft passed from a business point of view - it fit all John's pointers exactly - from a creative view, well: it didn't pass muster. Characters were somewhat cliched (especially the women), the structure was lumpy, dialogue was average. The story itself didn't seem to go "far" enough - it hinted at so much, but revealed little.

I took a few deep breaths.

However, Martin had similar misgivings. Upon starting Technicolor, he said he hadn't watched many supernatural thrillers: he wasn't sure then of covention, or where the line could be crossed between convention and cliche. Similarly, he wasn't too sure of his characters' motivations, particularly that of his antagonist. What did she want? Was she even the one at the heart of this? What did our protagonist achieve over the course of this film, why did he reject his family for her? Who else could be in this film, add to our protagonist's journey?

The first thing Martin needed to do was watch more supernatural thrillers. When it comes to genre, it makes no sense at all NOT to know what has come before. Similarly, he needed to work on his two main characters - and a meeting with John Sweeney revealed some curious thoughts on his behalf on what the antagonist's motivation should be: necrophilia! Once we locked John Sweeney in a cupboard with the help of the lovely Chip (not really), we decided that the next draft should be a character draft, with a particularly emphasis on the journey of this unlikely couple.

So the next draft came in - and yes, it was 475% better. There was much clearer motivation on behalf of the antagonist and protagonist now - and there seemed more of a focus to this story. Martin had been watching Stir of Echoes a lot, a very much underrated David Koepp film - and it showed. It was a little TOO like Stir of Echoes at this juncture. But that was okay, because it gave Martin a basis from which to work from: keep the good Stir-of-Echoes stuff that wasn't story-specific, whilst stripping away all the stuff that was the same. A good place to be.

So Martin went away again with more feedback from me and to all intents and purposes, completely re-imagined the plotline. Taking it away from its mystery element on what had happened in the past (which had caused considerable confusion), Martin created more of a detective slant - and this really worked. His protagonist Craig, a journalist, investigates his own father, now an aged movie star, whom he suspects is involved in the disappearance of a young girl thirty years' previously. When Craig's father is mysteriously murdered, Craig must discover who his killer is -and how and why it is linked to that girl from the past, bringing devastating consequences for Craig and his wife and child.

Technicolor still has a while to go before it is ready to pitch: Martin's female characters tend to be a little under developed, so his secondary women like Craig's wife could do with a tweak, as can "helper" Becky. Similarly, the resolution itself could do with a little less exposition to aid dramatic satisfaction. However I am certain Martin can achieve this, for Technicolor is an exemplary example of a scribe putting ego to one side and listening to feedback, creating and recreating his plot from the bottom up where necessary. Martin really has done the best for his story and it shows in Technicolor.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

WHO - WHAT - WHERE - WHEN - WHY?

I've been seeing A LOT of Red Planet Prize Pitch Docs and Pilot Packages. A lot. One thing that is missing from many is just one thing, though it is admittedly a pretty massive part. And what it is may surprise you.

It's not that the characters don't seem cool or that the central premise isn't interesting - let's have Granny lapdancers! (actually I just made that up). It's not that the ten pages are rubbish or dialogue does my head in or the pitch doc doesn't seem *even a little bit* intriguing.

Instead, what's missing is the story itself.

"How is this possible???" I hear you cry. Well it's very simple. I can tell you this having read a huge plethora of pitch docs, synopses, treatments and even entire screenplays with the same problem, not just for RPP, but on a daily basis:

The reader doesn't know WHY it's a story; they don't know HOW to works, WHY we should care or WHAT the character is supposed to be doing - and for WHAT reason.

When you train as a journo, the first thing they drum into you is this:

WHO? WHAT? WHERE? WHEN? WHY?

It's the basis of investigative reporting. But you can apply it to creative writing too, especially if you're a script reader and apply it retrospectively: very often the scripts I read nail WHO is (character names, backgrounds); they might even pin down WHERE (arena) and WHEN (arena again). Yet WHAT and WHY is lacking.

But what is the WHAT of a story? Well, that's the premise, sure - but it's also the plot, the structure, how it draws us in, which is what leads us into WHY.

So what is the WHY of a story? Well that's character motivation, the arc they travel, their journey, how they learn, why we should care about them and not another character or their journey instead.

REMEMBER: Story Is King - Or Queen, Prince/Princess, He-Man, She-Ra, Overlord Ruler, Space Creature of the Universe, etc.

With a proper, specific, well-thought-out story that a writer is PASSIONATE about, it IS POSSIBLE to get away with all sorts of ills - even the kind that make readers want to poke their eyes out with forks.

But without story you have nothing.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Needed: Your True Stories

Hi Everyone, I need a favour please.

I need your true stories - specifically of attending raves and festivals in the 90s (legal and illegal), though any outdoor/indoor and/or raucous party in which something CRAZY, interesting, weird or sad has happened would also be great.

Why am I doing this? Well I've teamed up with the marvellous Schuman at Studio Schoque and we're collaborating on a new feature that is INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS. So this is your chance to have your story immortalised by my fair screenwriting hand.

So drop me a line on Bang2write"at"aol"dot"com or leave a message in the comments section and inspire me.

REMEMBER: It can be anything, as long as it involves a party and it's true.

Please ensure you send me a message though by Sept 26th (a week on Friday). You know you want to...

Thanks!

Friday, September 12, 2008

SPECIAL BLOG OFFER: Gordy Hoffman Worshop, London, Sept 20th 08

Gordy Hoffman has returned Arnie-style to London to take another BlueCat Screenwriting Workshop! Focusing on those all-important first ten pages of your screenplay, there is a limit for just ten writers.

If you missed the last ones, don't miss this second chance... Least of all because Bang2writers get to take part for EIGHTY POUNDS (normal price £145). That is a whopping discount my friends, Gordy's clearly lost his mind, so TAKE ADVANTAGE TODAY.

Get your discount by registering here and then entering the promotion code RIFLEMIND when it asks you to.

Not sure about Gordy or his methods? Then check out my review of his weekend workshop here or Kevin's Lehane's here.

So what are you waiting for?
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The BlueCat Screenwriting Workshop: THE FIRST TEN PAGES

LONDON SEPTEMBER 20th

Birkbeck, University of London
Malet Street, Bloomsbury
London WC1E 7HX
The Ten Page Workshop (limit 10 writers)
9:00 - 18:00 Room 629 Malet Street

WHAT WILL HAPPEN ON THE COURSE: This workshop will consist of 10 writers each submitting ten pages of a work in progress in advance. We will go over each work individually, discussing the specific, unique challenges each writer is facing on the page. This discussion will include the technical aspects of description and dialogue, the depth and reality of the characters, and how the ten pages reflect where the entire story goes.

The intimate, focused interaction with fellow writers in the workshop will provide all with a greater understanding of the work that lies ahead on their screenplay, and more importantly, a detailed sense of how they might develop as writers themselves.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sometimes Your First Idea Is The Best One

It's largely accepted that things change - and get better - as you draft and redraft. I'd be a nutter if I didn't say that feedback helps one's writing, not only because I am an actual script reader, but because I have seen my portfolio of specs literally grow and improve thanks to the tireless of efforts of other professional readers I go to, plus of course my beloved Po3ers.

Yet sometimes one can go off the boil whilst rewriting. Just as it's possible to be blind to a particular device's faults in your script, it is possible to reject a perfectly good idea or method of execution in your script just because it came early on in the redrafting process.

When I started writing my horror/action-adventure script Eclipse way back in 2005, it was only the second feature I had ever attempted. Looking back now, I figure I must have been crazy to try and pull off such an epic project: it includes a new take on the werewolf myth, a huge period-style arena and an array of secondary and peripheral characters, not to mention a fractured, non-linear structure.

And it certainly was a mess for a very long time. Characters changed their functions at will, there was expositional dialogue and general weirdness. I couldn't decide who should be the protagonist for a while and the story swung wildly from fractured to completely and utterly bonkers. Despite this, the script placed as a semi-finalist in the tenth WriteMovies contest back in '06, the very first screenwriting competition I had ever entered, justifying my belief this script had "something".

So with the help of many, many professional reads (I must have spent a fortune!), I managed to get my story under control. I realised what story it was I wanted to tell and I began to brainstorm cool, atmospheric ways of telling it. I am very fond of the likes of The Company of Wolves or Dark Crystal in which a framing story acts as the set up for both new worlds and I figured I would do the same, paying tribute to that eighties' device at the same time.

Yet nine months after I had supposedly finished the twelfth draft, I find myself revisiting it with new eyes. In terms of that framing story, what had seemed so cool nine months ago, suddenly seems clunky and expositional. What I had been so sure I had achieved seems a wasted opportunity: the beginning is not tight at all, but sprawling. This sneaking suspicion was compounded by the fact that despite that mental draft placing in a screenwriting contest, there have been no further bites from any other contest I entered it in - despite some praise from Bluecat and various encouraging murmurs from a couple of producers.

So I went back to one of the original drafts, the one that placed in WriteMovies. I took the beginning there and I placed it, whole, at the beginning of my most recent draft and made a direct comparison.

It works better.

Whilst the framing story does indeed feel atmospheric, it feels as if we are waiting for the story to begin. Okay, not for long, but it still feels not quite good enough. Perhaps framing stories died off because they are not suited to the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am MTV style generation? Perhaps I have quite literally fallen into my own trap! Whereas the old draft beginning was tighter, gave less away up front but still provided enough information to show that this was no traditional werewolf we were dealing with, as well as setting up the story.

Sometimes you have to have faith that you will crack the most troublesome of scriptwriting issues yourself - whilst other readers can give you plenty of ideas, there's no substitute for the passion of the writer for their own story. You also have to have faith that this sometimes takes time. It seems obvious to me now that this is what I should have done all along - combine that old, good beginning with a coherent story! - but Eclipse was one of my "learning" scripts. I might have dived in before I was ready, but I learned heaps. And it's still teaching me now.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Specs I've Seen # 2: The Vigil By Caroline Henry

Caroline first approached me last October, so she's been a confirmed Bang2writer for almost a year. She told me she had come to writing later in life, having had all the commitments of marriage, family and work first - but it had always been something she wanted to do. Having had no formal training in creative writing, Caroline wisely wanted to "work her way up" through the basics of screenwriting by first attempting some shorts, then longer scripts, then eventually a feature - and of course I was happy to assist her.

Caroline first sent me two shorts, VOLUPTUA and THE VIGIL. Voluptua was a fun piece about a homely woman earning a living via stripping off in front of webcams for pervs round the world, but it was The Vigil that really caught my attention. The story of one woman's fight to learn the truth about her missing son in a dystopian future Sheffield, it was one of the scripts that had real heart. Its message clearly meant something to Caroline and by that same token, she had communicated that meaning very obviously to me, her reader.

Of course, the first ever draft of The Vigil was rather rough round the edges. There were some classic format errors to address, learnt from Caroline reading shooting scripts and transcripts on the internet. There was also some rather heavy scene description, that prescribed what characters were physically doing to the very last detail that conversely neglected arena - a must for a script set in a future world. Lastly, most problematic in this draft was an expositional rant on behalf of the main character Eileen.

I sent off Caroline's feedback, wondering how she would react. In my experience, new writers sometimes feel very daunted when told their script needs work and can feel very upset with the prospect of starting the piece over, with more technical stuff in mind. Yet Caroline was one of the rare breed of any writers that soaks up feedback without being a slave to it: as The Vigil progressed, whilst I saw many of my ideas implemented, I saw just as many solutions of Caroline's own making.

By the time I had read The Vigil at least four times, firing off feedback and answering Caroline's questions and brainstorming with her, there was a significant improvement to it. She achieved a sense of hopelessness in the arena towards the beginning of the script which changed its dramatic context as Eileen became stronger in spirit over its eight pages. Eileen's daughter Leila grew from a two-dimensional secondary character to an organic part of the story, so that the two women spoke with sublime subtext. Last of all, the addition of a new character and the contrasting of two Guards in Sheffield's ominous "Gated Zone" meant that was no longer the good/bad/black/white element there was before, but something more subtle, a real shade of grey.

But most of all, Caroline never lost that sense of heart through all the drafts of The Vigil I saw. And it's that, beyond craft, that made it one of my faves.
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THE VIGIL is currently through the first round of The British Short Screenplay Competition. If you're a producer or filmmaker who would like to read The Vigil, please contact Caroline direct on caroline"at"liberty1789"dot"demon"dot"co"dot"uk.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Dramatic Irony & Twists In The Tale

SPOILERS: King Lear, Alien 3, Harsh Times
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A thread over at Twelve Point inspired this post... If you're not there already, I strongly recommend signing up. If you are there, where are you? Already I'm seeing the usual suspects on the Forums and to date I've seen no flame wars, not even a hostile comment, just a great community of like-minded peeps having civilised conversations and soaking up the virtual atmos... Come on over!

Anyway, I mentioned on Twelve Point's forum I love Yves Lavandier's book Writing Drama and Segnor Julian Friedmann mentioned how much he loves the section on dramatic irony, lamenting the fact that so few screenwriters actually use this fantastic device. His comments really struck a chord, so I think I'll have a good look at what makes dramatic irony so great.

First off however, what is dramatic irony? Well, this dictionary definition sums it up pretty well:

Dramatic irony is when the words and actions of the characters of a work of literature have a different meaning for the reader than they do for the characters. This is the result of the reader having a greater knowledge than the characters themselves.

Of course, Shakespeare was one of the kings of dramatic irony. Any A Level English Literarture student can tell you of the various uses of the word and meaning "blindness" in King Lear: how King Lear is metaphorically blind to Goneril and Regan's faults and how that leads not only to his own downfall, but to his old friend Gloucester's literal blindness when his eyes are gouged out. One of Goneril's sickly sweet proclamations of supposed love for her father towards the beginning of the play is "I love you more than eyesight." There's plenty more in that vein too.

Basically then, if an audience KNOWS that no good will come of a certain event or character, this can add to the drama. Think of every time you have seen an antagonist in his *true* colours, only to act nice as pie to the protagonist, maybe getting closer and closer to them... Perhaps they even have a relationship. Yikes! All the while the protagonist is completely oblivious of their other half's evilness, whilst we the audience know full well that antagonist is up to all sorts of schenanigans, maybe even plotting that protagonist's downfall.

Nice.

Without that prior knowledge that the antagonist is up to no good, all we have before they start acting up is a love story with no obstacles. Boy meets Girl, they have a lovely time. Yawn. Where's the conflict? Where's the suspense? Where's the jeopardy?? Sure in the second half Guy goes ballistic with a chainsaw and chases Girl up Marylebone High street, but it seems to come out of nowhere - and isn't that a bit of a genre change, romance to killer-thriller in one fell swoop??

However, if Boy meets Girl and we have that love story BUT we know already that Boy is actually a full blown serial killer, then immediately we have that conflict, that suspense, that jeopardy. When is she going to find the dead bodies in the cellar?? When is she going to realise this guy is too good to be true? What will happen when she does? And conversely, if this guy is killing loads of people, why is he sparing her? Perhaps he really does love her... Which makes us wonder even more what the hell will happen if he discovers that she is planning to make a run for it and/or to take him down, baby. Nooooooooooooo.

But that's not the only type of dramatic irony you can play with. Sometimes a character will do something or neglect something that means they doom themselves. One of my favourite ever stories that shows this device brilliantly has to be Somerset Maugham's "Death Speaks":

There was a Merchant in Baghdad who sent his Servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling and said “Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.”

The Merchant lent him his horse and the Servant mounted it and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.

Then the Merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my Servant when you saw him this morning?”

“That was not a threatening gesture,” I said, “it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”


Woooooooh, spooky.

Often in short stories like Maugham's, this touch of irony will be called a "twist in the tale". Though many screenwriters attempt twists in their screenplays, very few specs I've seen have pulled this off - often because of lack of set up. If we only have half the twist (usually in the resolution), it's no longer a twist, it's only half there: the significance is lost. The notion that a character actually physically puts their own downfall into play with something they've done themselves (or not done) is something very neglected in specs.

When considering the seemingly all-but-forgotten Harsh Times in this post on plot construction, I pointed out that nothing in that film would have happened had Christian Bale's character Jim not been sacked from his police training for his anger management issues (those same issues by the way that will blow up in his face in the resolution, incidentally). This leads him to smoke the marjuana that he then has to fake a piss test for for Homeland Security... And so it goes on. One event is piled on top of one another, so we are left in no doubt as to HOW far Jim falls by the end of the movie. He still could have been okay, even having been sacked - if he just hadn't smoked those drugs. That single action puts into play his downfall: and we know it, right from the first toke and that phone rings, that he is doomed... Even though he so desperately tries to turn it around, we just know he will fail.

Of course, Dramatic Irony is not always about being blatant: you don't have to set everything up very obviously, with a wolf in sheep's clothing like in my example at the beginning of this post. Sometimes the greatest moments in movies come from things we perceive in our peripheral vision. I will never forget the first time I became aware of the notion of dramatic irony: I was approximately thirteen years old and watching Alien 3 of all movies. Those of you who have seen this movie will know Ripley disposes of the creature by turning on sprinklers. Not very scary, except for the fact it is covered in hot lead... The water rapidly cools it and because of its beetle-like carapace, it explodes into a million pieces. I recall thinking that was a cool variation on the whole explode-the-monster idea, only without an actual bomb. And then, because I was a strange kid prone to watching films twice, three or even four times in one sitting whilst my parents were out, I promptly rewatched it.

And noticed the bucket in the corridor during the fire scene around about the mid point.

It was just a bucket, a single shot. But when the convicts were barbequed in the corridors when attempting to burn the creature out of the crevices, Ripley and Dillon have to turn on the sprinklers to save them (introducing the idea that even though nothing else works in the prison planet, the sprinklers do), water came down on a hot bucket abandoned in the corridor.

And it bursts and cracks right open, just like the Alien will in the resolution.

I remember rewinding that moment on my battered VCR, over and over: watching that bucket break open, confused. They'd just given away the ending! How could that be?

But of course, they hadn't "given it away" at all: on first viewing, I had not truly "seen" that shot, merely perceived it. When the Alien goes on to explode when the water hits it in the same way then, I merely accepted that it was possible because I had already seen it without seeing it.

Often scribes will worry they are being too on-the-nose with their visuals, that they're giving too much away. But it's actually a lot harder to give stuff away than you think: it is possible for an audience to actually SEE stuff and not see it. More than that however, a crafty use of dramatic irony can really aid your storytelling: a single moment like that bucket, a single piece of dialogue like Goneril's proclamation, can HELP you tell your story and prevent your reader from writing those dreaded words on their report: "This event/ending just seems to have come out of nowhere..."

While we're on the subject - favourite endings? And just so you know, Kaiser Sose and Se7en is banned. ;)
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Read an excerpt of Yves' book Writing Drama about DRAMATIC IRONY here.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Specs I've Seen #1: The Woman Who Screamed Butterflies By David Bishop

Often spec screenwriters will ask me to nominate and talk about another spec work with them that I’ve read that I’ve thought particularly good. As a reader however I take confidentiality seriously, so I have to decline. These repeated requests however got me thinking and I’ve approached several writers whose work I’ve admired and asked them if I can write about their work on the blog. This is the first of the series.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I’ve been a big fan of David Bishop’s work for some time now: originally a Bang2write paying client (oo er), David’s now one of my own trusted circle of Po3ers, so I kind of feel like we’ve both seen each other with our clothes off (double oo er), even though we’ve actually never met in real life.

David originally came to me with his PAGE winning short DANNY’S TOYS. Even in this early draft, I knew this was a special script; all the clich├ęs about “you just know” which are the “good” scripts are true: it really does leap off the page. When he subsequently made the finals, I figured he had it in the bag. And of course he did.

David is one of the writers who demonstrate perfectly that having your own voice and distinctive style is everything. He calls his style “magic realism” and I love this idea: his world is one like Tim Burton’s visuals – all animated corpses, war, butterflies, metal bumble bees and narratives that swirl around in your head like a tornado. Even those scripts he sets in the real-real world have a child-like logic where bad is bad and good is good – and people have to learn to meet in the middle or die trying. Yet that doesn’t mean his characters are black and white, far from it: there’s a real “ying yang” sense to David’s scripts. This sense of optimism balanced perfectly with pessimism means not only that any danger of preaching is removed, the stories resonate.

The spec I’ve liked the most of David’s is one of his most recent, THE WOMAN WHO SCREAMED BUTTERFLIES. David and I decided we would write a new script each for the BBC’s Sharps initiative back in June. We managed to do this within about a four week period, writing several drafts and working like dogs. But whilst I wrote a thirty minute comedy about two ex-ballet dancers who taught a bunch of street kids how to line dance, David managed to write one of the most beautiful and haunting scripts I have read in a very long time.

BUTTERFLIES tells the story of Jamie, a mentally-ill boy of a man, whose path crosses with Sophia, a promising young opera singer. However Jamie’s inclusion in Sophia’s life will bring devastating consequences, even murder.

What I loved about it was the fact that Jamie was a silent protagonist. So few writers can pull this off – often characters end up talking FOR them in an expositional, clumsy way. Yet David’s visuals told Jamie’s story and gave us an insight into his thoughts, for Jamie is an artist. Chalking on pavements, writing on walls, Jamie communicates his thoughts and fears perfectly. A fantastic device.
Structure too was for the most part tight – sometimes David overstates his case or puts his scenes in (what I consider!) the “wrong” place, but here there was only one blatant case of that. Like many professional novelists however, David’s biggest battle during the rewrites was with overwriting: his scene description, as fantastic as it was in earlier drafts, was dense. I recall reading that first draft (first draft! Damn him) and thinking, “This is great... But it could be FANTASTIC.” The obvious solution to that was cutting back on black.

The thing with scene description is that writers can get so involved with painting a picture, their story can seem to play second fiddle. A writer can get away with this in a novel – but in a screenplay, description has to be story’s bitch. THE WOMAN WHO SCREAMED BUTTERFLIES was the perfect example then of a great script that could be even greater if it realised “less is more”.

And to David’s credit, he worked on this. Leaping on one of his descriptions of Jamie as being “fractured”, I suggested he used less complete sentences and more sentence fragments – perhaps always using them WITH Jamie in order to make a contrast with Sophia. I wondered if it might be an idea to scatter descriptions like this on left and right alignments on the page too, giving the ACTUAL look of the page as fractured? Another reader wasn’t keen on this approach, it apparently made their eyes go funny, so the left/right alignments went. But the fragments themselves stayed – and they worked. Scene description as a reflection of character!

So anyway, we completed our Sharps drafts and sent them off...

... And neither of us made the cut, didn’t even get within sniffing distance.

This screenwriting life’s a bitch, huh? ; )
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If you're a producer/filmmaker who wants to read either THE WOMAN WHO SCREAMED BUTTERFLIES (30 pages approx) or DANNY'S TOYS (15 pages approx), please contact David direct by clicking here.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Establishing Your Story's World

SPOILERS: Monsters Inc

There's a lot of science fiction and fantasy spec scripts out there doing the rounds these days, especially those destined for TV. I would imagine it's something to do with the increase in high concept television we seen: gone from the slush pile are the 90s Ken Loach-esque kitchen sink stuff and Cracker-style gritty police dramas. Instead the reader can expect to be treated to time travel, monster conspiracies, space continuums, black holes, parallel dimensions, predominantly Catholic visions of Heaven and Hell, vampires and ghosts. And why not?

Yet one thing spec SF and fantasy scripts seem to nearly always forget is establishing the world of their story. I don't just mean their arena either, but what is and isn't possible in the narrative they're creating. For example:

If this character can fly, why can't others? If this character change their shape or size, is this normal - or unusual in this world? (Note I'm not asking for the ORIGINS of the creature and "why" they can do something). If we are to disappear within a computer's mind, where does so-called "reality" stop and cyberspace begin? What significance does a character's gender have, if any? If an event is supposed to be random, why are we watching this particular protagonist and not another?

The world of your story does not just cover suspension of disbelief, but every single little thing in your script. It covers your arena first and foremost because we all know that your "feel" of your script has to reflect what you're trying to say. But it also covers your characterisation as they have to "fit" that feel: if they only serve to contradict it, then what does that say? That doesn't mean you can't do it, but if ALL your characters contradict what your script is supposed to say, then you're bound to run into difficulties in getting your reader to understand what you're saying. Similarly, if your dialogue is at odds with your arena, then again this can cause problems. In short, the world of your story is everything.

This is not always such a problem in other genres of specs because they will draw on elements we already understand in terms of the "real" world. However, when you try and REINVENT the world that appears in your story (as in a lot of SF and fantasy), that is when you begin to appreciate it's a hell of a lot harder than it sounds. When I was writing my own fantasy-style horror Eclipse I had all kinds of issues establishing the world of my story. Because I was trying to put a new spin on the werewolf myth, I had to decide how much I wanted to use so that audiences recognised what I was doing - yet at the same time I wanted to create something we hadn't seen before. Just how far do you go? Finding the right balance is a bit like trying to fill two bags with exactly the same amount of grains of sand: frustrating and long.

There is a film that helped me a lot during this time: by breaking it down and analysing it, it gave me a key if you like to understanding what a scribe needs to achieve that balance. It's not a film you might expect from me, either - mostly due to its lack of general blood and guts, but also its high cute factor:

It was Monsters Inc.

Say what you like about this family fantasy film - and it's certainly not my favourite of all Pixar's back catalogue. Yet one thing it does PERFECTLY I reckon is that it establishes the world of its story from the offset. There is no "making it up" as it goes along; everything is completely nailed down. From the fact that a child's scream AND laugh will power the moster world, to the conspiracy element, to the doors that will magically open into the human world, right through to the fact that monsters have to learn that children are not toxic ("We got a 23: 19!"), it's all there. Everything that will happen is set up and everything that makes it what is, is established - it makes this screenwriting malarkey look easy.

What's more, Monsters, Inc appreciates that we have an ENTIRELY NEW WORLD here - we need it all from the beginning, else the story will fall flat. Very often Bangwriters will complain that establishing all the facts of their world - what is possible and what is not in the story, in effect - "spoils suspense". It doesn't: it ADDS to it. If we're asking questions as to what the hell is going on, we can't ask questions of the plot - and it's that that keeps us interested. It's not a question of "revealing all" in one fell swoop, but a drip-drip-drip approach.

So next time you're approaching a whole new world and/or a mystery in your script, don't leave it all to the last minute. Establish it from the offset, weave these clues and elements into your script from the beginning. It'll go a long way.

Holiday Stuff and The Scottish Book Trust Mentoring Programme

First off, thanks to everyone who emailed me wishing me a happy holiday last week - I hope I've replied to you all, I've certainly tried to, but in case anyone has slipped under the net: ta. We ended up doing a last minute thing visiting The Cotswolds and relatives up in the Midlands and it was REALLY good just to have a change of scenery. Plus we visited Warwick Castle which was BRILLIANT. We got put in the stocks, saw knights speared by jousting spikes and set on fire, we got terrorised by ghosts, shot arrows and saw a giant catapault with a FLAMING BOULDER being fired on the heathens in the next (imaginary) village. If that's not family entertainment I don't know what is. Recommended.

Whilst I'm here, *that* Adrian Mead has asked me to remind you Scottish Writers that the SBT Mentoring Programme is open for submissions. It looks like a great opportunity and I for one am gutted not to be able to access it since I don't live in bonny Scotland. But if you do, what the hell are you waiting for?? APPLY. All the details and links below. If you get on, let us know!

The Scottish Book Trust Mentoring Programme

Scottish Book Trust is currently open for applications for our hugely successful mentoring programme. The mentoring programme is aimed at established and emergent writers, playwrights, screenwriters and illustrators who have a specific project on which they'd like some dedicated support.

Past mentors have included Bernard MacLaverty, Alan Bissett, Tom Leonard, Professor Douglas Gifford, Kathryn Ross of literary agents Fraser Ross Associates, David Ian Neville of BBC Radio Scotland, established screenwriter Adrian Mead, Philip Howard (former Artistic Director of Traverse Theatre) and many more.

The deadline for applications is Monday 8th September. For more information and application guidelines please click here.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Know Your Enemy (But Don't Know Too Much)

WARNING: EXTREME SPOILERS FOR CLOVERFIELD. Also mentioned: Deep Blue Sea, Pitch Black, Alien, Predator, TremorsI get a lot of creature features through the doors of Bang2write. And that's good, 'cos as we all know, I love a bit of gore and general people-eating. But they do generally share one basic flaw in common and it's this: the writers concerned always try and explain where the creature has come from.

So why is this a problem? Well, like all screenwriting stuff, it needn't be. After all, there have been creature features that tell us exactly how the monsters have come about and they've been enjoyable. The underrated Deep Blue Sea for example tells us exactly why the sharks are insanely smart: they've been genetically modified by scientists searching for a cure for Altzeihmer's. But crucially, that's it. We don't know exactly how the scientists have done this - and what's more, we don't actually care. We just want to see clever sharks going after people in flooded rooms and chopping them into bits. Similarly, in Pitch Black the creatures are actually indigenous to the planet the survivors have crashed on, with the HUMANS being the actual aliens. Nice turnaround. How the creatures got there in the first place, how they evolved, why they can survive for 22 years without human flesh - don't care. We just want to see people eaten, thanks very much.

The problem often with the specs I see is that they try and explain TOO MUCH where the creature has come from; they literally blind the reader with science. Radiation and nuclear waste monsters remain a firm favourite, as do creatures summoned by spells or looked after by creepy villagers as a result of some curse or fairy tale. Again, no reason why these stories shouldn't work, but often they're so heavy on the exposition of HOW, they don't deal enough with NOW: in other words, we end up not caring about the characters or why they should survive.

Looking at the evidence, there are far more films in which we have no idea where the creature has come from - and we STILL don't care, we still just want to see people get eaten. Consider the fabulous Cloverfield: we barely see the creatures but for snatched moments of video footage. Hudd's hysterical theorising about where the creatures come from adds to the drama: who wouldn't be wondering about this, but similarly we know exactly what his friends mean when they snap, "Does it matter??" Knowing LESS actually ADDS to the movie, makes it more scary, like a bad dream.

In Predator, the creature lands in the jungle with the intention of hunting man - and happens to bump into Arnie and his mates. That's it. Again in Alien, the creatures are non-indigenous, but where do they come from? Well the big fossilised creatures in *that* spaceship brought them with them of course, but what the hell were THEY? Once more: who cares?! Let's have some chest bursting and general clawing, shredding and screaming please.

Similarly, Rhonda's role in Tremors is added to by the fact she's a geologist - who STILL has no idea what these seemingly prehistoric beasts are. Her theories, along with Val and Earl's while they're stuck on the rock in the desert again adds to the drama. End of the day, they have huge underground beasts with long tongues trying to eat them. That's the problem they need to overcome, not trying to crack where the monsters come from.

Creature features are very often symbolic films: aliens in particular can be symbolic of conflict with other cultures, though they have also told of people's preoccupation with health and infection too. Bogeyman-style creatures are childhood favourites that can tell of our fear that we will become helpless as a child again, unable to control our own futures. Vampires were originally conceived by the Victorians as a violating creature, for sex was taboo: similarly werewolves were symbolic of the kind of brute strength that cannot be negotiated with.

But creature features are not scientific films. Though they may flirt with science, they are by their very nature simple: there is a creature. It will kill you. Most of the time generally it's kill-or-be-killed and the resolution will end with self sacrifice and/or a huge great big explosion. Other times, like in Cloverfield, the characters will simply die (they're unable to do anything else), yet the story will be all the more powerful for it.

So: over to you - favourite creature features, least favourite? Why?