Other people’s ideas

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I think we all become scriptwriters because we have lots of ideas, lots of stories to tell. It’s certainly true for me, whenever people ask me how I became a scriptwriter, my stock answer is:

“As a child I told a lot of lies. Turns out, as an adult, if you write those lies down you get paid for it!”

Which is more or less exactly how it happened.

But the thing is, as a scriptwriter, I actually spend more time writing down other people’s ideas.  It seems to me the job is mainly taking other people’s thoughts or images and translating them into words. Sure, if I write a spec script (which I haven’t done for years) then they’re my ideas … but as soon as the script sells, it belongs to someone else and they want their ideas layered over the top.

And that’s when it gets difficult.

I find the hardest part of the job isn’t putting my ideas down on paper in a concise and lucid manner; but putting other people’s ideas down on paper in a concise and lucid manner. Mainly because their ideas are rarely concise or lucid to being with.

“I’m a little confused with this note, are you suggesting we replace the scene where we reveal who the murderer is with a masturbating baboon? Oh, it’s allegorical, is it? There was me just thinking you were a pretentious twat.”

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But the pinnacle of hard-isity is writing a script for an idea which is already half-written (whether that half-written means a synopsis, treatment or existing script) because I have no idea what bits of this idea mean to the person who hired me.

When I’m asked to work on someone else’s idea, the first thing I try and do is work out what the story is actually about. Whose story is it? Why could it only happen to them? What do they learn? What’s the theme/point of it all? Basically, what is the story trying to say?

Asking the person doing the hiring doesn’t always help – if they’ve tried to write it themselves and got stuck, it’s usually because they have a pile of good visual ideas with no idea how they connect together. My first job then is to try and put a skeleton inside the body they’ve already created.

In theory, that doesn’t sound too bad. You’d probably imagine it would be easy, just cut it open, insert the bones and sew it up again.

Simple.

Except, no.

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Because a story without a theme, the body without the skeleton isn’t a head, two arms, two legs and a torso waiting to be animated – it’s a pile of unidentifiable organs and fleshy bits. There’s frequently no way of telling which bits belong where. Sure, some bits are obviously eyes or a lung; but other bits aren’t so clear.

Frequently what I’ve been given, once I separate it into piles, is three arms, five legs, no head and a torso which belongs to a goat. Or maybe just one massive arm with nothing else attached. One where the skin appears to be cobbled together from six different ethnicities and the flesh is infested with maggots.

Without that clear skeleton of …

  • Whose story is it?
  • What does he want?
  • Why does he want it?
  • What’s stopping him?
  • What does he actually need?
  • Other questions I can’t be arsed to write down.

… then there’s no way I can make a coherent person out of the disparate body parts. The easiest way to make it work is to put all the bits to one side, craft the skeleton and then see if any of the bits belong to it.

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This is fine if I’m dealing with a producer who’s optioned/commissioned a script from someone else, tried to get it work, can’t and has come to me to try again. Usually there’s one or two core images/concepts they want to keep; the rest is up for grabs. Here’s a spleen and an elbow, make up the rest yourself.

Fine. If I know the size/location of the spleen and elbow, I can make up a body to fit around it. That’s okay.

But what if the producer wrote the initial idea? Or worse, the director? If it’s a director then there’s usually a load of really cool images and shots and things happening which HAVE to stay in. They have to. If it’s a producer, I often get saddled with an unworkable mish-mash of characters because they’ve already promised the roles to certain actors who will guarantee financing/distribution.

If I have to throw it all out, then it’s essentially telling the person who hired me that all their ideas are crap.

Even if that’s true, it’s not very nice to hear. The person who made this random pile of body parts worked really hard on them.

Really hard.

True, they’ve worked really hard in the wrong way on things which don’t matter until late in the game; but they’ve still worked hard. They have an emotional attachment to the seven really cool ears they’ve designed or the new type of liver which is sixteen foot long – throwing them out would be a disaster!

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Sometimes the bits are fine, they just need explaining. If he can explain what the spleen is and what it does (which is impossible, no one knows what a spleen’s for. No one!) then I can work it in. Frequently though, the first few drafts of a new synopsis are just me trying to understand what the intention behind all  the wobbly bits was. I often find myself throwing out all the bits which aren’t needed, crafting a perfectly working body and then finding out the two spring-things were spring-loaded kneecaps which enable the body to jump really high and thus become an awesome basketball player.

Oh, right. I get it now.

So why not just make the body taller and ditch the springy bits no one is going to believe? You hadn’t thought of that? Of course not, that’s why you hired me.

Sometimes none of the bits I’ve been given belong to the idea the person who hired me had in mind, because they don’t really know what they had in mind in the first place. Sometimes all of the bits belong (albeit in a different order) but I didn’t know that because the person who hired me is incapable of articulating what their idea is. And, of course, sometimes it’s all just my fault for not listening, not understanding or simply grabbing the wrong end of the stick and running like hell in the wrong direction.

This process, this understanding of intention, is the part of the job I find the hardest. It’s a laborious, frustrating process which can result in both sides thinking the other is a fucking moron … but it’s a vital step. I’ve walked away from some projects because I couldn’t work out what the hell they were on about. I’ve been fired from others for much the same reason.

Luckily I seem to (eventually) get it right more often than not; but it doesn’t change my loathing for that bit of the process.

Hopefully the future will bring some kind of what’s-the-fucking-point telepathy which will help people understand each other; but until then I guess I’ll spend my days knee deep in unidentifiable wobbly bits, praying that last squelch wasn’t me stepping on anything important.

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Categories: Industry Musings, Someone Else's Way | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Other people’s ideas

  1. Jolly good post. I’ve been hired to do a good few adaptations of books myself, most just to the treatment stage, but a couple to full screenplays. A good few had me tearing my hair out and questioning the very building blocks of the universe. So I know exactly what you mean!

    But what does a spleen really do?

  2. Pingback: 2013 | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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