Monthly Archives: November 2015

Going on and on and on …

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There are many hard and fast rules about scriptwriting which writers seem singularly incapable of following. Time and again writers break rules which were laid down to ensure their scripts are readable, if not actually good.

One of those rules I see broken over and over again is length:

  • Action description shouldn’t be longer than four lines. Shorter than three is preferable.
  • Dialogue should never be longer than four lines. Again, less is preferable.
  • Scenes themselves should never be longer than three (ish) pages without a damned good reason. Find yourself north (or south?) of five pages and you’re in big, big trouble.

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The problem, of course, with these rules are they’re utter bollocks.

Well, not utter bollocks. Mostly bollocks. They’re just not rules. Guidelines, maybe? Rules ofs thumbs.* Suggestions, perhaps?

Action should be short – yeah, I see that. Doesn’t really matter but it does make it far, far easier to read. And, if broken up properly, may bring your page count closer to one page=one minute.

Since most scripts are written with gaps between action lines then reading one without them is hard. Why make it harder to love your script?

Dialogue should never be longer than four lines – yeah, maybe. It does make sense because people rarely talk for that length of time without being interrupted.

Unless they’re giving a speech. Or lecturing someone. Or are really angry. Or boring. Or … well, lots of reasons really.

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Part of the problem with long speeches is what do the other actors do while someone’s banging on?

Listen? That would be some very polite characters. People don’t tend to listen much. They tend to interject or change the subject or just wander off to make a cup of tea.

Except when they don’t.

Bad actors can’t stand and listen. Probably because it’s quite an unnatural thing to do. If you’re writing low-budget, cast fucking anyone who’ll accept, movies then you might want to consider both the quality of the actor listening and the ability of the one delivering it to maintain the same expression for that length of time.

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Plus, it does slow things down. Actors love dramatic pauses.+ They fucking love ’em. Give an actor a one-page speech and you’ll end up with five minutes of footage.

Which may or may not be the director’s fault, I suppose. I don’t know.

This, of course, depends on what the scene’s about. A one-page rant will move faster than a one-page stare-mournfully-into-the-distance-and-recount-the-moment-where-it-all-went-wrong speech.

Both can work. Both can go horribly wrong.

Scenes should never exceed three pages – who the fuck thought that one up?

Okay, so again there is an element of truth in there. Long scenes can, sometimes, slow the pace. If everything’s meant to be fast paced and buzzy, then seven pages of people bantering about shoes may well slow it down again.

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Or it may not. Depends on the delivery, I guess.

The Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk schtick helps with this. Get the characters moving, get them doing something and people won’t get bored.

Except when it’s done badly and after five minutes of fast-paced walking you start to wonder how fucking big this newsagent’s is and why they’ve gone past the Chocolate Hob Nobs seven times.

Personally, I get nervous when a scene hits five pages – usually it’s because there’s a lot of irrelvant banter in the middle or because the scene’s trying to do too many things and needs to just wind its bloody neck in.

Three pages feels about enough for most of the stuff I do.

So, you know, it doesn’t hurt to think about limiting action, dialogue and scene lengths … just in case.

Except when you shouldn’t. Except when it’s scenes like this from Doctor Who – The Zygon Inversion.

SPOILER ALERT!

DON’T WATCH THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE EPISODE!

I love that scene. I fucking loves it, I does. I love the length, the staticness^, the wordiness … it’s just amazing.

To me this proves any rules about length are really there to disguise dullness in a script. Make a scene crackle, make it tense, make it have immediate and terrifying stakes and all the rules can just fuck off.

Limiting the length of things is probably a good rule of thumb@ … but it’s just that. Sometimes your scene can blow all that away with it’s sheer awesomeness. When you’ve got a scene which demands page-count … go for it!

I guess the real skill in writing comes from knowing when it’s appropriate.

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* I didn’t know how to pluralise this so I just went all out.

+ Possibly while they scramble to remember the next massive chunk of dialogue.

^ Real word or not? Probably not.

@ Except for thumbs. Don’t limit the length of your thumbs.

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Categories: Random Witterings | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Verity

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I don’t know about you, but I’m loving Doctor Who this season. Last season wasn’t for me, I found it increasingly difficult to watch to the point I had the last episode on in the background but didn’t really pay attention.

As a long term fan of the show I’ve come to accept this as normal. Some seasons I’ll love, some I won’t. Some Doctors I’ll love, some I’ll find annoying.

Last season … there was nothing for me to like. That’s not to say the show was fundamentally unlikeable, it’s just a personal preference.

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This season, I’m so excited. I’ve enjoyed every episode so far. Does that mean it’s quantitatively better?

No, it’s just how I feel about it. There’s always a chance that when I get round to rewatching the season I’ll feel differently, but for whatever the reason# I’m totally hooked again this year.

One of things which is deepening my enjoyment is listening to the Verity Podcast. If you haven’t listened to it, it’s (mostly*) American/Canadian female fans discussing the show. When the show’s airing, they discuss the episodes. When it’s not, they discuss other Who-related topics.

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Now, I know quite a lot of Doctor Who fans … but not many who live close by. I could ring them up to talk about the show … but we’re all busy and ringing people up takes time away from our respective families. Listening to other people discuss the show helps fill that void. I like to hear other people’s opinions, even if they differ from my own.

Actually, especially when they differ from my own. There’s not a lot of point listening to your own opinions repeated back to you (apart from when they codify or clarify something you didn’t know how to express).

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I like to listen and I like to learn to think about things in a different way.

There are a lot of Doctor Who podcasts, but the Verity one achieves this better than most by dint of being (mostly*) Americans/Canadians and solely women.

I don’t know any female Doctor Who fans. Not personally anyway. I know women who enjoy or quite like the show … but would never really describe themselves as fans. I could probably track some down if I really felt the need … but if I were my wife and saw me deliberately seeking out women who shared an interest we didn’t … well, I’d be a bit cross with myself. It would be a weird thing to do.

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Hearing women discuss the show is fascinating because, although most of the things they talk about are universal, there are certain points of view which don’t come naturally to me. This might be because I’m a man or it might be because I’m British or maybe just because I’m me and not them. Doesn’t really matter, I just enjoy hearing a different slant on things.

Similarly, it’s interesting to hear transatlantic opinions on something which feels so quintessentially British. Especially since their depth of knowledge and level of fandom are far greater than mine.

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It also makes me swell with pride. Doctor Who is a massive part of my life but has always been this tiny show, kicked about by the BBC and prematurely murdered just as it was finding its feet again. It had a moment of greatness … but became an embarrassment and something to be mocked. Hearing people halfway around the world loving it feels like a vindication. This is popular, it’s global, liking it is normal.

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If you haven’t listened to the podcast, I highly recommend it and would welcome similar recommendations in return.


 

* Mostly. There’s a Scot in there. And an Australian, I think.

# It might be my new office? Yeah, it’s probably my new office.

Categories: Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

River theory

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My brain likes to construct analogies. I don’t know why, it just does. Possibly it helps me learn or remember? Maybe I feel it’s the only way I can communicate things to other people?

I don’t know, all I know is they pop unbidden into my head on an alarmingly regular basis.

The latest one is about rivers.

I was thinking about someone else’s analogy (possibly Bill Martell‘s?) about how changing something at the beginning of a story is like dumping dye into a river – it changes everything from then on.

I love this analogy – there’s no such thing as a small change at the beginning of a script, everything has a knock on effect.

Conversely, I also love the one about being asked to change the ending is a bit like being asked to move the pyramid’s point three feet to the left.

No idea whose that one was.

But back to rivers.

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It occurs to me that films are like dye-filled-rivers in other ways. To begin with, the river is your story. You know where it begins and in which direction it flows. Personally, I like to know where the end is too.

I want to know it’s a story about someone who does something – the film will be over when that person achieves that thing … or fails in a poignant way. Not knowing that beginning and end point is a bit like watching a race where the end isn’t clear … it’s hard for me to get excited if I’ve no idea how long it’s going to go on for or when anyone’s getting close to winning/losing.

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Conversely, I don’t want to be able to see a straight bit of river from the start line to the finishing line. I want to know where the finishing line is … but not how to get there. The best films (to me) have a clear end point which seems utterly unobtainable for the protagonist.

I want there to be twists and turns and bends and dead ends between here and there … but I want to know (vaguely) where ‘there’ is.

I know not everyone feels like that. One of my bugbears is people complaining the end is obvious when it’s inherent in the genre.

  • Rom-coms are boring because you know they’re going to end up together.
  • Hero films are boring because you know Bond/Batman/whoever will win.
  • Detective stories are boring because you know they’ll catch the villain.

Fuck. Off.

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Suspend your disbelief, for fuck’s sake! Everything’s boring if you think like that. Football matches are boring because either one of the teams will win or they’ll draw* – it’s the journey, the bit of river on the way to the end which is important.

Knowing the ending in a general sense is important to the process. Imagine watching a football match where there were no goal posts and no scores kept. Players just kicked the ball back and forth for an unknown period of time … and then stopped. I’m not convinced that would become a multi-billion pound industry.

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You’re supposed to know vaguely what the ending might be … just not how the people get there or exactly how they’ll cross the line.

Yes, I’m aware I’m mixing metaphors/analogies here but it’s my blog and I’ll ramble inanely if I want to.

Back to rivers.

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So the finishing line should be clear, but not visible from the starting line. We just need to know there is one and what crossing it means.

If choosing your story is like choosing a river, then maybe choosing the colour of the (eco-friendly) dye you’re about to dump into it is like choosing the genre?

Most stories can be multiple genres, it doesn’t take much to change a story from horror to comedy or comedy to tragedy. The same basic events can be told in different ways to make different genres. We choose our colour/genre at the outset and so long as we stick to that … or maybe fade gently from one to another^ then we’re fine.

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Okay, so you can mix genres together. Frost/Nixon is a political story which uses boxing movie tropes. Fine. Red and blue makes purple, that’s fine … so long as it’s uniformly purple or fades nicely from one to the other. The problem comes when the colours are patchy and random. This bit’s horror, this bit’s comedy, this bit’s meant to be serious but people are still laughing at the last bit. A red bit, a blue bit, some green … it’s a mess.

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Pick a colour/genre (or combination of) and stick to them throughout. Contrast if you want to … but make sure the colour changes harmonise.

If colour is the genre then maybe the hue/shade is the tone? Again, consistency is the key. That or slowly fading out or darkening? Imagine dumping green comedy into a river, it’s bright at the beginning but slowly fades away/disperses as we move down river. That’s fine, isn’t it? Most comedies have a serious bit near the end.

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A consistent green might indicate a consistent type of comedy. A family/friendly comedy (lime green) which suddenly starts making jokes about fucking cadavers (bottle green) is jarring. Or maybe a comedy where the green fades in and out – funny bit, serious bit, boring bit, funny bit … just doesn’t work.

Unless it does.

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Unfortunately, the other thing my brain likes to do is think up counter arguments to itself. This is about as far as I can stretch an analogy before I start heckling myself and telling me I’m full of shit.

Hey me, it’s just a way of thinking about things. If it’s useful, use it … if it’s not, don’t. No need to get all sweary about it.

Stories are like rivers. Sometimes. Other times, they’re not.

Perhaps?


* Actually, this is why I don’t really watch sport – I have no interest in who wins. I don’t know any of the players and I just don’t care. I guess if I picked a team at random and decided to support them I’d get into it … but I don’t need more stuff to obsess about in my life.

^ Yes, I know From Dusk to Dawn crashes from one genre to another in the middle. It can be done … but usually badly.

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

#PhonePhill – Conversation #12: William Gallagher

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“One day, someone on the other end of the phone won’t be lovely. On that day I will break with tradition and refuse to name them as such.”

Phillip Barron

I said that back in July.

I haven’t done a #PhonePhill since July because of school holidays and actual holidays and deadlines and spending most of my free time swapping my daughter’s bedroom and my office around*. It’s not that there’s  a shortage of lovely people in the world I want to talk to (although the list is open if anyone fancies a natter), it’s more that I temporarily ran out of nattering time.

But I’m back. With a bang.

Well, maybe not a bang. More of a continuous exchange of reasonably volumed telecommunication signals. This week’s #PhonePhill is William Gallagher and he was …

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Lovely. Super double-plus extra lovely, in fact.

To be honest, I’m not sure why I led with that quote or why I felt the need to quote myself. I’m fairly certain only an imbecile would quote me.

William Gallagher is a scriptwriter, author, journalist and tea drinker. You can learn lots about him on his Wikipedia page here or on his excellent blog here.

We were on the phone for a mammoth two and a half hours, nattering on about … well, pretty much everything really. The first half an hour or so was me trying to convince him I was being honest about the nature of the Secret Writing Island and how it works. For some reason William demanded a lot of detail before accepting I wasn’t spinning a yarn … considering the context (which I’m not going into here) I consider that a compliment.

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After that we covered  Doctor Who (he’s written some, I haven’t), Blake’s 7 (he has a teleport bracelet, I don’t), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (neither of us are particularly fussed about it), the Midlands (we’ve both lived there, he still does), New York vs. London (we both prefer New York but aren’t really sure why), fuel economy vs. train tickets (it’s complicated and depressing), technology (he prefers iOS, I prefer Android … both are amazing and frustrating in different ways at different times and for different reasons) and how an actor’s delivery of a line can make or break a scene.

This one I find endlessly fascinating. My favourite example is from this scene:

“Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed.”

Terrible, terrible line which almost completely derails the entire film (which I think is otherwise fantastic).

Except … is it a terrible line? Or is it just delivered wrong? I’m certain I’ve read somewhere that line was meant to be sarcastic. Run it back through your mind, imagine it not as a breathless, yet cheesy, declaration of love … imagine it as a being actually quite funny. How much better is that scene?

Now think about Queenie:

Miranda Richardson’s delivery is extraordinary. Continuously. In a exceptionally well-written sitcom performed by a uniformly amazing cast, she stands out as an absolute genius. A genius among geniuses, I guess … but her performance lifts that role to incredible heights.

As much as we like to think good writing makes good drama, it’s nothing unless it’s performed well.

Or at least I think so anyway. I am frequently wrong about such things.

William, for example, asserts I’m completely and utterly wrong about my dislike for one of the four modern Doctor Who actors. I’m just wrong, apparently.

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Adding to that, William also thinks I’m wrong about believing only an imbecile would quote me (because he has and he clearly isn’t one).  He’s so convinced of my wrongness in this regard that he’s written an entire book just about me:

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Okay, so it’s not just about me. Other bloggers are available and quoted/interviewed at great length … but surely the likes of Jason Arnopp, Katherine D’Souza or Diane Leigh can’t possibly hold a candle to my magnificence?

Oh … apparently they can.

Well, that’s a blow.

Presumably they can also spell magnificence without resorting to spell-check.

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This is the official blurb for William’s book:

Everybody tells you that you must have a website and you must have a blog but nobody tells you how – or why. In this book you will learn the key steps to creating your blog but, more importantly, what you can use one for and how it will become an important part of your creative work.

BBC writer William Gallagher shows you how to write a blog that people will read – and then how to keep on writing new entries. See how to write fast blogs and more considered ones. How to make a blog that works for you because it works for your readers.

The good news is it’s available right now on Amazon.

The better news is there’s a far cheaper PDF version here.

The bestest news is you can get a whopping 40% discount off the PDF version if you use the code: JAMAISVU

£3 for a book which features me? How can you not want that? Go on, treat yourself.

And while you’re treating yourself, why not treat me to the sound of your voice? I’d love to hear from you, no matter who you are or what you do. You don’t have to be a writer or even in the entertainment industry. You could be a plumber or a mystery shopper or a retrophrenologist …. I really don’t care, I just want to have a bit of a chat.

If you’re at a loose end and not sure what to do, buy William Gallagher’s book. If you’re still at a loose end after that, why not email me and arrange a time to #PhonePhill?

Come on, let’s have a chat.

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* My office is now much smaller … but much cooler. I’ll show it off properly when it’s finished.

As certain as I am I’ve said all this before.

Categories: #PhonePhill, BBC, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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