My Way

The information pass

The other day I had a fantastic idea for a blog post. One of those light bulb, one in a million ideas which would greatly benefit the scriptwriting community and help raise the level of writing the whole world over.

Unfortunately … I’ve forgotten what it was. A bit like that time I invented time travel in the bath, but got distracted by some grout and forgot how it worked.

Time travel. Not grout. I know how grout works.

So instead, I’m going to witter on about the first thing which pops into my mind.

Um …

Maybe I don’t know how grout works? I mean, I’ve used it … but do I really understand it?

Meanwhile, back at the point:

Ooh! Got something!

So, one of the techniques I use when plotting out a script or writing a treatment or even rewriting an existing script is The Information Pass … which … I’ve got a sneaking suspicion I’ve rambled on about before but called it something else?

Never mind, I’m committed now. It’s this or a 10,000 word musing on the nature of grout and its impact on humanity.

Let’s go with The Information Pass.

Feel free to say THE INFORMATION PASS in a deep, booming voice. If you feel it helps?

Sometimes I find I get carried away with a story and miss out the crucial piece of information which makes the whole thing make sense. I find the art of scriptwriting is partly the art of parcelling out information.

Too much and the audience gets bored.

Too little and they get confused.

What I’m aiming for is the fine line betwixt boredom and confusion, the line of engaging mystery.

Feel free to say ‘the line of engaging mystery’ in a spooky voice, if it makes you feel better? I’d go for the same tone as ‘Have you ever seen a shirt make a phone call?’ in the Son of the Invisible Man.

So what I do is I go through the treatment or script or whatever and I try to clinically and coldly describe exactly what information I think a scene is conveying.

For example:

There’s a spaceship. Shooting at a bigger ship that’s chasing them. The people on the smaller ship look scared. There’s two sentient robots. Apparently there’s a princess somewhere who won’t be able to escape whoever’s on the bigger ship. Not this time at least, which implies she’s escaped a lot before …

And so on.

I am, of course, doing an information pass there on Kramer vs Kramer.


This helps me keep the story on track.

Sort of.

The downside of the information pass is it doesn’t really help me work out what the audience will be able to guess. I mean, it kind of does but it’s also limited. The idea is to imagine you’re watching the film cold, with no foreknowledge, and trying to piece all the clues together.

Certain events come with built in knowledge, like: someone crying over a grave.

I’d probably assume that person has lost someone they love, hence the tears. Depending on the age of the person crying, I’d probably make a stab and guessing who’s in the grave. A child … probably lost a parent. An elderly person … probably a spouse. Someone in the middle … could be anyone – parent, lover, offspring … who knows?

Being able to figure out what information the audience is likely to guess at helps subvert it or not make a mystery of things they’ve already guessed. I hate watching the protagonist, particularly one who’s meant to be a detecting genius, desperately trying to figure out something the audience guessed straight away.*

Understanding what information the audience have helps me work out what information they haven’t got … then all I have to do is figure out if they need it and when to give it to them.

I find it helps me to separate out the logic of structure and information from the emotional journey of the characters. Writing, like all arts, has a logical, ordered component which some people can do instinctively, but others (like me) need to think about in a separate pass.

I find it useful, if you don’t already do something similar, maybe you’d find it useful too?

* The caveat there being, if there are five suspects for a murder then a tiny portion of the audience will have decided each person is the murderer and then claim it was obvious who it was, when in fact it’s just an unavoidable statistic.

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No more cheating

It turns out I’ve been making a rod for my own back by actually being good at something which isn’t supposed to be true.

Everyone in the film industry knows that one page of script = one minute of screen time. It’s a fact. It’s how scripts work. Everyone knows it.

Except we scriptwriters who know that’s a load of bullshit.

One minute sometimes = one page … but more often than not, it doesn’t.

A page of one liners will (probably) be less than a minute. A page of monologue might take nearer five minutes to deliver. A page of action … eh, who knows?

So a producer’s insistence on keeping the script to a certain page-count always seems baffling. Why does the script have to be 90 pages as opposed to 95 if those extra five pages will only take an extra two minutes on screen? The audience won’t care. Surely a budget is worked out on the length a scene takes to film, not how long it takes to watch? Surely the budget depends on the type of scene as opposed to its length§?

What’s particularly bemusing is how a 118 page script is too long, but the exact same script, with fewer line breaks and full stops, which comes in at 110 pages is perfectly acceptable.

It’s the same script! Commas don’t show up on screen! Removing them from the script to alter the page count shouldn’t affect the budget!

For years now I’ve assumed this page-count nonsense is just about perception. If the script seems shorter, the producer seems happier so my last pass will always be a series of tweaks to preemptively shorten the script before handing it in.

But here’s the problem: my pre-tweaked drafts (apparently) always follow the one page = one minute rule.

My 95 page script is 95 minutes of screen time. Tweaking it to 90 pages may mollify the producer and the financiers in the short term*, but as soon as the script gets into pre-production and someone puts a stopwatch to it … the truth will out.

I’ve hidden 20 pages of a script before by judicious use of ellipses and parentheticals … only to have kittens when, deep into pre-production, someone figures out the 110 page script is actually 130 minutes long. Being asked to lose a huge chunk of the story when actors have already been cast and I can’t just hack out a complete sub-plot is a spine-chilling experience … but one I’ve brought upon myself by being all smug and sly in the first place.

Knowing how to make one page = one minute may seem like a useful tool, but it’s not useful if I then screw all that up by shuffling punctuation around.

So my New Year’s Resolution is to flip my way of working. Instead of making life easier for myself at the early draft stage and harder at the production-draft end of things, I’m going to be tougher on myself from the outset and actually cut pages instead of commas.

I’ve no idea if this is going to work, but it feels like a path worth taking.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

 I suspect some do.

There’s a correlation.

§  Yes … and no.

* I’m not 100% clear on how this works. I know length can determine budget because of the number of days needed, but I suspect there’s also a need to hit certain lengths for certain genres in order to please the distributors. If anyone wants to ring me up for a chat and explain it, I’m all ears.

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The story wind and the flappy plot sail

Sometimes, usually about 3.14 in the morning, I find myself imagining the story is wind filling the plot sail. When the wind’s blowing strongly, the sail is full and the film rattles along at a beautiful pace, skimming the waves of … um … I don’t know, character? Interest?

Yeah, okay, I haven’t really thought this through.

When the story wind is blowing, the plot sails are full and all is well. But what happens when you need the story to take a sudden left turn? On a sailing boat …

I know nothing about boats. Why am I making an analogy using boats?

On a sailing boat, when you need to change course … well, I guess you can steer a bit with the rudder (or is it a tiller? What’s the difference?), but presumably that only takes you so far and there’s a point where you need to come about?

I think that’s what it’s called, when you turn into (or away from?) the wind enough for the sail to no longer function and you need to move the … back end of the sail to the other side so the wind fills the other side of the sail.

An experienced, competent writer/sailor can come about (if that is what it’s called?) with minimal flapping and no loss of forward momentum. Bad story telling, to me, is when the story takes a left turn or has a false ending a half hour or so before the actual ending and the plot just flaps about for a bit.

I don’t like that sort of thing.

Except when it works, then I love it.

Ideally, I think the plot sail should stay taut and keep the boat surging forward. Bits of plot flapping around just annoy me. For example:

The character’s inner need/goal should be achieved at the end of the film. Not in the middle. Or after ten minutes. There shouldn’t be a point at which the character achieves everything they wanted … but there’s still forty minutes of movie left, so he/she has a cup of tea and then toddles off to solve the problem without any personal issues or emotional engagement.

Similarly, I don’t like it when there are two stories which have no connection. A plane crashes on an island inhabited by vampires – they have to fix the plane before nightfall!

That sounds cool.

They fix the plane by four in the afternoon on the first day, they have no idea the island is inhabited by vampires so they decide to have a spot of lunch and a swim and they’ll take off in the morning … oh no! Vampires!

That sounds less cool. To me anyway.

I don’t like it when the first story is properly resolved and everyone’s just hanging around waiting for the second story to kick off again.

Although, having said that, I can envisage a kind of Father Ted tone where they realise there’s vampires on the island, race to fix the plane … and manage it in plenty of time. “Gosh, that was easy.” says the protagonist “Can you imagine how terrible it would be to get stuck on this island with all these vampires after dark?”

And then there’s an eclipse.

I can see someone being able to make that work … but outside of knowingly parodying bad storytelling … just don’t let the plot sail flap around. Keep it tight and full of story wind so the boat of … something … um … I wish I hadn’t started this now.

Analogies … make sure you’ve thought them through before you start writing them down.

Or don’t.

Do what you like.

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#PhonePhill – Conversation #17: Dominic Carver (strikes back)

I had a lovely, if brief, chat with Dominic Carver not-so-recently – probably a couple of months back now. In fact, no probably about it – it was ages ago.

NB: This post was written the day after that call … and then I got distracted. I started making a vague attempt to update the tenses so it makes sense … then gave up. Just bear in mind most of this was true five months ago, not necessarily today.

In other words: don’t worry, I’ve been working on your project all day. Honest.

As ever (or for the second time at least) the man was entertaining, erudite and delightful. The brevity was mainly due to half-term child and family commitments*, which are both unavoidable and should never be avoided. What’s the point of being a writer if you can’t slope off to spend time with your kids every now and then?

Dom, as ever (see caveat above) has an exciting array of projects simmering away.

I … well, back then I was having a bit of a lull.

It’s not that there’s wasn’t work out there and it’s not like I wasn’t being offered anything. It’s just … eh … I couldn’t be arsed at that point.

Dom and I spoke about this ebb and flow of ambition. Sometimes you want to write 24 hours a day, 7 days a week as the words burn white-hot in your brain and you find yourself getting furious with your own bladder for occasionally demanding time off to drain itself of the ludicrous amount of tea you’ve tried to drown it in.

Other days … it’s all about the procrastination.

To be fair, most days it’s about the procrastination. Any excuse not to write is a good excuse.

Usually those days will eventually result in some writing.


And then there are the periods when the desire to write just evaporates completely. When the burning need to express myself via hitting a keyboard just isn’t there.

Writing is hard. It’s hard to do and then it’s hard to sell and then it’s hard to deal with the notes and then it’s hard to cope with the disappointment of seeing how the production process destroys the story and then it’s hard not to join in with the critics in slagging off your own work.

And then it’s hard having to start the whole process all over again.

Sometimes, usually when I’m generally content with life, it gets hard to want to throw myself back into the mill. You don’t put your nose to the grindstone as a scriptwriter, you get dragged between two grindstones and pulverised.

When life is lovely and fulfilling, when there’s lots of other exciting things to do … well, I just can’t be fucked.

Not that I’ve not been doing any work at all. I have a feature film casting at the moment which is shaping up to be the best thing I’ve ever done with a perfect cast. There’s another feature which is being touted around LA and yet another I’m slowly excavating from the mountain of possibility with a director who started out as a #PhonePhill but is now (probably) a friend.

So there’s three things.

Oh, and the short film which just won’t behave. That’s four.

Then there’s that TV show, the one I feel I’ve been accidentally writing for the last twenty years. The one which feels like its nearly perfect … even though I’ve not written a single word beyond a one page synopsis.

By rights I should be shouldering all other commitments aside to focus on that one … but then there’s that ennui.

Don’t get me wrong – there are flashes of inspiration and perspiration. Moments when I suddenly burst into feverish scribblings … but those are mostly when there’s an interesting casting choice which requires a character tweak or the odd simple paid rewrite job. Those I’m all over. Those I snap to attention and type until my fingers ache.

The rest of it, especially the stuff I’m doing just for me … not so much.

But you know, as was discussed with Dom, those times are okay. Sometimes you care, sometimes you don’t. Always do the stuff people are waiting for … the rest … just don’t be too hard on yourself.

The trick is to know the difference between procrastinating and general demotivation. Procrastination is just silly: man and/or woman up and knuckle down. Demotivation periods … that’s fine. Just do something else. You don’t owe anyone your literary genius and no one will care+ if you down tools for a week or a month or even ten years. Just come back to it when you’re ready.

Or don’t. Find something more fulfilling to do, it’s your life.

Just accept it’s all part of the ebb and flow of a writer’s self-motivation. Beating yourself up to it just leads to depression and anxiety, give yourself permission to slack off.

Them’s my thoughts anyway and Dom seemed to agree. Or maybe I just ranted at him until he had to go spend time with his lovely family? That’s probably it.

Either way, catching up with Dom was cool and yet another enchanting #PhonePhill. If you’d like to have a natter, why not drop me a line at the email address in the sidebar and we’ll arrange a time to chat? Doesn’t matter what your experience level is or whether you’re a writer or not. Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you do and however long you’ve been doing it, if you fancy a chat, I fancy listening.

* His, not mine. I’d retreated to my Secret Writing Island to avoid mine. My commitments, not necessarily my family and certainly never for extended periods.


+ So long as there’s no one actually waiting for your work. Do that. Always do that promptly and professionally.

Categories: #PhonePhill, My Way, Progress, Random Witterings, Writing and life | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment


Oh hello, it’s been a while. Haven’t the months been kind to you? I like what you’ve done to your hair/shoes/teeth.

And so on.

I moved house back in April and blogging seemed less important than unpacking and DIY. I’d like to say I’m back now, but I’m probably not. In the meantime though, here’s a quick video of me moving my office from the old house to the new.

Hopefully see you soon?

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings, Sad Bastard, Writing and life | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Using my Magnum voice

One of the problems with writing a film script is the length of time it takes to write/produce versus the length of time it takes to read/watch.*

A script of 110 pages may take an hour/hour and a half to read# but it probably took the best part of a year to write from spark of conception to final draft. Sometimes longer. I have a script due to go into production which began life in 2009 or maybe even 2008. The first six months was an intense period of rewriting and thrashing things out. Everything since then has been periodic rewrites to accommodate various cast members as they get attached or to please an array of investors/producers/whims as they appear and disappear.

Coming back to a script after a couple of years of not thinking about it is an enlightening and terrifying experience.

“Why did I think that was a good idea?”

After that long away from the page the script needs a thorough rereading before altering just to get a sense of how the new material will impact the old.

That seems fairly obvious, but what’s perhaps less obvious is the gap between writing FADE IN: and FADE OUT. on the first draft. That might be a few weeks or it might be a few months,~ either way it can sometimes be tricky to keep in mind what the characters are thinking and feeling at any given point. Even at the note card/treatment stage, when I’m finding my way through the story, I sometimes find characters doing things which don’t feel real given what just happened before. This can often lead to feedback such as:

“Hang on, they’ve just discovered the whole world’s under threat from this alien thingy and they’ve only got 24 hours to find a cure … so he pops off to buy some new shoes and she decides now’s the time to learn Greek?”

Written down like that it’s plainly nonsensical … but I won’t have experienced it in one short sentence. I’ll have had the various scenes on note cards and reshuffled them late in the day. Or cut and paste scenes from different parts of the script because they were in (a different) wrong place. Or inserted them in the second or third draft at the behest of the client because we’re getting development money from Clarks and … well, Greece I suppose.

Those scenes may have been written years apart and taken days to write, it’s only when they’re read in sequence do they seem stupid.

One way to combat this is to read through what I’ve written to date before beginning the day’s work … which is fine on page 20 but a ball ache on page 80. So a method I find myself applying more and more is what I like to call The Magnum Voice+.

You remember the bit, probably immediately following an ad break in America but often seemingly random in the UK-reduced-ad-version, when Magnum would narrate what’s just happened and how his little voice is feeling about it?

I do that.

Often whilst wearing my Magnum costume.

Sometimes I write it down, sometimes I just say it in my head, but in essence all I do is imagine the character narrating what’s been happening and how they feel.

“As soon as I found out the world was ending I decided to … “

Well, not learn Greek. Probably. Not unless the cure to the world-ending thing is written in Greek somewhere and even then it’s probably better to just go find a Greek to translate it for you.

“When I first heard the world was ending I was a bit upset … but then I remembered the money I owed in library fines and cheered up a bit. Feeling better, I decided to buy those shoes I’ve always wanted using a credit card because … eh, fuck it. Why not?”

Oh. I guess the shoe buying thing does make sense.

I find the Magnum Voice is particularly good at keeping track of emotions. It’s nice to remind myself of the shit I’ve been putting the character through because, whereas to me 30 pages ago was three weeks back, to the character it was only three hours ago. They’re probably still upset at that baboon eating their sister in front of them. Probably still quite a touchy subject and too soon for them to go to a fancy dress party dressed as a bonobo. And if they absolutely have to dress up then maybe having a little weep about it first would feel appropriate?

It’s not a universally useful tool, but then what tool is? Personally I like having a range of tools to fall back on and the Magnum Voice is one of my current favourites.

I can’t think of a snappy way to end this post, but I feel it’s gone on long enough … so here’s the Magnum soundtrack to fill your ears with awesomeness:

* I imagine novels have a similar problem, although having no experience in that realm I think I’ll just keep my fool mouth shut.

# I used to read a lot faster, bordering on speed reading … until I realised I was never doing a script justice. A script should be read at the speed you’d watch it so you appreciate the emotion properly. Or that’s what I think anyway.

~ Occasionally it’s been a few days … but that’s rarely a good idea and even rarer as necessary as the producer insists it is.

+ I know Magnum wasn’t the first show to do it, but to my mind it’s the most successful version of it. You may like to think of this as The Gold Monkey Voice or The Philip Marlowe Voice … knock yourself out.

Categories: My Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Emotions first



I have a nasty tendency when I’m plotting out a script to get too focused on the events. I work out what the beginning and end scenes are and then split the story into quarters, give each quarter a rough title and then start fleshing each quarter out with scenes.

The problem with this approach is it can sometimes leave me with cool sequences I’m very attached to which look great … but don’t really service the character’s journey. Because that’s what a film is: the protagonist’s journey, following along as they learn their most important, life changing lesson.


No matter how big or blockbuster-y the film is, I want that emotional core. I want it to the story of one person learning and changing and growing (or dying and failing, that works too) … and I want that journey to be integral to the story. I don’t want the story to happen and then the character to suddenly change at the last moment or to change independently of the events. I want the events to alter her worldview, to shape and change how she feels until she’s forced to make a difficult transition which is the only way to meet the challenges of the film.

I don’t care if it’s a superhero film or a small-scale drama. Whatever the story-flesh is, I want it wrapped around a solid emotional-skeleton.


The problem is, when I start with the flesh I end up with too many arms or not enough legs or a weird lumpy bit in the middle of the stomach which is soooooo cool … but has nothing to do with the main character’s turmoil at all.

So maybe, just maybe, the answer is to start with the emotions first?


Maybe the way forward is to write down who she is at the beginning, who she has to be at the end and then divide the film up into segments which represent the emotional steps on that journey?

Maybe if I give each step a relevant name, let’s say I’m using the five stages of grief or something, then I know the sequences need to represent denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance*.


Only when I know what the steps have to mean should I then work out what they actually are. I can construct the physical events of the story around those steps. So it’s not “She has to get the key to unlock the thing!” but “She needs to realise not all people are untrustworthy” and then figure out which bit of action best represents it. That way the emotional change is smooth, it happens gradually and every scene adds to the whole. Every scene can still be funny or cool or thrilling or whatever … but they have meaning, they contribute to the film instead of being diversions.


Films tend to get written the other way round. Certainly whenever I get a rewrite job it’s usually because the original writer didn’t have (or couldn’t convey) a clear emotional journey, resulting in a script which has good bits in it … but none of those bits add up to anything satisfying. It’s really, really hard grafting an emotional skeleton on afterwards because, obviously, skeletons are meant to be on the inside, baked into the core of the story.


It also means there’ll inevitably be that conversation with the client where they have a specific scene they’re in love with which has nothing to do with the story they’re trying to tell but looks sooooooo cool. Trying to persuade people they don’t need the thing they love most is never easy, but often the best options are cut it or tell a different story, one where that scene makes sense.

This is often most clear in action films, in the difference between a good action film where every fight scene and set piece changes the protagonist in some way and a bad one where shit just blows up for no reason.


On the other hand, we all have favourite films where nothing makes any sense and the fact it’s just shit blowing up for no reason is what makes the film so great. So perhaps this emotion-first approach isn’t always needed?

Or maybe those films we love would be even better if there was some point to them?


Maybe they’re good not because of the script (blasphemy – everything comes from the script!) but despite the script? Maybe it’s a mediocre script which has been acted, directed, edited, lit, dressed and scored well?


I don’t know. I just know that for me starting with the emotional journey makes the script a lot less painful to write than starting with the physical one.

* You may be of the opinion that these five stages are bullshit. I may be of the opinion you’re right, I may not. Doesn’t matter.

Categories: My Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

#PhonePhill – Conversation #16: Darren Goldsmith


This is a #PhonePhill I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, even though it was only arranged last week. Darren Goldsmith (this is him, here, go read about him) is someone I’ve followed on Twitter for years and chatted to on and off via email or DM every now and then. I don’t know the bloke and have never met him, but he’s always just sounded so … interesting.


eDarren is a lovely bloke, someone I always have time for. Obviously I’ve no idea who he really is, but thanks to the wonders of technology I now can update that eStatus with a healthy dose of reality.

The truth is Darren’s as lovely over the phone as he seems online.

The conversation began with the usual Skype greeting of “Hello? Can you hear me? Are you there? Hello? Damn it. If you can hear me, hang up and I’ll call you this time. Is that better? I can hear you, can you hear me?”

And so on.

But once I’d worked out the only way to get a decent signal in my hotel room was to press myself against the window (which must have looked great to the office workers opposite), we were away.


Chat was easy from the get go … apart from that weirdly unsettling few minutes at the beginning where we both realise neither of us sounds the same as the version of each other we’d created in our own heads.

We nattered for a good two and a half hours and only really stopped because I was fucking starving and needed something to eat.

Darren and I have a lot in common, we both like Sci-Fi and movies and we’re both bassists – he’s actually a good one.


He’s the general all round arty type who seems to be good at everything he does (or at least the things I’ve seen/heard of his) and has even turned his hand to scriptwriting … before realising it just wasn’t for him because it’s not really an art form in and of itself.

And that is a problem with being a scriptwriter, you’re not really creating art anyone ever sees beyond the cast and crew who make it. Also, it’s not really up to the writer what ends up in the final draft which means it’s much harder to write a script which challenges our notions of what a film can be than it is to, say, paint a picture which challenges concepts of art.


Scriptwriting is a constant loop of feedback and rewriting, perhaps more so than any other art form. This is both good and bad. The good side is that scriptwriting is incredibly complex – the script is not just a story, but a technical document which has to be understood by dozens of people. It’s trying to convey a unity of vision to people who are thinking about costumes and lighting and camera placement and tone and theme and meaning and location and time and … so on.

Whereas a book can leave people with differing opinions as to its contents (as can a film, in some ways), a script can’t. Or shouldn’t. The people reading it need to be on the same page which means certain conventions have to be adhered to.


On top of that you need to entertain and surprise over at least 90 minutes without repeating or contradicting yourself. This is especially difficult when you consider it can take months to write the first draft and years to refine it. Getting constant feedback helps the script evolve.

The downside is constant feedback from multiple sources does tend to homogenise scripts. Some producers or directors will celebrate risky or unusual script behaviour, others just won’t tolerate it. Somebody will be sinking a lot of money into this in the hope of getting it all back and making a profit – risk taking isn’t always a good thing.


A painter trying a new technique which doesn’t work wastes time, canvas and paint. A filmmaker who does the same wastes millions of pounds.

It’s in the interests of most people to make scripts groundbreaking within certain safe parameters.

Darren didn’t really enjoy that process.

We spoke a lot about herd mentality and how we prefer to go our own way. I’m certainly very contrary when it comes to what I do and don’t like. Often if I find I’m fairly neutral about a film everyone else loves, I find myself professing to dislike it in order to provoke debate or just to voice the opposing point of view.

We spoke about this video:

… and how we’d both (like most people, I guess?) like to think we wouldn’t join in, but are aware we probably would.

Perhaps the most interesting topic of conversation was about how people learn an art form. We were talking about bass playing and I mentioned I’d initially learnt to play it ‘wrong’. Bass strings should be plucked with the pad of the finger, a kind of rubbing motion as opposed to the flamenco tip-of-the-finger picking of a six-string guitar.


I was self-taught and I taught myself wrong, which was fine for a while but eventually I reached the limit of where my poor technique could take me. I had to unlearn my crap plucking and relearn it – that was a massive ball ache.

I’m experiencing a similar problem in Kung Fu at the moment – I’ve switched to a different style and am having to slightly alter my foot and hand positions. Slightly altering something you’ve done for twenty years is much harder than learning something completely different; but I have a fantastic teacher (he’s here, if you’re interested?) and he’s indulging my desire to be drowned in criticism and detail.


Not everyone likes learning like this, but I do.

Or rather, I do now. Perhaps when I first began learning Kung Fu I wouldn’t have been able to cope with a deluge of technical details? Maybe back then I needed to find my own way, much like I did with bass playing.

Darren is very definitely of the opinion that artistic form should be discovered first and taught second. He believes (and I agree with him) that if you’re taught the rules of your art you may become very good at following them, but you won’t make the mistakes necessary to break them successfully. Left to your own devices you will wander off into new creative pastures … most of which turn out to be dead ends with no value, but that journey of discovery is invaluable if you’re to create the kind of art which moves people.

Rules can be learnt later, once you’ve figured out most of them for yourself. Then you’re refining your knowledge with that of those who came before you. Learning rules from the beginning is (or can be, there are no absolutes here) really limiting.

The true danger point is what’s happening in scriptwriting at the moment: too much information. Too many people telling you what you should and shouldn’t do before you’ve had the chance to work it out for yourself.


Obviously there’s a happy middle ground between finding your own path and being shown the one which everyone agrees works … but maybe as a community we’re tipping to far towards the latter?

Or is it just two routes to the same place? Learn the rules and then make mistakes trying to apply them or make mistakes and then learn the rules to refine what you’ve taught yourself – is there really a difference?


What I do know is talking to Darren was an absolute delight, one you should try for yourself if you ever get the opportunity.

If you fancy a natter about anything you fancy with a scriptwriter then please get in touch. My email details are in the side bar, drop me a line and we’ll schedule a #PhonePhill.

Whoever you are, whatever you do, I’m really looking forward to hearing from you.


Categories: #PhonePhill, My Way, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

The thread of desire and the candle of knowledge


I’ve been thinking about different ways of driving a story, about how we keep an audience leaning forward in nail-biting tension, wondering what happens next … as opposed to lolling in the seat looking at background details and wondering if they remembered to take the chops out of the freezer.

Two techniques I use are the thread of desire and the candle of knowledge.


The thread of desire is the protagonists goal and/or need. What does she want? What’s stopping her getting it? Hopefully part of what stopping her get what she wants is her own personality which won’t change until she gets what she needs. Possibly she may then discover she doesn’t want the thing after all … unless the thing is some cheese to fight the Nazis.


Then she probably will still want it.

The thread of desire pulls the protagonist through the movie and us with her. So long as it remains taut and present in every scene, we’ll follow along. Every scene should be (at its core) about the protagonist crawling painfully along this thread towards her goal. Sometimes the thread leads to a dead end and the protagonist has to back track, sometimes we switch to the antagonist and see them interfering with the thread …


… but it’s always there.

Okay, so we can have scenes which don’t feature the thread, but I think they need to be few and far between because, essentially, these scenes aren’t part of the story we’re telling. Annoyingly these scenes can often be the funniest or otherwise best scenes in the film … but too many of them and people lose interest.

Rock of Ages had this problem for me, it set up a couple of clear threads with a love story and a desire for fame/success … and yet there are lots and lots of scenes about Tom Cruise’s character. Lots of them. Very funny scenes with great songs in them … but the threads and the protagonists are nowhere to be seen.

The result, for me, was a film full of great scenes which would have been far better if a lot of them had been chopped out.

Just follow the thread.

Or threads. The love story is often a second thread which intertwines with the first. Sometimes that’s the thread of need as opposed to the thread of want, often we feel both these threads will resolve at roughly the same time. Hopefully at the end of the film.


Captain America: The First Avenger is one of those films where the thread of desire is resolved about an hour before the film ends. We follow Steve Rogers on this journey to become Captain America … and when he gets everything he ever wanted … there’s still another hour of film to go. The film would have been more satisfying to me if the thread had resolved at the end.

Okay, so there were still Nazis who needed punching … but it’s not as emotionally satisfying without that thread.


The thread of desire isn’t too difficult to weave into a story, because it is the story. If you don’t know what that thread is, then maybe you don’t know what your story is? If you can’t point at the thread in any given scene, maybe that scene doesn’t belong in the story?

The candle of knowledge, on the other hand, is a tricky beast.


Most films (maybe apart from sequels?) begin with the candle of knowledge. We begin each film in the dark – who is it about? What is it about? Why is it about them? All we have is questions …

Unless you’ve seen a trailer which neatly summarises the first act … in which case we’re passively watching how knowledge is given out rather than actively gathering the knowledge ourselves.


But assuming we don’t know anything and are experiencing the story in the way it was intended to be experienced, the script is the candle which illuminates the darkness of ignorance. Every time it shines on something we gain a little piece of information.

This story’s about a man.

He works at a dentist’s office …

Oh, but he’s not a dentist …

The edges of the light, the gloom, is where our curiosity lies … what’s that thing at the edge of the light? If he’s not a dentist, why is he dressed like one? Our curiosity keeps us interested, it keeps us peering at the edges of the light, at the darkness just out of sight, waiting to be illuminated.


Memento is a great example of this – there is almost nothing to that film beyond curiosity about what happened to get us to this point. The scenes themselves aren’t particularly interesting if you know exactly what came before … but we don’t and it’s that ignorance, our curiosity about the darkness and what it contains which keeps us interested.

Most films begin with the candle of knowledge and then hand over to the thread of desire, keeping just enough in the darkness to keep us interested. Some are pure thread, like action movies – they don’t always need a twist or a surprise piece of information so long as the thread remains taut and it’s going through the most difficult terrain imaginable for the protagonist.


If our action hero wanders off in the middle of the story to do some shopping for things which have no relevance to anything … it may be funny, but equally it may be boring.

Murder mysteries rely more heavily on the candle, but maybe the best of them have a thread running throughout too?

I find relying on curiosity to retain interest to be a dangerous game because you’re relying on the audience not finding the light switch. As soon as they figure out what’s going on, the lights are on and the candle is useless.


Unless there’s a power cut, which in terms of this metaphor is … um … something. I don’t know. Nor do I know how to end this post. I should probably just write something pithy and stop.

Something pithy.

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#P̶h̶o̶n̶e̶ MeetPhill – Meeting #3: Michelle Lipton, Paul Campbell and Piers Beckley


So this post is sort of the last in a trilogy of posts about one pagers. The first post talked through my method, the second was the BBC opportunity (closed now! It’s closed, you missed it. Unless you didn’t.) and here’s my final thoughts on how to write a one pager, possibly the most vital part:



Preferably peer, but anyone who can articulate honestly how they felt reading it, why they did or didn’t like something or what they didn’t understand.

In this respect I got lucky since I had (coincidentally) arranged to meet a few of my writer chums for drinks. Those of you keeping track of these things may notice the meetPhill numbers aren’t quite sequential – this is because there was someone else that day whose identity I may or may not reveal in a future post.

Not to create any mystery or tension, but because I might get sidetracked. I only mention it so he doesn’t think he’s less important than these three or any less of a chum.


So forearmed in the knowledge I was meeting up with Paul, Piers and Shel a few days before the BBC deadline, I figured I might as well print out a few copies of my entry and see if I could t̶r̶i̶c̶k̶ persuade them into giving me some feedback.

Which they happily did.

Or at least, they didn’t complain too much.


And in return I read their entries and in fact it all set off a cascade whereby we all read each other’s.

If you haven’t got writer chums, it’s a really good idea to find some. It’s nowhere near as hard as it might seem since there’s probably a local Shooting People meet or maybe a writers’ group. If not, there’s always the LSWF which is chock-full of potential chums desperate to make friends with you.


Or at least they should be desperate to make friends with you, because peers are the most valuable asset we have in this otherwise solitary industry.*

Obviously getting people to read a full script is a big ask, one not to be thrown away on a first draft unless you’re reciprocating in someway. All reads should be reciprocal. No, strike that. You should be happy to read your friends’ work and offer an opinion because it’s a nice thing to do. If they do the same for you, great. If not … that’s fine.


Unless they’re taking the piss, I suppose …

Oh, you know what? You’re all adults (probably?) you can figure out the rules for yourself. Suffice it to say I rocked up for drinks and dinner with friends who gave me an invaluable insight into how my one-pager came across to them.

Not whether it’s good or bad, but which bits they didn’t understand, which bits confused them or made them reread or even slowed them down a little. The benefit of something short in person is the conversation afterwards, because that way you can find out how they imagine the story and see if it matches the story in your head.


On this occasion all three of them offered comments which vastly improved the one-pager. They didn’t add anything to the concept or the characters, but rather helped me present the idea in a clearer, more succinct way.

Which was awfully nice of them.

Hopefully they got some mileage out of my comments on their work in return.

It’s difficult to know exactly how something will be perceived. In my case a mention of a character in her early sixties got misread three times as the series being set in the early sixties.


Okay, so I could have argued that they just didn’t read it properly … but they did. They read it as quickly and as thoroughly as anyone at the BBC will. People make mistakes and if even one person can misinterpret something they how do you know the person reading a judging your work won’t?

In this case (I think?) all three made the same mistake … so the mistake is actually mine. It needs to be crystal clear or the meaning is lost.


This is the sort of feedback I couldn’t give myself because it was perfectly clear to me … or I wouldn’t have written it down.

So hooray for writing chums! And hooray for those who are willing to be honest and supportive because they really are (or should be) an invaluable part of the process.

*Supposedly solitary. I have the slightly skewed experience of writing nearly everything for someone. It’s very rare I write a spec script with no input, it’s been years in fact. Maybe even a decade. Every time I try, someone either options it before I’m finished or commissions me for something.

That probably sounds like bragging, it’s not meant to. Sorry. I’m not bragging and have nothing to brag about … it’s just the way my career seems to work.

Categories: #PhonePhill, BBC, My Way, Someone Else's Way, Writing and life | 1 Comment

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