My Way

#PhonePhill – Conversation #16: Darren Goldsmith

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

The thread of desire and the candle of knowledge

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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.

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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.

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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 …

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… 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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:

Feedback.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

How I spent my summer

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In between rewrites, I’ve mostly spent the summer writing a metric fuck-ton of one pagers for various people. It occurs to me there are two mistakes I’ve repeatedly made when asked for a one pager and I thought I’d share them:

  1. Get carried away and write an entire treatment
  2. Only write the single page

The first one is bad because it’s too much detail, potentially veering too far away from the movie the client is imagining from our prior discussion and probably disappointing them.

The second is bad because I’m trying to summarise a movie I haven’t really thought through yet.

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The client only wants to see a summary, to them it’s a simple process – just dash out a one pager; but until I know what the film is and how all the bits fit together it’s just a jumbled mess of nonsensical drivel. In order to get to a point where I know what to summarise I need to write a separate document covering everything in the film.

I’ve learnt this through bitter experience. Writing the one pager and nothing else tends to leave me with a document which rambles on about nothing very much. Usually it goes into great detail about the first act  and maybe mentions the resolution … whilst completely ignoring all the things which make the film watchable. I need more information before I can start.

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I’ve gone through several iterations of this process and hit upon a method which works for me. In essence I try to plot out the entire film in moderate detail, usually covering:

LOGLINE
CHARACTERS
THEME
CENTRAL IRONY
PLOT

And then break it down into sections:

OPENING IMAGE          ]
INTRODUCTION           ]= all of this is Act 1
INCITING INCIDENT  ]

ACT 2a

MIDPOINT

ACT 2b

LOW POINT

ACT 3
CLOSING IMAGE

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You could look at this as essentially filling in a form, or somehow straitjacketing the creative process … but I find it reassuring. It’s the skeleton of the movie, in much the same way a horse and a cat have a similar mammalian skeleton with four limbs and each limb having five bones, two bones, one bone. They have the same underpinnings on paper, but are completely different in real life.

Being a creative process though, although I fill in each section, I don’t necessarily fill it in in a specific order.

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Sometimes I start with the character, sometimes a vague notion of the plot, sometimes the central irony … it just depends. To give you some idea, I thought I’d run through how this process might have led to Pitch Perfect, if I’d been fortunate enough to work on that film.

So I’d probably have started with a vague idea. I think there was a book called Pitch Perfect. I also seem to remember that was a more factual affair about collegiate a capella (an unexplored arena, good starting point) than a story … but let’s assume that’s the genesis of the idea and that we know we want it to be a lighthearted, feelgood comedy.

So I’d probably think about character next – what’s the best/worst character to be in a collegiate a capella movie? Obviously someone who’s in college, that makes sense. The central irony and logline need to be tied up in this too. A bad logline would be something like:

An a capella group enter a competition and win.

It’s bad because … who give a shit?

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People care about people – that’s the number one rule here. I’d need to find the right person to hang the audience’s interest on. I need to think it through:

Barbershop is a kind of a capella, so maybe that’s an angle? Another way of describing it might be close harmony singing.

Close harmony.

So what if the central irony of the lead character is someone who doesn’t like being close or harmonious? What if it’s about a lone wolf forced to join a pack for some reason?

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Now I’ve got the edge of an idea for the protagonist, the irony and the logline. I can temper this more by thinking about the theme.

We have this lone wolf who has a (as yet undefined, but probably musical) goal, but can’t realise it until she’s part of a pack. So what’s the theme? Something to do with individuality? Maybe she’s scared of losing her individuality but learns to enjoy losing it?

Nah, that doesn’t sound right?

What if the theme is about balance? What if it’s about an individual who learns how to be an individual within a group? Maybe being an individual isn’t working for her and maybe subsuming her own personality doesn’t work for her either … so it’s all about finding the balance, about living in harmony.

Ooh, balance and harmony are musical terms, that’s good.

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So if the protagonist is a lone wolf who learns how to be a lone voice in a choir, then who’s the antagonist? Maybe someone on a rival team? If we have a rival team then we have a rivalry and maybe there needs to be a competition? If there’s a competition then what we have here is a sports movie – that kind of dictates the structure, so maybe we can fill in bits of the structure?

The MIDPOINT could be when they scrape through a preliminary round; and maybe the LOWPOINT is when they’re kicked out of the competition or the group falls apart? Why would they fall apart? Well, because they’re not functioning as a group properly – either they’re all individuals or they’re all the same when they need to be individuals within the group?

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So maybe that makes the antagonist someone in the group who wants everyone to be exactly the same? Or maybe the antagonist is someone who is too far the other way? An even loner wolf?

Fuck it, why not have both? One can be captain of our team, the other can be captain of the rival team. It could work either way here – our protagonist could be at loggerheads with her captain because they want to be more individual or less individual … but less individual makes more sense. So let’s go with that.

Let’s also add in a love interest, that makes sense. Let’s put the love interest on the other team to add tension. Maybe he or she has the balance that our protagonist is missing? Maybe he’s the rebel who learns he can have friends, like Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club? Maybe not, but maybe we can reference that somehow?

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So if there’s a love interest then the LOW POINT will also involve them falling out … because that’s generally how love stories work.

Other characters, well … if this is a sports movie then maybe this is the Dodgeball-type team of misfits and losers? Everyone likes cheering for the underdogs, so let’s make them all weird and individual. Let’s give all them flaws which make them not really fit in and have them all gel because of their differences.

And then I would start filling in character names and assigning broad names to the acts. Act 2a might be the training. Act 2b might be the falling apart because they’re trying too hard to be the same when their strengths lie elsewhere. Then I’d drill down into those acts a little deeper, maybe break each one into a couple of sequences?

The opening image might be this person on their own, the closing image is probably her winning (or not – sometimes the best sports movies have the protagonist lose at the end … so long as they gain something they needed more than winning) and being happy.

Only when I have ALL of that information do I start writing the one pager. I want to be able to describe the whole film, understanding what the key sequences are and how everything begins and ends.

My one pagers tend to be formatted like this:

phone number and email address in the header

TITLE
A [genre] film by me

 

Logline

A really interesting person has to do something ironic in order to achieve interesting results.

 

Synopsis

Here I start with who the protagonist is, what she wants and why she can’t get it.

Then I go through the first act in moderate detail and summarise act 2a making it seem as fun or scary or sexy or as whatever the genre is supposed to be. Act 2b is really just a list of complications and obstacles building up to a seemingly insurmountable low point. I usually skip the actual events of Act 3 in favour of covering the mechanics of how the protagonist has to change in order to win the day.

I purposefully leave out the events of the third act because I want someone to be interested enough to commission the script. Some people think you should include the events of the ending, I’m not saying they’re wrong I just think a few unrevealed details create intrigue and that the change in the protagonist is usually more interesting than what they punch, blow up or marry.

In the case of Pitch Perfect: Beca needs to realise she can be an individual within the group and accept her place as the leader in order to pull the group together and win the competition. We don’t need to know what songs they mash together or how they perform them.

Finally I finish off with a brief description of what the film is – a lighthearted, heart-warming comedy about blah, blah, blah which teaches us stuff and does something interesting.

 

The point of all this work just to write a brief synopsis is to make sure I understand the story before I summarise it. And it shows, it really does. Not all of this detail goes into the one pager, but the suggestion of it is there – the feeling I know exactly what’s going to happen to who and when, that writing the script is going to be a mere formality because I’ve got it all worked out … when I haven’t.

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What I’ve done is summarise a map and if Ronin taught us anything, it taught us that the map is not the territory.

Talking about the map in detail can trick people into thinking you’ve already walked the route … but, and this bit’s crucial, it doesn’t give so much detail it clashes with the film in their head or seem like the details are set in stone with no room for their input.

That’s how I do it anyway. It seems to work for me.

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Categories: My Way | Tags: , , | 7 Comments

The logline equation

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It’s not very often I don’t action a note, at least not without first explaining why it wouldn’t work – generally produces and directors are smart enough to accept reasoned arguments. Recently, however, I found a note I couldn’t action.

I tried, I really did. I tried four times, but every time I got to the middle it either fell apart or meant I had to keep rewriting the entire script.

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The change sounded like a small and reasonable one. In essence (and without giving away the terrifically exciting plot) two teen boys do x in order to y. Where x is something monstrously stupid and y is getting laid.

The problem was neither the producer nor the director believed the teens would do x just to get laid. Which I was surprised at since we were all teenage boys once and I at least would have happily brought about the apocalypse for less.

But in retrospect, doing x to get laid is both extreme and not really an obvious decision.

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So they asked if I could change y to z – after all, it’s only a minor change.

The problem is, z is revenge on their school bullies and revenge is a fairly negative goal. It’s hard to build empathy with someone who deliberately releases x on the world in an act of revenge.

Their solution was have them quickly realise x wasn’t a nice thing to do and immediately regret it … but that led to more problems as the rest of the script didn’t make sense. Also, since the audience knows x is a bad thing to do, it seems unbelievable the teens wouldn’t. For example, detonating a nuclear weapon because you’re cold and you think it might warm you up is stupid and weird, but perhaps more understandable than detonating one in an act of revenge for someone stealing your parking space.

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The problem is one of justification. I tried various ways of justifying both the revenge and x, constructing several completely different openings in the hope one of them would segue perfectly into the rest of the script … but none of the new openings ever went anywhere near any of the other scenes, the ones everyone was already happy with.

And then it hit me, the reason I couldn’t just change y to z was because it was a fundamental change to the logline of the script. Changing the character’s motivation changes everything they do and (in some cases) everything they are.

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That equation, people doing x because of y, is the DNA of the script. It runs through everything, it dictates not just story but characters and theme and … well, everything. You can’t just alter half the equation and expect to only change half the scenes which spring from it, because every scene and every character is in someway an answer to that logline equation. The only way I found round it was to alter x and y at the same time so the answers still made sense.

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I wish I’d figured that out three weeks ago, instead of banging my head against that particular brick wall. In the end I found a y which was similar to getting laid and actually incorporated getting laid into it, but was much broader in scope. The other, more significant change was altering what they believed x was. So instead of doing something monstrous to get laid, they believed they were doing something heroic to be popular.* The fact that x was essentially the same thing approached from a different angle meant the rest of the script from x onward remained similar … and the problem was solved.

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At least, I think it was. I haven’t had the feedback yet so I may well be wrong … we’ll have to wait and see.


* Imagine a world everyone made films about how nuclear weapons were just misunderstood and were actually fun and gently warming and sexy. Imagine the teens live in a town which has a nuclear weapon festival every year and all the other teens dress up as nuclear weapons and then have sex with each other because nuclear weapons are such a turn on. Then imagine a couple of desperate idiots and it seems reasonable (within the context of the story) that they might think detonating one would make them popular. Especially since we’re not actually talking about a nuclear weapon, it’s just  a terrible analogy.

Categories: My Way, Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time to grieve

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This is a post for producers and directors, or any note-givers really. It’s about how writers receive notes.

Or maybe it isn’t? Maybe it’s just about how I receive notes? After all, I don’t speak for all writers everywhere.

Receiving notes is tricky because of two key factors:

1: Most writers suffer from impostor syndrome.

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Most of us fear we’re terrible at this whole writing lark and no matter how many people keep paying us to write and claiming to be happy with the results, sooner or later everyone’s going to work out we can’t do it and no one will ever work with us again. Lots of people in lots of occupations suffer from this sort of thing, it’s incredibly common as well as being incredibly silly. Every time I receive notes I assume there will only be one: YOU’RE SHIT, GET OUT.

Luckily, this rarely happens to me. You’d think, looking at some of the terrible films which have been produced from my scripts that it would happen more often … but it doesn’t because either those films bear little resemblance to the scripts they were loosely based on, or they are exactly what I was asked and paid to write. In all but two occasions* I can recall, the producer or director (or both) has ended the rewrite process happy.

The second reason for receiving notes badly is probably more important:

2: Writers hate writing and are incredibly lazy.

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Every note comes with a calculation attached – how much of what I’ve done am I going to have to destroy in order to action that note? How long is this going to take me and will the end result actually make the script better? Or just different?

  • Changing names or locations – easy. Two minutes and I can get back  to Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes.
  • Swapping genders – might be easy, might be tricky. Depends on whether we’re swapping all the genders or just some and how homophobic the producer  is. Could be five minutes, could be five days.
  • Changing the ending/the beginning – arghh! That might be simple, or it might be moving the point of the pyramid two feet to the left. That involves thinking through the entire script from the beginning to see if everything still lines up. Especially if the new ending involves the protagonist having a new motivation/goal which could mean rewriting every single scene from beginning to end. That might make draft two take longer than draft one! How will I fit in my afternoon naps?

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Ultimately I want the script to be better and will put in whatever work it takes to make it the best it can be … but it can be really upsetting to get one of those notes, even if it will fundamentally benefit the script in an amazing way. Some note-givers like to deliver notes via phone or face to face … which I hate. These notes are like stun-grenades which shut down my ability to do anything while I frantically try to calculate how much work it will take versus how much better the script will be afterwards.

Which is why I prefer to have notes delivered via email first – it gives me time to grieve.

Time to grieve over the loss of my favourite idea, the one I spent weeks working on which you’ve dismissed in one vague sentence, as well as time to grieve over the days I’ve just lost in the coming week or two.

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After grief comes acceptance and calculation – is this better or not? Am I being resistant because it’s not my idea or because I’m lazy? What’s best for the script? That is the bottom line – will it improve the script?

If I get that idea in an email I have time to follow the proper foot-stamping, swearing, calm down and get on with it procedure.

If I get that idea face to face or  over the phone … I’m going to go quiet for a bit. That bit might be a few seconds or it might be a few hours. Depends how long it takes me to scream inside my head and then process all the ramifications for every single event in the script.

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The point of this post is just to warn you, the note-giver, that it’s fine to give notes by phone or in person if that’s what you prefer. You just need to understand that when I go quiet or gibber a little, it’s not because I hate the idea. It’s because I need time to grieve before I can add anything to the discussion. That’s why I prefer an email with a follow up phone call after I’ve had time to think, but hey, it’s your money and you can have it anyway you want it.

 


* One of those was because the producer told me the rough, not-even-first draft was a work of genius and, foolishly, I believed it must be exactly what he wanted. The director pointed out it was shit and the producer immediately agreed with him so as not to look like a moron. The other was when I gave the director exactly what he asked for … which was a mistake because he didn’t actually understand that what he’d asked for was an extra 90 pages added to the script. Even after I told him. Twice.

Categories: My Way, Writing and life | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s in a name?

Nothing. Nothing’s in a name and that’s the problem.

So here’s the scenario: you’ve written a script and everyone loves it. There’s a director and a producer who are intent on making it, you’ve gone through multiple drafts and now everyone’s happy. It’s time to send it out to actors.

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To begin with, the script gets sent to people who match the character descriptions … all well and good.

Unless your character descriptions are like these … in which case, not good. Stop that.

As time goes on though, the net gets cast wider. Occasionally a random bit of good luck means so-and-so hears about the script, is intrigued and wants to play a part. This is fantastic! So-and-so is proper famous and a box office draw! We have to let so-and-so play that role!

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Only … the role doesn’t quite work for so-and-so … but fuck it, it’s so-and-so! We’ll rewrite the part to fit and it’ll be all the better for it!

Only … now that other part doesn’t work because whatshisname in that part can’t possibly have THAT relationship to so-and-so on account of them being the wrong age, race and gender.

Fuck it, we’ll rewrite that part too!

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And now thingymajig wants to be in a scene with so-and-so … but there aren’t any suitable scenes. What if we rewrite the potato heist scene to include thingymajig? Yeah, that will work!

But whatshisname has passed and now we have to revert to the original version, leaving all the other changes in place. No problem, we’ll just cut and paste that scene from the old draft! Easy.

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Um …

Which draft was the one where we changed the part to suit whatshisname?

This is what’s not in the name of the draft – the details of what’s in what draft.

If you haven’t been through this before, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s pretty easy to remember what happens in what draft. What’s the problem?

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Well, the problem is there were six main drafts of the scripts over two different versions (one version was a comedy, the other a serious drama). Each draft had two or three sets of minor notes. Then we started casting. The script has now been rewritten nine times, but not in a continuous forward-moving set of changes.

Sometimes A is B’s father, sometimes he’s not. Sometimes A is B’s brother, sometimes A is B’s mother or sister or twin or father again or mother again or completely unrelated or older sister or younger sister no, definitely older sister.

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Or brother.

And while that’s going on, in the same drafts there are multiple versions of a different scene to please whatshisname or so-and-so or … it’s all in flux, all the time. And none of this is reflected in the naming of the drafts.

This is long before the script is locked. This is before blue pages, before there’s a First AD or Line Producer keeping track of this sort of thing. This is just me numbering the script the way that makes sense to me.

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Personally, I tend to number the big drafts (1 … 2 … 3 …), with tiny rewrites meriting a decimal place (3.1 … 3.2 … 3.3 … and so on). Some people hate this but it works for me.

So how do you remember which draft had A as B’s older sister?

I guess you could keep a separate file with a list of all the changes in, but personally I just include a list of the changes in the body of the email when I send the script in.

 

Here you go! Now with A as B’s older sister, the potato heist is now a parsnip fight and the snowman fisting scene has (rightfully) been deleted.

This makes it easily searchable for me and (more crucially) easily searchable for the producer and/or director. In theory they can quickly find whichever draft they’re looking for and know exactly what changed in that draft.

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I suppose I could copy and paste this info into a separate document to make searching easier … but I tend to remember roughly when things changed and only have to look at the emails either side if I’m wrong.

It feels like a courtesy to include a little summary of what I’ve done with the submission anyway – just so the person receiving the script can flip to that scene and read the new bit without all that tedious script-comparing or reading the whole thing looking for tiny changes. So courtesy and convenience combine into a few lines of explanation which help everyone and remain as a permanent record of who did what and when.

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Maybe there’s a better way? If so, I’d love to hear from you … but this one works for me.

Categories: My Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

The elephant in the room

There’s something I want to talk about, I think you know what it is … because I mentioned it in the title: it’s the elephant in the room.

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No, seriously. There’s an elephant in the room, not a metaphorical one, a real elephant with tusks and wrinkles and ears and everything. I’m looking at him now …

How do you feel about that?

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Presumably you feel I’m lying … and you’d be right. An elephant in the room? Madness … it’s a wildebeest.

The thing about the elephant (or wildebeest) in the room is it’s the kind of statement I might write into a script, which is fine … but it doesn’t mean anything, not on its own. Take the following scrippet for example:

INT. LOUNGE – DAY

SALLY saunters in and freezes … there’s an elephant in the room.

If I wrote that in a script, I’d be really cross with myself. Why? Well, because it doesn’t really mean anything.

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Okay, so it’s a concise rendering of the images in my head into written form … but is it? Is that conveying anything?

What’s a ‘lounge’? Is it the living room/TV room in someone’s house? Sally’s house perhaps? Or flat? If so, what kind of house/flat? How big or small is this lounge? Maybe it’s the lounge in a hotel? Or maybe it’s a lounge bar? I think lounge is fairly self-explanatory … but does the person reading it? Are they sharing the same mental image of what the lounge looks like?

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Possibly not.

Obviously I don’t want to burden the reader with descriptions of the colour of the wallpaper or where the furniture was bought and when (although, age and type of furniture can help set the scene) … but maybe a bit more of a description is needed here?

And what about that elephant? How does Sally feel about that? More importantly, how does the reader feel about it? The reader’s reaction should be a response to Sally’s reaction and ultimately the audience will share the reader’s response to Sally’s reaction.

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In the finished movie the audience will have facial expressions and a score telling them how to feel … the reader has none of that. All the reader has are my words. Okay, so hopefully anything leading up to this scene will inform the reader’s interpretation … but what if this is the very first scene? What if this is our introduction to Sally?

Clearly we need an approximate age and brief description of Sally, but I think we also need to clarify what her reaction is.

Sally saunters in and freezes. Creeping dread overtakes her … there’s something behind her … oh for fuck’s sake! It’s that bloody elephant again!

Is very different from:

Sally saunters in, freezes in shock … there’s an elephant in the lounge! Fuck! Panic!

Some people think you shouldn’t swear in action lines. They may be right. I do it sometimes … depends on the script.

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The point is that merely stating the facts doesn’t really add to the experience. I’m all for letting the audience work out the meaning of a film … but in order to do that they have to understand what they’re seeing. The audience won’t be seeing a still image of an expressionless Sally and an elephant in a undefined space.

Or maybe they will? In which case the script needs to make it clear that this lack of emotion/reaction is intentional and not a mistake.

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More likely the actor will be emoting her tits off whilst the music tinkles, crashes or thrums appropriately. I try to give the reader the same experience as the audience, which means ensuring they have access to the same information about tone and emotion … and the only tools I have to do this are words on a page.

My intention is to get a reader reading straight through without having to flick back to check anything or pausing because something doesn’t make sense or because they don’t understand the significance of the events. Every time they pause to figure something out or flick back, they’re out of the story, they’re not emotionally invested.

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Scripts are hard to read because they’re a technical document trying to convey everything that goes into making a movie in the fewest possible words. I want my readers engaged, so I try not just to talk about the elephant in the room, but to explain what it means.

I’m not saying I always succeed, but I try.

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

#PhonePhill – Conversation #14: Calum Chalmers (The Revenge)

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Hello, what have you been up to? I’ve been chatting to Calum Chalmers (again) who’s still a lovely writer-director type chappy. Calum was the first (sort of) ever #PhonePhill in April last year, proving this talk-to-a-stranger-malarkey* might just actually work. Last time, we spoke about this sort of thing.

This time we spoke about many, many things over the course of about two and a half hours.

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Blimey. Was it really that long? Or did the clocks go forward midway through? Doesn’t seem likely, so yeah … must have been.

In that long, meandering two and a half hours we covered more many, many things. Including, but not limited to:

  1. Dealing with notes, both giving and receiving.
  2. Weird behaviour from apparent professionals.
  3. Bland trailers.
  4. Remakes and reboots.
  5. Small island/small industry.
  6. Social media implosions.
  7. Other stuff.

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On which topics I generally feel:

  1. I’d rather be taking notes than giving them.
  2. Just be fucking nice to each other. Why is that so difficult?
  3. Trailers don’t excite me any more. They might as well just be a poster informing me of the film’s existence. Are trailers badly made? Or is it because most trailers I watch are for franchises which I’m probably going to go and see anyway and my enjoyment will depend entirely on the execution? This is the only trailer this year I’ve been excited about:
  4. I don’t care any more if anyone remakes anything. When they remade Bedazzled my friends hid Empire magazine from me for six months, afraid of what I might do if I found out. Now they’re remaking Ghostbusters … fine, whatever.
  5. See point 2. Calum and I have never met … but we know a lot of the same people. We swapped stories. Years ago I read a script he’s recently optioned. It’s all very incestuous … so be nice.
  6. See point 5. We all get bitter or blue sometimes … keep it to yourself. Ranting about it on your network of choice is unlikely to get you any work. Quite the opposite in fact.
  7. Yes.

One other thing we discussed was pigeon-holing. Should writers do it to themselves? The advice for American writers is a resounding yes. Be the go-to guy for something … you can always break out and back in again later on.

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But does that hold true in the UK?

I think it does. Writing is a hard craft to master and different genres require different skill sets. Not specialising has hurt my career because when I get to the point where someone says:

“I like this, but don’t want to make it … have you got anything similar?”

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The answer is always: no. I’ve got something of equal quality but a completely different genre or medium … which is of no interest.

Unfortunately I’ve had movies produced in a variety of genres. I like switching it up every now and then. Right now I’ve got a political black comedy casting and a teen-vampire-sex-comedy in development. Okay, so technically they’re both comedies … but they are poles apart. Ready to go I have a seriously dark moral drama film, the first film in a kid’s Christmas franchise and a sword and sorcery action-adventure movie. I write what  interests me at the time and … well, I shouldn’t. I should specialise in something.

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I think, perhaps, maybe … kids’ TV is the place to specialise in the UK because … well, it covers everything, doesn’t it? It seems to get treated as one genre despite covering drama and soap and comedy and sci-fi and horror and … stuff. At least, that’s how it seems to be from the outside. Maybe writers for kid’s horror finds people are resistant to them writing comedy?

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I have no idea. I’d like to find out, maybe there’s someone working in kids’ TV in the UK who fancies a #PhonePhill? If so, I’d love to hear from you.

Once again I finished this conversation thinking I like Calum, he seems like a nice guy. Hopefully we’ll work together one day.

If you fancy a natter, email me and we’ll have a chat. It doesn’t have to be for two and half hours, it can be for fifteen minutes. You don’t have to be in the industry, you can anything or anyone … so long as you have a phone and the willingness to use it.

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* This is the first time I’ve ever typed the word ‘malarkey’ it’s not spelt the way I thought it was. Unless it is and my spell check is wrong.

Some handy note-links for you:

How to Deal With Notes (a silly list)

Notes From The Other Side – Part 1 (why I was giving notes), Part 2 (how reality got it wrong), Part 3 (a rant about things not to do when receiving notes).

Categories: #PhonePhill, Career Path, Industry Musings, My Way, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Hammer draft

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I’ve spent the last few months doing casting rewrites on a script which is due to shoot in September, as well as rewriting another script which was recently optioned.

The casting rewrites are … a thing. If you’ve not had to go through that, I’ll probably blog about the process soonish.

The option rewrite, on the other hand, I’ll blog about now. If you’ll indulge me?

You will? Splendid.

So the script was optioned and the notes came back from the producer and director: one set of coherent notes presented by one person, first by email and then in detail via conversation.

This is how it’s supposed to be done.

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Everyone giving notes agrees between themselves first before giving them to the writer so there are no contradictions.Notes come via email (as opposed to dumped on you in a room) so you’ve got time to cycle through the stages of grief (anger, resentment, more anger, crying, fury, anger, rage, denial, incandescent rage … then accepting all the notes are correct) before responding. A follow up conversation by phone or in person to talk through the notes and explain what the intention is. Normally, the intention isn’t always what you think it is. A note asking you to cut a scene often means there’s a different scene earlier on which muddies the waters and makes this scene seem irrelevant. A conversation about these things allows you to state your case.

So with all that out of the way, I went to work.

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Sort of.

Christmas got in the way, but after that I got straight to work.

In this instance there were three notes and a realisation which kind of made a lot of the other notes irrelevant. This can happen. In this case the three notes were:

  • Moving the script from the UK to the US.
  • Changing the secondary character’s motivations to make him less of a one-note dick.
  • Bringing three of  the minor characters to the forefront to make the starring duo part of a five-piece gang.

And the realisation (by me) was that I wanted to change the theme which meant the protagonist’s motivation had to change, which meant all of scenes in the first act have to be different. And all of his scenes in the second act need altering. And the ones in the third act too.

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Basically draft 2 is going to be a completely different version of the same story. Everything is going to change … but a lot of scenes will probably still work in a slightly altered form.

I’ve often said that 50% of the script often gets abandoned for draft 2. I think this is kind of a benchmark to expect, if not aim for. Assume you’re going to be throwing away 50% of what you’ve written and you’re prepared.

That was probably true in this case … but the other 50% was going to be heavily rewritten too. And in a different order.

So it’s time for a hammer draft.

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My hammer drafts are lumpen, misshapen monstrosities which barely make sense. Essentially I’m picking up square scenes and hammering them into round holes elsewhere in the script.

So A, B, C … becomes:

New A, X, Q, second half of old A, B, F, G, H, C, something with a chicken, Y, V … and so on.

The task at this point is just to get the pieces roughly fitting. The next pass is for smoothing off the splintered edges and tightening up dialogue and checking everything flows properly … this draft is just hammering things into place. Because here’s the thing I visualise – they say you can’t put a square peg in a round hole … well that’s just silly, of course you can. You either have to fill in the gaps around the edges of the peg with something else or you hammer it in with enough force to knock off the corners and leave you with the important core of the scene.

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It’s not pretty and the joins/breaks will be clearly obvious … but only at first. Next time through you’re filling, sanding and painting until it all looks like that’s the only place any of these scenes could ever have been.

It’s a process I really enjoy even though it’s bastard hard work and sometimes harder than just throwing it all away and starting again. It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle where the challenge is to disassemble an existing jigsaw, trim the pieces and reassemble them into a different, yet familiar picture.

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Hammer drafts, I love them.

But they come with a warning: NEVER, EVER SHOW THEM TO ANYONE. EVER.

You’ll think that everyone’s on the same page as you and they’ll understand you’re just showing them a work in progress … but they might not get it. And if they don’t understand that what they’re not supposed to be looking at the intricacies of the dialogue or the transitions … you’re fucked.

My hammer drafts are for my eyes only … because they make no fucking sense.

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A draft or two later, when they’re all shiny and the welds have been smoothed and painted over … that’s the public draft. The one that gets torn apart so the whole process can start again …

 


 

* Except when the notes are inherently contradictory. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, contradictory notes can both be true. The protagonist can be too aggressive and too passive in different places, we all just have to pick which one she’s supposed to be or devise a mechanism to explain why she flips from one to the other.

Categories: My Way, Progress | 1 Comment

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