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.

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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

BBC TV Drama Writers’ Programme 2017

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We all know about this, right?

Right?

If not, there’s still time …

Deadline: Midnight, Monday, 10th October, 2016.

Update! Good news! We can confirm the deadline for the the TV Drama Writers’ Programme, 2017 has been extended until midnight on Monday, 10th October 2016. And to clarify application criteria, your produced writing credit must be for a script of at least 30 minutes in duration and your original spec script must be at least 50 pages in length and a minimum of 30 mins in duration.

The BBC shall be commissioning 8 writers to write an original series or serial script for BBC One, BBC Two or BBC Three Online. To apply you must have at least one production credit (a drama, at least 30 mins in duration) to your name.

You can have written for theatre, television, radio or film but must not already be in development (beyond treatment stage) with BBC Television Drama. This is not a scheme for new, untested writers or those with significant original television drama credits. It is an opportunity for writers with striking and unusual stories to tell, to take part in a bespoke scheme with input from top television writers and BBC editorial and production staff, as well as a dedicated Script Editor and Exec Producer. We encourage writers from underrepresented groups to apply. The Scheme will last for a year.

Details:

We are asking for a CV highlighting produced credit or credits, an original drama script (which could be stage, radio, film or TV – produced or unproduced) and up to one side of A4 outlining a potential series or serial idea for BBC One, BBC Two or BBC Three Online.

There are 8 places and we shall be shortlisting 20 writers for the scheme. Those 20 will discuss their pitches with the BBC Writersroom Team and Drama Execs representing all of the drama hubs, nations and regions. We’ll then select the writers based on these interviews, the quality of the writer’s work and the viability of their pitch.

Writers who have been selected to participate in the Programme will be expected to write three drafts of a script, with dedicated Script Editor and Executive support. In addition, there will be a series of screenwriting lectures, workshops and events throughout the course culminating in a reading and presentation of extracts from the writers’ scripts.

Writers will be paid a minimum script fee as agreed by the WGGB/PMA and the BBC on a favoured nations basis (currently £11,520 for 60 minutes).  Expenses will also be paid.

Submissions are now being accepted and the applications deadline is midnight, Monday, 10th October, 2016.  Applications are by the BBC Writersroom e-Submissions System only.

NB: For this opportunity only if you don’t have an agent, when applying, you may tick the box to indicate that you’ve been recommended by the BBC Writersroom staff. You must, however, fulfil the criteria outlined above.

Sounds like a great opportunity to me. I know not everyone will be qualified to enter, but then I’m apparently too qualified to enter most of these things so it’s all swings and roundabouts. If you meet the criteria, it’s got to be worth having a go.

Categories: BBC, Opportunity | Tags: , | 1 Comment

The UK Scriptwriters Survival Handbook

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Do you have this?

I do.

Have you read it?

I have.

It’s a strange book, isn’t it? Odd, one might say.

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Okay, yes it’s packed full of really useful and interesting information about living and working as a scriptwriter in the UK.

Yes, it’s easy to read and well laid out with handy tips on a wide range of pertinent and fascinating subjects including, but not limited to, planning your career from the get go, finding unique opportunities and how to manage your money.

And yes, it avoids adding to the increasingly teetering pile of ‘How to write screenplay’ books written by people who feel failing to sell a script somehow qualifies them to teach other people how to write. Instead it bucks the trend by being written by Danny Stack and Tim Clague, two working scriptwriters who assume you know all about the writing part and just want to know what the job actually is and how to grow a career.

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That’s all well and good. Great even.

But where it falls down is in one basic, fundamental area. An area I’d assumed everyone understood was a foregone necessity whenever discussing the business and life of scriptwriting in the UK …

Namely, there’s no ‘me’ in it.

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I know, shocking.

None at all. I’m not featured or quoted in the book at all.

No pearls of wisdom produced by my super-trick brain adorn this book.

No genius utterings of the kind instantly scribbled down for posterity by the gaggle of admirers who follow my every move in the hopes of learning the secret to my awesomeness.

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Not even a passing nod to how I fundamentally changed the scriptwriting landscape in the UK merely by my existence.

Nothing.

Not a single word.

Which is weird, isn’t it?

I mean, they’ve got a foreword written by some bloke called Tony Jordan … whoever he is?

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They’ve got (what I’ll begrudgingly admit) are fantastic nuggets of advice from such writing luminaries as Michelle Lipton, Phil Ford, Barbara Machin, Debbie Moon, James Moran and Anthony Mingella … some of those people have done quite well for themselves, in a cute sort of way.

But nothing from me.

I  know! I’m as flabbergasted by this as you are.

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I can only assume there’s a part two coming which is entirely based on my own peculiar brand of wit and wisdom, I mean … there’s no other excuse, is there?

To rectify this horrifying situation, I’ve created this special version of the last page for you. Simply download this image, print it out and stick it in your own version of the The UK Scriptwriter’s Survival Handbook:

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Or, if you have a filthy eBook version of this (why? Why would you want that? Oh, saving the trees are you? Fuck the trees! You can’t read your fancy eBook in the bath, can you? … What’s that? Waterproof ereader/phone? Books aren’t waterproof anyway? Well … yes, but … shut up) then why not print the page out anyway and glue it to the back of your Kindle/phone/magic word portal and then you can imagine you bought a proper copy.

If you haven’t got your own copy, simply buy one from here or an ecopy from here and then follow the simple steps above.

You won’t regret it, it really is an amazingly useful and informative book … and now that it has added extra ‘me’ … it’s gosh darn near perfect.

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No, YOU spelt ‘genius’ with a ‘j’.

Categories: Someone Else's Way | 2 Comments

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

Shore scripts competition 2016 – final deadline approaching

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It’s the bank holiday weekend here in the UK which means … absolutely nothing to writers.

Sorry.

Well, I’m having the weekend off because I’m having a barbecue – swing by if you’re passing. The rest of you though, you should be writing. Why aren’t you writing? I don’t think you’re taking this gig seriously enough.

If you do happen to be writing this weekend and you haven’t already done it, maybe this might be worth looking at?

@shorescripts Final Submission Deadline 31st August. Enter your script into the Competition www.shorescripts.com

ENTER NOW for your final chance of winning £15,000 in Cash & Prizes.

35 Oscar, Bafta, Golden Globe, Cannes & Emmy award winning judges will read the winning scripts. These Judges have written on the likes of The Sopranos, Walking Dead, The Constant Gardener, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Freaks and Geeks and countless others.

75+ Production Companies, Agents & Managers will also be reading.

Previous Alumni films include Cake, starring Jennifer Aniston, Retreat, Ripper Street, Geography Club, and Oscar winner, Ben Cleary.

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Categories: Opportunity, Someone Else's Way | Leave a comment

The Last Days of Jack Sparks

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I know I’ve written about this before, but THE LAST DAYS OF JACK SPARKS has actually been properly released now.

And I’ve read it.

And it’s really good.

I mean, actually, properly, really, genuinely good and not just ‘hey, my mate wrote this thing and asked me to promote it, but I don’t really like it so I’m going to be quirky and noncommittal about the whole thing’ kind of good.

Not only do I think it’s good, but so do other people.

All these people, for example.

So hey, if I like and they all like it, maybe you will too? You can buy it here .THE LAST DAYS OF JACK SPARKS or maybe wander into town and buy it from an actual proper shop from a proper person?

You never know, you might make a new friend. Or at the very least end up with a damn fine book to read.

Categories: Someone Else's Way, Uncategorized | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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

Public grief

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Towards the end of the last Millennium I was a young whipper snapper who’d just started a job. A proper job, mind you. One where you actually had to do things and interact with people, none of this hide-in-my-room-with-my-imaginary-friends nonsense.

Day two (or perhaps three, I forget) of the initial training course I came into the room early one morning to find everyone in tears.

Everyone.

Great wracking sobs of grief.

“What’s happened?” I asked, realising something truly awful must have happened to have so deeply affected such a diverse group of people.

“Haven’t you heard?” came the reply “Diana’s dead.”

“No!” I exclaimed, scanning the room for an empty chair … “Which one was Diana?”

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Now you may think it’s blatantly obvious they meant Princess Diana, but this was pre-instant-news-to-your palm-smartphones and almost pre-internet. At that time in the morning I hadn’t seen, heard or read the news. Given everyone in the room was crying, I immediately (and erroneously) assumed it must be one of the people we’d all met the day or so before.

But no. It was the Princess of Hearts.

“So … why is everyone crying?” I asked. Because (and you may or may not remember or agree with this) before her death, Diana wasn’t the Princess of Hearts, she was the feckless whore who was threatening to steal the heirs to the crown and spirit them out of the country with her Johnny Foreigner lover.

At least, that’s how the papers portrayed her.

So why was everyone crying? Why was the death of someone so vilified in the papers the cause of floods of tears?

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I still don’t know. I think it’s sad when anyone dies, but there are very few people I’d shed actual tears over because … well, I just don’t know them. The exceptions would be Christopher Reeve (because he was my hero when I was six) or Douglas Adams (because he was my most favouritest author ever since, like, forever).

Although I never met them, their work touched my life and (I think) improved it. They meant something to me.

Princess Diana – yeah, I felt sorry for her family, but I didn’t know her … at all.

And yet the streets were awash with very public grief.

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Nigh on 20 years later and Twitter is awash with grief when anybody vaguely famous dies. Friends who I’ve never heard even mention David Bowie, let alone listen to his music, were distraught after his death. On social media, that is … not so much in real life.

2016 has been a public griever’s playground. Every month someone of note has (sadly) passed away … and every month people fill my Twitter and Facebook timelines with heartfelt distress and incredibly public mourning.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand what it’s like when someone who meant something to you dies. It is sad and does feel like a piece of you has died with them. I get it, I really do. I have friends (both real and online) who mourn the passing of Bowie or Prince or Ronnie Corbett or whoever because they genuinely meant something to them. They write little online eulogies because it helps them express their grief and the results can be beautiful and, occasionally, makes me wonder if I should perhaps re-evaluate the artist’s work to find out what it is they saw in that person.

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And maybe having R.I.P. insertnamehere trending on Twitter makes the families of the deceased feel better. I don’t know.

So far this year, the only person whose passing made me a properly sad (as opposed to “oh, that’s a shame”) was Paul Daniels. Jason Arnopp and I were reminiscing a few days before he died about how good a magician he was and how he kick-started our interest in magic.

And yet Paul Daniels got unfairly swept up in the wholesale dumping of traditional entertainers during the eighties. The old guard got swept away in a torrent of radical newness … and that shouldn’t have happened.

Yes, some entertainers were sexist and crass. Some merely committed the crime of being warm and cosy and didn’t swear or punch things. They were old, we were all about the new. Paul Daniels was one of the babies thrown out with that bath water and he didn’t deserve that. He was an amazing magician and a fantastic entertainer in the true sense of the word.

I loved Paul Daniels … but I didn’t feel the need to rush out a Tweet or blog letting everyone know.

I’m not sure if that makes me a better person or a worse one. Probably worse. My sad face is just for me.

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Except when it’s not, for if I’m anything it’s contradictory.

Recently I remembered that Douglas Adams wasn’t always my favourite author. I was introduced to him by Miss Seaman in the last year of Coten End Middle School when I was ten or so. From then on Douglas Adams’ work had a significant effect on my life … but he wasn’t the first.

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Before Douglas Adams, there was Nicholas Fisk. I don’t know who turned me on to his work, but I loved it and consumed it voraciously. His shelf was the first I scoured in the library, on the off-chance he had something new out. Or something old I hadn’t read yet. Starstormers was a particular favourite of mine. As was A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair. Grinny is still my go-to cuckoo story, more so than The Stepford Wives or The Midwich Cuckoos.

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Nicholas Fisk steered me deep into sci-fi waters and became my gateway author to Heinlen and Arthur C. Clarke and Asimov and Harry Harrison and even Terry Pratchett. Without Fisk, there probably wouldn’t have been any Douglas Adams in my life … and that would be a great shame.

Somehow I’d forgotten Nicholas Fisk, sold or lost all his books and even stopped really reading sci-fi all together.

Last month I suddenly remembered him. I can’t tell you why or what caused his name to resurface, but I suddenly remembered I had a favourite author as a child. How could I have forgotten? Maybe I can read his books with my daughter? Maybe she’ll love them as much as I did?

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And then, yesterday, I found out Nicholas (or David Higginbottom as I learnt he was called) has just passed away. Sometime last week at the age of 92.

He didn’t die tragically young or while he was still writing and had so many more stories to offer … but, you know, he was a large part of my childhood and even if I had forgotten him, I’m a bit sad that he’s gone. Deaths like his nibble away at our past and bring the darkness of non-existence that little bit closer.

Like I say, I’m not one for public grief (although I’m dreading the day I see Tom Baker’s name all over my feeds – hopefully that day’s a long way off) but just this once I want to shed a single, public tear for a man who meant a lot to me all those years ago.

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Rest in peace, Nicholas.

Categories: Random Witterings, Two steps back, Writing and life | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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