Posts Tagged With: rules

Reading rules

I think one of the most important tools a scriptwriter should have in their arsenal is a good peer group.

If you don’t know any scriptwriters, you really need to rectify that situation. I kind of lucked into a whole bunch of peers thanks mostly to the efforts of the esteemed Piers Beckley who used to run a writers drink/meet up in London and very kindly invited me along.

I politely declined a few times before finally overcoming my inherent shyness and joining in.

Best thing I ever did.

Firstly, being exposed to a roomful of other writers is good for you. Having someone who understands how difficult it is to plot out a film or create interesting characters or the ins and outs of film structure is invaluable. Friends and loved ones are all very well and will often listen and make encouraging noises (or, you know, glaze over and go ‘huh?’ every now and then) but you can’t beat talking to someone who actually knows what all the drivel you’re spouting means.

Secondly, you need them for the bitching. Scriptwriting is already hard enough without having to go through the actual process of getting something made. Having a group you can go to to complain about the stupid notes you’ve received allows you to vent without actually swearing at the person who gave you the note. This in turn gives you the space you need to realise the note isn’t actually as stupid as you first thought.

If you’ve had the kind of career I’ve had, it also gives you the opportunity to moan about all the stupid decisions made during or after the shoot which completely and utterly undermined the hard work of everyone else involved.

This kind of bitching helps us all build up a list of those who should never be worked with or at the very least allows us to lower our expectations going in.

The third advantage is the sharing of opportunities and contacts. I try to pass on opportunities whenever I find them because although I’m possibly in direct competition with some of my peer group, I’m not really. Either the person concerned likes my script/idea or they don’t. If someone I know can profit off a bit of info then I’m all for that. Personal successes are few and far between, filling up the gaps with the success of people I care about helps keep my enthusiasm high.

Every now and then I hear of someone who refused to introduce a writer to a producer they know who’d be a perfect match for their script and I find it a bit weird. I love matching people up. I love it even more when someone I know gets a commission out of an introduction, I find it very satisfying and can’t really fathom what it must be like to live in fear of someone else getting one up on you.

But hey, each to their own.

The most important use for a peer group (in my opinion*) is having a small army of script readers ready and willing to aggressively rip your work to shreds. This is, without a doubt, the most useful thing one writer can do for another … so long as they’re being honest.

Friends and family who read stuff tend to just go “Yeah, it’s good” which is in no way helpful. Especially when you know it probably isn’t.

Having a peer point out every deficiency and flaw is so, so useful. Honesty is the only way to really grow as a writer.

So with all that in mind, I have some loose rules about asking people to read my stuff. Just a few guidelines to (hopefully) avoid pissing people off.

1) I never ask anyone to read my work for free if they offer a paid script reading service.

I extend this rule to all walks of life – I wouldn’t ask a plumber to fit a bathroom for me for free, or a childminder to babysit my daughter without pay so why would I ask a professional script reader to do their job for free?

I may ask them for advice if I know them well, discussing an idea or issue in a conversation … but I’d never ask them to read a script for free.

I would, however, read a script for them quite happily. I don’t charge to read friends’ scripts. Or even enemies. I’m not a script reader and my opinion is suspect at best and should be treated with caution.

2) I don’t expect people to read my work without offering to read theirs.

In fact, I offer to read other writers’ work without any thought of asking them to read mine. I like being helpful, I like being useful. I read scripts for friends who I know would never, ever read one of mine in return. Some will, some won’t … it doesn’t matter. I like being nice to people and don’t expect anything for it.

Hmm … which I guess means I don’t expect anyone else to hold to the same rules I set for myself.

Some people may think that makes me a sucker.

Those people can fuck off.

3) I don’t ask people to read anything if they seem stressed or too busy.

Which is a shame, some of the people I respect the most are in near constant demand as a writer (or certainly seem to be) churning out episodes of Doctors or Casualty or their next novel or a mindbendingly impossible number of other projects a year. They have enough on their plate, I don’t want to add to it.

Which is a shame, because some of these people have opinions I really, really value.

I would, however, happily read anything they wanted me too, up to and including a novel. Again, I want to help.

4) I never ask anyone to read more than one draft of the same project.

This is something that really galls me. Every now and then I get contacted by a new writer looking for an opinion. I’m quite happy to read their stuff, so long as they’re prepared to accept the criticism. And by ‘accept’ I don’t mean take everything I say as gospel, but rather ‘not get upset because I didn’t tell them their first draft was a flawless work of art’.

The problem comes when that person, someone I don’t know who’s contacted me through this blog (which is fine, please do. Why not #PhonePhill?} then sends me a second draft. And a third. And a fourth, all the while refusing to take on board any of the points I raised with the first draft.

I don’t really get this. Either you value my opinion or you don’t, either is fine, but if you don’t value my opinion why are you still seeking it out?

One free read per project. That’s fair. I don’t want to put people through the same misery time and time again!

5) I don’t hassle people who don’t read things in a timely manner.

Or don’t get round to reading it at all.

We’re all busy, people are being kind. If they don’t have time, they don’t have time. It’s just one of those things, not something worth getting upset about. No one owes me a read, even if they said they would.

There are probably more ‘rules’ I set myself … but to be honest I’ve got some work to do …

… and I think this has gone on long enough, don’t you?

If you haven’t got any scriptwriting buddies, get some. There must be some somewhere nearby. Writers are lovely people (sometimes) and creating your own peer group really pays off. Why not organise your own monthly or quarterly meet-ups?

You could even invite me, if you like.

I won’t come because I’m shy and don’t like to leave my office very often, but it never hurts to ask.


*As if none of the rest of this were my opinion.

Categories: My Way | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

#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

Going on and on and on …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except when they don’t.

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

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

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

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

Both can work. Both can go horribly wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILER ALERT!

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

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

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

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

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

JvIHGND


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

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

^ Real word or not? Probably not.

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

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

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