Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Screenwriting # 1 – As simple as I can make it.

Screenwriting often seems to be made more confusing than it needs to be because very knowledgeable people so confidently declare one thing over another. The problem is everyone does things differently and unlike mathematics where the laws can't be broken - there are almost no rules in the structuring of a story that can’t be contradicted or clouded with exceptions. Writing is fluid and it's hard to grasp what is essential when those fluid exceptions keep confusing things. 

But which language is more powerful? That's easy...
"Maths is the one language that has irrefutable laws that can’t be broken. For instance - two positives can never, under any circumstances, result in a negative," said the mathematician. 
"Yeah, yeah," said the writer, with a roll of her eyes.   

My overriding principle to everything I believe and use to guide others is - this is how it works for me. This is how I understand and make sense of things and the things that help me get results, to explain, to de-construct, to analyze or create.

Other people may and do have different processes that are particular to them. Some methods may work, in part or whole for a huge number of people – but part of being a writer is to find out what works for you. That is why there are no wrong ways. There are only the wrong or right ways for you. And the only way you can work out which is which is by doing. You can study all you want, analyze until you're blue in the face - but until you get off your anal and start doing - all you've learnt is what works for someone else.

And that is, in my opinion, why so many people find becoming fluent in the structural aspects of storytelling, such a difficult and long road to hoe. 

Often the people who set things in stone are more analysts than practitioners. They are academics and can de-construct story structure and know, from years of studying it, all the nuances and genre anomalies from every great, and many bad films. I don't want anyone to think or accuse me of being against what these experts teach. They are invaluable. 

When a screenplay needs fixing or strengthening or a screenwriter needs schooling in how intricate structure works, they are the ones we turn to – but what do they have to say about the blank page? Honestly - not much.

That’s why I’ve decided to put online the process I taught writers in the trenches and then later taught in classes. I may get lambasted for it - but if it helps anyone, it’s worth it. Certainly many, many online sources have helped me over the last few years, so why not contribute?

The main problem for me, as I was and am still learning to be a better writer, was how to transpose the expert's advice to my work in progress. It so often didn't fit. It didn't help me when I was half way through writing a story. 

I have been frustrated many times when I finish a project and a professional reader de-constructs my months of work, detailing all the faults. Worse still is when a bad reader then reconstructs ‘their’ story on my foundation. I end up confronted with suggestions on how to conform to the structural paradigm by telling their Frankenstein version of my story.

I have heard many disgruntled writer's lament at his stage - "Where were you when the page was blank?"

 What I wanted, when I started out, and for years after that, were simple tools to be able to tell my story, my way. And I wanted them presented in a way I could grasp quickly so I could learn as much by doing as by studying. I remember back to the beginning of my first writer's course where we began with an incredibly detailed model of the three act structure. I was confused by the intricate sub-plots and terminology that made it sound far more complicated than it needed to be.

Of course it's complicated in its entirety – even more so if you go from zero to 60 in one step. Learning to write a well structured story is like learning a new language and you don't begin learning a language by launching into a sophisticated dialogue with a local.  

To write a screenplay, most will find an idea for a story and then work it until it fits a structural formula that tells the story with the greatest impact. But how many times have you seen the promo to a film and known instantly what journey that film will take? You can guess straight away the emotional beats the film will take to get you to that final scene where they make up, kiss, win, or reach the end of their harrowing journey.

In these cases the structural formula has waited down a dark alley and mugged the story idea - resulting in a well known structure being more prominent than the story.

So how do you tell YOUR story, YOUR way, and end up with a screenplay that feels organic and is still original? I believe it comes from understanding the structure so well, that you can craft your treatment of the story to it without having to slow down and consciously plot to that structure. To do this the structure has to be made simple – not complicated. You need to truly understand it, not sort of almost know it. You have to know it so well that no new variable or wrinkle in the story will throw you. 

The same way you can’t speak fluently until you begin to think in a language; you can’t touch type until your fingers can find the keys without thought; you can't tell great stories that feel organic until you can follow the parameters of storytelling as automatically as your body knows how to breath.

And I am not talking about dumbing the structure to a simple - beginning, middle and end. I am talking about understanding the entire structural paradigm in simple terms that cannot be confused.

I will go through what I taught to my staff in my next post – ‘The three act structure – fast and simple.”

But I cannot stress enough that, even if you find this ‘fast tracking’ helpful – make it your task to learn more. Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals! There are many who teach these aspects, in extraordinary detail, far better than I ever can or will. But I found, if the basics were really clear and simple - then the more complicated layers applied on top would be far easier to understand.  

As I said, my next entry will go through the basics of the structure. 

How is what I teach different? I believe a certain portion of the structure relates to almost all stories. But then things get messy and certain parts of the structure become unique or left out of stories, depending on genre, style, tone and many other aspects. 

That's why I think the study of story structure, screenwriting or writing for TV becomes so complicated. Because people try to fit everything into the model and not everything fits the way it's supposed to, and the result is confusion. Teachers then resort speak ‘fluffy’ speak to try and prove the complete model still stands up, even though a clear and obvious exception has just walked through the door.

When I was a student it was these moments that continually confused me as to what was a hard and fast rule and what wasn’t. And as the writer struggling to find solutions to tell my story in the best way, how was I supposed to know when to make those 'allowable' choices?

So that’s why I began to teach what I teach - what are the foundations of the story structure and what were the areas that could be altered by the architect?

I know this augmented fast tracking method works because, in most cases, while setting up shows overseas and needing to get staff from 'never having written' to 'broadcast quality professional writers' in 4 months, I cut corners – I had no choice, but along the way I learnt which corners you could cut. 

It's also true we were writing fairly simple serial dramas - but they were still produced and scrutinized by actors, directors, network executives and finally by the viewing audience - and the show I formulated this process on began at 22% share in its opening week and is still on air ten years later.
Here is my must read list: (And again, everyone will have their favorites depending on what works for them – but if I had to choose, I’d choose these.)  And don’t stop at these – keep reading. I regularly buy books on the subject that promise a new wrinkle and I am still learning. 

1.     Screenplay - Sid Fields – Considered the bible of screenwriting. Clear. Lays out the basics of structure and the pages they should fall on, amongst much, much more.

2.     Story – Robert McKee – If you take one thing away from this book, let it be this, a professional writer does the work on story structure before they write. (We’ll discuss this in detail because for me it is the key)

3.     Making a Good Script Great – Linda Seger – Clear, simple and cuts to the chase. It may not say a lot new – but it says it in no nonsense ways and gives clear examples.

4.     Save the Cat – Blake Snyder – The title relates to making characters, even villains, likeable, but the bold new step is in genre re-classifications. A huge leap forward, in my opinion.

I also like to mention Joseph Campbell and his study of myths and the hero’s journey.

So that’s the homework – now to the 'cut to the chase' practical advice. 
Like Robert McKee’s advice that the most important work is done before you begin, the same is true with writer’s careers.

And usually any study of writing begins with the writing, the structure, how to find ideas etc… I think there are far more important lessons to cover first.

Avoid the biggest mistakes and you'll save yourself a lot of grief and time. If someone had told me these things on day one I would have saved years of frustration and not made the many errors I made in my career.  

NEVER send a script out before it's ready.

This is so hard to do – because the moment, as writer’s we finish a script we want to unleash it on the world.

It's so hard to get a professional to read anything and most producers, development executives or agents, directors or managers will give you one shot. If your material is ‘ready’ but ‘not what they’re looking for’ – you haven’t done yourself any damage.

If your submission is not ready, at best you’ll be forgotten, at worst you’ll be noted as a talentless writer and any further submissions you send to that person will get a two line response from the most junior staffer in the office and it will fail to mention the sad truth. PS. Your script is in the bin.

So how do you know? Here’s a good rule of thumb - If only you have read it – it’s not ready.

NEVER send anything out without feedback from A/ Someone you trust, or B/ someone you don’t know. 

And no, you’re mother doesn’t count! She’s going to plead your case as a genius and a saint right up until they trigger that lethal injection.

ALWAYS be objective, open to criticism and honest with yourself.

All of us have stories that we feel should be told and most of those stories are about us, or people we know or the histories of our families. Sometimes they’re about ideas we’ve come across in the news or a friend’s story, others are total fictions that just popped into our heads as we travelled life.

You are never going to be objective about your own story. Accept that. As you get more experienced you’ll learn how to distance yourself, but all of us, to some degree, will become attached to the tale we tell. If it’s a personal story about us or people we know and love, then this lack of objectivity becomes even greater. Understand this from the very start. Don’t fight it. If someone gives you criticism - don’t immediately dismiss it with your own defense. Mull it over. Dig deep and challenge yourself as to whether they have a point. Take a few days or a week doing this. If you still feel strongly you are right and they are wrong – go with your gut. But if more than one person gives you the same criticism – go see a script doctor because there’s a problem with your gut.

There are two types of objective blindness – one is the writer’s blindness. You wrote it – you believe in it and you want it to be good. You wouldn’t have written it if you didn’t think it was good. But you’re also obsessed with it – not in an unhealthy way – just because that’s the nature of writing. It’s you and that manuscript alone in a room for months on end – no other influences. Sometimes that’s why it goes off centre and skews. It’s a gradual progression for you, justified and understood. You know the history and qualifying arguments that explain where you ended up. No one else does.

Have you ever been with someone who suddenly throws in a non-sequitur.
“Oh, look, an elephant!” is one of my favorites. The person who blurted that out had failed to warn everyone they’d been staring at clouds and trying to make out shapes. Then they were startled by a shape that genuinely looked like an elephant. In the middle of Australia – the statement took us by surprise.

To her, it was a logical progression. To the rest of us… we laugh about it to this day.

As writers – no one else can know how we got to where we ended. All they know is what they read, so learn to read with that objectivity – towards plot points, character traits and individual lines. Learn to look at your piece as a whole and in its many parts. And even when you have done this and feel you’re getting good at it – get someone else to read it and give you feedback.

The other objective blindness is being emotionally or personally connected to the story or the people or both. If it’s the story about your struggle to raise a family – you will have some brilliant insights and some you may assume everyone will relate to, understand or believe – if they’re part of a character, great – they make that character unique – but if they pertain to the wider world – regardless of how you saw it, others may find it unbelievable. And the same is true with dramatic structure – it may have happened just as you’re telling it – that doesn’t make it a clear or compelling story or the right way to tell it. The phrase, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’, is a saying based on the many real examples where facts would never be believed if retold.

The bottom line is every writer needs feedback from people they trust as storytellers, or readers of stories who they can trust and who will give them objective feedback.

You can leave the idea in a drawer once it’s written and come back to it – that’s one way to gain more objectivity, but even then your ‘brilliance’ will pull you back in as you convince yourself a logic problem doesn’t exist or won’t be noticed by anyone else. It will be noticed – so will the other five problems you missed. Accept it – and get outside opinions.

If you’re at a loss for how to find people you can trust – join a peer review site online. Talentville, Scriptshark – there are more, so find one that you like. Get to know people and read their scripts and you will quickly learn to judge whether to give that person's reviews a lot of attention or a wide birth.

Study, do a course, a short course – join online discussion groups – build up a network. Once you’ve found ‘your people’ you can trade feedback and make your journey to a decent draft much quicker and do some networking along the way.

Also read other scripts. An amateur is someone who writes more than they read. And a gentle word to be positive whenever positive with any peer reviews you give. Be honest, but if the script stinks – at least find a few positive things and stick them up front. We writers are notoriously insular and insecure!

Learn how to format. Look it up online if you don't know or buy Final Draft – a screenwriting software that will format film, TV or play scripts for you. It's important because it makes your script LOOK professional and no-one will read a script that doesn't at least look the goods.

And remember a TV half hour comedy, one hour drama, a serial, a screenplay and a play are all formatted differently.

Learn to proof read. Producers et al. are receiving thousands of scripts per year, so any excuse is enough to dismiss a writer as not ready. I am a terrible proof reader of my own work. I have blogged about this before. With someone else's work I can pick up almost everything, but not my own – and I beat myself up about it constantly – I think I get too involved in what I’m writing, so here’s a few tricks that this bad proof reader uses to overcome the problem.

First – do what you can with a standard proof read. Then read each paragraph through, starting at the back of the script and read paragraph by paragraph from last paragraph to first. It makes it impossible to get swept up and distracted in the story.

Read the script aloud – it’s amazing how often the unconscious process and concentration to read out loud, as opposed to reading inside your head, will have you speaking what is written and not what should be written.

Print a copy out and read through the hard copy. For some reason, on a computer screen my mind is more likely to read what should be there and ignore what actually is there.

Know your strengths AND your weaknesses as a writer and write to your strengths.

This one is a little tougher. It is said that every artist wants to be a different type of artist. It may be true - I’ve met many screen writers who want to be novelists. TV writers who want to be screen writers, crime writers who want to write romance etc etc etc.

The truth is, you will have areas you write well in and some you don’t. You may write well in all, but better in some. It may be extreme in difference or it may be subtle. The only way to know for sure is to try a style or genre and see what you come up with. A good place to start is on what you like most. It stands to reason you will have absorbed the style, structures and tones of the content you spend time watching or reading yourself.

Not knowing a genre's form may create something brilliant and new, but it is more likely to show up your naivety.

Wes Craven’s Scream is a wonderful example of someone who knew the genre so well they could take it apart and use the known and expected structure as part of their story. A similar style was used for Galaxy Quest, a film that used the fan’s obsessive love and ownership of sci-fi to deliver a commentary of, and a fan letter to, every one of those adoring fans.

Get some credibility.

Nothing hits the bin faster than a script from a writer who sends out a signal they have no idea what they’re doing. This could easily be a comment on formatting, on structure, on dialogue on genre or sending something out too early – but it is most important on that first point of contact.

You're script is written. It is professional in appearance, your story hangs together and hits all the right beats and it falls within the page range required.

Page range equates to one minute to one page of standard formatted script. A comedy should be 90-100 pages. All other films should be 95 – 115 pages. 120-122 is pushing it, but acceptable, but you’d want to have something different, exciting and fresh to say to justify that length. 85 is too short and flags that structurally something is amiss.

There are of course many exceptions – perhaps an extremely complicated, time consuming sequence – but it would be hard to find an example given you should be visually describing every moment.

I would suggest you enter competitions before ever sending something to a professional and, if you can afford it, pay for feedback. The advantage of this is by making the finals or even semi finals of a really well known competition, you are more likely to get a professional to read your script.

For everyone on the journey – good luck!

Coming up:

Screenwriting - The 3 act story structure – fast and simple.

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