Breaking the screenplay

Imagine you’re a development person. You have a pile of scripts on your desk and you have to wade through them. They’re all about the right length, they’re all nicely bound and they’re all formatted correctly because, if you expect nothing else from a professional writer, you at least expect them to be able to observe the simple rules of formatting. So you take the top one off the pile and you open it up and page one is a lot of white space and the text is in Courier Final Draft, or Courier Prime if the writer is fancy. And the two words at the top: “FADE IN” and then a line or two of white and then it says “INT. A ROOM – DAY” or “EXT. FARMHOUSE – EVENING” or “EXT. A CITY STREET – NIGHT”. And then there’s a couple of lines of description because the writer has read her Mamet and her Goldman and she knows that she’s not supposed to put anything there that can’t be filmed. This isn’t literature, this is a blueprint for a movie or a TV show and it’s nice if you can pretty up the language a bit but for the love of God only write that which can be seen on the screen or heard through the speakers. So that is what she has done, and then a character speaks and… And now you pick another script off the pile and it’s the same. And the next. And the next.

Screenplays all look the same. They don’t all read the same but they pretty much all look the same. How hard that story has to work for those first few pages to overcome the dreadful fucking tedium of the format. How that format sets itself against creativity.

Write only that which can be filmed. Why? Have you any idea how many people have to read this thing before it gets anywhere close to MAYBE being filmed? And you’re going to bore the pants off all of those people becaue you’re such a puritan? Because you took Mamet’s advice? Goldman’s advice? You took advice from people whose scripts can be as dull as anything because the mere fact of their name being on the cover means they skip most of the development process anyway? Not that their scripts are dull, obviously, they’re brilliant. But their advice is a little sucky.

There are so many scripts. So. Many. Scripts. Your one needs to be a good read. And that’s not just in terms of story, it’s in terms of style. We’re told we must write only that which can be filmed because this document will be used by the people who are doing the actual filming and they have no use for “style”, they need an instruction manual. Well, I have some news on that; a dispatch from the front lines where I’m a director as well as a writer and I’m happy to report that these heads of department are smart people. They can figure out how many locations are needed, how many sets are to be designed and what they should look like, how many characters there are and what they should wear. They can figure these things out from pretty much any document you put in front of them.

And more news; the script supervisor can time the damn thing. We’re told that our scripts should work out at about a page per minute in screen time. Why? One of the first things that happens in pre-production is that the script goes to a script supervisor who sits down and reads it through with a stop watch, allowing time for pauses, for action etc. You think she checks the page count and makes a guess based on that? My scripts for a 58 minute BBC show tend to come out at around 80 pages. I like the actors to talk fast and we very rarely cut much out of them. Another writer might hand in a script of 67 pages and that may also time out at 58 minutes. I don’t know who needs the script to be a page per minute but I guarantee you that person has nothing to do with actually making the thing.

Who are we writing for? In the first instance, the reader. So entertain them. Obviously you need a good story, that’s a given. But assume everyone has that so NOW what sets your script apart? NOW what makes it a better prospect than the other ones in the pile? Why can’t it be a “page turner”? Why can’t it be a good read? Why must it read like an instruction manual?

A few weeks ago, I embarked on a spec TV project called Kaleidoscope. It’s a three-part show and the story is sufficiently left of centre, and no one is paying me to write it, so I thought I’d experiment with the form a little. Rather than take the standard format, I would monkey around. I wanted it to feel less like reading and more like someone was excitedly reporting a blow-by-blow of this great show they saw last night. So I made the tone more conversational. I stopped worrying about page count and just told the story in the most interesting and exciting way I could. At the point I figured maybe a character’s motivation was unclear, I stopped to explain it. Then I made a virtue of that and turned that motivational stuff into prose; in a different font with different formatting. Pretty soon I had whole chapters of prose within the script. some of them are even in the first person. The stuff that needs to be filmed is clear and can be pulled out by production people. The stuff that can’t be filmed is still useful to the reader and pretty much invaluable to the actor, who now has a much better handle on who the character is and what they’re thinking.

Then I found myself trying to describe a particular real world location and I brought myself up short; why am I trying to do justice to this place in words when it’s 2016 and I can pull photos of it from Google? So in go the photos. “INT. MUSEUM – NIGHT” and here’s what it actually looks like and now on with the story…

This wasn’t just an experiment in style though, it was a creative shot in the arm. I haven’t enjoyed writing this much in years. 26 pages one day. 26 pages. Because I was having so much fun. Because the stuff in my head was no longer a square peg that had to be fitted into the round hole of a “correctly formatted” screenplay. That hole could be any shape it needed to be.

It’s a dangerous game though; people who don’t know me may well assume that I don’t have a clue how to format a screenplay, people who don’t direct may not understand that this document is just as filmable as its more conservative cousins. I don’t doubt that there’ll be problems along the way. And I know I won’t be able to do this on most of my work-for-hire.

But I recommend tinkering with the form anyway, if for no other reason than to blow the cobwebs away and remember what it was like when telling stories was an act of enthusiasm and passion. Before it became fucking maths.

I’ll finish the third episode of Kaleidoscope in about a week (that’ll be three hours of TV from scratch with no outline/plan etc in about 5 weeks – that’s enthusiasm for you!) and I’ll let you know how it goes down.

Talking to myself

I’ve been making some notes on a new draft of the BBC thing I’m writing and I took some time out to set out/remind myself of some basic rules that we all should be observing as screenwriters but which it’s only too easy to forget about when you get into a flow. These are all rules that I have broken in previous drafts of this script, so I know just how easy they are to break and I can also appreciate, reading these previous drafts back, the damage that breaking them can do. If the following sounds brutal, please understand that this list was orignially intended as a note to self and my interior monologue tends to be a little unforgiving…

KEEP THE SCENES SHORT. No one ever complained that a story contained too many short scenes. You look at a great TV pilot (Mr Robot being a good recent example) and you see how much story can be crammed into an hour if you keep the scenes short.

CUT THE CHAT. For most of us, dialogue is a piece of piss. If you’re good at it, you get complimented on it and you start to think it’s your unique strength. It isn’t. Of course it’s good to have great dialogue but chat becomes a crutch; characters jaw on for page after page and it reads nicely and actors love it but really, who wants to sit through this shit when you’re meant to be telling them a story? If a chunk of dialogue isn’t doing something significant for story AND character, get rid of it.

EACH SCENE HAS A POINT. Each scene moves the story forward. If it doesn’t, bin it. Each scene should have a point AND a point of view AND conflict. If it doesn’t have all three, cut it or fix it.

THE TURNS IN THE STORY NEED TO BE HAIRPINS. Here I’m talking about twists. A twist is “and he reveals himself to be the bad guy” or “and then she shoots her best friend in the head” or “then she proposes to him” or “the dead guy gets up”. The guy you suspected was probably the bad guy turning out to be the bad guy is NOT a twist. Anyone who saw the movie of Prince Of Persia knows what I’m talking about here. Your turns need to be BIG.

THE AUDIENCE HAS SEEN A MILLION OF THESE THINGS. Whatever genre you’re writing in, you are NOT better informed than your audience. If you’ve seen this scene before in something, then so have they. They’ve watched a million forensics guys realise that this puncture wound could have been made by a needle; they’ve seen that episode of CSI where the DNA didn’t match because his twin brother was the killer. Whatever. If you’ve seen it, they’ve seen it and that’s not good enough. I reckon 90% of television drama is scenes you’ve seen before. At least have the courtesy to nick two ideas from something else and fuse them in a new way.

WE’RE SPENDING TIME WITH THESE CHARACTERS. We need to know WHO they are quickly but we don’t need to know WHY they’re like this until later. That’s a cast iron rule, I think. I know House is an asshole within twenty seconds of him appearing on screen but it takes a lot longer to find out WHY he’s an asshole. That’s one of the mysteries, don’t blow it too early.

DON’T STOP FOR EMOTION OR ATMOSPHERE. These things should be in every scene. If you have to stop the story to make me feel something, you haven’t done your job properly. (This was quite a major note to self after reading a previous draft.)

KEEP THE HERO PRO-ACTIVE. It’s so easy to let shit happen to your lead character and have her just react to it. That’s not what makes a protagonist. A protagonist is supposed to be driving this thing. Luke Skywalker might stumble onto the idea of the princess who needs saving but it’s his determination to save her that drives the story and that determination drives every scene that he’s in.

IF A SCENE IS ONLY DOING ONE THING, CUT IT. This is important real estate, this page of script. To turn it into television or a movie requires a hell of a lot of money and manpower. If this scene isn’t doing everything it can possibly be doing to move the story along, develop character, promote conflict, set up stuff for later, give us atmosphere and emotion etc then it isn’t worth the time and effort of filming it and you should fix it or bin it.

IF A SCENE CAN BE CUT, IT WILL BE CUT. If not by you, then by the director and editor later and after, as above, a lot of money has been spent filming the useless piece of shit. If there’s the slightest chance you can skip from the end of scene 1 to the beginning of scene 3 without going through scene 2, then scene 2 should go in the bin right now.

This is not a definitive list, obviously, but these are the key guidelines I’ll be trying to observe over the next few weeks as I re-draft this script. I hope some of the above is useful to someone else out there.  

I haven’t figured out how to disable comments on here yet (I’m sure it’s easy but it’s late and I’m hungry and I can’t be bothered to figure it out). I’d love to hear from you but not here; talk to me on Facebook if you know me there or on Twitter @juliansimpson1 instead.

A Best Of list…

Inspired by discovering this list online earlier…

David Finchers Favorite Movies

…and because I hardly ever do lists, I thought I’d take a run at my Best Movies Of All Time. By “best” I mean favourite and by “all time” I mean today. So, here are my favourite movies today, in no particular order:

 

The Godfather

The Godfather Part II

The Matrix

The Big Lebowski

The Wild Bunch

Citizen Kane

Being There

The Day Of The Jackal

Where Eagles Dare

Seven

Nixon

Sweet Smell Of Success

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

North By Northwest

The Secrets In Their Eyes

The Bad And The Beautiful

Amelie

Heat

Brazil

The Shining

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Jaws

Some Like It Hot

Man On Fire

Le Samourai

Doctos Zhivago

The Thomas Crown Affair

Point Blank

The Thin Red Line

The Ipcress File

Rififi

The Invisible Man

Beginnings…

Alfred Hitchcock, probably in his interviews with Truffaut, talked about a brilliant opening to a suspense movie that he had thought up but never got to use. He wanted to do one uninterrupted shot that would show an automated car production line. The shot would start with the very first part of a car being assembled and would track all the way through the process until the completed car rolled onto the floor at the end. A worker would then step forward and open the door and a dead body would fall out. Hitchcock could never figure out how the body got there so he didn’t end up using it. Great idea though.

Openings are key, as we know. I’m working on a pilot script for a 6-part BBC series at the moment and, in the spirit of sharing rather than hiding, here’s the opening (with apologies for the inevitable formatting discrepancies):

EXT. A WOOD IN THE ESSEX COUNTRYSIDE – DAY
Thin, tangled branches filter July sunlight and throw bright kaleidoscope shapes onto dry, cracked earth. A light breeze rustles sun-soaked leaves overhead and the kaleidoscope flickers like an old film projector. Somewhere nearby, water trickles through a drainage ditch—

On the ground, half-buried in dirt: a GRIMY OLD GLASS BOTTLE, sealed with dark wax—

A CHILD’S HAND reaches down, picks the bottle up—

CAROLINE is eight years old. She’s wearing jeans and trainers and a BATTLE OF THE PLANETS T-shirt. She turns the bottle over in her hands, holds it up so the light catches it—

A SHOUT from somewhere off. Raised adult voices; a MAN and a WOMAN, the sudden explosion of a VICIOUS ARGUMENT—

CAROLINE starts. THE BOTTLE DROPS. It hits a stone, smashes—

CLOSE ON: sunlight flickering over the bottle fragments and the MURKY, DUSTY CONTENTS spilled on the ground—

CAPTION: “JULY 16th, 1979

EXT. ESSEX COUNTRYSIDE – DAY
CAROLINE emerges from the WOOD into a field of grass that comes up to her waist. The field slopes down to a SMALL FARMHOUSE, squatting alone in the landscape. The grass is a brilliant yellow-green, moving like an ocean swell in the breeze—

The shouting is coming from the house. CAROLINE looks worried/frightened. The words are indistinct; a rumble of anger echoing up the hill. CAROLINE starts forward—

The door to the house opens. Shouts amplify and clarify. One word, distinct, whooshes up the hill and hits CAROLINE full-force: “DIVORCE”. The child catches her breath. Tears spring to her eyes. She starts running—

A MAN emerges from the house; striding, angry. He’s carrying a holdall, heading to a beige MORRIS MARINA ESTATE—

CAROLINE, running down across uneven ground, the characters on her T-shirt –Jason, Mark, Tiny and Keop– skimming the surface of this sea of grass—

The MAN reaches the car, opens the door, throws his bag inside. A last shout from the unseen WOMAN inside the house and the front door SLAMS shut—

Somewhere inside, a LITTLE BOY starts crying—

CAROLINE calls out as she runs—

CAROLINE
DADDY!

She’s too far away, he doesn’t hear her. She’s breathless from running and crying. She powers forwards—

CAROLINE
DADDY!

The wind carries her voice away from him. He turns to take one last look at the house, then bends to get into the car—

CAROLINE
DADDY!

The MAN hesitates, looks up. He turns his head. She stops, waves. He just needs to know she’s there. His eyes find her—

Their eyes meet. His say nothing. His face is pale, his expression blank. She waves again, smiles through tears. He’s seen her now. Everything will be alright, he just needs to wait for her to get—

And he turns away from her and gets into the car. She stands, helpless. He starts the engine, throws it into gear. Her mouth opens but no sound comes out. Tears salt her lips—

The car grinds gravel and accelerates away. She watches it disappear from view. Somehow she knows this is forever. She collapses to the ground and clings on as the world spins under her and everything breaks.

I’m pleased with this for reasons I can’t really go into without talking about the whole over-arching plot, but I think it hooks the interest. The scene is a flashback but it’s key to the central character’s journey through the whole thing. It also shows off the landscape we’re setting the story in, it sets the emotional tone and it features one major plot clue – the bottle the little girl picks up is going to be MAJOR.

Because I’m at the early stages of several projects at the moment, beginnings are very much my current jam. I just wrote a pitch for a three-season TV story that starts thus:

Tuesday. 3.53pm. RUTH CAMPBELL is 37 years old. She’s married to IAN and they have an eight-year-old son called JAMIE who is into Ben 10 and Scooby Doo and who is pretty much convinced that the sorting hat would put him in Hufflepuff although Ruth suspects that at least some of the time (and certainly in the half-hour before bed or any time he needs a haircut) Slytherin would be a better fit.

Ruth struggles up the front path, laden with the weekly shop. She drops everything on the doormat while she digs her keys out of her bag, then opens the door and drags the bags inside. She calls out; Ian’s car is in the driveway and the door wasn’t double-locked so Ian has presumably brought Jamie home from school already. No answer. This is not unusual. She heads into the kitchen, heaves the bags onto the counter and starts to unpack.

A noise behind her makes her turn with a start. Ian and Jamie are standing in the doorway, looking at her, confused expressions on their faces.

Ian: “Where have you been?”
Ruth: “To the shops. I said I was going to the shops.”
Ian: “Ruth… That was two days ago.”

This one is grabbier than the first because it presents a mystery straight off the bat. It reminds me of the opening episode of the ANCIENT TV show “Department S”, which details a plane arriving at Heathrow having been missing in the air for several days but neither the passengers or crew are aware of this extra time having elapsed. I didn’t consciously nick this, but it was clearly in my head. Anyway, the Department S storyline wraps up in 45 minutes and mine takes three seasons and the world ends two-thirds of the way through, so I think I’m clear.

A good opening scene is absolutely crucial. The first time someone reads your script, you need to have them hooked by the end of the first scene. I’ve been lucky to learn this writing for a bunch of shows that have pre-credit sequences wherein you HAVE to come up with a decent grab or you’re dead in the water. Most of the time on mainstream TV shows, this grab is a murder, which is unbearably fucking tedious and basic but it does work. Nowadays, with my own stuff, I’m reaching for something more interesting than the sudden revelation of a body on the floor but that dusty old trope can still be brilliant when it’s done well.

The opening sequence of Breaking Bad was amazing. The opening scene of Better Call Saul was even better, and braver because its impact relied on people having watched Breaking Bad already. The opening scene of Season One of Braquo (you MUST watch Braquo) is jaw-dropping. The Ipcress File starts brilliantly, as do almost all Hitchcock movies.

Blake Snyder (Save The Cat) points out that your opening image and your closing image should relate to each other. This might be a bit literal but the idea is solid; the opening has to be more than just arresting, it has to set out your stall. It has to tell the reader where we are, what kind of story we’re telling, the tone of that story and the pace of it. Ideally, you shouldn’t write the beginning until you know the ending, that way they are tied together as Snyder suggests. This is good advice, but I can’t give it in all good conscience because I rarely take it (I probably should).

In the first example, above, I know that the little girl’s father leaving is a key moment in her life and I know that the whole story is ultimately going to circle back to resolve that moment somehow. I just don’t know exactly how yet. In the second example, Ruth’s missing two days are crucial to the unfolding story and I know it’s going to happen to her again in Season 3. I have a pretty good idea how and why this happens, obviously, but I couldn’t write the ending with any great conviction yet – I’d need to explore the unfolding story some more.

Take time and care over how your script starts. That first page needs to be as good as you can get it because however great the rest of your story may be, if the first page doesn’t grab no one is going to read on.

Outside of suspense, there is one opening sequence that would take a lot of beating: The Wild Bunch. Even before the gunfight starts, we have the Bunch riding into town. We see the bank, we see the bounty hunters staked out and we see the Temperance March moving through what will become the line of fire. We even get the kids torturing the scorpion, which is the theme of the whole movie in one short shot. Then the Bunch go into the bank and draw their guns. A teller is thrown against the wall, and William Holden delivers the line that not only tells us everything we need to know about these guys, but introduces the best-placed director credit of all time: “If they move, kill ‘em”

The Wild Bunch 005

This Writer’s Toolkit

It’s the Monday after the election. The hysteria has pretty much abated, or so I’m guessing. Either way, it’s time for the writers to get back to work and that means it’s the perfect time to perv over writing gear, in the guise of “getting in the mood”.

I don’t pretend to have any special insights into this stuff. I just know I love reading how other writers work and what tools they use. The stuff I’m recommending here WILL NOT make your writing any better but, if my own experience is anything to go by, sometimes a new bit of kit inspires you to WANT to write, and that can be useful. If I have one pro-tip, though, it’s not to get sucked into a time vortex with this stuff. I once spent an inordinate amount of time trying to source some pen that Joss Whedon had mentioned in an interview, in the hope that finding it and using it would somehow be like touching the hem of the master’s garment. At the end of this fruitless search I realised that Joss Whedon would almost certainly have spent the time I’d wasted writing.

Anyway, I’m going to structure this from idea to finished product and talk about the stuff I use along the way; that seems to be the sensible way to go. Before we get to the spark of an idea, though, we need the stuff that often creates that spark. For me, more often than not, that’s reading…

The first thing I do in the morning, if you don’t count coffee and nicotine, is to hit the internet and I often hit it as hard as I can. That means Twitter gets launched, Facebook gets launched, an RSS reader gets launched and a bunch of news tabs are opened in my browser. I’m on a Mac (caveat for this whole thing is that I’m on a Mac – some of the stuff I’m going to talk about may not work on a Windows machine) and I have this first-of-the-day process streamlined via an app called ALFRED. I boot the computer, hit Ctrl and the spacebar and type the word “morning” and all this stuff just magically happens.

I’m using TweetDeck for Twitter and Safari for Facebook and the news tabs (for details of what news tabs I use, check out this INFODUMP newsletter). For the RSS feeds, I’m using FEEDLY. Now, depending on the mood I’m in, what I have to do that day and how much time I have, I may only really skim this stuff. I want to know what people are talking about but I’m not really looking for current affairs because the latest Twitter storm or frenzy of political outrage is unlikely either to be relevant to work or to set me up in the right mood for the day. I am checking in with people, though, because I’ve essentially just arrived in the office and I want to say hi to my friends and colleagues online and get some feeling of being in touch with the world. Safari has a sidebar that will show me what links people are sharing on Twitter and it also has a reading list that I’ll start to fill up with articles that look like they might be interesting from my news tabs. I’ll also be scanning Feedly for things that might be interesting or useful.

The material I’m collating at this stage may or may not be useful for whatever I’m working on. Sometimes an article might spark an idea in six months time. Something else might contain a thought or idea that unexpectedly solves a problem I’m having in a script right now. That solution may well come from an article that doesn’t directly pertain to the subject I’m writing about, so I find it important to keep a really open mind to influences at this stage.

As I’m skimming through my reading list, I’m doing one of four things; I’m either reading or part-reading an article and then ditching it because it’s either no good or it’s not what I thought it was. This, as is the nature of things, goes for most of the stuff I’m reading. There will then be some things that look really interesting but they’re either super-long or I’m not in the mood for them right now. Those articles will get dropped into POCKET, which automatically syncs to my phone and iPad and allows me to read them offline at a later date. I love Pocket because it means that at any time when I’m on the tube or waiting for a meeting I have this great collection of stuff to read.

If a piece looks like it’s going to be useful for today, I’ll keep it in the reading list on Safari and I’ll also drop it into DEVONTHINK PRO (I’ll also drop anything into DevonThink that might be useful or interesting in the future). DevonThink is an amazing document database that you can literally throw anything into; the more stuff it has in it, the better it works. You can organise articles in any number of ways but the real genius of the software is the way it searches; type in a search term or a phrase or a quote and DevonThink will not just give you documents containing that search term but it’ll also give you documents that it thinks might be relevant to that search term. In other words, it makes connections for you. The science writer Steven Johnson explains this much better than I can HERE but in short, the system is connecting ideas together in a way that may not have occurred to you and some of those connections can be absolute gold. One of my favourite get-out-of-jail-free cards when I’m stuck is to plug a phrase into DevonThink and see what it throws up at me. But, as I say, it has to be loaded with material first and so this is what I’m doing as I go through my feeds.

The fourth action I might take with an interesting article is to share it. Enough of my ideas have come from articles others have shared online so I’m always keen to keep that flow of information going.

By now I probably have sufficient caffeine in my system to start doing some actual work (in reality, I’ll be dicking around on Facebook and Twitter for another few hours, but this is writer-porn, not a fucking documentary). I’m either going to be writing a pitch or a screenplay. There’s a good chance it’ll be a bit of both and these days I do try to get 5 pages of screenplay written each day, just to keep the work-rate up. This will happen alongside any pitches or meetings or anything else I have to do. The beauty of setting an achievable goal like this is that it allows for a LOT of dicking around. As long as I’m going to get those 5 pages done, I can be guilt-free about playing videogames or watching a movie or whatever. I used to spend a lot of time staring at a blinking cursor all day whilst experiencing self-loathing. That didn’t get any more pages written, but it was psychically damaging and meant my days were no fun. 5 pages a day means you’ve written a standard hour of BBC drama in about 14 days and that, it turns out, is a shitload faster than most writers work. At 5 pages a day, you can hit deadlines AND dick about, so it’s very much win-win. Some days I won’t even start into those pages until 6 or 7pm but then I’ll be done in an hour. The trick, as Hemingway (I think) had it, is not to write MORE than that. If you write until you run dry, you start the next day dry. If you force yourself to stop while it’s still flowing it’s an awful lot easier to get back into it tomorrow.

So where were we? Oh yeah, I was pretending that now is when I start working. That work starts with good old fashioned pen and paper for me. Music goes on, the internet goes off (in common with most writers I know, I use FREEDOM for Mac, which switches off your internet access for a set period of time). I use MIDORI MD NOTEBOOKS (which are the best I’ve ever found, just gorgeous to write in) and I have one portable A5 one which I carry around with me and use for random notes and ideas for projects as and when they occur to me. Once one of those ideas is sufficiently fully-formed to merit proper focus, it gets its own A4 notebook and that notebook will ONLY be used for that idea. The notebooks are all plain paper (ie unlined) and I write with a fountain pen because I’m a massive ponce and I want to pretend there’s some fucking olde worlde mystique to what I do (also because my writing is appalling and I find a fountain pen, for whatever reason, seems to make me take more care). I’ve tried the expensive pens but have recently come to realise that I much prefer a super cheap (for fountain pens) PILOT KAKUNO, which just fits my hand nicely and seems to be the right weight for me. I’ve also recently got into the even-cheaper PILOT V-PEN, which are disposable fountain pens. The red ink one is particularly great for making notes on script pages.

I tend to write notes on what I’m doing very much as a stream of consciousness. This is a relatively new approach for me but I’ve found that writing longhand and keeping it chatty, as if I’m maintaining a conversation with myself (complete with “no that’s a shit idea actually but what about…” and “if we can’t crack this in the next five minutes I’m going to go and do something else”) seems to let ideas through that I would otherwise have censored. Time and again I’ll be writing to myself in a sort of vague haze and an idea will pop out that I would have reasoned out of existence if I was being more ordered or disciplined with my notes. I’ll basically just sit at my desk for an hour, writing down these random thoughts about the scene or sequence or idea that I’m intending to work on later. It’s my favourite part of the process now, so I just let it go on for as long as it’s still fun. If I dry on one idea, I’ll just open another notebook and work on something else.

Because I’m not connected to the internet at this point, I’ll have a bog-standard lined notepad open nearby that I can jot down notes for anything I want to look up or check when I’m back online. I also use an app called DUNNO, which is on the Mac and also on the phone and iPad. Dunno is a brilliant notebook app into which you throw a search term and it’ll do the search and save the results for offline reading at a later date. I think it’s pretty new, but it’s become indispensable very quickly.

I also use EVERNOTE all the time, but I’m really struggling to explain how it fits into my workflow. I use it a lot if I’m out and have a brand new idea that I just want to store somewhere. I will then periodically trawl through those ideas and start connecting them up into something workable. I also SOMETIMES drop articles into it but there’s not much rhyme or reason as to which ones. I guess I try to use Evernote as a repository of stuff that I deliberately don’t look at for weeks on end, in the hope that when I finally do, this melange of ideas and information will spark something.

I’m presenting this as a linear work sequence, because that’s the easiest way to order it but, in reality, I’ll be jumping back and forth from the computer to the notepad and from screenplay to pitch. At all of these stages it’s possible to hit a bump in the road so there are a few things I use to get myself out of a hole at any part of the process.

The first of these is a set of role-playing game dice. I’ve talked in another blog HERE about how I’ve started to use these in character creation but I’ll also sometimes just assign a series of possible story option to a die and roll it to determine one. That one may not be the right way to go but it does at least force me to explore it and, hopefully, get the juices flowing again.

I also have a set of cards called THE STORYMATIC. I can’t remember where or how I heard about them but they’re intended to be used in some kind of ghastly parlour game wherein the players use the cards as prompts to make up stories. The box is divided into character cards and situations and if I get stuck I’ll sometimes just pull out some cards. Doing it now, I get “shoplifter”, “person who steals cats”, “the overheard remark”, “flood” and “cemetery at five in the morning”. It’s pretty hard to remain in a rut when you’ve been bombarding yourself with random bullshit like that for a few minutes.

If shit gets REALLY bad, I also have a set of Brian Eno’s OBLIQUE STRATEGIES cards which I can always turn to for sage, practical advice like “trust in the you of now”. Thanks Brian.

Lastly, we’re into the actual writing of a thing. If I’m writing prose (ie a pitch or a newsletter or a blogpost) my absolute go-to is IA WRITER, which has a brilliantly minimal interface and completely gets out of the way of writing. You can’t deliver to anyone from that, so I’ll write the text then copy-and-paste it into blogging software or Pages (which I went off for a long time but now really like again). For the more serious-minded prose-writer, MELLEL is very good.

If I’m writing a screenplay, I use FADE IN. Yes, I know Final Draft is the industry standard but I completely fucking hate it – it’s ugly, buggy, and insists on separate windows for everything which then get lost when you alt-tab to something else. It’s fucking horrible. I do have to use it for production revisions, unfortunately, because it IS the standard but hopefully that’ll start to change soon. Fade In is a beautifully put together, much more functional alternative that retails on the app store for about a fifth of the price of Final Draft and is relentlessly updated as writers feed back their needs and ideas to the guy who made it. I’ve used Fade In for every script I’ve written for the last three years and outputted .fdx files for Final Draft users straight from it with no problems at all.

That’s your lot, that’s ALL my writing secrets laid bare. But they change constantly. One of the ways I keep my interest up is by trying new techniques and software; my attention span is too short to keep doing this the same way day in day out. That’s partly why I wrote this, in the expectation that therte might be some people out there who likewise want to change their workflow up a bit. I hope some of this stuff has been useful. I’m at all the usual places online and always eager to hear any tips you might have to share.

I haven’t talked at all about screenwriting guides and manuals because I think there’s probably enough material there for another post and, frankly, I’ve taken up enough of your time already.

Now fuck off and write something.

Rolling Up Characters – let the random in.

So I’ve been thinking about henchmen recently. This came about because I was writing one. Or rather, I wasn’t writing one; I was typing the words “30s, well-built” into the pilot script of this strange 6-part crime drama I’m doing for the BBC. This was a guy standing guard over something for the antagonist (sorry, I can’t be more specific than that). I typed the words and was about to move on when I realised that, at some point, an actor would be cast to play this character and I would have to direct this actor and I’d probably need more up my sleeve than “he’s your age and he looks like you”.

This thought led me on to another which is that characters like this (and incidental boyfriends, bartenders, acquaintances of major characters, all the women in “True Detective”) are all too prevalent in screenwriting. They’re people who are necessary to the plot and so we write them as exactly what we need them to be and no more and we move on with the action and we rarely stop to realise how much better our stories would be if we wrote these characters differently.

Because we’re not meant to be writing plot, we’re meant to be writing story and story comes from character. It’s easy to forget that when we’re bombarded by screenwriting manuals that emphasise structure, and notes from the development people who’ve inhaled those manuals and are obsessed with act breaks and inciting incidents and whether characters are “likeable” (ugh).

But real people don’t fulfil functions in a story so easily. Real people are awkward but, if you let them be awkward, they’ll send your story in some interesting directions or, at the very least, make the damn thing a bit more textured.

I’ve lately been toying with a new way of generating these minor characters, a way that allows them to be born outside of the story and thereby forces the story to morph itself to accommodate them. This idea came from my recently renewed interest in table top role-playing games (Dungeons and Dragons, Call Of Cthulhu etc – my own peculiar mid-life crisis). These games all begin with character creation and those characters’ attributes are largely defined by dice rolls. It turns out that those dice throw up some pretty interesting results.

So let’s take my heavy (30s, well-built). First up, let’s give him a name. I’m going with Duncan because… Because I am, there’s really no foolproof system for naming people. Now I’m grabbing percentile dice (that’s two ten-sided dice, one displaying tens, one displaying units – you can get them from games shops or online or you can use an online generator like THIS ONE, in which you can just roll a d100 to get percentages) . First up, let’s get Duncan’s real age. He’s a heavy, working for our bad guy, so he’s going to be somewhere between 20 and 60, I reckon. There might be some clever maths to determine how many dice of what kind you can roll to get a result within those parameters but I’m a writer, not Brian Cox, so I’m just going to roll the d10s (that’s ten-sided dice for those of you with a life) until I get a result between 20 and 60… And I roll a 56. Duncan is 56 years old. This is already interesting because he’s older than I imagined, but we’ll see where it leads…

Now let’s get some attributes. I’m going to go with the RPG stalwarts: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Constitution, Intelligence, Appearance, Size and Education. These attributes vary between games, and there are always dice rolls for other things too, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want Duncan to be a fucking Chaotic-Evil Half-Elf so I’m going to tailor the possibilities to the world of this story.

So Strength: I roll a 50. Bear in mind these are all scores out of a hundred, so Duncan the heavy isn’t as strong as I would necessarily expect. He’s probably about as strong as I am and no one is hiring me to beat people up…

Dexterity gets a 55. He’s not that quick on his feet either. Right now, I fancy my chances against Duncan in a fight.

Intelligence: 65. Okay, interesting. So Duncan the heavy is not as good at fighting as I was expecting, but he is a little smarter than the average henchman…

The Constitution roll yields a 75. Duncan is pretty fit and healthy, way above average. This story has a rural setting so I’m thinking Duncan is an outdoors type; maybe as a younger man he did manual labour and maybe he’s not as strong as he was but he still likes the fresh air and the sun on his skin.

Appearance is 35. Oh Duncan, you ain’t pretty. But maybe that’s because you’ve been in more than your fair share of fights; a busted nose, some scarring, cauliflower ears. Maybe Duncan used to be stronger and faster than he is now. Maybe that intelligence score suggests that Duncan realised that fighting was a young man’s game and got out before it go the better of him.

Size gets a 70. Now it’s up to me to decide whether he’s tall or fat or both (if it was muscle, his strength score would have been higher). I’m going to go with tall because that goes better with him being fit and healthy and it fits nicely with the picture I’m building in my head of an outdoorsman.

The last attribute is Education. Duncan gets another 50 on this. That’s dead on average for a character roll, but it’s above average within the company he keeps in this story and it’s high for hired muscle. He didn’t go to university but he probably got an A-level or some kind of post-16 qualification. In the company that Duncan keeps, this makes him a  stone fucking genius. That’s interesting…

So my 30’s, well-built dude has become a relatively intelligent 56-year-old who got an education and who likes spending time outdoors, who was maybe a fighter when he was younger, and who is considered pretty smart by the people he works with. So Duncan wasn’t just hired for his muscle. Sure, he may be prepared to be brutal when required but maybe his advice is also sought on occasion? Maybe he actually has an opinion on what he’s asked to do. Maybe he even has a better idea sometimes… Perhaps he was a soldier once, or a cop… (Oh my God, he’s Mike from Breaking Bad, isn’t he?!)

And thus a character is born. There’s loads of room to flesh Duncan out, obviously, either by taking these numbers as a jumping-off point or by digging deeper into any particular role-playing game system to roll up more attributes and skills. This is only one way to do it and, even if you hate the idea of rolling dice, at least this points up the notion that these characters can and should be fleshed out. I wasn’t going to do very much with Duncan as a character before this but now I can see several other places in the story where he could function and even a couple of aspects of the story that he now changes just by being in them.

Implemented in more detail, the dice could throw up some really interesting possibilites; what if your lead investigator rolls up a crazy-low intelligence score? What if your hero is in a wheelchair, or can’t drive a car, or is brilliant at languages or origami?

What I like most about the dice is that they circumvent my natural instincts at character creation and force me to adapt my characters and stories to their random whims. I think most writers could benefit from changing things up a bit.

And now that I’m thinking about it, the hero in that movie idea I’m knocking around could maybe use a little dice-work…

The Art Of The Script Meeting – How Not To Let Your Ego Get In The Way Of A Good Idea.

For the last few days, I’ve been reading Creativity, Inc. The book is about how Pixar works, how they maintain a culture of creativity whilst still fulfilling all their corporate ambitions, and it’s written by Ed Catmull; the guy who started the company and runs it to this day. I highly recommend it (not running Pixar, the book, although running Pixar would also be cool) but this isn’t a book review…

One of the central features of the book, and of Pixar itself, is the “Brainstrust”; a collection of the company’s leading directors, writers and story experts who gather to view work-in-progress and to offer advice, steers etc. Every director working at Pixar, from top to bottom, has to submit their work to the brainstrust. This ought to be nerve-wracking, like standing in front of the class while the teacher marks your homework but the directors all seem to welcome it and find the experience incredibly valuable. Why? Because Catmull learned a lesson from countless unproductive, adversarial notes sessions with studio execs and he introduced a concept that makes the Pixar system work: the Brainstrust has no authority. Let’s look at that one more time: THE BRAINSTRUST HAS NO AUTHORITY. You don’t have to take their notes, you don’t have to pay any attention to a word they say.

Except now you will because they have no authority, they’re just there to help you make your movie better.

I remember screening my first movie for the American exec from the company who’d funded the thing. I was really nervous, my head filled with stories of iconoclastic directors battling unimaginative studios for control of their masterpieces. The screening finished and sure enough the guy had some notes. He was worried about a particular character, I think, in a particular scene and he wasn’t sure it “played”. Predictably, I dug my heels in. I even got pretty shouty as we debated his notes. Eventually, believing I sounded like Sam fucking Peckinpah, I issued my ultimatum: “If you want this changed, you’re going to have to ORDER me to change it.”

He frowned, looked at me like he was suddenly concerned for my mental health, and said, “Dude, it’s your movie. You’re free to do whatever you want and we’ll release it. That’s the deal. I’m just asking you to consider something.”

“Right then… Sorry… What was it you wanted me to look at?” It turned out the guy had some good points to make and, because I didn’t HAVE to follow them, I gave them proper consideration. His notes made the story clearer and so the editor and I sat down and implemented them. They made the film better. The fucking thing bombed anyway, of course. Sorry if you were hoping for a happy ending.

These situations are pretty unusual in screenwriting. Far more often than not, we walk into a room to be given notes by producers and execs who do have authority, who can insist on changes we may not agree with. This can make for an adversarial situation, one in which the writer is on the defensive before the meeting even starts, where even useful notes can be read as “interference” from non-creatives.

William Goldman famously used to enter these meetings, sit down and ready his pad and pen; putting the execs on the defensive, pressuring them to “come up with something smart”. To the beleaguered screenwriter, this may seem like a brilliant plan. It is, in fact, a massive dick-move. I don’t care if you wrote All the President’s Men, you just started a fight you have no chance of winning because these people pay your rent. They might be intimidated (they probably won’t) but they’re certainly going to think twice before employing you again.

The Goldman manoeuvre assumes that status can be taken. It can’t. Actors know this; status cannot be taken, it can only be given. You can’t go on stage and “act like the king”; the other actors have to behave deferentially to you, they have to give you status. Most execs aren’t going to give the writer status in a meeting. More likely, the writer will give the execs status, and often the wrong kind…

I’m reminded of an exec who once confided to me that she sometimes walks into edit suites where she knows full well that she’s the “enemy” before she even enters the room. She said that the level of hostility to her notes, before she’s even given them, is such that she becomes defensive and authoritarian; delivering her notes as straight-up orders that can’t be questioned or discussed because “if they’re casting me as the bad guy, I’ll be the fucking bad guy”.

So how do we deal? I believe it is possible to turn almost any writing meeting into a version of Pixar’s brainstrust, you just have to change the dynamic of the room. First off, as writers, we have to change our attitudes; we probably ARE too close to the script — the chances are we only finished the draft a few days before this meeting. This script ISN’T the best it can be and we may not be the best people to see that or have the best fixes for the problems. This isn’t a defence of execs. Someone said recently on Twitter that writers were unfair on execs, that they had “never met a stupid one”. Oh really? Allow me to arrange some introductions. Of course there are bad execs, just as there are bad writers (or bad accountants, builders, dentists etc.) Hopefully you have smart execs, there are plenty of them about. But even a bad exec has a perspective on your work that might be useful (even accidentally) and you’re not going to benefit from that if you close down.

We may not be able to completely banish the idea of executive authority, because these people can fire you if you are uncooperative, but we can adopt the attitude going into that room that you are not working FOR the execs, you’re working WITH them (if they could write the fucking thing, they would have done — they do need you). Try to remember that everyone wants this script to be better (and it can always be better) and everyone wants this meeting to go well because they’ve invested in you and they genuinely want this all to work out. So level the playing field; be pleasant, be open, be happy to talk about anything. The exec may propose some fixes that sound dreadful. Don’t just shut down, try to identify the problem the exec is attempting to solve. The fix may not be great but the problem could be genuine. Nine times out of ten “This needs explaining to the audience” is a shit fix but it’s a fix to the problem of “I didn’t understand this” and that’s always a problem worth addressing. Rather than just take the note and offer the standard grumpy nod in response to it (it amazes me sometimes how many writers are afraid of dialogue), try digging into the problem; encourage the exec to open up and talk through their thinking. I can almost guarantee that you’ll change the tone of the meeting this way. Once you’ve acknowledged the existence of the problem and demonstrated your understanding of it and your willingness to address it, you’re going to find that the exec abandons their solution and instead trusts you to come up with whatever you think the best fix is for the next draft. You’ll also find that you’re suddenly no longer faced with a bad note, but with a potential improvement to your script.

Dodge the solution and get to the problem. Then it’s up to you to solve it the best way you can. Everyone goes away happy, the script gets better and you work again because the execs actually felt good about the meeting because they weren’t treated as the Philistine enemy for once.

Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects, talked recently in an interview about how his career had been floundering and how Tom Cruise took him aside and told him that his (McQuarrie’s) problem was that he bore grudges against execs who had long since forgotten the cause of the grudge and that he was seen as too defensive in meetings. McQuarrie tried out Cruise’s suggestion of entering meetings with the attitude of “how can I help you make the show you want to make?” This, apparently, changed things around for him almost instantly.

The crucial thing here is engagement. With my director’s hat on (I actually have a hat) I’ve sat in meetings with writers who were obstinate and unwilling to entertain a single suggestion about their script. Those are bad writers with bad scripts that stay bad. But I’ve also witnessed writers who would change anything you asked them to without question. They were also bad writers with bad scripts but their scripts actually got worse draft-on-draft because they were doing everyone’s fixes without ever understanding the underlying problems. (Again, I’m reminded of an exec a long time ago who told the composer that the music needed to be “louder but kind of quiet” — never take the fix until you understand the problem). There needs to be cut and thrust; it needs to be a conversation, neither a battle nor an immediate surrender.

Can you always change the dynamic of the writer-exec conversation? No. There are some execs who aren’t open to a conversation of any kind, either because they’re just total fuckheads or because they have some ulterior agenda (often because they’re delivering notes from higher-up and are scared of their boss, who is an uber-fuckhead who won’t talk directly to the writer). I’ve been in this situation a few times and the only advice I can give is to walk away. No good can come of this. Suffer through to a delivery point, ie. get paid for your work to date, then bail. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’ll get better, it won’t. And don’t think quitting will damage your career; becoming bitter, miserable and, inevitably, defensive will do far more harm.

Pick your battles. Fight your corner when you need to but don’t presume that someone is your enemy just because they have a salary and an office. And don’t presume, even if they are the enemy, that you can’t learn from them. Give no shit, take no shit. You’re here to tell stories and it’s supposed to be fun.