Thank you for the fantastic response to last week’s newsletter, which I will return to at a later date…
And welcome to the first newsletter of Spring!
This week – a GUEST POST by script editor JAMIE HEWITT. Jamie worked with me on the 2012 Channel 4 screenwriting course as shadow script editor, and is now script editor on the BBC show DOCTORS.
Jamie was great to work with – really hard-working, switched-on, and someone who thinks deeply and insightfully about screenwriting, as you’ll see…
‘Einstein said that he only ever had one of them. Warren Buffet said he doesn’t do a damn thing without one. Stalin called them more dangerous than guns. My name’s Jamie, and I’m here to talk about ideas. Of course, I’m here to talk about them in the context of screenwriting.
When Philip asked me for a take on my experiences as a reader/script editor (quick credentials flash: I work as a script editor for Doctors, I’ve worked on Coming Up 2013 and as a reader/shadow script editor with Philip on 4screenwriting 2012, as well as other reading/development/acquisitions work in a variety of other contexts) I realised that all this work was really trading in talent and ideas. And as much as talent must be honed over long periods, it is far more obvious and tangible when the idea that a piece is based on is lacking.
When I first started reading, for a film distribution company, it occurred to me that the scripts I was reading were more likely to get made than those being read by anybody else in the industry. At a guess, I’d say that at least 1 in 3 of the scripts I read in that job has subsequently been made. And what I subsequently understood was that each of those scripts was resilient enough to have been ‘sold’ to dozens of the different elements which would make up a feature film: director, actors, agents, financiers, salespeople; they had all said that they wanted to work on THIS.
It’s an important consideration for writers – whatever you want your piece to achieve, it has to be sold to a lot of other people for it to ever get where you want it to. Even on new talent schemes like 4screenwriting, Coming Up or the Writers Academy, samples have to make it through readers who then have to want to sell it. Whether via coverage, in a meeting, or via recommendations, your work has to sustain being sold and resold many times during its lifetime.
And the appetite for ideas is huge.
On Doctors, we make approximately 230 episodes per year, and those contain about 300 stories, between serial arcs and stories of the day. Even these figures pale in comparison to the number of submissions and stories which are submitted to a scheme like 4screenwriting each year. Myself and my colleagues on Doctors are constantly assessing spec scripts to find writers for the show, nurturing ones we like, and developing new story of the day ideas. And when you’re exposed to this many ideas, you quickly get a sense of what stories, or scenes, or characters are just overdone – and these may not be the ones you’d necessarily expect.
The hard truth, as ever, is that being original requires a lot of work. Being able to generate new ideas is vital, because all good ideas start off as bad ideas and have to be worked through. And some of these bad ideas stay bad. On a show like Doctors, where we broadcast hundreds of stories every year, we begin with many more than that to whittle down to the ones we do use.
Remember that you can always have more ideas. Always. Have ten seeds of ideas for every one you ever develop into a piece of drama. If one idea gets knocked down, come back with two more! Ideas in a writer’s journal are like clubs in a golfer’s bag – the more you have, the more options you are presented with.
Try splitting ideas – is there an original character in a dull story who could support a story all on their own? Darren Aronofsky once had an idea about a romance between a ballerina and a wrestler which eventually became the basis for both Black Swan and The Wrestler.
Trying merging ideas – can one character enhance another? Die Hard With a Vengeance started life as a spec which had nothing to do with John McClane, but when it was adapted to that franchise he suddenly had his best sidekick of the series.
In that spirit, below are five top tips for idea generation to help keep you supplied with new ideas:
1- Irony. Not just in the high-concept world of movie marketing, but in any dramatic writing, irony is one of the quickest ways to conflict and the basis of all drama. Think of the world/subject/character you’re interested in writing about. Now, what change would represent the biggest conflict for that element?
2- Character is king. Write good characters, with compelling fears and desires, and everything else will follow. If you’re a plot-led writer, never stop reassessing who your characters are and what they want. You’d be surprised what ideas they might start to give you. As the legendary Robert Towne once said: “The single most important question, I think, that one must ask one’s self about a character is what are they really afraid of? What are they really afraid of? … That finally is where stories are told.”
3- Be specific. The worst piece of writing advice I have ever heard is the aphorism ‘write what you know.’ If what you know isn’t dramatic, don’t write it! But what that saying implies is instead: ‘know what you write.’ So research your subject extensively, and grow your drama out from the details of that subject, not the generalities. Remember that all good drama belongs to a career, a race, a place, a life. Write The Hurt Locker (about bomb disposal units), instead of ‘just’ a war film. Write This Is England (set amongst Midlands skinheads in the 1980s) instead of ‘just’ a coming-of -age. Write In Bruges (about two hitmen in purgatory in Belgium) instead of ‘just’ a hitman tale. Put it this way, if you’re setting your script in Coventry, make sure Coventry says something in the context of it that Birmingham wouldn’t!
4- Research your audience, and insist on being original. The Finborough Theatre, one of the many bastions of new writing which makes the UK a world leader in developing new theatre, has a superb website where they lay out what they are and aren’t looking for in submissions to the theatre. What they say they are looking for is generally vague, but what they aren’t is very specific. Organisations are rarely so explicit, but every company has a profile. Look at what they’ve done before, consume what they’ve done before. This will help forge an understanding of what they will want but also what they haven’t done yet. Do always ask what people think is overdone, what they’re sick of or what they’re already doing. The quickest way to a “no” is being unoriginal, and the right bit of research can stop you before you’ve even started to make that mistake!
5- Remember that your ending is your most important bit. Also known as, not all good ideas are created equal. If you have a strong ending, half your work is done for you. Maybe more! Think of an evening of short plays. Next time you’re at one, you can usually guess with 80% accuracy which one is best by just looking at the programme – it’s the one that’s on last! A good ending will have people talking to their friends, discussing and recommending your work because simply their most recent memory of it is of it being good/surprising/romantic/funny. Work on your ending until you are willing yourself to get ill so you can forgive yourself for stopping. This will go a long way and encourage others to do that elusive thing and sell your script for you!
None of the above is meant to overlook the hard work which has to go into these ideas to make them as good as they can be. Remember the hard truth that for all the blood, sweat and tears that you put into your work to will it into existence, each consumer who you want to make an investment into it – of their time, their money, their reputation – will naturally start by investing a glance, a few moments or a half-focused ear. Get your ideas concise, compelling and sellable, and they’re even more likely to keep listening and reading.’
Thank you so much to JAMIE for that.
And if you have any follow-up questions for Jamie, please email me!
THE AUTHORITATIVE GUIDE TO WRITING AND SELLING A GREAT SCREENPLAY
As of this morning (Friday) we have only ONE place left on this course in London for March 16-17 – so if you’re interested, don’t hang about.
We are taking bookings for the course on the weekends of May 11-12 (special guest: BBC script editor Esther Springer) and July 13-14 (special guest: TBC).
Full details about the course, testimonials, profiles of past attendees etc etc can be found here –
Have a great week
All the best
March 1st 2013