Last Saturday I did a talk at the very enjoyable De Montfort University Leicester MA TV scriptwriting, TV WRITERS DAY at the Actors Centre, London, and I took the opportunity to go to 2 excellent sessions –
JOHN YORKE – STORY PHYSICS
John is an excellent speaker and deep thinker about screenwriting and as ever, he was fascinating and thought-provoking. His talk was about ‘Story Physics’ and ‘Opposites’.
He discussed the Jimmy McGovern drama DOCKERS, and how McGovern co-wrote the drama with some of the striking dockers. But when he asked them to write a speech for one of the ‘scab’ characters, expressing their opposing point of view, they outright refused. So McGovern wrote it himself. John discussed how McGovern learnt to ‘love’ the antagonist’s POV, and learnt that for the story to really work well, the antagonist has to have as articulate and convincing an argument as the protagonist. JY said when McGovern took this on board, he moved from being a very good writer to being a great writer.
John referenced Andrew Stanton’s TED talk ‘Understanding Story – My Journey Of Pain’
He discussed how opposites are at the root of every successful story – ‘Dramatic structure is defined by desire.’ ‘Story structure knows no morality.’
He came up with a persuasive list of powerful people who have deep personal contradictions – politicians like Blair, Thatcher, Clinton, JFK – his thesis being that we all have these deep internal contradictions – at a deep psychological level it’s the tension between our animal qualities – the needs to eat, survive, procreate; and those qualities that are uniquely human – intellectual curiosity, ‘humanity’.
And how so much of all our lives is spent hiding \ suppressing our animal instincts, and giving off a version of ourselves that we hope will be more attractive and acceptable to those around us. ‘A contradiction at the heart of our being.’ ‘The well-spring of guilty pleasures.’
As an analogy, he made the very funny and astute observation that we are defined by what we actually watch on TV, not by that long list of shows on Sky+ that we record but somehow never get round to watching!
He referenced the theories of Maslow and Freud – the ‘paradox of real life.’
Character paradox – conflict at the heart of character. The two polarities of FACADE and FLAW. ‘Need is the projection of the unconscious flaw’.
He concluded by quoting Newton’s 3rd law of physics – ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ That this principle also underpinned story.
In the questions afterwards, he was asked about the thorny problem of ‘back-story’ and how much you include in your story. His answer – as a general principle, you should include no back-story.
INTO THE WOODS by John Yorke is one of the best books about storytelling in general and screenwriting in particular.
JED MERCURIO INTERVIEW
A great opportunity to hear the thoughts of the screenwriter of the brilliant LINE OF DUTY – as well as such past excellent shows as CARDIAC ARREST and BODIES. In discussing his process for writing individual episodes of Line Of Duty and the series as a whole, JM says that he tries to a great extent not to look too far ahead, he makes up each story as he writes it, and that he doesn’t, ultimately, know where the story is headed.
He felt that, if you plot the overall series too rigorously, there is sometimes a tendency to tread water a little, to want not to go too far off the beaten track in order to get to the end-point that you know you’re heading to. He said that you can get into mid-series problems if you know too clearly where you want to end up – you can find that you don’t want to go too far off course, so that it can restrict your story choices.
Instead he advocated, ‘playing the shot in front of you’, making the current episode the best episode it can possibly be, and then worrying about the next episode as you come to it.
The big story principle of Line Of Duty was that the antagonist’s story and eventual outcome was the story arc of the series. But when he started writing series 2, he didn’t know where Lindsay Denton was finally going to end up.
So he doesn’t get too hung up, in advance, over the detail of the overall serial arc. This means that he when he’s written an episode, he will sometimes have to go back to finesse \ rewrite previous episodes to an extent.
He talked about breaking his stories (outlines or scripts) down into 10 minute sequences, making sure that each ten minute sequence really delivers.
Initially he went for an interview at World Productions to advise on a medical drama idea, but then ended up writing it! The angle of this series was that it was the inside story, the reality of hospital, a view of hospital that you’ve never seen before.
He went onto talk about CRITICAL, his new medical series for Sky. About this and his other work, he said, ‘Positioning my work within a social realist texture seems to get it commissioned.’ His aim is to make medical drama as real as possible. But at the same time he discussed how you have to have a certain level of audience suspension of disbelief – and focus on what works on screen, rather than being slavishly accurate. He went onto say that in this respect, it’s really important that you work with good medical advisors, who understand how TV drama works – and also who will give you correct and accurate information! As a trained doctor himself, he said he had sometimes worked with medical advisors who had given incorrect advice \ information.
He discussed characterisation, and disagreements he’s had with executive producers about them wanting characters to be ‘likeable.’ As far as he’s concerned, the important thing is to get the story started, give the character a decision to make (ie it’s the decisions characters make that define them and bring them alive) – he discussed the need for drama to have a ‘grown-up moral code.’ ie you need to avoid writing characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves – enigmatic characters are much more interesting and real.
He talked about the satisfactions involved in working on a returning series after series one. How so much of the ground-rules have been established in the first series, so, for instance, when writing the 2nd series, you can picture the actor, hear their voice in your head as you write. And the working relationship he has with the cast helps with the stories he’s telling. He discussed how the actors want different things from the story – sometimes he can oblige, sometimes not – but all their input is helpful, and he tries to give them what they want in a way that works for the drama.
He referred to Chris Carter, show-runner on The X-Files having debates with the executives about how much of the back-story needed to be explained. Like Chris Carter, JM feels as a rule, that it’s best not to explain – things left unsaid, mysteries, are more dramatically effective.
At the same time, when you get to the end of the series, you don’t want to deliberately hold things back. But it is hard to reveal everything. It has to be assessed in terms of the characters – what works best for character.
He discussed how he generally makes ‘precinct’ drama – he’s not so interested in his characters’ personal lives except in how they impinge on their working lives.
One of the tasks as a TV dramatist is to find an interesting ‘precinct’. He said – you don’t necessarily have to pick cops or docs – he referenced MAD MEN as a great example of a really interesting and original series precinct.
He talked about taking a particular point of view, and telling your story from that very particular point of view.
He said that when he first started writing on CARDIAC ARREST he made a lot of errors, errors of technique – but that the way to learn is by writing. Writing it and getting feedback – ‘learning through humiliation.’ He said that on LINE OF DUTY, they have a ‘No praise’ rule in script meetings – ie all they discuss is how to improve the scripts, without worrying about egos. They need to talk honestly about what doesn’t work and why it doesn’t work in order to make the scripts as good as possible.
As a writer it’s very hard to be self-aware. He stressed that it’s important not to think too much about strengths and weaknesses – but just to get the job done, the script written.
It’s important that the main AC12 (the police unit in which they work) lead characters are flawed.
He says that he tries to watch at least the first episode of every new drama on TV, and that this is very important if you want to work in the industry. Existing shows will often be discussed or mentioned in reference to your script in meetings, so it’s very important to keep abreast of what’s being made. And you learn things – positive and negative – from watching other shows.
He was asked whether a good critical response and/or good ratings are important to him. He responded that there is nothing more important than good ratings. They make you ‘bullet-proof’ at the networks, and mean that your series will get re-commissioned. He discussed the rating for the first two series of LINE OF DUTY, talking about their unpredictability.
Until next week
All the best
May 16th 2014