CREATIVITY FOR SCRIPTWRITERS
Now Booking – 1 day course London Saturday November 15th.
A course for scriptwriters in all media – TV, film, radio, theatre – designed to help you generate exciting story ideas, create original character characters, and give your creativity a boost with a day of fun, stimulating writing exercises. Run by TV drama script editor, producer and script consultant PHIL SHELLEY with guest speaker TV and theatre writer CAT JONES.
This week a Guest Blog by screenwriter JON PEACEY.
JON is an MA screenwriting graduate from Leeds Metropolitan University and has written a blog-length response to the question –
What do you consider the most important element for a (creatively) successful screenplay?
‘I’ve thought about this quite a bit over the years and base my opinions on what I’ve seen in films/TV, on observing my fellow students’ experiences and what I’ve experienced. I’ve concluded there’s not one important element but 3 or 4.
Have something to say – then try and say it. Have a point. A script (finished film/ television programme) without a point is, by definition, pointless. Who really wants to read, watch or spend their money on something utterly pointless?
At university the students who struggled most writing their scripts were those who didn’t know what their story was really about. Instead of ‘the story of a Coventry man struggling to overcome his salt-allergy to win back his self-respect and triumph at the world kipper throwing championships in Reykjavik – thus showing the triumph of the human spirit over adversity’ they would merely put ‘the story of a man who wants to throw some fish for no real reason’ – then they’d wonder why there were having problems! The latter pitch doesn’t hint at anything deeper but having something deeper would help answer key questions: why this man? Why now? Why should we care? These answers come from knowing what your story is really about – whether this is an entirely personal emotional story or a metaphor for something much larger is entirely the writer’s choice but without ‘point’ or ‘purpose’ it seems (to me) like setting out on a car journey without destination; all very picaresque and jolly for the driver but meaningless to anybody watching… and you’ll probably run out of fuel before reaching anywhere interesting or useful. There is a frustrating tendency to say ‘it is the journey that matters not the destination’ but without an intended destination the journey is meaningless – it might be the destination changes because of lessons learnt on the journey but there’s still a new destination: destination is catharsis (witness the audience frustration at the open-ending of Irish drama ‘Amber’). I have wondered whether the idea of journey mattering more than destination is a bourgeois luxury that the poorer cannot afford: a student with wealthy parents can enjoy the journey of his/ her gap year and three years messing about on a degree course for a 2:2 knowing there’s always the parents to fall back on; a student from a more precarious background may be less prone to wasting time on ‘the journey’ because the destination, the First, is far more important – and will then start them on a whole new journey. It could even be argued that the ‘journey’ concept is an idea perpetuated by those in power to keep the disenfranchised from reaching destinations: if the journey becomes the most important thing then destination and achievement become immaterial.
(By the way, the fish-thrower example is entirely fictitious and any resemblance to kippers living or smoked is entirely coincidental!)
I don’t suggest the ‘deep’ meaning has to be complex or earth-shattering but should be able to raise the narrative above being a series of events. Whether it’s an in-depth treatise on how the Sykes-Picot Agreement led to the current Middle East conflagration or something as simple as ‘love is better than hate’ – it’s always going to work better than ‘meh’ and a shrug of the writer’s shoulders.
One of my fellow students struggled endlessly with a script because he had a brilliant protagonist but no idea what to do with him – various torn-from-the-headlines ideas appeared then vanished, and all because the writer didn’t know what he really wanted to say through the story. Another writer worked, endlessly, on a script based on an important, never filmed, event from late Mediaeval British history, but, month after month, the script didn’t develop, always sticking rigidly to the few known facts; a catalogue of events spread out over many decades, with nothing new inserted and no historical deviations. With no idea what he wanted to say through these real events there was no way for him to decide what events should be excised, invented, re-ordered; how to compress time or how to structurally shape it to create a compelling narrative. As storytelling is essentially an attempt to create artificial order from chaotic reality to present history completely unchanged is a fool’s errand. The ridiculous thing was his story was already written by history: he only had to pull out the threads he required according to his vision.
Time and again, in my script reports and round-tables, I found myself asking the same question of other writers: ‘what are you trying to say?’. More often than not the answer was ‘dunno’ – not terribly useful. The only answer worse was, ‘it’s a sort of meditation/ examination/ exploration of x, y and/or z’. Meditation/ examination/ exploration are neither character nor story and certainly not writable or watchable. The sad thing was the student who tended to say ‘meditation/ examination/ exploration’ was the most purely imaginative of the lot of us – a spectacular visual imagination and creation of brilliant characters – like Guillermo del Toro but set in the world of Red Road, Fish Tank or Ratcatcher. If he could have harnessed all that imagination to a workable narrative he’d have been picking up awards by now! He’s the only one from my intake I’ve kept in touch with; I still urge him to return to writing, to write the masterpiece I know he’s capable of. He doesn’t believe the industry’s open to people from his economic background.
Only the writer themself need explicitly know the ‘deep purpose’ – through knowing this, it will inevitably emerge in the writing process and the finished piece.
Write something you would actually want to watch. If you wouldn’t want to watch what you’ve written why on earth would you expect someone else to?
If you love blockbusters, only watch blockbusters, want to write blockbusters and worship Michael Bay and James Cameron, is it really sensible trying to write a spec script that’s half Andrea Arnold, half Michael Winterbottom (‘because that’s all that gets made in the UK’) – scaling down budget doesn’t mean scaling down ambition – why not try a Monsters or District 9 rather than cynically trying to write something you wouldn’t pass the time of day on. Equally, if your gods are Ken Loach and Alan Clarke… why would you expend effort writing a spec in the style of Black Hawk Down because ‘that’s where the money is’? Passion for your own subject shines through the work – as do boredom and cynicism.
This is clearly going to be far harder if working to commission on someone else’s show. However, on your own spec script you surely shouldn’t feel that level of constraint.
When, at University, after half the students quit, got the chop or otherwise had to leave before the final year, only one of the remaining students was non-white. He was of Asian background: he loved action films, blockbusters, superhero movies – that was what he wanted to write. However, some had other plans for his final year script and he was coerced into writing a feature about “the British Asian experience”. He didn’t want to do it, wasn’t interested in that sort of story – but he caved in. In the end, he wrote a perfectly good script, perfectly structured, etc. but it lacked the spark that comes from a real burning desire to tell ‘that story’ – the story you really burn to write. He joked frequently about the script, which deviated somewhat from that which he was ‘intended’ to write. The student writer was from comfortable leafy suburbia not an inner city or segregated estate: he didn’t know about the sort of ‘British Asian Experience’ he was supposed to be portraying so he included (and admitted he deliberately included) some big clichés: inner city location, deprivation, a group of racist skinheads who burn down the parents’ takeaway… then, much to the chagrin of many, instead of becoming a nice liberal tale of forgiveness and humanity (as required) it turned into an ultraviolent vigilante tale somewhere between Death Wish, Man On Fire and Harry Brown. He thought it was very funny to completely pervert the required narrative in this way. It was ironic that in the cause of inclusivity and anti-racism, both non-white student and what he was expected to write were required to conform to and perpetuate racial stereotypes.
The ‘British Asian Experience’, as lived by many people of Asian descent (such as this writer, or my own cousins), doesn’t consist solely of owning takeaways or corner shops, walking round in niqabs, fending off racist attacks, arranged marriages and spousal abuse. The ‘British Asian Experience’ is what each individual British Asian experiences in their own individual lives not something imposed upon them via external stereotypes. Would his very good final year script have been a brilliant script if he’d been allowed to write what he really cared about? We’ll never know. He now works as a bank cashier – disillusioned by being expected to be ‘Asian’ and certain you can’t break into the industry in the UK unless you come from a wealthy background.
Writers should have a worldview. I know some writers have a notion they are merely observers or recorders (which is, in itself, a worldview) but, like documentary makers, as soon as you choose which characters and events to show, from what perspective to show them and in what order, you’re imposing a worldview on your subject matter – probably better to know what that worldview is before you accidentally promote something you hadn’t intended. This leads to my final element…
Have some knowledge and interest beyond the edge of the TV and cinema screen. Knowledge of a world beyond the screen not only adds colour, veracity, character, alternative viewpoints and depth (etc.) but, crucially, stories and characters that may not otherwise get seen. If your view of the world is solely a reflection of what you’ve seen on TV the writing will inevitably be poorer for it. When one generation copies the films of the previous one, who, in turn copied their films from the previous generation… everything turns into a series of increasingly fuzzy photocopies of photocopies of photocopies, where, like a copy of a copy, the detailing and features of characters and stories disappear, and all that remains are the most prominent features – inciting incident, hero faces flaw, etc. with a lot of noise plugging up the gaps. And all that comes from that are increasingly faceless (and very loud) movies – otherwise known as Hollywood’s Summer tentpole releases!
Not only has knowledge of the wider world evaporated but knowledge of film and television itself has become far more limited. When I first realised I might be interested in a career in film (it was film specifically at that time) I decided the best way to learn was to watch the best films: I got hold of the Halliwell Film Guide and watched all the 4-star films I could lay hands on – then many of the 3-star films as well – happily this also happened to coincide with the BBC’s year long Century of Cinema celebration. It wasn’t for a number of years that I discovered you could actually go to university and learn about films! (Because I was without tuition or guidance I found myself mentally reviewing the films, questioning whether some were as good as claimed: some avowed classics I find, at best, mediocre; one ‘great’ film-maker leaves me utterly cold. Thankfully, many films were as great as their reputation.) When I was doing my BA (many years back) it was clear the vast majority of students thought film began in 1975 or 1977 with either Jaws or Star Wars. It was terribly sad to see how many great films were dismissed for the terrible crimes of not being CGI, widescreen or colour. Years later, after I finished my MA, I bumped into a former MA tutor who mentioned that he’d postponed a tutorial when not one of a class of 30 Masters students had ever seen Some Like It Hot (the intended focus of his tutorial) – he assumed it would be a given they’d watched this classic and not something he’d have to specify. I mentioned this to a foot-in-the-door screenwriter and he said ‘why would they have seen it, it’s very old, and they’re students’. That’s not good enough: on a BA that might fly but if you’re doing an MA you’re assumed to have more than a passing interest in your subject of study. By the time you’re doing an MA to not have seen the film classics is the equivalent of taking an MA English Lit. and not having read any Dickens, Chaucer or Shakespeare. No-one would dream of saying ‘Shakespeare – that’s very old – why would any student have read that?’
The restricted non-film knowledge, narrowed viewing habits and issue of worldview, are some key reasons why plurality of (particularly) class/ social representation and, therefore, voice are important to me. British film and television are increasingly being dominated not just by white men (as Lenny Henry rightly pointed out) but by white privately educated men (which he missed): this is statistical fact. In the 70s and 80s the average parental wage of someone entering TV in writing, directing or producing was the national average. From the 2000s on, it’s been 2 ½ to 3 times the average parental wage – that is the same background as for a doctor or solicitor (where the level is unchanged since the 70s). This means in practical terms the people doing the creating are not from or informed about the majority of the audience or what they want to see: how many of them have ever been in the position where they don’t know where the next meal is coming from or whether they can afford the rent at the end of the week? And, similar to career politicians, the career trajectory of media-people is increasingly insular: school (often private), uni (often media), then intern at a media company (increasingly the preserve of those with wealthy parents, especially for companies in London) – it seems there’s starting to be a generation who are writing, directing, producing, commissioning, etc. who have no real world experience. What are they meant to write about? Their worldview, life experience and knowledge are informed solely through their TV and film viewing, through their life in education (note the upsurge in education-based comedies), and working in media organisations (W1A, The Hour). This leads to writers writing about what they know: working in the media.
Even writers with life experience are increasingly exhibiting this tendency (or is it coming from the people commissioning them?). Is it any wonder there are now so many characters in prestige dramas who are ‘something in the media’? Southcliffe, TV reporter hero; The Town, hero intimated to be in the media; Exile, reporter hero; What Remains, had four – two graphic designers, two reporters; Happy Valley, Cawood’s reporter ex-husband; W1A, everybody; The Hour, everybody; The Field Of Blood, everybody; State Of Play, the reporter heroes; and all the single plays (the only single plays made these days)… Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This, Fear Of Fanny, Burton And Taylor, Eric And Ernie, Hughie Green: Most Sincerely, the Hancock one, the Steptoe one, etc.: all people in the media. The reporter/ writer character in a fictional work always seem to me to be a classic author-substitute.
Frederic Raphael recounted that while he and Kubrick were writing Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick asked him “apart from making films – what work do people actually do”. Neatly encapsulates it.
So, my key elements for a creatively successful script are…
1. Have something to say and say it.
2. Write something you’d want to watch yourself.
3. Have a world view.
4. Have an interest in the world beyond your TV screen.
An interesting person has an interesting story and something interesting to say; surely, an interesting writer does too.
While writing the above I found, and got sidetracked by, an interview with Nigel Kneale. This exchange stood out (concerning his brilliant Kavanagh Q.C. episode ‘Ancient History’):
Interviewer: So you felt you were able to take that programme and use it as a vehicle for your own ideas?
Nigel Kneale: Yes. All stories should have some honesty and truth in them, otherwise you’re just playing about.
I think, all along, that’s what I was trying to say: ‘all stories should have some honesty and truth in them, otherwise you’re just playing about’. I happen to think that ‘honesty and truth’ should concern people.
And that’s it!
All the best,
Thank you very much Jon for this excellent article,
Until next week
All the best
July 11th 2014