This fortnight a random selection of thoughts about different aspects of screenwriting.
PERSON PLACE PROP
A character exercise based on observing real people. I was on a train journey and I observed –
A young East Asian man with a Dyson hoover.
A 60 year old white woman with a small white dog.
A man in an NCP uniform watching a video on his phone.
These three people intrigued me and I started inventing their fictional lives.
CHARACTER SHOPPING LIST – Observe the contents of people’s shopping baskets at the supermarket checkout. What ideas do you have about them and their lives from their purchases?
Make a list of 10 items your fictional character might buy that convey interesting & specific things about them. (NB This idea is stolen / borrowed / adapted from the excellent BBC documentary series, ‘A LIFE IN TEN PICTURES’ – an example of how imposing a seemingly reductive format can in fact open up creativity.) Don’t be afraid to borrow / steal in this way! Nothing is original!
Character – 10 valued possessions that define character.
A whole life in 10 short chronological sentences as character starting point.
Think about and list 5 of the very best moments in your life and 5 of the very worst moments – what do these moments tell you? Can you craft a story out of them?
Think about your three favourite people in the world and your three least favourite. What are their essential qualities? Can you use these specific qualities in the characters you create?
Character & story are about choices. The harder the choices you give to your characters, the more gripping your story will be. Drama is about dilemmas, seeing how your characters respond to the hardest choices. Have your characters make bad choices. SOPHIE’S CHOICE and its central story premise is the ultimate example of an impossible choice.
Empathy is about identifying with impossible choices and questions – what would I do if I was that person in that situation?
WRITER’S BLOCK / CREATIVE STARTING POINTS
If you’re feeling blocked, I suggest you go to ‘genre’. Pick a genre and invent a story you are interested to tell within that genre – whether it’s a comedy horror, a musical, a rom-com, a road movie, whatever.
Get a daily newspaper and find 5 stories that could be adapted to the particular genre you’ve opted for. Study that genre – watch as many ‘road movies’ (or whichever genre you have chosen) as you can enjoy and study the conventions and narrative devices of that genre. List and write up the conventions of the genre, enjoy making a study of it – then work on using & subverting those conventions within the story you want to tell.
Find the story that feels like it suggests a fresh take on the genre and that excites you. That way you already have certain narrative and structural staging posts in place, the conventions and expectations of the particular genre, to guide your story and to play with. Your starting point will feel less like that scary blank page. And your reader / audience will also have the reassurance of coming to it with their own expectations and preconceptions of genre. A win-win.
There is nothing so intellectually disabling as the blank page. Reward yourself with the context / structure of genre.
PROVERBS & APHORISMS
Another exercise if you’re struggling to come up with fresh story ideas. Work though a list of common proverbs and aphorisms, twist and subvert them until they start to suggest stories that pique your interest. A few obvious examples –
‘You reap what you sow.’
‘The child is father to the man.’
‘Give him enough rope and he’ll hang himself.’
‘You made your bed now lie in it.’
‘Children should be seen and not heard.’
‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating.’
And so on, the list is endless. Sometimes by treating these aphorisms literally rather than metaphorically a strange and interesting story idea can present itself.
THE USE OF CAPTIONS IN SCREENPLAYS
At its best, this narrative device can work really well. In particular, there is something very satisfying in films based on true stories when the end captions act as a coda and fill us in about what happens in the characters’ lives after the end of the film.
But I think the screenwriter’s challenge is to confront the idea that the use of captions in a screenplay is too often a failure of imaginative storytelling. Screenwriting is a visual narrative medium – and sometimes you use captions when you can’t find the visual way of dramatising that part of the story – and have to rely on words on the screen. I would challenge you to only use on-screen captions when they feel like an exciting, integral part of the character of the way you’re telling your story – and not just as a last-resort expositional fallback.
WHEN & WHERE DO YOU WRITE?
When are you at your most creative? When and where does your brain feel sufficiently uncluttered and freed-up for you to write and enjoy the process?
Annoyingly for me, it tends to be at 3am. Most of the ideas for this blog came a few days ago between 3 & 4 in the morning, written on my phone notes.
I also seem to be able to write on a tube train after an evening out.
RANDOM SCREENWRITING ONE-LINE THOUGHTS
All writing is political.
The emotion you feel as you write is the emotion you will evoke in the reader / viewer.
Story is about movement and journeys – both physical and internal / metaphorical – the whole genre of the road movie – the journey as story.
As writers words are your only currency. Treat them with love and care. Be both deliberate and playful in the way you use language.
Starting / creating stories at that tricky conjunction of character and story – which comes first?
Character driven or Plot driven? Personally I respond to character-driven stories. But you could argue that some of the UK’s most successful TV dramatists are more plot-driven – eg Jack & Harry Williams, Jed Mercurio.
I am now taking my usual August break from this fortnightly newsletter. The next newsletter will be on Friday September 9th. I hope you’re having a great summer and thank you for all your feedback and communication over the last few months,
July 22nd 2022