Networking and writing craft tips, screenplays and novels. Find writing links and advice here. Lucy V Hay is a script reader/editor and writer living in Exeter, UK. She is represented by Julian Friedmann at Blake Friedmann, London.
Comedy is super-popular amongst us Bang2writers. So Dave Cohen aka @sitcomgeek is back, this time with 5 MORE Mistakes Comedy Writers Make. Dave really knows his stuff, so is well worth a follow on Twitter and
Miss the last one on this topic? Then CLICK HERE. Enjoy, comedy writers – and good luck if you enter the BBC Comedy Window. Over to you, Dave …
It’s That Time Of Year Again!
The BBC Comedy Window opens on April Fool’s Day, and you’ve got until 29 April to hone your budding scripts into comedy gold. Last year James Cary and I interviewed Simon Nelson and Amanda Farley of BBC Writersroom who provided stacks of information and helpful advice for how best to go about entering the competition. Check it out, HERE.
Meanwhile, let’s concentrate on avoiding the unnecessary mistakes that writers at every level in the profession make, all the time.
1) You Forget The Basics
Every now and then a show comes along, smashes up the building and questions everything we thought we knew. The Goon Show, Hancock, Young Ones, Ab Fab changed comedy for ever.
I understand the urge to want to break everything and start again. Comedy involves surprising your audience, and every time you see someone telling you “the rules” your instinct is to say “sod the rules.” But Aristotle wrote Poetics more than 2,000 years ago and they’ve worked for 99% of all the stories ever written so far. You should at least accept that if it was good enough for Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy and Nora Ephron (among others!) then it’s at least worth your consideration.
Also, it’s not difficult. To paraphrase the great philosopher-writer-student of Plato-zoologist, and inventor of the phrase “multi-task” himself:
Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. A big thing happens at the end of the beginning, which takes us to the middle, complications build until another big thing happens, the biggest so far, which takes us to the end, and out of the story as fast as we can make it.
2) You Forget What Makes Comedy Different From Drama
In drama, our hero or heroine comes out the other end, they’ve learned their lesson. Catharsis, as Aristotle calls it. Comedy characters never learn. They make the same mistake every week. Or like Basil Fawlty, instead of saying “next week I won’t lie”, he says “next week I’ll lie better so I don’t get found out.”
This information isn’t helpful when we’re being told to put more drama into our comedy. It’s a direct contradiction. If a character can’t grow how can we do that? That’s the challenge, and writers are beginning to rise to it.
Phil Dunphy, the wannabe all-American superdad in Modern Family, learns in every episode that he’ll never be happy trying to be something he isn’t. But he unlearns that lesson every week, because that’s what we’re like when we’re in the thick of family life.
Cold Feet remains principally the story of five people who never learn from their mistakes. Instead, each series there are issues much bigger than the individual characters that stretch them and their relationships to breaking point … Debt, mental health, breast cancer and more.
3) You Forget To Care
I read dozens of scripts every year. No matter how much I bang on about this the first note is invariably: NOT ENOUGH JEOPARDY. I was at the London Book Fair this week and in a light bulb moment saw for the first time what novel editors take for granted – a graph that plots tension against time.
It’s a simple visual representation of a rising line signifying a story moving forward, important plot moments increasing the tension at regular intervals until around three quarters of the way through, when we reach the point of maximum tension. Simply looking at the graph was enough to produce a knot in my stomach.
4) You Second Guess The Commissioners
Recently there’s been a call from Comedy Commissioners for “more comedy drama”, and a lively debate around the question “what the hell do you mean by comedy drama?” This was followed by a series of responses from Comedy Commissioners along the lines of “Er… dunno.”
We can look at the glut of shows that have arrived this month and get a sense of what was making them excited when they made that call. They’ll have known about returning series of much-praised debuts Fleabag, Soft Border Patrol (BBC), Time Wasters (ITV) and Derry Girls (Channel 4). There’s a new BBC1 Alan Partridge; Warren (BBC1); Home (C4), After Life by Ricky Gervais on Netflix, and Almost Never on CBBC.
Most are writer-performer led, and not a single one is made in front of an audience. Also, you can sense that part of what they mean by comedy-drama is comedy dealing with contemporary issues: Brexit and Syrian refugees both feature, while Fleabag and Almost Never are ‘of the moment’.
There are loads of new or new-ish shows covering a range of subjects. And the only reason there are no studio sitcoms is because nobody has sent in a script in the last couple of years considered strong enough to turn into a series.
BBC Writersroom insist they’re looking for audience shows. They don’t get enough of them, so go ahead, write one. Make it as funny as you can, which brings me to the final mistake …
5) Not Enough Jokes
If you’ve been watching After Life and I say “fish fingers” you’ll know what I mean. Even in a show this bleak there are some brilliant laugh-out-loud moments.
Often, in the excitement of getting your new characters onto the page, you forget what it was that drew you into wanting to write comedy. Something unexpected happened in a show that made you laugh, and you wanted more than anything to be the person who could think up those moments.
There are few thorough analyses of what jokes are, I have some chapters in my forthcoming book The Complete Comedy Writer. Denis Norden called them “the momentary removal of sympathy.” George Orwell called each joke “a tiny revolution”.
We all have challenges to our writing. In today’s world we all live busy, hectic lives and sometimes it can feel impossible to finish writing what we started. But what about those of us who face extra obstacles or challenges that can make writing a page feel like writing War and Peace?
Exploring diversity and the need for equal opportunities in today’s world, I have interviewed 10 writers with mental health issues, disabilities or special learning needs. Each sharing their own unique stories, they have offered up some advice for other writers. Here’s what they all had to say.
1) ‘Be honest about what you can and can’t do’ – Rachael Howard, writer with ME
‘I am pretty well housebound, so the internet is my lifeline. My main problem is lack of mobility and my condition is unpredictable, I can book a trip then have to cancel the morning of travelling because of the pain. This makes me appear unreliable.”
‘I have to be honest about what I can and can’t do. I have had meetings and been mentored via skype and deadlines have been shifted for me. It is a good judge of how the person is if they are prepared to be flexible.’
‘I have worked with two production companies successfully. In each case there are members of the company who are also disabled. They get my issues and work around them with me. I have learned to ask for help. Not easy to do.’
TOP TIP: Don’t be afraid to be honest. Let people know what you can and can’t do. If they run a mile they are not someone you would want to work with. Use the internet. Most people will happily Facetime or Skype.
2) ‘Use software and ask others for help’ – Rachael’s daughter, writer with Autism, Dyslexia and Dyscalculia (Rachael’s daughter was happy to be included anonymously)
‘It is even more tricky for my daughter, she cannot interact with people at all unless she knows them well. She uses software to help with grammar and spelling or passes it to me regularly to read it. She uses online a lot for research. She can’t ask questions of people, but she can read what they write.’
TOP TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask for help with your various challenges. It will surprise you how much help is out there. Don’t apologise for what you can’t do. The industry needs to adapt to you.
3) ‘Use the speech function on your computer and audiobooks’ – Nigel Auchterlonie, writer with Dyslexia
In his own words, Nigel describes accepting that he wasn’t the brightest kid at school, despite thinking he should be achieving better grades. However, Nigel enjoyed a successful career working on Dandy comics and works to this day as a professional writer. Finally, in his thirties Nigel was diagnosed with Dyslexia.
Nigel says he finds writing much easier than reading. If you struggle reading your work back, Nigel advises using the speech function on your computer. Hearing the computer read the text aloud makes it clearer and guarantees an accurate reading. Similarly, rather than giving up on reading books, listen to audiobooks instead.
TOP TIP: Don’t let yourself be labelled as ‘bad’ at something. If you enjoy it, keep doing it. As Nigel proves, you just might make a very successful career out of it!
4) ‘Keep your mind busy and don’t delete anything’
– Bay VanMeter, writer with Depression and Anxiety
‘I write to keep my mind and body busy, and when I get in those dark days I get a darker more emotional style of writing that paints a picture for the reader.”
‘Don’t delete anything, keep writing and keep trying because one day you will look back and be grateful that you didn’t give up. It also helps to have something that is yours, something you can escape into.’
TOP TIP: Dealing with challenges can be dispiriting, which means you may make decisions you regret in the heat of the moment. So don’t delete anything! You will always be glad you didn’t give up.
5) ‘Do whatever it takes to get feeling positive again’ – Josh Merritt, scriptwriter with Asperger’s, Dyspraxia and Sleep Apnoea
‘I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and Dyspraxia when I was around 5. I also have Sleep Apnoea and lack of good sleep can severely affect my mood, stamina and memory. I get very stressed when I forget an idea.’
‘The autism helps with hyper-focus and obsessive attention-to-detail. But it can hold me back in terms of making me feel like I am not achieving emotions on the page. I can be extremely overwhelmed by self-analysis and judgement. Nit-picking every little thing.’
‘Listening to music and dancing gets me feeling positive, full of enthusiastic energy and inspiration. The brain starts to flow because of the flush of endorphins, I presume.’
TOP TIP: Forget about your challenges by finding what gets your endorphins flowing again. Then do it!
6) ‘Seek Help When You Need It’– Anonymous, writer with Depression, Social Anxiety and Panic Attacks
‘I have Depression, social anxiety and have had panic attacks all my adult life. I am struggling to overcome it. It affects my writing because slowly over time my anxiety kills the creativity and confidence and I end up with nothing left.’
TOP TIP: ‘My advice for other writers if you struggle, seek help.’
7) ‘Just Keep Trucking’– Shaquwanna Long, writer with Schizophrenia
‘I have Schizophrenia and it sucks. The medicine slowed my memory and creativity. Ideas used to just come to me but now I have to put forth effort and seek out ideas’.
‘Just keep trucking, don’t stop taking your meds but find what works for you and outsmart your meds. Music helps me greatly. Just know that you’re not alone that there are others out here who know your struggle and we are more than willing to give you a helping hand.’
TOP TIP: Remember you are not alone.
8) ‘Your disability can actually help you’ – Jemma Callander, writer with Dyslexia
Discovering her dyslexia as an English undergraduate, Jemma initially questioned her career aspirations. Then something interesting happened.
‘Over time, and with education, I realised that labelling my disability actually helped me to understand the way I think and, in turn, the way I write.’
‘As a journalist, I now take a Dictaphone with me wherever I go (or iPhone notes). Old school, but it helps me remember interviews I’ve conducted and acts as an oral notepad.’
TOP TIP: Use technology to help – even old school tech! Whatever works.
9) ‘Just keep going’ – Dal Cecil Runo, partially blind writer with Depression and Anxiety
‘I’m a partially blind writer (I can still see something, but use a magnifier glass or Roboreader.) I have a whole different process of how I go about drafting my novels. I outline in detail, and I try my best to write as clean as I can possibly produce at the time. I’m blind, I can’t afford to edit it later, so I edit as I go.’
‘How do I overcome this? I don’t. I simply try my best to keep going. I have terrible sleep patterns so I turned that into ‘Let’s write til I drop’ mechanism. It works.’
TOP TIP: What works for most people may not work for you, so find what will.
10) ‘Trust Yourself and your process’ – Nathan Hamilton, writer with PTSD and a perfectionist nature
‘I struggle with PTSD and a perfectionist spirit when it comes to my writing. Sometimes, I’m so determined to have everything mapped out logically and correctly that it takes the fun and creativity straight out.’
‘I overcome this by scheduling my time better and try to write as the scene hits my head. I carry a writer’s journal with me so I can keep the pure inspiration before I turn my analytical brain onto it. I jot down sound-bites and snippets, then edit after I’ve added it. Trust yourself, your heart and your creative process!’
TOP TIP: Keep a writer’s notebook handy, or use your phone. You don’t have to sit in front of your laptop all the time.
A huge thank you to all of the writers interviewed! There’s lots to learn here for ALL Bang2writers. Here’s some takeaways.
Technology makes life easier, especially if you have extra challenges. Seems like writers are using much more than just a pen and paper these days. Tools like ‘on the go’ notes, audiobooks and the speech function on computers can also help assist the writing process.
Honesty is key. By being honest with ourselves and others, we can also be more supportive of each other. After all, every single one of us has limitations, not just those with disabilities and mental health challenges.
We should ALL embrace our differences.I hope the writers’ stories will encourage and inspire a more diverse range of creatives and help build a more understanding industry.
We are not alone. Sometimes life can seem too much, so writing can too. By finding our community like Bang2writers and talking through our challenges, we can gain a renewed perspective or help.
We just have to keep on keeping on. Enough said, really!
So please comment below with your own top tips and advice for others, I look forward to reading them!
BIO: Alice Hayden is a scriptwriting student at Bournemouth University, focusing on writing for Film and Television. Having just discovered that two of her scripts will be made in to animated promotional adverts for charities, she is also in the process of finishing her first novel. Follow her on insta as @alice_hayden.
Lots of new writers will say structure is a ‘formula’. Nope. It’s a FRAMEWORK. The most obvious is ‘beginning – middle – end’. Even children know how this works. It’s built into our DNA. If we think of characters as having to go on a journey from A to B to C, then we can see how plotting and characterisation are interlinked.
This is never more obvious than with frameworks like Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, updated as The Hero’s Journey. There are certain expectations we have of heroes, after all. Heroes need to be:
These 3 elements are paramount in the making of a hero. Both Campbell and Vogler have attempted to shine a light on the stages a character goes through to become a hero. They are broad enough to mean you can do write these steps however you want …
Whether you write novels or screenplays
Male or female leads
For different audiences
In every genre
CLICK HERE to check out 6 popular movies that follow the Monomyth, broken down. CLICK HERE for a great list of books ( and some more movies).
Why You Should Study Structure
First though, a little shot in the arm. B2W is always banging on about structure and plotting, it’s true. This is because a good 90% of new writers, both screenwriters and novelists, simply don’t know enough about this subject! They may believe they ‘can’t’ fix structure on their own … Or they may simply not want to do the work.
Whatever the case, you need to get real. Every year B2W works with writers who ask me to tell them where their scripts and novels are going wrong and how to fix them. But here’s the kicker: I can usually tell them these things. But even if I do, without understanding the foundations of structure, those writers literally can’t follow my instructions. Supersadface.
So, studying how structure and plotting works gives you a toolbox to work with. It makes you a better writer! To get you started on the foundations, let’s look at a classic structure format – The Monomyth and The Hero’s Journey. I will be comparing and contrasting both of these in the course of this post, using visual representations to help. Remember, there are lots more ways to look at plotting and structure, so make sure you check them out. Now, onto Campbell’s and Vogler’s works.
Joseph Campbell’s ‘Monomyth’ (17 stages)
Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) was an American Professor of Literature who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His most well-known work is his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), in which he discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero shared by world mythologies, termed The Monomyth. The character’s journey breaks down as follows, according to Campbell:
Here’s a cool visual representation of The Monomyth
Check out the pics inside the bubbles to see examples of each stage from, various movies. CLICK HERE to find out more from the source.
If you are not keen on the idea of the Monomyth being a circle, you may like this more linear one, below. I like it because it also hints at the notion of ESCALATION in the story, which is very important.
Christopher Vogler’s ‘The Hero’s Journey’ (12 Stages)
Now, on to The Hero’s Journey. You may have seen Christopher Vogler at London Screenwriters’ Festival a few years back. He has worked for Disney, Fox and Warner Bros. Inspired by the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell, particularly The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Vogler used Campbell’s work to create a 7-page company memo for Hollywood screenwriters, A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This became The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, which is frequently referred to as just The Hero’s Journey. It breaks down as follows:
Call to adventure
Refusal of the call
Meeting with the mentor
Crossing the first threshold
Tests, allies and enemies
Approach to the inmost cave
The road back
Return with the elixir
Here’s a couple of visual representations of this version
This one from Movie Outline presents a nice, clear linear approach:
I particularly like the one below, which I found on tumblr. It also contrasts the plotting of The Hero’s Journey with the Hero’s personal character arc. More about this below.
A Visual Representation of The Hero’s Emotional Arc
I also like the visual representation below because too often, heroes are emotional for samey story reasons, like a dead wife or family. What’s more, sticking to such plot devices and tropes can do a disservice to characterisation.
This infographic reminds us that great characters and plotting are interlinked. The journey itself then should be fraught with emotion for our heroes. Equally, the stakes should be high … What could happen if our hero fails? Too often in quest narratives possible failure is never really on the horizon. As a result, this stops us investing in the journey of the character as the audience.
Example of Classic Hero’s Journey Narratives
Cinderella may not be everyone’s go-to example when considering the Hero’s Journey, but that’s why I love this visual representation. B2W has long rejected the notion male and female heroes have to go through different trials. After all, heroism is not gendered; nor is heroism necessarily only related to being an actual warrior. In short, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
It’s obvious from the offset that Vogler’s version is a ‘pared down’ version of The Monomyth. With 5 stages ‘missing’ or merged, The Hero’s Journey is broader, more economical. It also uses more accessible language and removes allusions to such Biblical stories as Jonah’s, ie. ‘Belly of the whale’.
It also has some key differences, more in keeping with modern tastes. The latent sexism of ‘male = hero’ is no longer present; nor is the notion of the Jezebel in ‘woman as temptress’. Though Campbell always stressed it’s a ‘greater power’ (rather than an actual father the hero needs to ‘atone’ with), the proliferation of ‘Daddy issues’ in hero stories suggests many creatives took this literally.
As mentioned, The Monomyth and The Hero’s Journey relates to The 3 Acts, named ‘Departure, Initiation and Return’ in both. Whilst Campbell’s 17 stages seem more ‘balanced’ going 5-7-5), Vogler’s seems more ‘top heavy’ to me (5-4-3).
There’s plenty for writers to learn here, when it comes to quest narratives. I always recommend Bang2writers study both The Monomyth and The Hero’s Journey as a starting point for learning structure. Both offer an accessible way of understanding how plot and character are intrexicably linked.
With the above in mind then, I urge you as a writer to start thinking of plotting as a journey for your characters. You don’t have to follow The Monomyth or The Hero’s Journey to do this, either. I break it down to literally just:
‘Your characters start in one place / state of being … then end up in another, having done X along the way’.
This might seem obvious, because it IS! We’re talking about Set Up/ Pay Off, basically. Yet too many spec screenplays and unpublished novels meander all over the place, or make their characters ‘run on the spot’. The above is the basis of the latest B2W Plotting worksheet, which remember you can download HERE or on the B2W Resources page.
If you are a writer, you have inevitably heard the ‘Write drunk, edit sober’ advice (allegedly) given by Ernest Hemingway. Even though this advice is always attributed to him, it’s not sure if he actually ever said it … Or even if he did, whether he even practiced what he preached!
But obviously excess drinking is a very bad idea … For anyone, but especially when writing! Here’s 3 reasons ‘Write Drunk, Edit Sober’ is terrible advice for writers.
1) It spreads the myth of the ‘Tortured Artiste’
So, all it takes to create a creative masterpiece is to get wasted?? Erm, no! Creativity is not a simple thing. Creative thinking is about making new connections between different regions of the brain. It is associated with different factors such as conducive environments, personality traits, even spiritual muses.
But creativity and innovation are not just the above. Working hard on nurturing divergent thinking skills, and being in touch with new experiences constantly can further develop one’s creative skills. Creativity may be more developed in some people than others, but it is not some magical gift. It’s a skill that can be learned through hard work and a constant effort in learning new information.
So, don’t write off the craft by spreading the myth of ‘the tortured artiste’ who needs to be under the influence to create. Good writing is the result of HARD WORK and we need to respect that. It’s the proper way to praise writers’ efforts, past and present.
LESSON 1: Work hard and get out of your comfort zone to spark creativity.
2) It belittles addiction
If you have had someone close to you battle some kind of addiction, you know how hard this can be to witness … The struggles, the rehabs, the drug tests, etc is no laughing matter. ‘Write drunk, edit sober’ belittles addiction and the problems people face.
It’s also worth remembering many writers and artists really are struggling with alcoholism and drug abuse. They will be the first to tell others ‘write drunk, edit sober’ did not help them! They have been through hell. There have been thousands of cases where writers went downhill and ruined their lives and careers because of addiction.
Charles Bukowski was a heavy drinker. He had a very big break in his writing career as a direct result of this. Ernest Hemingway’s struggles with alcoholism are also well-documented. His granddaughter Mariel Hemingway spoke about it in an interview back in 2013:
‘That’s not how he wrote. He never wrote drunk; whenever wrote beyond early, early morning’ she stated. ‘So many writers glorify my grandfather’s way of living as much as they glorify his work. And so they try and mirror that.’
She further adds about the author of The Old Man and the Sea, ‘I think it’s the misperception of addiction and living life on the edge as if it’s cool.’
LESSON 2: Drinking excessively is not good for anybody’s work, so the same applies to artists.
3) It’s bad for brain health
Obviously if you drink in moderation (even when you’re writing!), it’s okay. Drinking can be good for relaxation and even good for you in small amounts. There are some studies out there that connect moderate drinking with sparking the creativity of certain people. So maybe it might be helpful for you to drink a couple of glasses of wine while you’re writing now and again.
But using large quantities of alcohol for extensive periods can do permanent damage. There are many short-term and long-term damaging effect of alcohol use that can be very serious. These may include loss of productivity, loss of focus, permanent damage to the brain, even vitamin B deficiency which can lead to amnesia, apathy, disorientation, and more!
LESSON 3: The short and long term effects of alcohol on the person’s body and mind are a very serious thing. Excessive drinking is connected to many diseases and mental disorders.
Don’t force yourself to drink so you can write great screenplays and novels. Working hard and constantly evolving as a human being will be MUCH more helpful to your work. Also, knuckling down and working hard means you will be able to appreciate all the effort that you put into your work and re-use it when you need it the next time.
BIO: Mary Walton is a professional editor, content strategist. Apart from writing, Mary is passionate about hiking and gaming. Feel free to contact her via Facebook.
Vinay Patel is a BAFTA Breakthrough-winning Brit screenwriter and director. I’ve interviewed him several times now, both for his TV breakthrough Murdered by My Father and for my latest writing book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV or Film. I always find Vinay’s points about writing and life so illuminating, so I jumped at the chance of talking to him again.
Vinay’s also the screenwriter behind Doctor Who, Demons of The Punjab (series 11). This episode proved massively popular with the Bang2writers, so I thought I would get Vinay back in the hot seat! I love what he has to say here about opportunities, diversity, mental health and redrafting. Enjoy!
1) Pick One Thing And See Where It Takes You
Vinay started out as a corporate filmmaker, but decided he wanted to do an MA. He had lots of skills from that work but felt the pull of lots of different disciplines – editing, directing, writing.
In the end, he decided to pick just the one thing, so he could put all of his efforts on that and see where it took him. He decided to pour everything into challenging himself and learning the craft of writing. Under a decade later, it’s taken him from fringe theatre to Dr Who. Wow!
Vinay decided he wanted to write a film, but ended up writing a play. It was a big challenge, but after the MA he ended back in a 9-5 job. After a year and a half of applying (!), he managed to get on a theatre attachment scheme with Arts Council backing. That was another great experience writing-wise, but again didn’t lead to anything solid in terms of establishing of his writing career.
Vinay says he realised things weren’t just going to happen for him, he had to literally make it happen himself. He ended up sitting down and figuring out what was the cheapest way of getting something on stage that still represented the best of his writing … Which in his case was a one act, one man play.
In setting it up, Vinay ‘tricked’ a venue into letting him put on his play … Because a certain organisation gave him a referral. In reality, he had no such referral, though that organisation gladly gave it, when they heard he had a venue!
In other words, Vinay blagged both of them and was able to deliver, because he could follow through. After all, when is a lie not a lie? When it’s true!
TOP TIP: Blagging is always a possibility, just make sure you can follow through.
4) Ask For Help
Vinay calls Doctor Who a ‘massive learning curve’. By his own admission, Vinay is fairly new to television and screenwriting generally; he has had to think on his feet and learn on the job. His background in fringe theatre helped but going from such small audiences through to primetime television was an epic leap.
He said Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall was ‘very generous … very open and clear’ about what he expected of his Who writers. He made sure they were in no doubt as to what the process was, whether this was craft-related (beat sheets, outlines and drafts) through to production logistics (such as tone meetings, time to shooting, ADR and so on.
TOP TIP: If you’re in charge, make sure everyone is on the same page. If you are not, always ask for clarification.
5) Diversity is about due diligence
Vinay’s episode of Doctor Who has the subject of partition in India at the heart of its story. I asked him if he felt his heritage helped him connect with the story ‘more’ than perhaps a white writer could … Could it be that his point of view is more authentic?
For Vinay, the answer is both yes AND no. He said that his heritage definitely helped him appreciate what was missing from the ‘bigger picture’ as he was growing up … People who look like him, especially in period dramas. This in turn obviously helped inform his storytelling in Doctor Who.
But he also said, ‘It would be naïve of me to assume I know what it’s like to be a rural farmer in India in 1947, because I don’t.’
So Vinay also believes anyone can tell ANY story, as long as they do their diligence. The bar may need to be higher for some writers more than others on this basis. For example, if you’re a white writer writing about something that has previously excluded or stereotyped marginalised voices, you need to be even more diligent. But that’s okay, because that is about research and empathy – which makes for great writing!
6) Realise Writing Does Not Cause OR Solve Your Problems
Sometimes writers believe creatives ‘have’ to be miserable in order to create. Other times, they may mistakenly believe being successful will eradicate these mental health problems. Neither is the case. The reality is, there are depressed people from all walks of life and writers are no different.
Vinay has been very candid online about his own mental health struggles. When we chatted, I loved Vinay’s point there is an ‘emotional vulnerability’ to being a writer. A lot is said about needing to grow a ‘thick skin’ on stuff like rejection, but we need a ‘thin skin’ as well … We have to send our brains to dark places to entertain thoughts that are not always good for us. That doesn’t mean writing causes our depression, but it does not help.
TOP TIP: Emotional vulnerability may helps your writing, but it may not help *you*. If you feel bad, listen to yourself and take a step away if necessary.
7) It’s All About What’s At The Heart Of Your Story
As a last question, I asked Vinay for his redrafting tips. He said he has a particular ‘essential idea’ that sparks his story off, informing his writing. An example would be ‘faith in justice’. When redrafting then, he goes back to that essential idea and asks himself, ‘Is this still true? Is this what my story is about?’
TOP TIP: Always keep in mind what you feel your story is REALLY about. This will help anchor you in redrafts.
BIO: Vinay’s first piece for television, MURDERED BY MY FATHER (“A brave piece of television ★★★★★” – The Telegraph), was released on BBC3 online in March 2016 and was rebroadcast on BBC1 in April. For this work, he was selected as a 2016 BAFTA Breakthrough Brit. MURDERED BY MY FATHER was nominated for three BAFTAs, with Adeel Akhtar winning for Best Actor. Elsewhere, he has contributed to the bestselling collection of essays, THE GOOD IMMIGRANT and is currently working on projects for the BBC, the National Theatre and Paines Plough. Don’t forget you can follow Vinay on Twitter, HERE. Check out his blog HERE.
Grab My Diverse Characters Book For Just £1.49!
As mentioned in the post, I interview Vinay in my book too, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV or Film. As luck would have it, Amazon Kindle has reduced the ebook version to just £1.49 at the moment! No idea how long this offer will run for, so make sure you grab it while you can! CLICK HERE or any of the Doctor Who pics in the post to grab the deal. Enjoy!
Every year or so, what I call ‘The Great Screenplay Format Debate’ pops up. Some years it’s just once, others it’s multiple times. It never gets more heated than on Twitter, where produced screenwriters will insist over and over it’s about ‘great writing’, NOT ‘great format’. Mic drop. Debate over.
So, are these guys right? Of course. B2W also bangs on about this, after all. As far as I’m concerned, the notion of great writing ultimately comes down to just three things (that’s concept, characters and structure, for anyone wondering).
OF COURSE there’s a bunch of other stuff that comes into it (not least visual writing, or the writer’s voice), but in real terms screenplay format is the very bottom of the pile. That’s why this B2W infographic has it at the very bottom of this inverted triangle, below.
So, The Official B2W Line on The Great Format Debate is I literally don’t care about screenplay format. Sure, there can be annoying niggly things that interrupt the flow of the read … That’s why I created The B2W Screenplay Format One Stop Shop and its accompanying One Page Reference Guide. But ultimately, my script reading POV comes down to this …
If a script’s story and characters are great, I put it through.
If a script’s story and characters are NOT great, I don’t. (Yes, even if its formatting looks brilliant! True story).
Boom. That’s it. Debate really is over this time, right??
One reason the debate on formatting gets so heated is because lines get drawn in the sand between produced screenwriters and those writing on spec. This usually gets carved into something resembling the following …
PRODUCED WRITERS: Don’t sweat the small stuff like format. Worry instead about stuff like concept, character, structure. This is what ‘it’s about the writing’ means.
SPEC WRITERS / NEW WRITERS: That’s fine for you to say, you have already got through the door. There are harsher standards applied to us in launching out the pile.
So, who is right in this debate? NEWSFLASH – both camps are.
The produced writers are totally right when they say writing craft trumps format. Obviously. As a script reader, I have put screenplays through that look or even read like crap … Just as I have rejected screenplays that look fantastic, but the craft is not.
But just as importantly, spec and new writers DO have harsher standards applied to them. On many screenplay coverage reports, new writers’ scripts are literally scored on stuff like screenplay format, or even how the read ‘flows’. This is not applicable to produced writers.
This is why I always think it’s worth ‘reader-proofing’ spec screenplays. I advocate this in the video below, which was filmed at London Screenwriters’ Festival. Obviously format alone will not carry your screenplay, but it may mean you don’t get BUSTED by some over-zealous script reader … Which leads me on to my last point, after the jump.
How To Reader-Proof Your Script - YouTube
What No One Is Talking About
So, I’ve outlined the produced ‘screenwriters versus spec writers’ element in this debate. But what if there was a THIRD one, which no one has mentioned thus far? It’s this …
… Work experience kids and new script READERS *are* reading our work.
This is the thing. Script reading is an entry-level job. This means most readers are doing it on the way ‘up’ the ladder and probably under sufferance. Sure, some of them end up loving it, or creating a career out of it like I did with B2W. But for just as many (if not more), it’s something they HAVE to do to get to where they really want to be in the industry.
Even more problematic, these guys probably know NOTHING about concept, character or structure. At best, their foundation is shaky. They may have screenwriting MAs and good for them, but ultimately they are learning on the job here. It was the position I started from, ‘back in the day’, just like everyone else. What’s more, I have trained hundreds of script readers myself now.
Why is this an issue, in this debate? It’s very simple really. If a new script reader doesn’t know enough about concept, character or structure, then GUESS what element of a screenplay they focus on??
That’s right! FORMAT
Eek. Obviously I tell *B2W’s* new script readers not to focus too much on screenplay format, but I am just one woman. Also, writers LOVE to talk screenplay format since they believe it’s one of the few elements of screenwriting they can get straight answers on. Well, this is not true. Maybe one day this message will spread industry-wide, but I am not going to hold my breath.
So really, it doesn’t matter what anyone, produced or unproduced, says in this debate. The harsh reality of this industry is the very first gatekeepers many of us come up against don’t know what they’re doing. As a result, these script readers are getting hung up on screenplay format, rightly or wrongly.
This is why B2W always says to new writers, ‘Don’t get busted on screenplay format’ and ‘reader-proof your screenplay‘. Not because it is a golden ticket, but because at least it means your script won’t fall at that first hurdle for wholly avoidable, or even plain stupid format ‘reasons’.
Good Luck Out There!
Want MORE Script Reading Secrets?
My annual course with LondonSWF, BREAKING INTO SCRIPT READING is perfect not only for wannabe script readers, but savvy writers who want to know how script readers work. Can you afford to miss out?? Join us on June 23-22nd, 2019 at historic Ealing Studios!
CLICK HEREfor full details of the course (or on the pic on the right), including feedback from past delegates. We expect it to sell out again, so act now to avoid disappointment. See you there!!!
Want to be successful as a writer? Join the club! ‘Successful writers’ and ‘how to be successful’ are two of the most-Googled phrases leading writers to this blog. First, the bad news: there’s no golden ticket or ‘get rich quick scheme’ in achieving writing success. But now, the good news: there ARE tried-and-tested methods and best practices to achieving your dreams.
B2W always says it’s worth asking those who DO the job you want … So I cracked open my little black book and contacted successful ‘authorpreneur’, Joanna Penn. Joanna is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers under ‘J.F.Penn’, she also writes non-fiction for authors. She’s also a podcaster and an award-winning creative entrepreneur. Her site, TheCreativePenn.com has been voted in the Top 101 sites for writers by Writer’s Digest.
What I love about Joanna’s advice here is it’s just as applicable for screenwriters as it is for novelists. I can relate to all her advice … I’ve literally done everything she advocates here for B2W for script reading/editing, but also my career as an author too. We need to realise our writing careers – and our ability to make £££$$$! – is in OUR hands. Let’s go …
1) We Need To THINK Like Entrepreneurs!
Joanna says writers need to undergo what she calls a ‘mindset shift’. We need to think, ‘What do I want my life to look like?’, both in the short term and the long term.
But it’s not enough to simply wish for stuff to happen, we need to make it happen. This is why we need to also think about we need to do in order to achieve those goals. The only way forwards is to set and manage our goals, evaluating them as and when we need to.
TOP TIP: If you want to be successful, you need to set and evaluate your goals and then think like an entrepreneur. MORE:Top 5 Secrets For Successful Writers
2) We Need To Work Out What We Don’t Know
Learning new things is key to being successful, but it can be difficult to work out what we don’t know. So don’t start there! Once we have decided what we want to do and set our goals, we need to figure out HOW we do this … Which means we also need to pinpoint what skills and knowledge we are lacking.
From there, we need to figure out how to get this knowledge or skills to make our goals happen … Then undertake it! Joanna calls this ‘upskilling’.
TOP TIP: Start with your goals, then be honest about what you need to make them happen to find gaps in your knowledge and/or skills.
3) We Need Money
Lots of Bang2writers have goals, but not the means to make their ambitions happen. Joanna says a good way of making money while building your writing career is identifying a common problem or need, then offering the means to solving it. She calls this ‘The Service Model’.
Great services to offer include editing, teaching, public speaking, online courses, blogging, social media marketing, consulting. That’s just for starters! If you have a skill or area of expertise, you can monetise it in the digital age. I have done this with B2W, especially my courses like Breaking Into Script Reading.
What’s more, you can also utilise these skills or areas of expertise in other ways. Bartering or doing skills swaps can be valuable ways both parties can benefit. This is why B2W puts such an emphasis on both community and peer review in the Facebook group, too. It can be a powerful way of making contacts and fostering meaningful relationships.
TOP TIP: Offer a service if you need to make money as a creative. You can also benefit from skills swaps. Make sure you still leave time to build your writing portfolio.
4) We Need To Learn The Difference
Joanna says there is a huge difference between, ‘I want to write a novel’ (or screenplay) and ‘I want to make money with books’ (or screenplays!). If you want to concentrate on the latter, then this is the section for you. At the time of writing, Joanna is someone who has published 28 books and made multi-six figures with her creative business last year! She says concentrate on the following two things.
i) Who will buy them?
In the case of non-fiction, make sure your books are USEFUL. Even a niche book, like ones about writing, needs to have some kind of purpose or learning objective. (Consider the ‘solving problems’ idea Joanna talked about in the last section). Branding is a great idea. Joanna said that Creative Essentials, who publish my writing books, do a particularly good job of this. Joanna’s own non-fiction books for authors are great at this too, check them out HERE.
It’s the same with fiction. Joanna’s ten book ARKANE thriller series does everything she just described above … But instead of being USEFUL, they are ENTERTAINING. Again, learn the difference. Spec screenplays need to be entertaining too … Producers and filmmakers want to tell GREAT STORIES, whether genre or drama.
ii) Write books and scripts people actually WANT!
There are a lot of writers out there writing books and scripts destined to go nowhere! Just because you like the sound of a story, doesn’t mean anyone else will. That’s the bad news.
But the good news is, Joanna has some great recommendations on tools to check whether people could actually want your book. Check out the auto-population tool on the Amazon site itself, plus KDP Rocket and K-Lytics. All of these will let you know whether people are searching for books *like* yours! If they are, then you know people want it. There are similar tools available for screenplays too. Sites like IMDBPro and ScreenDaily will tell you about scripts producers and filmmakers are buying and/or making.
TOP TIP: If you want to make money writing, remember your target audience, plus use the tools available.
5) We Need To Investigate New Models
Joanna also talked about keeping our fingers on the changing marketplace. In 2019, she believes paid advertising is a MUST for those selling books online. She recommended both Amazon advertising (for books only) and Facebook advertising (for books, webinars, courses, etc). If this means doing a course on how to do this properly, so be it (as in section 2 in this list!).
Joanna is also a big fan of Patreon. Creatives can get direct income from their patrons via this platform. Joanna supports her excellent Creative Penn podcast on Patreon and says there is a strong emotional link for her, providing content her patrons want, direct to them. You can see her page at www.Patreon.com/thecreativepenn. Perhaps it might give you some ideas for how your existing fans can support your creative work.
TOP TIP: Realise the marketplace changes, so make sure you stay up-to-date!
6) We Need To Market Properly
You don’t have to go far on social media to find creatives marketing their wares BADLY. What’s more, Joanna makes the great point that social media hasn’t always been here … There’s a strong chance the platforms many creatives take for granted may fall out of favour and DISAPPEAR. (Who remembers MySpace or BeBo??).
Joanna says the best kind of marketing is what she calls ‘attraction marketing’. The idea is, you give stuff away for free which in ATTRACTS potential customers. This blog article is an example of attraction marketing – it is giving you, the reader, useful information about how to make money as a creative.
But attraction marketing doesn’t have to *just* be useful. It could be inspiring, funny, or something else. Sometimes it can be a combination of all these things. Bang2writers have called my free ebook, How Not To Write Female Characters, all of these things!
The difference between archetypes and stereotypes is subtle, but crucial. Archetypes are frequently mistaken for stereotypes and vice versa … Not just by writers, but audiences and critics too.
This is never more obvious than with comedy. This genre sometimes DOES use stereotype for comedic effect, in shows like The Simpsons. Homer is ‘The American Dream gone wrong’. He is a cliché of white, middle-class male entitlement. It doesn’t matter how he screws up, he will fall on his feet (usually because someone else will clear up his mess). It is the point of his character and why we love him.
In comparison, archetypes are a ‘typical example of a person or thing’. This means they are the foundations of a character, not the character itself. They are PROTOTYPES, not the finished article.
Put simply, archetypes are a starting point for characters. You may start with archetypes like hero or villain, but HOW you write them will differentiate them. For more on archetypes, CLICK HERE.
Character Bios in Friends
It always makes me laugh when I hear writers posit the writing on Friends is ‘crap’ or even ‘bland’. It was – and remains – a beloved show for a very good reason. The hard fact for writers to swallow is, the writing on Friends MAKES characterisation look easy.
Every member of the cast of characters on Friends makes use of archetypes. As you may recall from my previous post on the Friends pilot episode, the original character bios look like the below. What’s surprising to most people is how ‘dead-on’ the character bios are … and how they remained so, throughout the ten series and the decade the show was on the air.
With these in mind then, I am going to reverse engineer each character down to her or his principal archetypes. Let’s go!
1) Rachel: The Creator
It’s no accident Rachel works in fashion. Creators are inspired and artistic, with vision and imagination. She had only one thing she was good at – shopping! – and yet made a whole career out of it. She walked away from her old life; she had nothing when we met her … But by the time the show ends, she has a whole new life.
2) Monica: The Ruler
Monica HAS to be in charge … It is not just a state of mind, it is her identity. Small or large, she has to have a say in it. This is all based on neuroses … She was the overlooked child at home; at school, she was the ‘fat friend’. So now she revels in her status as ‘the hostess’, or Ruler. Everyone has to revolve around her and she will do ANYTHING to ensure this is the case (mostly baking and food-related).
3) Phoebe: The Outlaw
Phoebe might be considered the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but the reality is she is far more than this. She has a stupendously dark back story, but far from a tragic figure, she is presented as a warrior. The little things that bother Monica and Rachel just don’t connect with her. She knows real life can go south at any moment, so instead does what SHE wants. She is not bound by societal norms and values.
4) Ross: The (Wannabe) Hero
Ross is the star of his own mind-movie. He might be clever and accomplished, but holy crap does he know it! His self-importance and arrogance know no bounds. He was his parents’ little prince, so now he thinks he is a hero. This means he now thinks everyone should do what HE wants. He also thinks he knows everything … which he does NOT. When life fails to go his way then, he never reacts well.
5) Chandler: The Sage
Chandler is outspoken and clever with it. Crucially though, being accomplished does not matter to him (at least until he finds his dream job). He speaks the truth constantly, nearly always to his own detriment … And often everyone else’s too. If he just let go of his neuroses – like Monica – he would be happier.
6) Joey: The Magician
Joey does what Joey wants, but in a crucially different way to Phoebe. He is a positive thinker like her though, nearly always able to see the bright side. He might be slow on the up-take, but once he gets there he will stay by your side. Unfortunately it takes ages for him to even notice, let alone get there (wherever that is!).
All Of Them
Being a comedy, obviously all of them need to perform the Jester archetype as well. Much of the comedy comes from not only their unreasonable behaviour, but their rigid worldviews. After all …
If Rachel wasn’t so high on herself, she wouldn’t miss so much. Rachel has lead a life of privilege, which means she doesn’t always see what is right front of her face. Sometimes literally, such as the time she accuses her would-be Boss of trying to kiss her. (In reality, he was pointing to ink on her lip). She will also do pretty much anything to save face … Which in turn leads her into bigger problems.
Monica, minus her neuroses, would enjoy better relationships with other people. Whether it is her friends, boyfriends or co-workers, Monica is in a constant battle to be liked. This also crosses over with her need to be ‘the best’. If she forgot about all this, she would be easier to be around and a better friend.
Phoebe is so fiercely independent, she forgets other people care about her. Phoebe has always had to fend for herself, which means she can be an outlier in the group. She is almost a lone wolf to a fault! Also, if the group is in conflict, she will always defect to the winning side.
If Ross actually thought about the impact of his behaviour and opinion on others, he would literally have a better life. He wouldn’t have got divorced so many times. Plus he would have been with Rachel throughout all the series. He would be closer to his son, Carol and Susan. In addition, he wouldn’t have lost his job at the museum. He wouldn’t have alienated Joey and Chandler when he moved in with them. And so the list goes on.
Chandler has so many hang-ups, it’s no surprise he is a mess. He worries so much about his flaws and insecurities, he draws attention to them constantly. It’s no wonder people can see them, then! But this creates a vicious circle … Which in turn makes him both endearing AND annoying at the same time. Like Ross, he is thinking mostly of himself.
Joey is like the antithesis of both the other guys … he literally doesn’t care! But this ends up meaning he ends up with the same problem. He would have a better life if he thought less about himself and more about others.
But of course … If the characters DID reject these things above there would be no comedy! This is why Friends’ characterisation is so good … It makes use of the archetypes available exceptionally well and builds on top of them effectively. As the headline says, it makes it look easy.
The Group And Secondary Characters
With the exception of cliffhangers, a lot of Friends was filmed in front of a live studio audience. This meant they frequently had guest stars as secondary characters who were popular at that time (and who still are, in some cases). Often these appearances are marked with the appreciative cat-calls and ‘wooooooohs!’ of said audience.
The purpose was to present Clooney and Wylie as potential love interest archetypes. This might be an obvious choice, but in a series about friends looking for new relationships, it is authentic. Other times, an uber-famous star would appear in a secondary role, often to create a love interest for one of the group. Richard, played by Tom Selleck, was Monica’s on-off boyfriend for nine episodes, for example.
Sometimes said stars are BOTH love interest and antagonist archetypes, such as ‘The One With The Jam’. In this episode, David Arquette stalks Phoebe’s twin Ursula and ends up going out with Phoebe.
Who Is The ‘Real’ Main Character in Friends?
By the way … As an ensemble, Friends is fairly unusual in that there is not a clear (aka ‘obvious’) lead character. This makes sense, because the show is principally about the friendship group as a whole. It is called Friends, after all!
There were obvious elements that ‘stick out’ more – Ross and Rachel’s ‘will they, won’t they?’ relationship comes top. Another would be Chandler and Monica’s relationship. This means Phoebe and then Joey come somewhat ‘lower’ down the pecking order. We can get all this instinctively though, rather than sitting down and counting individual scenes.
I love the term ‘break story’ to describe the process of testing a new idea. (It’s borrowed from the building world, where you ‘break ground’ to lay the foundations of a building). Though I learned this in the screenwriting world, I discovered it works with all ideas. Now it does not matter if I am writing a script, novel or short story … I always break story.
Whilst every writer has their own individual process, most do it to check the story ‘stands up’ at concept level … Such as:
Premise – does it ‘stand up’ to scrutiny? Or is it too like another story?
Back in the day, I trained as a journalist. I soon found I preferred fiction to fact, but one thing that stuck in my mind were the ‘5 Ws’ … WHO – WHAT – WHERE – WHEN – WHY. As I started working as a script editor, I discovered very early their application to story works really well. Here you go:
What I love about The 5 Ws is they are …
… Short, so provide a useful framework. This keeps us focused, without going off at mad tangents.
… Obvious, so HOW they can be applied is intuitive. We can adapt to the story we want to tell easily.
… Clear, so if we CAN’T answer one of the questions, we know there is a gap somewhere in our thinking.
Why All Writers SHOULD Break Story
As far as B2W is concerned, ALL writers should break story first. Yes, this means professional to seasoned writers, right down to those wet-behind-the-ears newbies. Why?
i) Professional writers have limited time
If you break story, your drafts are MUCH easier to write and don’t take as much time. FACT. Plus in the industry, pro writers will be asked all sorts of questions about their material at meetings and pitches. Most of these questions will cover or cross-over with the WHO-WHAT-WHERE- WHEN-WHY? questions posed by the B2w Model above. For example, a lot of producers and publishers – especially in the UK – are obsessed with finding writers with ‘something to say’. This is adequately covered by ‘Why this story?’. So by breaking story, the pro writer not only has an answer ready, s/he LOOKS like a professional too. In an industry where first impressions count, this can be priceless.
iii) Newbie writers can get tied up in knots easily
I get it. Some new writers need to SPLURGE a draft and then carve a story out of the mess they land on the page. But it literally takes three times as long, plus it’s not a luxury anyone will be afforded in the actual industry. It can also be hugely dispiriting for a new writer to try and untie all those story knots … I have seen many simply give up on whole drafts that COULD have worked, had they just done the foundation work of breaking story FIRST. (I have even seen more than a few give up writing altogether, convinced it was not for them. Eeek!!).
It is in every writer’s interest to break story. Doing so accelerates the writing process and avoids what I call ‘The Story Swamp’, which is soooooooo hard to get out of! Breaking story also helps us get to grips with the craft and depends our knowledge. Plus it also ensures we look like what we know what we’re doing in pitches and meetings. What’s not to like? Get going! Good luck!
Want MORE Script Reading Secrets?
My annual course with LondonSWF, BREAKING INTO SCRIPT READING is perfect not only for wannabe script readers, but savvy writers who want to know how script readers work. Can you afford to miss out?? Join us on June 23-22nd, 2019 at historic Ealing Studios!
CLICK HEREfor full details of the course (or on the pic on the right), including feedback from past delegates. We expect it to sell out again, so act now to avoid disappointment. See you there!!!
A scene that doesn’t link its surprise to the concept is a non-sequitur. It’s generic. Avoid scenes that could work in other films. Dance with the one that brought you: your concept. Stay true to it and reap many rewards. The main conceit of your concept by alone almost guarantees idiosyncrasy.
For instance, in Her, Theodore gets dumped by Samantha, an operating system, because she is in love with 641 other people. And how many films other than Memento can have a character in the middle of a chase scene forget if he is chasing or being chased? MORE:5 Concept Mistakes Writers Make
2) Scenes That Are Too Vague
Writing my book, I discovered a way to use my favourite word twice in the same sentence:
Specificity breeds specificity.
Being specific helps you in many ways. Here’s one … When your characters are calling each other on their, ah, crap, if they are on-point and specific, they help the audience to understand them.
In Philadelphia Story then, Dexter says of Tracy: ‘She’s a girl who’s generous to a fault . . . But not of other people’s faults.’
Vincent sums up Jerome in Gattaca with, ‘He is burdened with perfection’. He calls Irene, ‘The Queen of Can’t.’ (In Gattaca, the pithy summations also touch on theme).
3) Action Scenes With Only Action
Don’t get me wrong. Spectacle is fun. But don’t settle for just that. Here are some ideas on what else you can throw into the mix.
Cleverly draw from the environment. Think of the home field advantage for the kids in Jurassic Park in the kitchen against the velociraptors. Another of my favorite action scenes is from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, when Legolas singlehandedly kills an Oliphaunt. Notice how the main conceit is to use the physical details of the environment.
In Casino Royale’s opening, James Bond chases Mollaka, who is played by a practitioner of parkour, or ‘free running’. This is a discipline that specialises in gracefully circumventing physical obstacles. Mollaka deftly dodges obstacles that Bond, sometimes literally, crashes right through. The contrast reveals the nature of his character, which M clarifies when she refers to him as a ‘blunt instrument.’
Sometimes, you might even be able to fit in some theme. In the murder scene in the kitchen of Torn Curtain, the way Hitchcock makes it so difficult for them to kill the Nazi. This suggests killing isn’t as easy as it (usually) looks.
A scene dances back and forth between expectation and surprise. Think of a surprise as a frustrated expectation. It gains its unity and inevitability by its relationship to a very specific set up. A big push toward the opposite of the surprise, the expectation, accentuates and, in some way, creates the power of your reversal.
In a recent class, everyone seemed to remember the inciting incident (pages 13 and 14) from The Hangover. The crew wakes up from the previous night’s party and their suite is a chaotic wreck. They have to piece together the previous evening so they can find their missing friend.
Maybe my students were hungover … they couldn’t seem to remember the obvious (in retrospect) line that perfectly sets up this twist. We went searching for the long lost line.
The essence of the moment and the surprise in The Hangover is ‘forgetting.’ I asked the students, what do you do at fun parties? They quickly got to ‘make a toast.’ So, what sort of things do you say at toasts that are the opposite of forgetting? One or two blurted out: ‘To a night we’ll always remember.’ A quick rewrite created the actual line in the movie out of thin air: ‘To a night we’ll never forget!’
Right before a climactic twist, shift toward expectation — as far away as you can get from the surprise. This sudden contrast sets up the power of a scene’s climax.
5) Scenes With Not Enough Importance
‘Importance’ is a specific term borrowed from the language of actors that represents a resonant connection to the character. You need to make sure to align external situations and events with the character’s inner life.
In My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julia Roberts’s character Julianne sets up a metaphor. She puts herself as Jell-O and Cameron Diaz’s character Kimmy as crème brûlée.
When Kimmy claims, ‘I can be Jell-O,’ it feels like life or death. It means, ‘I will fight, I will do anything, even change myself and my nature to get the love of the man I love.’ Julianne snaps back, ‘Crème brûlée can never be Jell-O!’ with an equal amount of importance. Desperation and competitiveness drive these over the top yet psychologically-grounded reactions.
In a scene (pages 20-21) from The Departed, a real estate agent shows Colin (Matt Damon) an apartment. In less than a page this agent questions Colin’s entire sense of self … His profession, his net worth, his self-worth, his power as a man, and his sexual identity.
Incorporate the above principles into your writing, and you can make good scenes great … and great scenes better. If you want 300+ pages of more ideas on how to improve your writing today, check out my book The Craft of Scene Writing.
BIO: Jim Mercurio is a writer, author, screenwriter, and filmmaker. His book The Craft of Scene Writing is the first-ever screenwriting book that focuses solely on scenes. He has directed or produced five feature films and has helped countless writers as a teacher, story analyst, and script doctor. He directed more than 40 DVDs on screenwriting, including his own 6-disc set, Complete Screenwriting. One of the country’s top story consultants, Jim works with Oscar-nominated and A-List writers as well as beginners. Check out his next webinar, Writing In Your Personal Voice.