Scriptwriter's Shed

The joy, the pain, and the long journey from script to screen.

Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

I would like to share with you the process I went through when writing one of my early scripts – the perfect example of how NOT to write:

I came up with what a thought was a fantastic idea, tossed it around in my head for a few days, and began writing notes and perfecting a few choice scenes in my head. I worked out what I wanted the ending to be and in a flurry of uncontainable joy, began writing.

I wrote some scenes from the first act, some from the third act and some from the middle… essentially, I wrote the scenes I’d easily imagined in my head – in other words, the ones I found easiest to write. I worked my way forwards and backwards from those points, joining the dots and trying to fill in the huge gaps in the story. What I ultimately ended up with was a jumble of scenes that I liked and that were vaguely connected in some way.

I read through the script again and again, making extensive notes and trying valiantly to rewrite. But how can you rewrite something that isn’t structured correctly in the first place? You can’t.

I invested a ridiculous amount of time in rewriting over and over until I’d pretty much rewritten every single word, but I was still left with a script with a plot resembling Swiss cheese. I tried changing the story, the characters and even the genre, until I reached  a point where I didn’t even have a story any more, just a mash-up of pretty much every single creative idea I’d ever had. I hadn’t left a single stone unturned and the story felt complete in my mind, but on the page it simply didn’t work. I instinctively knew that something was wrong but I didn’t know what it was, and I certainly didn’t know how to correct it.

After working on that same script for over two years I finally decided to ditch it forever. It was hard but the relief of starting something brand new was immense.

I spent a lot of time reading articles, books and writing blogs, trying to find the answer to how a story that I loved so much had gone so horribly wrong. It soon became blatantly clear… PLANNING. Of course I’d read all about planning before, but had chosen to ignore the advice of many. I knew better. I wasn’t like everyone else. I was a genius. I could write however I chose.

Wrong.

How I wrote my latest script:

I started with my main character, the situation he found himself in and his ultimate goal.  I wrote a brief outline with a beginning, middle and end which included the inciting incident, the central conflict and the culmination of events (or climax).

I fleshed out the other important characters and decided who or what would stand in the way of my character achieving his goal. From this information, I constructed a more extensive outline.

Once I was happy that I knew all my characters inside out – what makes them tick, their foibles and adhering qualities, their backgrounds, speech patterns, etc.,  From this I produced a detailed beat sheet that charted every beat of the story without the use of a single word of dialogue.

Then, hey presto! I wrote a script.

The planning took a long time. Trying a new technique was challenging. I doubted that I knew what I was doing (comes with the territory). All I wanted to do was write dialogue… but I persevered. I waited until my script was ready for me. And it worked. Of course there were rewrites, but they were structured rewrites. This time I could see what was missing, why certain scenes didn’t work, how certain storylines could be improved, where the story fell flat.

People always ask what piece of advice you would give to other writers. Here’s mine… PLAN, PLAN, PLAN.

 

“Not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.” (Ira Glass)

Rewrite

One of the hardest disciplines for any writer is rewriting. Following my script report (see previous post), I immediately began to tear through my script in the manner of someone who’s accidentally tossed a winning lottery ticket in the dustbin. I was annoyed with myself for making basic errors in my writing, yet being unable to spot exactly what they were before sending the script out into the world.

Thankfully, it didn’t take very long for me to realise that attacking the rewrite in this aggressive manner was more likely to destroy everything that was good about the script than to improve it, so I put it aside for a few weeks and started work on another project.

Once I felt enough time had passed to allow me to begin analysing things calmly and with a clear head, I set my focus on what had been pointed out as the main script weaknesses – characterisation and structure. Poor characterisation will inevitably affect the amount of conflict in a story and this, in turn, affects the entire structure of the script. Inside my head the characters were fully-rounded, loveable (or unlikeable) people, with interesting back-stories and the depth of the Grand Canyon, but this did not come through on the page. I had to admit it – I had cut corners when it came to developing my characters, subconsciously allowing myself to believe that the story I wanted to tell would be enough to make the script great. This is not the case. Great characters make a great story – not the other way around. Two-dimensional characters = boring story.

In order to write well, you can’t afford to cut corners. Every aspect of your scriptwriting has to be perfected in order for a project to work. Another lesson learned.

Script Reports – Ouch!

Script Reports – Ouch!

 

Despair… helplessness… fear… frustration… anger… just some of the feelings that began to well up in me as my eyes raced across the script report.

I’d handed my ‘baby’ over to experienced and well-respected reader/writer/director, Danny Stack, hoping beyond hope that it would be on its best behaviour – praying that it wouldn’t even need so much as a nappy change in my absence. But hope does not a writer make. My babysitter came back to me with heartbreaking tales of characterisation and structure weakness and it became apparent that he had had no choice but to order my baby to bed without any supper – unruly as it was.

Feeling deflated, I dared to read the report again a few hours later. I quickly began to realise that those initial feelings had only come about because I knew, deep down, that everything Danny had picked up on in the report was true. I’d known all along that I’d made fatal errors, but I’d written and rewritten the script so many times that I wasn’t even sure what they were any more. Suddenly, there they were, as clear as day.

The insight of an experienced reader can prove invaluable, especially if the reader in question not only tells you where you are going wrong but also takes the time to suggest ways in which you might put things right, which, thankfully, was the case here. That kind of life raft can open up a whole new creative chapter in a writer’s mind and ultimately save him from completely losing heart in a project.

As writers, we are constantly encouraged not to take criticism of our work personally and this is sound advice. But script reports, by their very nature, have to be brutally honest and that can sometimes hurt. There were plenty of positive comments in the report I received, but I was so busy beating myself up that I didn’t even see them at first. Don’t beat yourself up! The positives are just as important as the negatives.

If you’re cut out for this writing lark, you’ll instinctively learn how to recognise when something isn’t right and when there is room for improvement, even if you’re not sure exactly where the errors are. You’ll learn how and when to use your own judgement above others’, and how to apply as much or as little of the advice you receive to your writing or rewriting.

As a writer it’s natural to make mistakes. Embrace them. Learn from them… and write better.

Writing – it’s a love/hate relationship.

Well, that’s it… it’s finished.

I’ve written, rewritten and tweaked as much as I possibly can and it’s finally all over. On and off it’s taken me close to a year to get my 90 minute screenplay to a standard I’m satisfied with – although I’m not ‘actually’ satisfied, you understand. That would be silly.

Around about the time I’d finished the fourth draft, I suddenly became trapped in a continuous state of both loving and hating everything about my script: the characters, the story, the plot, the dialogue… even the way it looked on the page.

My brain went into meltdown, I ate myself half to death with junk food and I began reading the script to the dog and asking him whether he thought it sounded OK (mostly, he was quite impressed). It was at this point I realised I could do no more.

Now, as I sit writing this blog post – wearing the jumper I’ve knitted from the hair torn from my scalp – I’m reflecting on whether it was all worth it. All that torture… the desperate soul-searching… the late nights… the early mornings… the feeling that I was about as much use as a steaming heap of rabbit droppings… the fear that no-one will ever show so much as a passing interest in what I’ve written anyway… was it worth all that?

YES, by *ecky thump, yes it was!! It was worth every single torturous second.

As I typed “THE END” at the bottom of the script and closed down the page, the immense relief I felt at having seen the project through to the bitter end set me on an incredible high. It may not be perfect… it may not even be all that good… but it’s as perfect and as good as I can make it, and that alone feels like a huge achievement.

The biggest thrill of all, though, came when I sat in my chair this morning and fired up my laptop.

After months of self-doubt and wondering whether this path was really the right one for me, I felt excited about writing again. The kind of ‘unknown’ excitement that I haven’t felt for quite some time. I opened up my ‘ideas’ page and my mind began to race. New focus… new ideas… new characters… new stories… the possibilities are endless.

And that’s the great thing about being a writer… the possibilities are always endless.

* Special thanks to The Goodies for introducing me to the words “Ecky Thump” when I was six years old:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJxGi8bizEg&feature=search

Hurray for Script Readers!

15 long months later and I’m back to write my second blog post. One blog post a year is better than none at all, right?

I’ve completed the final draft of my screenplay and I’m now filling my hours ‘tweaking’ the hell out of it. I thought the definition of  ‘tweak’ was to make small adjustments. I’ve been making these small adjustments for what feels like weeks. However many times I read the script through, there is ALWAYS a way to improve it.

I’ve been reading a lot of writers’ blogs lately, and soaking up the combined wisdom of those I respect has encouraged me to analyse my script to within an inch of its life.

This is the third full-length screenplay I’ve written. The first was when I was 14. The second was last year. The former was dire, the latter, much better – receiving both positive and negative comments from BBC Writersroom.

The Writersroom rejection really hit home, but in a good way. Why? Because, when I reread my script, I agreed with every negative comment the script reader had made – AND the positive ones, of course. It became immediately clear that good script readers DO know what they’re talking about ( after all, she did say the script had been created by an intelligent mind). Things about my script that I hadn’t even noticed suddenly became blindingly obvious.

So, if you’re a new writer, don’t see negative feedback as a personal attack on you or your script; see it as a way of improving your writing and making your scripts and your characters better and stronger.

I also encourage you to read, read, read as many blogs of script readers and writers as you can cram in. The posts they so kindly take the time to write are an invaluable source of information.

Hello World!!

I’ve tried keeping a diary every year since I was about ten years old and every year I’ve failed miserably.

I start out full of enthusiasm on January 1st, but by the time I reach the middle of February the gaps are beginning to appear. By the end of March there’s the odd sporadic entry and by the time May comes around I’m tearing out pages and using them to write my shopping lists on.

So, will a blog prove any more fruitful? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Like all types of writing I suspect blogging is something one has to be dedicated to in order to improve. Thankfully, dedication is my middle name! It’s just that it never lasts very long.

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