Things I Learned From… Halt And Catch Fire

Halt And Catch Fire is the thrilling story of a 1980’s software company finding itself building the world’s first laptop computer.

No, really, that’s it. It’s some guys – and crucially, some girls – trying to force their way into a market dominated by huge companies who protect their near-monopoly with some ugly tactics. It’s a story from the Financial Times, not the human interest section.

Doesn’t sound like the most promising premise for a show, does it? Oh, sure, we have the irony of knowing that now, 35 years later, most of us have forgotten the name IBM, and those nimble, adventurous competitors have themselves become behemoths. But apart from that, what makes this show so utterly compelling?

Secrets.

From the moment the mysterious Joe MacMillan appears at this backwater business and puts his complex plan into play, we know he has secrets. He quit IBM and vanished for a year, presumed dead – what was he really doing? Who is the father lurking in the background, whom he seems to be trying to free himself from? Where did he get those scars? Is he a technological visionary or a glorified salesman? Why has he picked the people he’s picked, and will working with him save them or destroy them?

And that’s what’s keeping us watching. He could be building laptops, washing machines, or hula hoops. This could be 1980. 1920, or the distant future. None of that matters. because what we care about is what’s going on inside the mysterious mind of Joe MacMillan – and what he’ll do next. And this is the feeling we should be trying, as writers, to instil in our audiences.

Comics, Movies, and I-Spy Syndrome

I’m in the middle of one of my periodic catch-ups with comics, past and present, and I’m starting to realise why I often find classic comics storylines so unsatisfying.

The thing is, I like comics – but I’m bored by “event” comics. Crossovers, universe merges, reboots, ends of the world – yes, even civil wars – I hate ‘em. But why?

Because they tend to fall into the most seductive of comic book traps – I-Spy syndrome.

D’you remember I-Spy books? They’re what was used to keep kids quiet on long journeys before the hand-held games console came along. They’re pocket-sized books with pictures and some simple text about things you’re likely to see in a particular environment – building styles and types for a city, tree and animal varieties for the countryside. And a tick box [check box, for our US friends] and a number of points.

See the item, tick the box, score the points. You could even send away for a badge once you had a certain number of points (I bet some cheating went on there!)

Anyway, I think you’ve worked out my metaphor by now. Look, it’s Spider-Man! Tick the box. And now Thor is fighting Namor! Tick the box. What does Iron Man think about the alien invasion? Or Captain America, or Aquaman? Here they all come to tell you! Tick, tick, tick.

But is this a bad thing? After all, we all cheer when our favourite character reappears in a TV series or movie franchise. We all keep going to movies about the same group of characters, sometimes long past the point where the franchise is any good, because we enjoy being in their company.

And comics at their best are good at character. From Batman and Steve Rogers to John Constantine and Kamala Khan, comics have created protagonists who rank with the very best characters in other media.

But whatever medium you’re working in, narrative is about character change, and change takes time. And the more characters you’re trying to squeeze into your story, the less time you have to effect change in each of those characters.

So all your favourites turn up in this big crossover storyline – but there’s no room for them to be anything other than a cliché. They spout their catchphrase, use their signature weapon, fight a fellow cliché, and depart. Fans buy the issue with their favourite character on the front, all the boxes are ticked, money is made – but doesn’t everyone leave with a faint sense that, well, that could have been a lot more interesting…?

I hope I-Spy Syndrome isn’t going to spread to movies, though recent Marvel and DC news may suggest that it’s going to.

A two-hour movie has room to fully develop maybe four or five characters – and if you doubt me, how many members of Danny Ocean’s team in Ocean’s Eleven can you actually remember as distinct individuals? Or the dwarves in The Hobbit? That was nearly nine hours of screen time, and still I can only recall three with personalities…

So, whether writing comics or movies, remember: a handful of characters making difficult decisions, growing and changing are worth all the guest shots in the world.

Picking Partners

Recently on Twitter, @MysteryBritExec was talking about careers in feature development and the qualities required to work as a development producer or development assistant. So I thought I’d examine things from the other side of the table – as a writer, what should you be looking for when you’re picking a team to develop your project with?

So let’s say you have a new project – maybe at draft script stage, maybe just a brief outline – and you’re going out to meetings with various producers. They’ve read whatever it is you have so far, and they’re sufficiently interested to want to meet, at least. Now, your instincts are to go into that room and sell yourself and your project – but you’re buying as much as you’re selling, so don’t forget to ask yourself a few questions about them and their reactions…

Do they really get the project? This depends a lot on how well developed the plot and the characters are. If all you sent them was a one-page ‘pitch’, then it’s perfectly understandable if they have questions about the plot twists, the tone or the characters’ motivations. If, however, they’ve read a full draft and they’re still convinced your gay hero is straight, or the film is a balls-out comedy and not a melodramatic weepie, then you have a problem.

Of course, you’re a starving writer, and the temptation will be to take the money and grit your teeth through the development process. And sure, we all have to eat. The question you need to ask yourself is – in return for the cash, am I prepared to accept the certainty that this project will never actually get made? Because projects where writer and development team don’t see eye to eye are headed to one place – the box marked ‘abandoned projects’…

Is this their kind of thing? Again, you can be flexible about this. A large company that makes material in a wide range of genres and styles might be looking for a subject or genre they haven’t tackled in a while, whereas a company with a very specific style will want to stick within that.

But it’s about the individuals as well as the company. The development team don’t have to be experts in sci-fi or rom-com or gross-out comedy – but they have to like it, understand it, and be prepared to go on a long, stressful journey into that genre during development.

Can they actually get this made? Perhaps the trickiest question of all to answer. Film funding is so uncertain, and even great scripts with huge stars and obvious potential can fail at the final hurdle. On the other hand, even small companies who have the right contacts and relationships can rope in funding and co-production deals you might never have anticipated.

Think about what they’ve made previously, and whether this is a sensible step up for them, or a move towards certain bankruptcy. If your movie is a star vehicle, do they have the clout and the money to attract a star? Do they make the scripts they develop, and release the movies they make? If they shot a movie three years ago and it’s still “in post”, ask yourself if your movie might end up the same way…

And as always, don’t work with people who don’t pay. If they can’t afford to pay you an option fee, and at least a token amount for rewrites, they’ll never be able to afford to make the movie, so partnering with them is a waste of your time and energy.

(That excludes groups of filmmakers coming together to work on micro-budget passion projects, of course. If no one’s getting paid, and you want to get a movie out there and launch your careers, fair enough. But if the producer is sat in a fancy office, earning a salary, and yet says they can’t afford to pay for your script…)

Do you like these people? This is probably the most important question of all. You’re going to spend a lot of time in stressful discussions and frustrating brain-storming sessions before this movie gets made. Do you want these people to be the ones you do that with?

Are you on the same wavelength? Do you like (some of) the same kinds of movies, books, games? Do you share a sense of humour? Would you feel comfortable having an after-work drink or a meal with them?

Making movies is an immensely frustrating and infuriating business. You owe it to yourself to, at the very least, undertake that long journey to the screen in the company of people you actually like and respect…

What’s A Story And What Isn’t

One of the things about creating a show with a lot of young fans is that you get a lot of messages from those fans suggesting story ideas.

In one way, this is catastrophic – I can’t read any of those story ideas, because if I do and we’re already doing that story, the fan could sue the show for ‘stealing’ their idea. Because of that, I actively discourage people from sending me ideas, and block anyone who persistently does so.

However, unfortunately, a few one-sentence ideas inevitably slip through – mostly on Twitter, where you read things almost before you realise what they are. Luckily, any one sentence idea is so vague and generalized that it doesn’t present a real legal problem –

But what I have noticed is how many of these ‘story ideas’ are actually not stories at all. And that holds a lesson for us as writers.

A lot of these so-called story ideas are actually locations. “What if the gang went to the seaside?” or “Maybe they could visit a theme park.” These kinds of stories sound attractive at first – a new location must lead to fun and adventure, right?

Strangely, no. Stories are about character and conflict – a character wants something, another character either wants the opposite or wants that same thing instead of them, and that’s where the story comes from. And it’s very rare that a location will create genuine, character-revealing conflict.

Yes, you can choose a location that complicates and worsens the conflict of the episode. For example, the Wolfblood episode where Maddy has her first full-moon transformation takes place on an island that can only be reached when the tide is out. But the story conflict isn’t “We’re on an island” or even “We’re trapped on an island” – it’s “We’re trapped with our schoolmates and teachers and we’re about to take wolf form!” That story could have been done in a bus on the motorway, in a cave, or even in the school, and still been essentially the same.

Many other “stories” that viewers suggest are about significant days. I regularly get begged to do an episode where it’s this or that character’s birthday.

Okay, say it’s their birthday. And then what?

Again, a birthday doesn’t create conflict. You could impose conflict onto it – say, I don’t know, it’s Kay’s birthday and Katrina has dropped the cake an hour before the party – but actually, the story there isn’t ‘It’s Kay’s birthday’ but ‘Katrina ruins something and has to find a replacement’. So what is the birthday adding? It’s set dressing. It may be useful to add some colour to the story, but it’s not actually the story.

I completely understand why viewers look at episodes in this way. “The episode where it was Jenny’s birthday” is an easier way to describe an episode to your friend than “The episode where Jenny and Matthew argue about his commitment to their marriage”, for example. The big flashy details stick in our heads, even when it’s the interpersonal drama that’s actually caused us to bond with the show.

But my point is, we as writers must train ourselves to look at story more deeply – particularly when we go in to pitch ideas for other people’s shows. It’s way too easy – and I’ve done it myself! – to go and pitch “The school catches fire” or “The central character’s estranged parents turn up” rather than going in with a story that arises from character.

If one of the characters is terrified of fire, then the school catching fire becomes a real story. If the central character has spent years refusing to talk about their parents and reacting badly to any mention of parenthood or family, then you have a real story. But if there’s no connection between the event/location and the characters, then you’re pitching set dressing, not story.

So the takeaway here is – before you pitch a story, ensure that it arises from character. And if you’re looking to whip up some episode pitches before a meeting, don’t think “What could happen?” Think “What would this character be most delighted about/ afraid of/ challenged by if it happened to them?”

The First Scene

I don’t know about you, but in the planning stage of a new project, I often find myself having ideas for potential scenes. I tend to scribble them on pieces of paper and pop them in the project file box with all the research and outlines etc. Sometimes they end up in the finished script, sometimes they don’t, but they’re useful to establish character, try out pairings and relationships, and think about location and dialogue.
And, I’ve just realised, the first scene that comes into my head often summarises the tone that I’m trying to create for the whole script.
This afternoon, I scribbled a very brief scene for a new TV project. The scene was funny, intimate, all about unconventional relationships, and full of nerdy fangirl jokes – and that’s pretty much how I want the project to feel.
Another project, an action-adventure feature, started off with a scene where the rule-breaking Victorian heroine goes in search of her errant sidekick in a Turkish bath. Again, the movie in microcosm: adventurous woman kicks against society, glamorous period locations, long-suffering male sidekick. (Hopefully he won’t be naked for the whole movie, though. Mind you, might increase ticket sales!)
So next time a scene for a new project occurs to you, don’t just write it down – keep it to compare the rest of the project to as you plan, outline and write. Does your project still feel like that initial scene? Are you capturing the feel of the project you initially imagined?
If not, you may feel your project has evolved into something better, which is fine. But if you’re still trying for the original feel of that first scene, at least you have concrete evidence of what you’re trying to capture…

Your Galaxy Is Too Small

I know Guardians Of the Galaxy was the big film of last year, and it made a gazillion dollars and everyone loves talking raccoons and dancing baby Groot. Hell, even I love dancing baby Groot. But don’t you think it was a bit… limited?

Here’s what I mean.

Life on earth comes in myriad forms and displays all kinds of behaviour. Life across the galaxy, we must assume, will be even wilder and weirder. And Guardians Of The Galaxy was sold as the weird, out-there, fantastical end of the Marvel cinematic universe, leading us to expect that diversity and variation in the movie.

But what we got was a white heterosexual guy shagging alien girls and saving the world.

You know what, I’m prepared to give them a pass on the lead character – because maybe we need someone identifiably human to lead us through this alien world. So okay, let’s say we accept Peter Quill for the cishet meatball that he is –

But what about everyone else? Where were the aliens with six genders and eighteen kinds of sexual preference? Where were the aliens with no gender at all? The aliens with mindsets we didn’t understand, and who didn’t understand our hero’s morals and emotions? The aliens who were, well… alien?

The whole point of science fiction, it seems to me, is that it’s the ultimate “what if”. Every other kind of fiction is limited by human behaviour, world history, and the laws of physics. Science fiction doesn’t need to be. It can resign everything and everyone involved to surprise, challenge and delight an audience.

But modern movie sci-fi doesn’t seem to be interested in redesigning its characters, only its artifacts. The spaceships and the CGI change, but the faces and the sexual relationships don’t. It’s serving up the same tired white male saviours, the same ‘sleeping with lots of girls is cool as long as you settle down at the end of the movie’ relationship narrative, the same twelve-year-old boy’s view of the world. And that’s not a “what if” at all.

There are exceptions. Pacific Rim, whose white male hero must literally venture inside the mind of his near-opposite (a younger Japanese female) and achieve mutual understanding in order to save the world. Snowpiercer starts off appearing to embrace the white male savior, but ultimately [MILD SPOILERS] Curtis realises that he’s not the change that’s needed, but an obstacle to that change…

But we need more exceptions. More challenges, more imagination. Because if science fiction can’t tell new and unusual stories, what hope is there for the other genres?