Where Is As Important As What

I’ve touched on the importance of setting in a couple of other posts, but I thought it might be useful to consider some of the ways  the physical location and the social location (the community it takes place in) can affect your story.

Stop for a moment and think of a few movies where you found the settings particularly memorable. Why was that?

It was probably because the setting was thematically linked to the plot in some way. The best locations for stories symbolically reinforce the central character’s situation and desires.  A character who feels trapped, and lives in the shadow of a prison, or in a house full of locks and a high-tech alarm system,  finds her inner feelings mirrored in the physical setting. Alternatively, her desire for escape might be manifested in the flocks of birds that wheel over the garden every day, or the busy train station just across the road.

Additionally, choosing the right location can provide opportunities for the plot.  One of the key skills to writing action scenes for Hollywood movies is the ability to find the right setting for each scene. The confrontation between the hero and the villain in an ice cream shop will be very different to the same confrontation on a building site. There’ll be different objects to hand to use as weapons, different places to hide, different means of escape. You may not be writing action scenes, but in the same way, you can use the setting to provide the things you need to make your story work – obstacles, allies, enemies and problems.

Choosing the right setting can create a vivid social world for your central character to inhabit. If a key point in the story is your central character’s relationship with the neighbours, then you can have him living on a busy suburban street – or you might want to have only two cottages down an isolated country lane to intensify the relationship between two families. If the central character is going to try to kill his wife, then have them live somewhere that provides interesting opportunities for murder and for the disposal of the body.

It can introduce a unique element into a familiar story.  If the plot or even the characters of your story are fairly well-worn, you can create additional interest by placing the whole thing in an unusual physical or social setting. Instead of setting your family drama on a housing estate, why not locate it in the married quarters of an army base, or among the live-in staff of a public school?   Instead of a tough comprehensive, have your teacher teach at a Steiner school, or a specialist school for children with autism. A little research into this unfamiliar world, and you create a whole new level of interest for your readers.

A well-chosen setting gives a level of realism to a fantastical plot.  This is the approach we took with Wolfblood – everything’s the same as real life, except that some characters are Wolfbloods. The characters struggle with homework, friendships, parents and money troubles – oh, and a few other problems when the moon rises. The ordinary, everyday setting “grounds” our supernatural story in a world that feels familiar and real.

Alternatively, you can set the story in a fantastical version of reality, showing the reader that they’re entering into a new world where new rules apply. Alice In Wonderland shows us a fantastical version of Victorian society, where society is reflected in a distorting mirror and all the rules are changed. In contrast, The Water Babies sets a tale of the supernatural against the grim reality of life as a child chimney sweep. Both have extremely vivid, effective settings – they’re just different approaches.

So, how can you use a thematically appropriate, vivid setting to make your story stronger and more believable?

Grown-Ups Don’t Play Little League

So, a well-known screenwriter blogger (you know who I mean) has announced his intention to parlay his access to unknown writers into a producing career. Despite admitting freely that he isn’t sure what a producer actually does. Well, I guess honesty is always good…

And so the online discussion begins. People criticise him, he critises them… Should you take on a job you don’t know how to do? Does someone who openly says that his role will be to take a script and get it to a more experienced Hollywood producer actually merit the label of ‘producer’?  (Sounds more like a manager to me. Okay, I agree, that’s not exactly what a manager does, but if you have to fix a label to this, ‘manager’ fits a little better than ‘producer’…)

Here’s what I think.

For all I know, this blogger will turn out to be the greatest producer of all time. Could happen. But –

A producer is the person has the expertise, the contacts, the skills, and the access to money that will get this particular project made. In and of themselves. They may decide to team up with other people who have access to something –  additional money, a director, an actor –  that they want, but if push came to shove they could pull together the money, get a different director and cast, and get the movie made, all by themselves.

Of course, that suggests there are different levels of producer for different levels of project. If you’ve written a ten-minute short, that girl you were at college with, or that guy who was a production runner on a TV show, may well have the money, skills and experience to get it made. So sure, go with them as your producer. However, if you’ve written a two-hour FX-laden sci-fi epic…?  Maybe not.

Because writing a screenplay is hard work. In a world where small children break rocks in the hot sun all day and don’t make enough money to eat, it seems kind of self-obsessed to say sitting at a desk is hard work, but – you poured your energy, time and creative energies into that script. You made it the very best you could – and you want it to actually get made, and be made to a decent standard. You don’t want it to turn out the equivalent of the local panto, or worse, vanish into contractual limbo and never be seen again. Because this isn’t just one script, this is your reputation, and mud sticks.

It’s hard to get your script made. And you know what? It should be hard. That’s what keeps out all the crap. (Well, most of it.) So when someone comes along and offers you an easy shortcut to fame and riches if you entrust them with your work, it’s tempting to take it. But think very carefully before you do, because not everyone who can talk the talk can walk the walk.

Things I Learned From… Leverage

It should come as no surprise by now that I’m a big fan of Leverage. To my mind, the best TV series are the ones that cover as many emotional bases as possible; comedy and high drama, triumph and tragedy. Leverage is a superb example of a series so secure in its own ‘world’ that it can swing from action sequences to character comedy to intense threat to slapstick, and still keep the audience utterly invested in the story and the characters.

I’ve just finished watching season four, which has got me thinking – in a show with such a clearly defined (and therefore, potentially limiting) concept, how do you keep generating ideas and developing the characters over such a long period? When you’re sitting down to write episode sixty or seventy, how do you keep the series fresh and entertaining, find new character arcs for the actors to play, take the series concept to new places without losing that vital spark that makes the show what it is?

Luckily for us, series creators John Rogers and Chris Downey are busy producing some of the best resources for writers that any television show has ever produced. Between the extensive DVD commentaries, Rogers’ Kung Fu Monkey blog, and the Leverage podcasts on iTunes, we have a unique insight into the creative process behind a long-running show.

So, what can we learn from Leverage about keeping a series fresh and exciting?

(Some discussion of Season Four plot elements, but no real spoilers)

Trouble walks in the door every week.  British TV commissioners love ‘cops and docs’ – crime dramas and medical dramas – because stories from all strata of life just walk in the door. Anyone from a pregnant drug addict to a Duchess, from a Hassidic Jew to a lapsed Muslim, from a child to an octogenarian, might need the help of the police or the medical staff at the centre of the show. The protagonists don’t have to go looking for trouble – it finds them.

And that’s exactly how Leverage works. Every time a new client walks in the door, the team are plunged into a new world – pharma company, mining, the Hamptons, a ski resort, an Ivy League university. Though the clients are mainly working class and middle class, they could come from any social strata, and certainly any race, nationality or area of America. The lesson here is, make sure your initial concept is a good source of stories, and that those stories naturally make their way to your central characters’ doorsteps.

Make every character different and distinct.  This is absolutely written into Leverage’s DNA: hitter, hacker, grifter, thief, mastermind. Different backgrounds, different life experiences, different personalities. To see what this gives you to work with, compare Nate’s crew with the characters from the conceptually similar British series, Hustle – where the crew are all grifters.

Pair up any two characters from Hustle and send them to perform part of a con, and that scene will play out in largely the same way. But do the same in Leverage, and how you write the scene changes radically depending on whom you choose. A scene pairing Hardison and Elliot will play out very differently to one pairing Sophie and Parker. Every character works differently with, and reacts differently to, each of the others.

Secondly, giving your characters distinct skills allows you to push them outside their comfort zone. Parker has to grift, Hardison insists on running the con, Elliot plays weak and vulnerable – all dramatic gold. On the flip side of that, everyone has their ‘thing’, and we love to see them released to do it.

And finally, difference gives you conflict. Characters with different backgrounds do things differently, compete, argue, antagonize one another – and that’s the key to both comedy and drama.

Be smart with your bad guys.  Leverage knows how to handle bad guys. One of the most important things I learned from them came via their ‘Sterling Never Loses’ rule.  (Check the DVD commentaries for discussion of that one. Season two, I think. Yeah, I know that’s vague, but trust me, listen to the whole lot. You’ll learn more about writing TV than you would from a year in college.)

Because of the tone of the show, not every bad guy has to present a direct threat to the protagonists. Most weeks, we’re introduced to a bad guy who’s hurting innocents, we hate him, and it doesn’t matter that we know the team will make mincemeat of him – because we want so badly for it to happen. There’s a pleasure in the inevitable, especially when it’s the ‘how’ and not the ‘what’ that the show is based around.

However, every now and then, you have to introduce someone who presents a genuine threat to the characters, or the skill and hard work they put into each con stops registering and the show begins to feel trivial.  And when you have the best of best in every field on your team, you have to work hard to make those bad guys sufficiently threatening.

One way to do that is ensure that, sometimes, consequences catch up with you. That means you have to be prepared to make changes and cross boundaries. Sophie leaves the team for a time. Nate goes to jail. Elliot resists killing for as long as he can, but when he finally has no choice… And in Season Four, the bad guy does something unforgivable to Nate, and the consequences get pretty damn ugly.

So, however light your show, make sure that sometimes, the bad guys land a real punch and the protagonists actually get hurt.

Don’t let concept become formula.  All shows develop a basic shape for their episodes. The cops find a crime, investigate it, solve it, catch the criminal. The doctors examine a patient, attempt a cure, the patient gets worse, they try something else, the patient recovers or dies.

A lot of the skill of running a television series lies in knowing exactly how much to subvert or reinvent the formula without changing the show beyond recognition. Audiences like the comfort of formula, and a show with a clear shape and style to it is easier for a tired, lazy audience to take it, and retains an audience more effectively.

Challenging shows tend to lose casual viewers and end up playing to the dedicated few who are prepared to work that hard. Which isn’t a bad thing – we all like to be challenged now and then, and people who turn their backs on one challenging drama may absolutely adore another one – but if our show can be challenging and draw a large audience, all the better.

The fourth season of Leverage takes risks, reinventing the formula in a few carefully chosen episodes – a episode composed largely of flashbacks where the team appear as different characters; a pair of linked episodes following different team members on their disastrous attempts to have a quiet night off. Some work, some don’t – but it’s the willingness to reinvent that keeps the show fresh.

So, anything else you feel Leverage does particularly well? What about other long-running shows, either side of the pond? What tips can we pick up from them?

Wolfblood FAQ

UPDATE 22.10.12  This FAQ has been replaced by a permanent FAQ section on the blog homepage. Find that at  https://debbiemoon.wordpress.com/wolfblood-faq/

(original post follows)

Hello, Wolfblood fans!

It’s lovely that there are so many of you on Twitter, and I love talking to you all.  But since most of you are asking the same questions, I thought I’d put some answers up here, and then I can just direct future questions here, instead of saying the same thing in 140 characters all the time.

In fact, let’s be honest, most of you are asking the same question: I live in [insert name of country], when will I be able to see Wolfblood?

Answer: as soon as we can make it possible. Our co-producers, ZDFE, are handling all that, and they’re negotiating deals for as many countries as they can, as quick as they can. It takes a little time for broadcasters to see the show, like it, negotiate a deal, and clear space in their schedule to show it, so please, try to be patient.

I happen to know that Wolfblood will be showing in Germany in a couple of months, and over the next three to six months, it should start cropping up in other countries as well. I don’t keep track of every deal and every timetable, so that’s about as specific as I can be. If I do hear of start dates for specific countries, I’ll try to tweet them –  but I’m afraid there’s not a lot of point badgering me or the cast about transmission dates for your country, because we tend to leave that to the experts.

Where can I watch Wolfblood online?

If you live in the UK, you can watch episodes on the BBC’s iPlayer service. They’re usually available for at least a week after transmission, sometimes longer.

If you live outside the UK, I’m afraid iPlayer won’t work for you, and unfortunately, you’ll have to wait for the show to be shown by your local broadcaster.

Any Wolfblood episodes copied to YouTube or similar services will be removed and the poster’s account terminated, so, you know, be sensible, don’t take the risk…

I love Wolfblood; can I audition for it/ be an extra in it?

Season one is already finished, and we don’t know yet if we’ll get a second season; if we do, the actors and most of the extras will be selected via agents and casting services, so if you don’t have an agent/ professional experience, it’s very unlikely you’ll get to appear in the show. Sorry, but as much as we’d like to throw open our doors like Britain’s Got Talent, the poor casting people have to keep down the numbers they’re dealing with somehow…

If you have any other questions that you think other people may be asking, post them in comments, and I may do a follow-up post if there are enough of them…

Hero Proximity Syndrome

We interrupt this blog to bring you an urgent public health message. Is a female character you care about suffering from… Hero Proximity Syndrome?

This relatively common but rarely discussed syndrome afflicts female characters, particularly Attractors (commonly known as ‘love interests’), in a variety of movies, but is endemic in action, adventure, crime and SF/ fantasy narratives.

It can be readily diagnosed, even by the amateur writer, by asking yourself one simple question: does your female attractor abruptly lose her ability to take care of herself in dangerous situations when the hero of the story is also in that scene?

Note that a female character who has no capacity to defend herself, think and plan for her own safety, and perform simple life tasks even when the hero isn’t around isn’t suffering from HPS, but from the far more dangerous Useless Female Syndrome. In this case, the prognosis is often terminal – not necessarily for the character, but certainly for the chances of your movie being liked by female audience members.

No, a diagnosis of Hero Proximity Syndrome should only be reached when the character shows some ability to defend herself and act logically when she’s on her own, only to become dependent and lacking in initiative the moment the hero arrives.

But what can be done to defeat this terrible affliction?  After all, no character can be entirely independent of the hero, or your movie risks developing the even more dangerous disorder, Weak Hero Syndrome. However, there are some simple actions you can take to manage the situation and alleviate the symptoms.

Firstly, you can have your female character take some logical, appropriate action which fails through no fault of her own. Faced with kidnappers, she threatens them with the family hunting rifle – which unknown to her, they’ve already found and unloaded. To find her child, she activates the location app on the child’s phone – but the kid lent it to his best buddy, who’s innocently going about his business with no idea he’s misleading the police chase. She still needs the hero’s help, but at least she’s doing her best.

Secondly, the hero and the attractor can have skills, backgrounds and contacts that both contribute to solving the problem the movie poses. There’s a nuclear bomb to find: she’s a cop, he’s a physicist. A fearsome predator terrorizes a village; he’s a skillful hunter, she’s a cryptozoologist. They both need each other in order to succeed.

Thirdly, have the female character participate in her own rescue. It’s fair enough that’s too scared to resist when five armed men storm into her house – but when the hero appears and draws their fire, have her kick the nearest intruder in the balls. There’s a difference between “needing some help” and “helpless”.

By following these simple rules, we can eliminate Hero Proximity Syndrome in our lifetimes. Thank you for listening.