Back In The Saddle

With Wolfblood commissioned for a second series, it seems like a good time to be talking about how writers approach working on a new series of an existing show.

Sitting down to begin work on the second series, you have certain advantages over a writer working on a first season. You know what your show is – who the characters are, what kinds of stories the show is good at telling, what kinds of stories don’t work for your characters and your world. If you have writers returning from the first series, they have a particularly strong grasp of your story world; and new writers have completed episodes to watch, which give them a sense of the visual style, pace and feel of a typical episode. And, thanks to viewing figures and social media, you probably have some idea what works for your audience and what they were less enthusiastic about.

Your actors are known quantities, which enables you to write to their strengths. You also have a sense of which characters, and actors, work well together and can sustain stories. For example, the fact that the K’s were strong and interesting enough characters to sustain their own little stories in some episodes, quite separate to any wolf-related story, was something we learned through writing the first series.

Interesting pairings of characters can also emerge once you’ve seen them on screen. Throughout the first season, Rhydian and Shannon emerged as characters with a surprising amount in common, and yet interestingly contrasting views and behaviour. Any time we put them in a scene together, we had a very different dynamic to play with than, for example, pairing up Maddy and Rhydian, or Shannon and Tom. Having Kara and Shannon spend time together in one episode also showed us new sides of both characters.

However, second seasons do bring a few potential problems.

All long-running drama is a process of balancing stasis and change – giving the audience what they’re come to expect from the show, while also developing the characters, introducing surprises, and expanding the story world. Most of a first series is spent setting up and developing your characters and your world, which means the first point at which you’re likely to significantly change that world is the end of the first season. (And there were certainly one or two significant developments in episode thirteen of Wolfblood!)

So the beginning of season two can be a perilous moment. Is the audience prepared to accept the direction you’re taking the show in now? Have you retained enough of what they loved, and yet introduced enough new and interesting elements to give your characters somewhere to go? Think back to Heroes, which wowed everyone with a terrific first season, then unraveled in the second, taking some characters too far in unexpected directions while keeping others stuck in situations where they were unable to develop or change.

So how can you be sure you’re doing it right?

You can’t, of course. But what you can do is trust your characters. It doesn’t matter what the writers or the producers think, what the audience claims they like, what the actors want to play, or what the budget allows for – in the end, a show will only succeed if it’s led by its characters. Every character, like every human being, has a wide range of choices in life, but in the end they’ll always remain themselves, even as they grow and interact and become wiser, fuller people. Let what they would do in that situation guide you, and you can’t go too far wrong.

So we’re going to trust our characters and see where they lead us…

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Wolfblood Season Two

As many of you will have heard by now, CBBC have commissioned a second season of Wolfblood. So thank you all for watching it on telly, downloading it on iPlayer, and generally contributing to some quite remarkable viewing figures!

I’ll be writing some of the thirteen episodes, and I’m pleased to announce that Hannah George and James Whitehouse  (writers of the season one episodes Mysterious Developments and Wolfsbane) will be returning. Also coming on board, the immensely talented and experienced Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle.

As for what happens…

At least two-thirds of the questions I’m asked, here and on Twitter, are requests for plot spoilers. Let me be clear here: I’m not going to tell you anything about season two – and you don’t actually want me to. There’s a reason they call them ‘spoilers’ –  because they spoil your enjoyment of the series. I worked hard on this show, as did a lot of other people, and we want you to enjoy the episodes as they air, not have the experience ruined by leaks and gossip.

We plan to film in February 2013, and though it’s too early to say for sure, it seems probable that season two will be on your screens sometime in the autumn of 2013. Obviously, we’ll keep you all updated nearer the time.

In the meantime, keep watching the moors on the night of the full moon, and make sure your doors are locked, because the Wolfbloods are out there somewhere…

PLEASE NOTE: if you’re about to post a question in comments, please read the Wolfblood FAQ – the link in grey along the top, or https://debbiemoon.wordpress.com/wolfblood-faq/  Your question may well have been answered there.

Good Intentions

By now, I expect you’ve heard all about The Black List’s new initiative, hosting scripts by new writers in a searchable database in exchange for a small fee, and for a further fee, having those scripts read and rated by professional readers.

(If you haven’t, go to http://blog.blcklst.com/author/admin/ for full details. Or alternatively, watch founder Franklin Leonard being interviewed by The Bitter Script Reader puppet at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhXQ6_POV3A )

Lots of smart people have already weighted in on this, lots of good questions have been asked, and in fairness, Leonard’s been very open to those questions and provided sensible answers to them. So my two penn’orth  probably isn’t needed. But that’s never stopped me before!

I’m not normally in favour of reading services – few of them provide insights on your work that you can’t get by joining a good writers’ group, and the fees can be astronomical  – and I’m definitely not in favour of any other service that claims it can get your script to the people that matter in Hollywood (because none of them can).

However, if ever there was an initiative that a) was genuinely trying to help writers find producers and producers find scripts, rather than just make money out of the niave, and b) had a chance of success, it’s this one. Leonard’s Hollywood contacts are second to none; and more importantly, he’s established as a man whose instincts can be trusted.

I don’t know whether this will work. Producers are busy people, and their assistants have enough to do dealing with the deluge of scripts that pour through the letterbox every day – even if they need good material, do they really have the time to go out and look for it? But I applaud Leonard and The Black List for trying to make a difference – and if I had a suitable script ready to go right now, I’d probably post it on their site and see what happens…

 

Training Schemes For Writers

Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend a lot of workshops, training schemes, development programs and all kinds of similar opportunities aimed at increasing the number of good writers and good scripts available to the British film and television industries.

Some of those schemes have been excellent. After all, Wolfblood was commissioned because of one of them (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/writersroom/posts/Wolfblood for more on that).

And some of them have been… not so good. Of course, no one can ever tell you which opportunity you should follow at this stage in your career, but I thought I’d throw together a few thoughts how to decide which opportunities to consider and which are less useful.

Commissioning opportunities: is there a chance of a script commission, or an option on your existing script, at the end of the opportunity? After all, you’re here to get scripts commissioned and made, not just written. And opportunities that offer a chance of a commission are often run by major producers or public funding bodies – BBC, Red Planet Prize, BFI schemes, etc – which means you’re not only in with a chance of money and a completed, filmed piece of work, you’re making contacts at the highest level.

Who’s running the course?  Do they work in the industry, or do they make their living running workshops and events? Workshops run by people who work solely teaching and mentoring, often funded by public bodies, are fantastic if you’re a ‘baby writer’ with no training or experience – but if you have a few scripts under your belt, and particularly if some have been produced, you’re probably just going to end up going over the same ground. After a certain point, you’re not attending a workshop to be taught, you’re here to win a commission – or to network, so make sure you’re with the right people (see below).

As a sidebar to that: it’s really tempting to attend workshops and courses with big-name guest speakers. I know, I’ve done it. And frequently, they have some interesting things to say. But don’t mistake this for an opportunity to pitch to or befriend big names. Whatever the organisers tell you, the big-name speaker did not come here to find a new script or a new writer to mentor. It’s a speaking engagement, a chance to give back to young writers and put some easy money in their pocket. If you do meet them in the bar, buy them a drink, tell them how much you enjoyed their talk, and then leave them alone…

Who’s going on the course?  Is it all other writers, or are there producers and directors too? The one and only writer attending an event full of producers has a captive audience for their pitches, and no competition!

What’s the skill level of other participants? This is the hardest thing to judge – no one’s going to want to tell you in advance – and often you won’t know until you’re in the room. I once attended a multi-stage script development workshop, with writers eliminated after each ’round’. On arrival for the first stage, I found 70% of participants were final-year university students – all of whom were eliminated in the first round. Were the organisers fair to set them up again established writers ? Well, maybe, as a learning process  – all experience is good experience when you’re young – but…

How much is it going to cost?  Increasingly, the financial costs of publicly-funded programs are hidden in a complex process of paying out and claiming back. Thanks to the rules of public funding, many programs refund your travel expenses and hotel rooms, but ask you to pay a fee of several hundred pounds to participate. Others only refund train fares up to a certain amount – or pay for hotel rooms during a workshop, but not the night before an early start –  which means additional costs if you’re travelling a long distance.

Cost should never be your primary concern – you have to spend money to make money – but it’s perfectly okay to decide that what you’d get out of a particular program isn’t worth the financial costs.

And finally, the one it’s easiest to forget: am I so busy attending events that I’m not actually doing any writing…?

Eyes Wide Open

Film fans can afford to stick to the genres and films they know and like. Don’t like romcoms? Don’t bother with them! Prefer aliens from outer space? Watch nothing but science fiction!

Screenwriters don’t have that luxury.

An awful lot of bad writing, especially from students and writers at the very beginning of their career, seems to stem from a limited experience of film. They’ve watched only the genres that appeal to them, and now they’re regurgitating a pale imitation of the movies they’ve seen, hidebound by rules and tropes they don’t even know they’re following.

We all learn our cinematic, and screenwriting, language from the films we watch. How to use time and space, dialogue and silence, which images link scenes together and which provide contrast – all of these are techniques we absorb, without even realising it, from our films of choice. The more styles and genres we dabble in, the more techniques we’ll have at our disposal.

But if we only watch one or two types of film, we’ll only learn one or two forms of cinematic language – and that limits our ability to tell stories, even within the genre we’ve been studying. A screenwriter shouldn’t be a specialist in one martial art, but an MMA fighter, borrowing moves from every school and style to get the story told.

You don’t have to like a movie to learn from it.

And you never know when you’re going to stumble across the solution to a problem. While watching a TV series with a teenage central character, I realised that the nemesis in the feature script I was working on needed to be thirty years younger – and the whole story finally fell into place. If I hadn’t gone outside my story comfort zone, I might never have solved that problem…