The Pareto Principle For Screenwriters

I was talking to writer and screenwriting lecturer Terry Bailey the other day, and mentioned that I was polishing a new pilot episode before sending it to my agent. Which brought up the question of “how much polishing is too much polishing?” and “how do you know when your script is ready to send out?”

And that’s when Terry mentioned the Pareto Principle.

Also known as the 80-20 rule, the Pareto Principle states that, in most cases, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the total effort.

Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. He later developed the principle by observing that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas. Nowadays, the Pareto Principle is commonly quoted in business; e.g., “80% of your sales by volume are to 20% of your total clients”.

But is this principle of any use to us as screenwriters? I think it is.

Probably 80% of the total impact of your screenplay is going to come from a few scenes, a few character moments, a few twists. They’re the bits the audience will remember and tell their friends about, and they’re the bits you need to really work on. Any additional effort spent polishing those will have a far greater return on investment than a similar amount of time spent on the intervening scenes.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can ignore the rest of your story. In order to have that impact, those character moments and powerful scenes have to be part of a larger narrative. A few minutes footage of a ship blowing up might make you admire the special effects – but in order to feel that moment emotionally, you have to be engaged with the characters on the ship and care about their fate. And that engagement happens not in the moment, but in all the preceeding scenes.

Three or four brilliant scenes won’t sell a badly-written story – but they might sell a screenplay that’s otherwise good-to-average. So, identify the 20% of your screenplay that’s going to have the greatest impact, and make sure you get those scenes absolutely right…

Advertisements

Wolfblood season two has begun filming…

photo

As you can see, last week the actors’ Green Room was remarkably neat, tidy and empty. It won’t be any more, since filming started today on season two. I believe the first scene shot was Mr. Jeffries spotting one of the cast loitering about outside the school gym. Who was it, and what were they up to? You’ll have to wait a little longer to find that out…

I’d Just Like To Thank…

It must be that time of year, because Wolfblood has been nominated for a couple of awards! First up, we’re nominated for a Royal Television Society (North East branch) award, and I’ll be attending the ceremony on 2nd March.

Secondly, we’re nominated for Favourite UK TV Show in the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. Won’t be able to attend that one, alas…

The Kids Choice Award is decided by online vote, and – while I couldn’t possibly suggest who you should vote for – if you want to vote in our category, you can do so at http://kca.nick.co.uk/vote#category:Favourite_UK_TV_Show …

Framing The Audience

Pickpockets and other thieves use a technique that they call framing. This is a process of directing the victim’s attention towards a specific object, person or event, as a means of directing their attention away from what the thief is actually doing.

So, a stranger may stop you in the street, thrust a map in front of you, and ask you to help them find Tower Bridge. What they’re actually doing is ‘framing’ your attention on the map, while their free hand is in your pocket or your handbag.

You’d think the major skill of the pickpocket would be physical, the ability to reach into someone’s pockets without being sensed. In fact, the pickpocket’s success depends largely on how good they are at framing their victim. If they can completely focus the victim’s attention, they can do almost anything outside the ‘frame’ and the victim simply won’t realise. The display pickpocket and crime consultant Apollo Robbins has taken glasses off people’s faces without them noticing, and relieved Secret Service agents of their IDs and weapons while they’re on duty guarding the President!

When we’re writing a screenplay, our job is to frame the attention of the reader.

Within the world of the screenplay, details of setting, action, and dialogue should register at different levels. Some are immediately important and must strike the reader of the screenplay hard; others need to worm their way into the reader’s memory so that be there later when a revelation or twist refers back to them; and some are simply background detail, to give a sense of mood or place, which need to have an almost subliminal impact. And often, we’re working on all three of these levels within the same descriptive paragraph or line of dialogue.

There’s an excellent example of framing a conversation to draw attention away from something in the contained thriller Buried, written by Chris Sparling. (POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD)

Paul Conroy, a US contractor working in Iraq, has been kidnapped by militants, and wakes up in a packing crate (yes, you guessed it) buried somewhere in the desert. All he has is a phone, which his kidnappers tell him to use to arrange a ransom before his air runs out…

Paul ends up in contact with a State Department official, Brenner, who coordinates the search and does his best to keep Paul calm. Among the things he tells Paul is that he was involved in a similar kidnapping case a few months earlier, and that ended well.

In fact, this earlier kidnapping will become very important in the final moments of the movie, and we’ll need to remember it without being prompted. But if too much attention is drawn to it now, we may put two and two together too early.

So the conversation is framed as Brenner reassuring an understandably scared Paul about his chances of survival. This allows Sparling to tell us a lot about the earlier case without drawing undue attention to it – because we assume it’s all about calming Paul down, saying “This has happened before and we got the guy out – so we’ll get you out too.” A superb piece of writing in an excellent movie.

So if you’re struggling with exposition, or with setting up something for later, how about asking yourself  “How far inside the frame do I want this information? Is this the thing I want the audience to focus on, or something in the background, or something that they’re not even consciously aware that they’ve seen?”

Happy pickpocketing…

How A Wolfblood Script Is Written

I’ve had a few questions about how the script development process for Wolfblood works, so I thought it might be useful to lay out the process from start to finish, for anyone who’s interested in the process of television writing.

Of course, this is just us. Different shows work in different ways. But the basics, in my experience, are much the same…

The development of any given season starts with a two or three-day writers conference, bringing together all the writers working on that season, the script editors, and the producer. (In fact, we have two of these, one for the first half of the season, another for the second.)

This conference is basically a process of exploration: where do we want to take the characters, what kinds of stories to we want to tell about them, what elements of our world haven’t yet been fully explored? Everyone is sat round a table throwing in ideas and thoughts on an equal basis, anything is possible, and frequently the season emerges from this conference as a very different beast to what we’d all envisaged going in!

Sometimes writers arrive with fragments of stories they want to tell, but mostly, both the ongoing character arcs and the story of the week emerge from discussion during these days. It can be a pretty spirited discussion at times – at least one episode in season two  provoked a pretty heated moral discussion on what decision a character should make! – but the goal is to make sure the show as a whole is the best it possibly can be, and we’re all looking to choose the best idea, wherever it comes from.

All of these discussions are recorded, as typed notes and as a chart detailing what happens in which episode. By the end of the conference, the fledgling episodes are allocated to writers, and we all set off home to start work.

The next stage is to create a basic outline a few pages long, detailing the beginning, middle and end of the story, and concentrating on what danger or obstacle the characters face in this story, and how they grow and change to overcome it.

Once the outline is working, which might take a couple of tries, the writer moves onto a scene by scene outline, which is much more detailed. As you’d expect from the name, this document goes through the plot scene by scene, detailing exactly what happens where, and to whom.

The scene by scene outline is basically an abbreviated script without dialogue, and it’s your chance to ensure that all the elements of the plot make sense and slot neatly into one another. This is usually the point where you realise that a character can’t actually be in this scene because they’re ten miles away at this point, or that it will be impossible to shoot this scene in this location, or that the big crowd scene would actually work better as a quiet conversation between two people.

Scene by scenes can take a couple of attempts to get right, but this is where a lot of the real work of the writing gets done, potentially saving you a couple of drafts of the script. And the earlier you identify and tackle any problems, the easier they are to fix. (Indeed, I’m seriously considering writing scene by scene outlines for all my film projects from now on, because they save so much time and effort at the draft stage!)

And once the scene by scene is in good shape, work can begin on the script.

Every draft of the outline, scene by scene or script is, of course, followed by notes from the script editors and producers. In my experience, these notes fall largely into two areas: things that will be difficult or impossible for practical shooting reasons, and things you haven’t made clear enough.

The practical stuff is self-explanatory; though Wolfblood is a pretty expensive show by CBBC standards, we have a lot less money to create each minute of screen time than a prime time show would, and we have to spend it wisely. Crowd scenes, scenes that will be complicated to shoot, exterior scenes and (most of all) wolf effects have to be strictly rationed, and used where they’ll have the most dramatic effect.

The other notes tend to be about having an effect, too; making sure that you’re getting everything you can out of the characters and the situation. Wolfblood episodes pack in a fair amount of plot and character development, and it’s easy to lose track of one element while you’re concentrating on something else. It’s also fatally easy to assume you’ve made a plot point or a character’s feelings clear, when you actually haven’t. To my mind, script editors have two main skills: they have the objectivity to spot the problems you can’t, and the experience, the understanding of how story works, to help you solve them…

Anywhere from three to eight drafts later –  some stories are just a lot harder to get right than others! – you have a finished script. Only it’s not quite finished yet! Once the director comes on board, typically about a month before shooting, they’ll have a few notes – again, a mixture of story notes and practical problems. And there will inevitably be a few changes during shooting, and even more in the editing room…

And that’s basically how a Wolfblood script is written – with hard work, a good team of people, and the occasional bar of chocolate…