A Modest Proposal About Death…

All right then, fellow writers, let’s call this meeting to order. Put down the chocolate biscuits, we have something important to talk about. No, don’t look at me like that. You know exactly what I mean.

This trend for killing characters and bringing them back thirty seconds later.

Now, I concede that bringing the dead back to life is a longstanding cinematic tradition. Everyone loves a victory over the Grim Reaper. At first, it was the sole province of the fantasy and science-fiction writer, who have unique excuses to ignore the laws of biology and physics. The more ’realistic’ writer had to settle for an occasional mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, or the cheaty  “Everyone thought I was dead, but in fact I wasn’t even in the car when it blew up”  approach.

But now everyone seems to be at it. Characters used to die occasionally, powerfully, and permanently. Now they die and come back for want of a better plot point, or to fill up a few minutes with a subplot. It’s getting silly, people.

So why don’t we establish some ground rules here? Here’s what I propose.

– A character who dies has to stay dead for five minutes of screen time in a TV episode, or one sequence (approx. fifteen minutes) of a movie. If it takes longer to send a text message than to bring someone back from the dead, you’re not treating it seriously enough.

The only exceptions are deaths in the final minutes or sequence. In the climactic scenes, the pace is faster and events are bound to progress more quickly, so we’ll cut you some slack there.

– If the status quo is not changed, to however small a degree, by the death and resurrection, then it’s pointless. Everything that happens in a movie changes the way the characters look at life, and therefore who they are. That’s what action is for. And if someone they care about – or even themselves – dying and coming back to life doesn’t affect your hero, they really aren’t paying enough attention to the situation.

– You can kill as many people as you like, but you’d better be picky about whom you bring back. Cheating death undermines the stakes for your characters. If people come back to life every five minutes, then why would we care whether they get killed or not?

– The resurrection had better be intricately connected to your characters and your plot. “I happen to know a magic spell”  or  “Here’s my all-purpose piece of technology”  is not good enough.

Consider, for instance, the end of Mission: Impossible 3. Ethan Hunt knows the killer device he’s been injected with, he’s seen it work before, he knows a massive electrical shock will neutralise it – and his wife, who’ll have to bring him back afterwards, is an ER doctor!  Yup, given all of that, I believe his plan would work…

Are we all agreed on that? Excellent. Next on the agenda, cliches, elimination of…

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Things I Learned From… Star Trek Into Darkness

Oh, so much to be learned from this movie! But most of it is going to have to be held back for a few weeks, to give everyone a fair chance to enjoy the film without spoilers. At some point, I want to talk about the way the protagonist and the antagonist of Star Trek Into Darkness face the same challenges and mirror one another’s decisions. I also want to talk about who the antagonist actually is – or rather, on whose evidence we label the bad guy a ‘bad guy’…

But today, let’s talk subplots.

Spoiler warning: no actual spoilers, but some generalized discussion of the first twenty minutes of the movie.

We all know what subplots are, right? The plots that run alongside the main action, illuminating the theme and adding depth to the characters. But Star Trek Into Darkness also features a less conventional kind of subplot – a self-contained subplot in the first act of the story, which contains the inciting incident. Without getting spoilerific, I’m talking about the brief plot taking place in and around London and foregrounding Thomas Harewood (an excellent turn from Noel Clarke).

We’re all used to the ‘cold open’, an opening that plunges the audience into the dramatic situation before the credits. Sometimes these take place before the central characters have become involved in, or even aware of, these events – eg, the opening scenes of Star Wars. Sometimes they feature the protagonist, but the subplot itself has nothing to do with the main story – eg: a typical Bond movie prologue.

But it’s very interesting to see a cold open subplot taking place, what, at least ten minutes into the movie? Especially after the movie has already opened with a Bond-style prologue that sets up relationships and theme but, in strict plot terms, has nothing to do with the main story.

Another cold open? Isn’t that just wasting screen time we could be spending with Kirk and the gang? I mean, Harrison’s a smart guy, he could have arranged [REDACTED] another way. We wouldn’t even need to see him do it. So cut the subplot, right?

Wrong.

Here’s what the subplot does for the movie.

It introduces the antagonist. Harrison’s role in this subplot paints him as ruthless, cunning and irresistible – but it also hints at remarkable power, and even compassion. Of a kind. That’s a rich, textured character right there, a fascinating character, one we want to see more of and learn more about – and we haven’t even seen him oppose our protagonist yet.

It introduces the theme. You could say that the theme of Star Trek Into Darkness is something like  ‘What are you capable of doing for those you love?” Not only what you’ll agree to morally, but what you’re capable of doing physically, the hidden strengths you’ll tap into when you have to. This subplot explicitly foregrounds that theme in a way that prefigures later events, and involves us directly in some morally difficult choices long before the central characters start facing them.

It functions – rather oddly! – as a “Save The Cat” scene. “Save The Cat” is screenwriting tutor Blake Snyder’s term for an early scene where an apparently unlikable character does something nice (the clichéd version might be being kind to animals, or giving money to a beggar) to make the audience like them. What Harrison does is appalling, but one part of it is so mythically fulfilling – even Christ-like –  that we can’t help but like him for it, despite the fact that it’s just part of a bargain to achieve his own ends.

It gives a human face to the victims of Harrison’s campaign. Since we’re avoiding spoilers… enough said.

One more thing to point out: the visual storytelling in this subplot is superb. Proof? If I remember rightly, there are only three lines of dialogue in the whole sequence, and they’re all in one scene. Everything else is visual – in other words, true movie storytelling. Take a bow, Messrs. Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof…

The Screenwriter’s Voice: Part Two

We know what a screenwriter’s voice is now: their style, their tone, their personal outlook on the world of their story, condensed into the prose of their scripts. Next question is: how do you develop one? Well, you can ask yourself a few questions…

What’s your brand? Hollywood screenwriter Doug Eboch has an excellent blog post on what branding means to a screenwriter, and how to use it, here http://letsschmooze.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/whats-your-brand.html

Branding is what puts your name at the top of the list for a particular genre (and yes, there are lists!) Branding is what separates you from all the other writers who can write in your genre.

Your voice contributes enormously to the perception of your brand, and you need to think about how the way you write relates to the person you are. Are you witty? Precise? Apparently chaotic, or laser-focused? Laddish and matey, or formal? This is why imitating someone else’s voice won’t get you anywhere. There’s no point in your work being a shallow ripoff of Shane Black or Aaron Sorkin if it doesn’t match you.

What’s your genre?  If your voice is hilariously funny, but you write tragic family melodramas, you can guarantee anyone reading them will misinterpret your intentions. If you write horror or thrillers, your voice had better be fast-paced and able to create tension. If your work is slow-build character pieces, you need to be able to conjure up a world of internal emotion in a sentence or two. Develop a voice that reinforces the world you want to create.

Your voice, or your character’s? This is something of a delicate balancing act. If, say, your story world is drily funny and your hero is sarcastic and snappy, then your prose voice should reflect that to an extent. But if your voice is exactly the same as your central character’s dialogue voice, their individuality may disappear into a generalised sea of snark. Whatever your voice, your characters must still stand out as individuals, recognisably part of your world but not inseparable from it.

Shorter is better.  A novelist can afford to develop a voice that rambles, that goes off in random directions, that luxuriates in complex words and rich description. A screenwriter can’t. Even if you make a point of your work being erudite and grammatically rich, it still has to get the job done quickly and efficiently.

Don’t get too hung up on it.  Which seems like a contradictory thing to say, after two posts on the subject, but in the end, voice isn’t the thing you’re selling. It’s a sign of professionalism and an indicator of talent, but it’s a bonus feature, not the main attraction. If the story you’re telling is intriguing and emotionally compelling, you can pretty much forget all about voice.

But then, if the story you’re telling is intriguing and emotionally compelling, you’ll probably find you develop a voice to tell it in anyway…

The Screenwriter’s Voice: part one

Possibly the hardest thing for a screenwriter is learning how to handle the words on the page. Not the dialogue: we all know how people speak, in movies and in real life. Not even the layout and formatting rules: we can learn those.

Not, the tricky bit is learning how to actually describe the action of the movie in a way that not makes sense on the page, but accurately, excitingly conveys something that’s going to be seen and acted to a tired, over-worked reader skimming though a pile of scripts.

It’s the equivalent of a novelist learning how to write elegant, evocative prose. But anyone who has any desire to be a novelist has read novels. Few film fans ever go as far as to read screenplays, not until they actually decide they want to write movies.

So, step one is obvious: read every screenplay you can, old and new, successful and unsuccessful.

And one of the things you’ll notice is – every screenwriter has their own voice.

Which makes sense, of course. If you gave the same plot to John le Carre and to Helen Fielding, you’d expect the feel, the tone, the style of the finished piece to be very different. It’s the same with screenwriters. Compare this snippet of Lethal Weapon, by Shane Black –

Okay. Okay. Let’s stop for a moment. First off, to describe fully the mayhem which Riggs now creates would not do it justice. Here, however, are a few pointers:  He is not flashy. He is not Chuck Norris. Rather, he is like a sledgehammer hitting an egg. He does not knock people down. He does not injure them.

He simply kills them. The whole room. Everyone standing.

To this, the very first words of The Bourne Ultimatum by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns, and George Nolfi:

EXT.   NIGHT.   HOUSING PROJECTS — MOSCOW          

 SMASH CUT

MOTION — flat out — it’s us — we’re running – stumbling — breathing rushed — blood in the snow…

We are JASON BOURNE and we’re running down an alley…

Supered below:   MOSCOW

BLUE LIGHTS — from the distance — strobing through the night — rushing toward us — POLICE CARS — three of them –

– SIRENS HOWLING as they bear down — closer — faster — until they whip past the alley…

Up against the wall — BOURNE is hidden in the shadows.

 

Pretty different, huh?

Developing a distinctive voice is important to a screenwriter for several reasons.

It will mark you out from the crowd.  Think back to that script reader trawling through submissions, looking for the one that’s going to make their career. They’ve been reading flat, workmanlike, even awkward, prose all day. Give them something that amuses them, or gets their pulse racing, and you’re already ahead of the competition.

It shows professional confidence. You’re not slavishly copying what you read in a screenwriting manual, or ripping off your favourite writer. You have the confidence to do things your own way. On a related note:

It shows experience.  It takes a little time to develop your own style, and that suggests you’ve written a few screenplays, and learned lessons from them. You’re someone who’s taken time to learn their craft, and who takes their profession seriously.

It shows an understanding of genre and tone.  A comedy screenplay that actually gets the reader laughing (harder than you’d think!), a horror screenplay that sets the reader’s heart racing. These say that you know your genre, and you’re using all the weapons at your disposal to create the desired effect. Even the actual words on the page, which the audience will never know.

So, if I’ve convinced you that an authorial voice is a good thing, come back in a few days for my next post, and we’ll talk about how you can develop one…

Writing For Children’s Television event, Birmingham

If you’re around Birmingham on Friday 14th June, you can see me, Wolfblood script editor Jonathan Wolfman, and Cheryl Taylor, controller of CBBC, talking about writing for children’s television at a Writer’s Guild event. You can find more details, and book a place, via 

http://www.writersguild.org.uk/news-a-features/events/397-writing-for-childrens-television-birmingham

Should be an excellent evening, and I hope to see some of you there!