Things I Learned from… Agents Of SHIELD

If ever there was a show that seemed destined to succeed, it was Agents Of SHIELD. (Yes, I know it’s S.H.I.E.L.D, but honestly, life is too short for that amount of punctuation…) Great creative minds behind the concept, great writers, great cast, and the publicity boost provided by the cinematic Marvel Universe and Marvel Comics. And we haven’t even mentioned the enduring popularity of Clark Gregg’s performance as Agent Phil Coulson…

So why is it a bit… uninspiring? Well, I think there may be a problem that goes to the heart of SHIELD itself.

Superhero stories are empowerment fantasies. They allow us to imagine what we’d do if we had the powers of the X-Men, the money and physical strength of Bruce Wayne, the intellect and technical skills of Tony Stark. They’re about self-actualisation, about everyone taking charge of their life and world and making them better.

SHIELD stands for the exact opposite of that. SHIELD’s job is to tell superpowered individuals to hide their abilities. To seize radical new technologies and lock them in a vault. And in one episode, to require a scientist to spend his entire life locked in a moving truck, alone and effectively a prisoner, because of SHIELD’s fear of what he might invent.

SHIELD is a reactionary organisation dedicated to keeping technology and superpowers away from everyone, even those who might use them for good. It’s the equivalent of a nuclear superpower telling another country it’s not allowed to develop nuclear technology. “We can have nuclear power, because we’re the good guys. But you can’t be trusted with it. Why? Because we say so.”

And who wants to watch that?

I’ll tell you the show I’d like to watch – and actually, it would be a show far more in keeping with Joss Whedon’s usual ethos…

I’d like to watch the show where a band of superpowered individuals with varying – and in some cases, dubious – motives band together to take down SHIELD, destroying this sinister organisation that wants to control humanity’s access to the fruits of its ingenuity and imagination.

A Marvel Universe without SHIELD would be a far more dangerous place. But despite that, it would be a universe far more free and worth living in.

Wolfblood Season Three Confirmed!

As you will just have heard from Leona Kate Vaughan (Jana) on CBBC – yes, there will be a season three of Wolfblood!

Assuming we film in the spring again, season three will be back on your screens sometime around September next year. As yet, we’re not releasing any information about who’ll be returning to the show, or what will be happening in it.

If you have any questions about season three – about the cast, about transmission dates, about anything –  please read the FAQ  (link in grey at the top of the page). Your question has probably been answered there. If it hasn’t, we probably don’t know yet!

UPDATE: and Wolfblood has just been nominated for no less than four Children’s BAFTA awards!,293,SNS.html

Making The First Draft Better

One of the weird things about being a screenwriter is that, while films and TV shows in their finished form are everywhere, the things you’re actually going to write –  screenplays –  are not.

Anyone who wants to be a novelist can walk into the library, pick up a novel and get the general idea of how one is laid out and structured. But a screenwriter is reliant on those few sites that make screenplays available for “educational purposes” (circumventing legal issues), and on the quiet passing of scripts from hand to hand among fellow professionals.

Which is a way of saying that I was recently slipped an early draft of one of my favourite films, and this got me thinking about how a screenplay changes from first draft to finished, filmable product.

I’m not going to name the screenplay or discuss it in detail: one of the reasons it’s so hard to get hold of screenplays is that writers are understandably reluctant to show the world what is effectively unfinished work. You wouldn’t ask an actor to rehearse in front of an audience, or a novelist to invite readers in to look over their shoulder as they typed – early draft screenplays deserve the same kind of protection. However, as one actor might learn from another in rehearsal without exposing them to public scrutiny, screenwriters discretely reading one another’s work without exposing it to the public can learn a lot from it.

And I thought many of the changes that had been made in subsequent drafts actually laid down useful principles for rewriting. So what did I learn from this particular screenplay about moving a story from first draft to finished product?

Make your characters distinct. Though the main characters in this first draft have different backgrounds, they’re quite similar in life experience, personality and motivation. In the final draft, they’re far more different, and more stronger because of it.

Structure your opening to show the audience your world. The first draft took a lot longer to explain and open up the story world than the filmed version, which just dives straight in there and shows us the world through an action sequence.

Focus on what’s happening now. There’s a lot of backstory in the early draft. In the filmed version, there are similar conflicts and character arcs, but they’re been shifted forward into the present (for example, by having a similar conflict but with a different character, or in a different situation).

Look for ways to make the central relationship more interesting. In the early draft, the two main characters have simple and slightly predictable reasons not to want to work together. The development process made their relationship much more interesting and unpredictable, enriching the movie.

Make it hard for your characters. In the first draft, a character simply has what he needs to achieve something difficult. In the finished version, he has to go out and find it, creating an entire new subplot with excitement, intrigue, danger, and character growth for him.

Merge, clarify, simplify. Do you have several, say, politicians, or police officers, or park rangers, all serving the same plot function? Cut them down to one person.

On the other hand, add interesting minor characters. Many of the most interesting characters in the finished film are minor characters, and they’ve been added in intervening drafts to enrich the story world.

None of this is criticism of that first draft, of course. Early drafts are just a process of getting the raw material down on paper, of turning all the jigsaw pieces face-up before you start assembling them. All our first drafts are riddled with half-formed ideas and missed opportunities.

That’s why the development process is so important. At it’s best, it’s not about changing things – it’s about chipping away the surplus marble to uncover the beautiful statue already hiding inside…

So what have you learned about writing from comparing early draft scripts to the finished movie?







Wolfblood US DVD release date

For those of you in the US – and elsewhere with an all-region DVD player –  there will be a Region 1 DVD of Wolfblood season one available on December 31st…


Amazon details here –

Also available from various other US stockists, of course…

A Couple Of Tricks For Pitching

Ah, pitching, the bane of every writer’s life! Going into a room and talking face-to-face with people about our work isn’t something we do naturally, on the whole. There’s a reason we’re called writers, not talkers. But it’s part of a screenwriter’s skill set, and we all have to learn to do it.

If you find it particularly hard to be the centre of attention in the room, though, why not try a trick to take some of that attention off yourself – while still keeping everyone involved in the story?

In America, there’s a growing trend towards giving the producers  something physical to look at during longer pitches. Ted Elliott and Terry Rosso, writers of Pirates Of The Caribbean, have pioneered the use of a large cork-board with each scene or sequence, reduced to a line or two, written on cards and pinned onto it.

The advantage of this, as they describe it, is that the producer’s never going to get lost. They can look back to remind themselves of what happened, or who a particular character is. They’re able to look ahead, and anticipate where the story’s going, which may help them to understand why certain things are happening in the set-up scenes that you’re just describing to them…  And if nothing else, it stops them looking  out of the window and getting distracted!

Personally, I think setting out your whole narrative on a board,  all at once, could tend to distract everyone from what you’re saying. After all, they’re only getting basic descriptions on that board, and you want to ensure they’re paying attention to what you say – to the descriptive, emotional version – if you want them to fully engage with the story.

What I have used occasionally is a sketch book full of pictures – location photos, interesting-looking people, etc. Each page illustrates a particular location or section of the story, which means you’re turning the page now and then and giving them something new to look at.

For a two or three minute pitch, I wouldn’t recommend using anything along these lines. It’s going to take longer to flick through it  than to do the actual pitch – and it’s also likely to contain more detail than your verbal pitches, which will need to confusion.

However, for a longer pitch, it can be fantastically useful, particularly when you’re talking about a very visual world that’s unfamiliar to most people.  (And let’s face it, all the best stories are set in strongly visual worlds that we don’t know well and want to explore –  so if yours isn’t, maybe it needs some work anyway!)

The one thing that might be worth trying in a shorter pitch, though I haven’t yet used it myself, is bringing along a single physical object which illustrates your story. If your film is about a meteorite bringing alien life forms to earth, producing a chunk of interesting-looking rock and inviting the producer to imagine it had just landed in their front garden will certainly get their attention.

Or you could try starting your story this way:  “Imagine you’d grown up in a children’s home and had no idea you really were. Finally, the home hands over the one clue to your identity – and it’s this.” And you place a Nazi war medal on the table. Or an unusual piece of jewellery, or… whatever.

But you do need to make sure your object is relevant to your whole story. If it only features in the first few minutes of the film, it’s going to look a bit daft sat there on the desk as you go through the rest of the totally unrelated story.

Visual aids or no visual aids, just remember that  pitching is doing what you do best: telling stories. Hook the producer into that story, exactly as you would if you were writing the script, exactly as you would if you were telling your best friend about this great movie you just saw, and you can’t go wrong.