No Assumptions

I’ve been polishing up a pitch document for a new TV drama series, and the notes I’ve been getting back reminded me of one of the most important things I learned about writing pitches, outlines, etc –

Don’t expect the reader to make assumptions about the characters’  emotions.

I used to write outlines that simply described the events happening to the protagonist, and assume that the reader would supply the emotional content. So I’d write “And that night, her dog runs into traffic and is killed” and expect the reader to mentally add “and she feels sad about it.”

It was only when a script editor pointed it out to me that I realised: you have to be explicit about how the character is feeling and reacting at all times. You can’t expect a reader to supply the character’s emotions, because – unlike someone reading a book or watching a movie – they don’t expect to have to make that imaginative leap. That’s not how outlines and pitches work. Your outline’s job is to be precise and explicit about the character’s emotional journey.

And as soon as I started writing in what to me had seemed obvious – he’s sad when his mother dies, she’s elated when she gets elected mayor – readers’ reactions to my work became much more positive.

And this is an ongoing lesson. I still have to check every document to make sure I’ve picked out every moment of emotional importance. So, however obvious your characters’ emotions feel to you, make sure they’re down there in black and white at outline stage…

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How Many Is Too Many?

So I saw The Avengers: Age Of Ultron yesterday. Detailed thoughts on that will have to wait until the film has opened worldwide, but one thing it did get me thinking was – how many main characters is too many?

Age Of Ultron has eight, maybe nine, lead characters including the villain, significant cameos by another five, and walk-ons from another half dozen or so, familiar and unfamiliar. That’s a lot of people to get your heads round!

So is there a definite limit to how many main characters an audience can deal with? Are there particular factors that affect that? Here are a few thoughts…

Familiarity helps. Obviously a franchise has it easier in this area, because the audience will remember some of those characters from the last movie. You may want to remind people of their core characteristics, but at least you don’t have to establish who they are and how they behave from the ground up.

Can you tell them apart at a glance? Film is a visual medium, and keeping your characters visually distinct will help the audience remember who’s who. (Yet another compelling argument for more women and people of colour in movies!)

Again, comic books have an advantage here. Many of those bold, bright superhero costumes originated in a time when comics were throwaway entertainment printed on rough paper with cheap ink, and however good the original artwork, often the only way to tell the characters apart once it was printed was by their uniforms.

This suggests that setting also has a bearing on how many characters you can use. If you’re writing about the inhabitants of a town, all different ages, races and income brackets, you should be able to have more main characters that if your characters are all nuns, or soldiers, all dressed the same and possibly of similar age and background.

Can you divide your characters into groups? Not putting all your characters on screen together all the time will help the audience get to know them as individuals. The Avengers often split down into teams according to their functions: we might see Black Widow and Hawkeye being spies, or Stark and Banner being science bros in the lab.

But you’re going to want to keep all your characters busy all the time, and there’s a limit to how many plot lines you can run simultaneously. In the all-action finale, we can probably keep track of three teams doing different things to save the world, and any team that’s more than three or four members will have difficulty keeping them all busy…

Do all your characters have a different motivation? Everyone in a movie may want the same thing, but they should want it for different reasons. And while in real life a thousand people may each have fractionally different motivations for making the same decision, on screen there’s a limit to how many distinct motivations and mindsets we have time to explore.

In The Avengers, everyone wants to stop Loki, but for different reasons. Steve Rogers has seen what the Tesseract can do; Tony Stark is as much trying to work out what SHIELD is up to as what Loki’s planning. Bruce Banner doesn’t really want to be involved, but he knows they can’t do it without him. Natasha Romanov is trying to save her dearest friend. Thor wants to save his brother, though he isn’t even sure that’s possible.

So think about how many different motivations for being involved you have room to explore. If you have three characters who really want exactly the same thing, they probably need to be conflated into one character…

Things I Learned From… Foreign Movies

The annual Wales One World Festival is on at the moment, bringing movies from all corners of the world to all corners of Wales, so this seems like a good time to talk about what watching movies from overseas can teach you as a writer.

There are a lot of positives to watching movies from outside your culture. They’ll often be shot in locations you wouldn’t otherwise have known existed, showing you new visual possibilities. They may showcase the possibilities offered by language: being multilingual, perhaps, or using no dialogue at all. Indeed, the film I’m going to see tonight is a Ukranian film in sign language with no subtitles…

They’ll also remind you that not everyone thinks like you or lives like you. Like historical fiction and science fiction, overseas movies unfold another culture to us, showing us the diversity of human morality, belief and thought. And that’s a wake-up call for writers who think everyone perceives the world they do, and acts accordingly. What if one of your characters thought about life the way a Bedouin tribesman or a Nigerian street beggar does, and acted on that? I guarantee your film would become more interesting if they did…

But the most important thing you can learn from foreign movies is that wants and needs are universal. In every culture, people want to be loved, respected, successful and happy. Whatever route they take to try to achieve those things, and whatever form those things take in their society, their inner desires are easy to relate to. And it’s those inner, deep desires that drive any good character in any story…

Things I Learned From… Halt And Catch Fire

Halt And Catch Fire is the thrilling story of a 1980’s software company finding itself building the world’s first laptop computer.

No, really, that’s it. It’s some guys – and crucially, some girls – trying to force their way into a market dominated by huge companies who protect their near-monopoly with some ugly tactics. It’s a story from the Financial Times, not the human interest section.

Doesn’t sound like the most promising premise for a show, does it? Oh, sure, we have the irony of knowing that now, 35 years later, most of us have forgotten the name IBM, and those nimble, adventurous competitors have themselves become behemoths. But apart from that, what makes this show so utterly compelling?

Secrets.

From the moment the mysterious Joe MacMillan appears at this backwater business and puts his complex plan into play, we know he has secrets. He quit IBM and vanished for a year, presumed dead – what was he really doing? Who is the father lurking in the background, whom he seems to be trying to free himself from? Where did he get those scars? Is he a technological visionary or a glorified salesman? Why has he picked the people he’s picked, and will working with him save them or destroy them?

And that’s what’s keeping us watching. He could be building laptops, washing machines, or hula hoops. This could be 1980. 1920, or the distant future. None of that matters. because what we care about is what’s going on inside the mysterious mind of Joe MacMillan – and what he’ll do next. And this is the feeling we should be trying, as writers, to instil in our audiences.

Comics, Movies, and I-Spy Syndrome

I’m in the middle of one of my periodic catch-ups with comics, past and present, and I’m starting to realise why I often find classic comics storylines so unsatisfying.

The thing is, I like comics – but I’m bored by “event” comics. Crossovers, universe merges, reboots, ends of the world – yes, even civil wars – I hate ‘em. But why?

Because they tend to fall into the most seductive of comic book traps – I-Spy syndrome.

D’you remember I-Spy books? They’re what was used to keep kids quiet on long journeys before the hand-held games console came along. They’re pocket-sized books with pictures and some simple text about things you’re likely to see in a particular environment – building styles and types for a city, tree and animal varieties for the countryside. And a tick box [check box, for our US friends] and a number of points.

See the item, tick the box, score the points. You could even send away for a badge once you had a certain number of points (I bet some cheating went on there!)

Anyway, I think you’ve worked out my metaphor by now. Look, it’s Spider-Man! Tick the box. And now Thor is fighting Namor! Tick the box. What does Iron Man think about the alien invasion? Or Captain America, or Aquaman? Here they all come to tell you! Tick, tick, tick.

But is this a bad thing? After all, we all cheer when our favourite character reappears in a TV series or movie franchise. We all keep going to movies about the same group of characters, sometimes long past the point where the franchise is any good, because we enjoy being in their company.

And comics at their best are good at character. From Batman and Steve Rogers to John Constantine and Kamala Khan, comics have created protagonists who rank with the very best characters in other media.

But whatever medium you’re working in, narrative is about character change, and change takes time. And the more characters you’re trying to squeeze into your story, the less time you have to effect change in each of those characters.

So all your favourites turn up in this big crossover storyline – but there’s no room for them to be anything other than a cliché. They spout their catchphrase, use their signature weapon, fight a fellow cliché, and depart. Fans buy the issue with their favourite character on the front, all the boxes are ticked, money is made – but doesn’t everyone leave with a faint sense that, well, that could have been a lot more interesting…?

I hope I-Spy Syndrome isn’t going to spread to movies, though recent Marvel and DC news may suggest that it’s going to.

A two-hour movie has room to fully develop maybe four or five characters – and if you doubt me, how many members of Danny Ocean’s team in Ocean’s Eleven can you actually remember as distinct individuals? Or the dwarves in The Hobbit? That was nearly nine hours of screen time, and still I can only recall three with personalities…

So, whether writing comics or movies, remember: a handful of characters making difficult decisions, growing and changing are worth all the guest shots in the world.

Your Galaxy Is Too Small

I know Guardians Of the Galaxy was the big film of last year, and it made a gazillion dollars and everyone loves talking raccoons and dancing baby Groot. Hell, even I love dancing baby Groot. But don’t you think it was a bit… limited?

Here’s what I mean.

Life on earth comes in myriad forms and displays all kinds of behaviour. Life across the galaxy, we must assume, will be even wilder and weirder. And Guardians Of The Galaxy was sold as the weird, out-there, fantastical end of the Marvel cinematic universe, leading us to expect that diversity and variation in the movie.

But what we got was a white heterosexual guy shagging alien girls and saving the world.

You know what, I’m prepared to give them a pass on the lead character – because maybe we need someone identifiably human to lead us through this alien world. So okay, let’s say we accept Peter Quill for the cishet meatball that he is –

But what about everyone else? Where were the aliens with six genders and eighteen kinds of sexual preference? Where were the aliens with no gender at all? The aliens with mindsets we didn’t understand, and who didn’t understand our hero’s morals and emotions? The aliens who were, well… alien?

The whole point of science fiction, it seems to me, is that it’s the ultimate “what if”. Every other kind of fiction is limited by human behaviour, world history, and the laws of physics. Science fiction doesn’t need to be. It can resign everything and everyone involved to surprise, challenge and delight an audience.

But modern movie sci-fi doesn’t seem to be interested in redesigning its characters, only its artifacts. The spaceships and the CGI change, but the faces and the sexual relationships don’t. It’s serving up the same tired white male saviours, the same ‘sleeping with lots of girls is cool as long as you settle down at the end of the movie’ relationship narrative, the same twelve-year-old boy’s view of the world. And that’s not a “what if” at all.

There are exceptions. Pacific Rim, whose white male hero must literally venture inside the mind of his near-opposite (a younger Japanese female) and achieve mutual understanding in order to save the world. Snowpiercer starts off appearing to embrace the white male savior, but ultimately [MILD SPOILERS] Curtis realises that he’s not the change that’s needed, but an obstacle to that change…

But we need more exceptions. More challenges, more imagination. Because if science fiction can’t tell new and unusual stories, what hope is there for the other genres?

Book Review: Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays

photoScript editor and screenwriting tutor Lucy V. Hay has another book out, and this time, it’s all about drama screenplays.

As Hay herself is the first to admit, “drama” is a very slippery term in the world of film. Often it’s used just as a catch-all for any project that doesn’t have a specific genre. Even when properly defined, it covers everything from biopics and historical true stories to grim contemporary stories of sink estates and despairing teen mums (that last being a category she sees far too often in the submissions pile!)

But one of the most interesting points Hay makes is that this nebulous definition is actually freeing for the screenwriter. There are no tropes for drama, no set story conventions and structural plot points to hit. Drama lends itself to non-linear storytelling, and to portmanteau stories, more readily than other genres do. In other words, it’s a great place to experiment and to tell the story you really want to tell.

Another interesting feature of Hay’s book is that she takes the position that drama is a hard sell – harder to pitch, to market and to attract major stars to – and treats this as a positive. If your story is going to be hard to produce through the traditional route, why not try another route?

Building on this, she includes a number of case studies of US and UK films, both shorts and features, examining how they took unconventional routes to the screen. If you’re having difficulty getting noticed in the industry and are considering less conventional ways to built your career there are some good examples to follow here, whether you write drama or not.

And of course, drama (more than any other genre) lives and dies on its characters, and Hay digs into how you can use different character types in your screenplay. Crucially, she notes that a drama protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to have the transformative arc so beloved of Hollywood movies…

If you’re interested in writing drama, particularly for the UK film market, the book is a great overview of how this genre works, and how to make it work for you. Definitely a recommended read.

Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays, by Lucy V. Hay, is in the Creative Essentials series from Kamera Books (camera