Better Safe Than Sorry

As many of you will have heard on Twitter, Reddit and elsewhere, script storage site Scripped has suffered a system collapse, apparently resulting in the deletion of everything stored there, and has subsequently shut down.
There seem to be a lot of answered questions surrounding the site, its owners, and the technical issues, but there’s one thing that’s very clear – no writer should be relying on one site to store their work, especially one outside their control.
It may seem boring, but paying attention to practicalities is going to save you a lot of time and effort at some point. So what are some of the practical steps you should be taking to safeguard your work and your screenwriting career?

Back-ups. They don’t have to be expensive or complicated. I have several years of work backed up on two separate pen drives, and they’re extremely affordable now. If nothing else, print a copy and keep it safe. Retyping from a hard copy is a nuisance, but it’s better than losing work.

Organise drafts. The last thing you want is to save an old draft over the top of a newer one. Come up with a system to differentiate between drafts – date, draft number, both – and stick to it.

Auto-backups are great. Losing the last half-hour’s work because you didn’t hit save is the last thing you want at the end of a long day. Many programs can be set to save work automatically every five minutes without interrupting your workflow, so make sure you turn that feature on.

Have a system for non-draft material too. Losing notes, scribbles and research material can slow you down too, so come up with a system to keep each project separate, contained and safe.

Defunct projects don’t always stay defunct. That script you half-finished five years ago but couldn’t quite crack? You may work out how to turn it into a sure-fire hit any day now. So make sure old projects don’t get deleted and thrown away, accidentally or deliberately.

Upgrades are dangerous. I lost several scripts when upgrading from an old desktop to my first laptop. Still don’t really know how! So ensure everything that’s supposed to move gets moved…

Don’t rely on others to keep back-ups for you! Your producers, your agent, sites like Scripped – don’t assume they’re going to be able to save your ass if you lose a draft. They might, but then again they might not – and you’re going to look like a right idiot having to ask them. Take care of your own scripts, and they will take care of you.

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.

What’s A Story And What Isn’t

One of the things about creating a show with a lot of young fans is that you get a lot of messages from those fans suggesting story ideas.

In one way, this is catastrophic – I can’t read any of those story ideas, because if I do and we’re already doing that story, the fan could sue the show for ‘stealing’ their idea. Because of that, I actively discourage people from sending me ideas, and block anyone who persistently does so.

However, unfortunately, a few one-sentence ideas inevitably slip through – mostly on Twitter, where you read things almost before you realise what they are. Luckily, any one sentence idea is so vague and generalized that it doesn’t present a real legal problem –

But what I have noticed is how many of these ‘story ideas’ are actually not stories at all. And that holds a lesson for us as writers.

A lot of these so-called story ideas are actually locations. “What if the gang went to the seaside?” or “Maybe they could visit a theme park.” These kinds of stories sound attractive at first – a new location must lead to fun and adventure, right?

Strangely, no. Stories are about character and conflict – a character wants something, another character either wants the opposite or wants that same thing instead of them, and that’s where the story comes from. And it’s very rare that a location will create genuine, character-revealing conflict.

Yes, you can choose a location that complicates and worsens the conflict of the episode. For example, the Wolfblood episode where Maddy has her first full-moon transformation takes place on an island that can only be reached when the tide is out. But the story conflict isn’t “We’re on an island” or even “We’re trapped on an island” – it’s “We’re trapped with our schoolmates and teachers and we’re about to take wolf form!” That story could have been done in a bus on the motorway, in a cave, or even in the school, and still been essentially the same.

Many other “stories” that viewers suggest are about significant days. I regularly get begged to do an episode where it’s this or that character’s birthday.

Okay, say it’s their birthday. And then what?

Again, a birthday doesn’t create conflict. You could impose conflict onto it – say, I don’t know, it’s Kay’s birthday and Katrina has dropped the cake an hour before the party – but actually, the story there isn’t ‘It’s Kay’s birthday’ but ‘Katrina ruins something and has to find a replacement’. So what is the birthday adding? It’s set dressing. It may be useful to add some colour to the story, but it’s not actually the story.

I completely understand why viewers look at episodes in this way. “The episode where it was Jenny’s birthday” is an easier way to describe an episode to your friend than “The episode where Jenny and Matthew argue about his commitment to their marriage”, for example. The big flashy details stick in our heads, even when it’s the interpersonal drama that’s actually caused us to bond with the show.

But my point is, we as writers must train ourselves to look at story more deeply – particularly when we go in to pitch ideas for other people’s shows. It’s way too easy – and I’ve done it myself! – to go and pitch “The school catches fire” or “The central character’s estranged parents turn up” rather than going in with a story that arises from character.

If one of the characters is terrified of fire, then the school catching fire becomes a real story. If the central character has spent years refusing to talk about their parents and reacting badly to any mention of parenthood or family, then you have a real story. But if there’s no connection between the event/location and the characters, then you’re pitching set dressing, not story.

So the takeaway here is – before you pitch a story, ensure that it arises from character. And if you’re looking to whip up some episode pitches before a meeting, don’t think “What could happen?” Think “What would this character be most delighted about/ afraid of/ challenged by if it happened to them?”

The First Scene

I don’t know about you, but in the planning stage of a new project, I often find myself having ideas for potential scenes. I tend to scribble them on pieces of paper and pop them in the project file box with all the research and outlines etc. Sometimes they end up in the finished script, sometimes they don’t, but they’re useful to establish character, try out pairings and relationships, and think about location and dialogue.
And, I’ve just realised, the first scene that comes into my head often summarises the tone that I’m trying to create for the whole script.
This afternoon, I scribbled a very brief scene for a new TV project. The scene was funny, intimate, all about unconventional relationships, and full of nerdy fangirl jokes – and that’s pretty much how I want the project to feel.
Another project, an action-adventure feature, started off with a scene where the rule-breaking Victorian heroine goes in search of her errant sidekick in a Turkish bath. Again, the movie in microcosm: adventurous woman kicks against society, glamorous period locations, long-suffering male sidekick. (Hopefully he won’t be naked for the whole movie, though. Mind you, might increase ticket sales!)
So next time a scene for a new project occurs to you, don’t just write it down – keep it to compare the rest of the project to as you plan, outline and write. Does your project still feel like that initial scene? Are you capturing the feel of the project you initially imagined?
If not, you may feel your project has evolved into something better, which is fine. But if you’re still trying for the original feel of that first scene, at least you have concrete evidence of what you’re trying to capture…

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

Things I Learned From… Battleship

Hollywood loves basing a movie on an existing property. Familiarity and a pre-sold concept are the chief attractions of basing your movie on a book, TV series, magazine article, toy – or even a board game.

But let’s be honest, Battleship was perhaps one of the most unlikely properties to be optioned by Hollywood. It’s a board game with no characters, no narrative, and it doesn’t even have a unique setting or playing action. It’s about ships firing at and sinking one another, and we’ve seen that in all kinds of naval warfare movies.

In one way, the writers treated that as a positive. They could create entirely new characters to serve their own story – scientists, veterans and civilians as well as navy personnel. They could introduce an alien invasion. Potentially, they could do anything they liked.

But the other thing they understood is that – however thin and fragile it seems – the game has a recognizable core. It has the terminology of “hit” and “miss”, it has the grid of potential coordinates that those invisible ships could be at, it has the tension of firing into the nothingness and not being sure what your actions will achieve.

And the writers worked really hard to find a way to incorporate that familiar element into the screen story. They created a network of tsunami sensors that could be used to detect the alien ships, and displayed the output from them on screen in a grid resembling the Battleship game grid. And it worked. It’s actually a great dramatic sequence.

So the moral of Battleship is: never neglect the unique element of whatever you’re adapting, however unpromising it might seem to begin with. It might just give you the best sequence in the movie.

Working With True Stories

At the moment, I’m looking at a true story with a view to adapting it, so I thought it might be a good time to talk about how to select factual stories to turn into fiction.

Everyone loves a true story. The knowledge that the events they’re watching actually (more or less) happened helps audiences overcome any logic problems, makes characters more relatable, and often makes a project set in an obscure time or place easier to sell.

There may be name familiarity, or a history event that viewers will remember, giving you a hook to sell the story to an audience. People who wouldn’t go see a story about a fictional politician might go to see a movie about Winston Churchill.

And true stories are also one of the best ways to get a story about a non-white, non-heterosexual, or female lead into production. The story demands the casting of an actor outside the usual list of white males who can ‘open’ a movie, removing the pressure on you to change the story to fit the sex and race of the latest big star.

So what should you be looking for when evaluating material for adaptation?

Every story, true or not, needs a strong central character. So look for something where a single character is taking most of the action and suffering most of the consequences. Stories about a large group of people just don’t work, not unless you can tell their story by concentrating on one person.

Steven Knight’s Amazing Grace isn’t about the many campaigners seeking to abolish slavery on British soil – it’s about William Wilberforce. It may commit a historical injustice in focusing on one man – but it ensures a good movie.

Is your story visually interesting? People talking in rooms is not generally interesting (though Frost/Nixon shows us it can be.) Is there a dramatic world for your story to take place in – the courtroom, the battlefield, rock concerts or public appearances? Does the story have visual scale and moments of beauty and wonder? Does it take us to places we’ve never been before, show us new and exciting worlds?

Someone being famous is not a narrative (aka Biopics Are Hard.) Just because a historical figure became rich and famous, or won battles, or became emperor, doesn’t mean you can turn their life into a compelling story.

Like any fictional character, they need to begin with a problem and a character flaw, undergo tests and trials which they initially fail, and finally learn their lesson and become a better person (or fail tragically). If there’s no framework to create that story out of the bare facts of their life, then you’ll be better off looking elsewhere.

It’s the peripheral characters who will cause you problems. Even seen a biopic where a character (often a business partner or ex-wife) turns up for a couple of scenes, is extremely bland and polite, and then disappears? That’s the person who threatened to sue if they were depicted doing anything remotely criminal, evil, or even mildly unpleasant (true or not).

In the story I’m looking at, an extremely famous person (allegedly) seduced the central character’s girlfriend, embroiled him in an ‘investment’ that was actually a con, then ran off with both girl and money. It’s one of the most interesting elements of the story – but, knowing how jealously that person’s memory is guarded by his fans, I either cut that section, or spend the rest of my life in a libel court!

So, think carefully about who’s likely to sue you and whether it’s worth it.

Is this a story that resonates with a modern audience? Or – why should anyone care? Julius Caesar was a fascinating historical figure, but does his life story have anything to say to us today (at least, anything that can be conveyed in a two hour movie)?

The key to this is: what is your character trying to achieve? Audiences love to see someone be the first to do something, or achieve a specific goal against overwhelming odds, or go from rags to riches, or stand up to oppression or prejudice. All of these things are relatable and familiar, even if they’re taking place in another century or another country. If your character is doing one of these things, you can be reasonably sure of getting an audience.

And last of all – you’re going to put in a lot of research time, time spent getting legal clearances, literary or music rights, and all kinds of other stuff you don’t normally have to deal with. Are you so dedicated to telling this story that you’re prepared to do all that?

If so, go for it…!