Things I Learned From… Hannibal

I’m a late arrival to Team Murder Husbands. Trust me to get into a show just as it’s cancelled! In fairness, I did watch half of season one, before getting bored with the detective procedural stuff and giving up. It’s only thanks to persistent fans on Twitter that I went back to the show, and I’m very glad I did. It’s a whole different animal from season two onwards. So there’s a lesson there…

But the aspect of Hannibal that I really want to talk about is how it sustains such a theatrical, exaggerated story world, and makes it not only believable, but actually normal.

Operatically-pitched story worlds are quite the thing in American television at the moment. The final season of Sons Of Anarchy definitely tipped over into grand guignol, but the best example is probably True Detective. Massively exaggerating the tropes of Southern Gothic, it creates a fantastical world where men are monsters, but literal monsters also wouldn’t seem out of the question.

But the thing is, I didn’t believe a word of True Detective. In fact, I found a lot of the supposedly deep and meaningful moments laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Whereas I believe absolutely in the world that Hannibal creates.

So, why is that? I have a few thoughts…

Narrow focus. Hannibal takes place in a very streamlined, narrow-focused world. Apart from some scenes with Jack’s wife, which have a darkness of their own, we rarely see a domestic situation or a glimpse of ‘everyday’ life. Our characters live entirely within this theatrical, heightened world. The music we hear, the way characters dress and live and eat (!), even the places that crimes take place, are all carefully selected to reinforce this elaborate and claustrophobic story world. And since reality never intrudes, this becomes our reality.

The fresher your premise, the more exaggeration it will take. True Detective is essentially yet another treatise on the pressures society exerts on ‘traditional’ masculinity. But we’ve seen this a thousand times – and familiarity is what causes a story to tip over from stereotype to parody.

The twisted polysexuality and intellectual mind-games of Hannibal, however, are something we’ve seen far less of on television. We don’t have the afterimages in our head from all the million other times we’ve seen this situation – and that helps keep parody at bay.

Everyone has a goal. The characters of True Detective may be investigating a crime, but from scene to scene, they frequently seem to be drifting around in a haze of self-obsession and indolence. The characters in Hannibal are probably equally self-obsessed, but they all have clear, quantifiable goals.

Hannibal initially wants to frame Will for his own crimes, but his goal shifts into an elaborate scheme to release Will’s ‘true potential’. Will’s goal remains remarkably solid across three seasons: bring down the Chesapeake Ripper, whoever it is, and somehow retain his sanity. Jack Crawford’s goal shifts from Will to Hannibal and back, but he essentially wants to save whichever of them is sane and take down whichever of them is not…

And everything everyone does, however elaborate, twisted and bizarre, is clearly designed to take them another step closer to their goal. There’s no moustache-twirling evil for evil’s sake. This gives a solidity, a believability to their actions that grounds them emotionally.

Of course, we all have our own breaking point. Undoubtedly there are viewers who have the exact opposite reaction – who think True Detective thoroughly believable and Hannibal too far-fetched. But for us as writers, the lesson remains: if you’re writing a heightened version of reality, you can ground it using focus, a fresh emotional premise, and strong character goals…

Things I Learned From… Daredevil

Being laid up sick, I watched Netflix’s new Daredevil TV series over the weekend. Now, a lot of extremely valid things have been said by others about the clichéd gender roles of the main characters, the lack of females in bit parts, and the nebulous nature of Hell’s Kitchen as a community. So I’ll leave those alone for the time being.

But one writing-related thing that occurred to me is – one of the hardest things to do when adapting source material is to change the time period it’s set in. Not because it’s hard to add modern technology or modern language. Nor because different presidents, wars and economic crashes will need to be referenced. There are always plenty of those to choose from.

No, the difficulty with moving a story from one decade to another is that the emotional meaning of things changes.

For example: if a character in the 1950’s buys a TV, they’re buying the future. Access to the shiny modern world of media, information, mass culture. If a character in 2015 buys a TV, it’s just another electronic box to add to the many in his house – and he’s probably only going to use it to play Xbox anyway!

The Daredevil that’s been transferred to our screens is supposedly taking place right now, but the emotional meaning of the stories is mired in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. They’re full of concepts and story elements that have totally changed meaning.

Boxing, for example. Fighting your way to fame and fortune was once the only way for a working-class boy to get out of the ghetto – but now boxing is a niche sport regarded with abhorrence by some. The athletes have gone to MMA instead, and the big money’s in televised wrestlers in gold lycra.

And how about newspapers? The series pays lip service to the idea that bloggers are taking over and print journalism is struggling, but the idea that a small daily newspaper could still survive without being a loss-making part of a larger conglomerate is hard to believe. Now, newspapers are what your grandparents’ generation read (and alas, may well die with them).

If you don’t believe me, try this simple test. Without thinking about it at all, acting on instinct and what you’ve seen on TV – what year did Matt Murdoch’s father die?

I would have guessed 1965. 1970 at the most. From the flashback scenes, from the idea of crooked bets and boxers taking a dive for the mob… The Sixties, right?

But Matt was what, eight to ten years old in those flashbacks? And as a newly qualified attorney, he surely can’t be aged over thirty now…

Which means his father died in approximately 1995.

Did any of those flashbacks feel like 1995 to you? The year of the Oklahoma truck bombing, Toy Story and Batman Forever at the cinema, the first DVDs, and Windows 95? I’m thinking not…

Well, you may say, does any of this matter?

I think it does. Because when you aren’t carefully examining what assumptions and emotional meanings you’re bringing with you from the source material, then you’re likely to bring assumptions you never meant to.

Does Matt have no significant female figures in his childhood because the writers have unthinkingly imported the dated idea that only men can be mentors? Do the women in his present fulfill highly gendered roles – secretary, researcher, nurse (not even a doctor?) – because those were imported, unexamined and un-translated into modern equivalents, from the source material?

Comic book heroes are like Robin Hood or King Arthur: they need to be re-moulded to address the needs of each new generation. Daredevil the television series was under no obligation to stick with any of the comics. Exactly as with Robin Hood and King Arthur, all previous versions remain intact, and there’ll be another version along eventually anyway. They could have addressed the dissonance these details create, but they chose to stick with what was familiar.

So if you ever find yourself adapting source material into a different decade, don’t make the same mistake…

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

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…!

Things I Learned From… Interstellar

In many ways, Interstellar is the ultimate Christopher Nolan film – a visually impressive panorama of space and time through which mere humans must fight their way back to what matters to them. Unfortunately, it also seems to have distilled his primary flaw as a writer – a lack of capacity to handle real human emotions.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Nolan’s work. The Prestige might just be my favourite film of all time, and Inception always features pretty high in my ever-changing Top 10. And the space-faring epic has always been a place where logic, brains, and scientific experience is valued above human relationships.

But Interstellar is, ostensibly, a movie about how human emotions transcend space and time. Which forces us to ask the question – why are most human emotions in the movie belittled or ignored?

Some spoilers follow. Obviously.

The driving relationship in the movie is between former engineer/shuttle pilot Cooper and his young daughter Murphy, whom he leaves behind when he’s selected for a deep-space mission that might just save mankind. And this relationship works just fine. He’s consumed by guilt and the desire to keep his promise and return, despite the time distortions that push them further and further apart.

Meanwhile, Murphy grows up under the tutelage of a family friend, pursuing science that might save more of mankind, both hating her father and following in his footsteps – entirely plausible for a conflicted child abandoned by a father she still idolises.

But Murphy isn’t Cooper’s only child. He has a son, Tom: whom he never mentions again after leaving Earth, and who exists in the Earth-bound storyline simply to be an obstacle to Murphy in act three. We’re led to believe Cooper’s relationship with Tom relationship is pretty good – and yet Cooper never expresses any desire to get back to his son, only his daughter? What’s that about?

And Cooper’s not the only one trying to get back to someone. Fellow astronaut Brand is in love with one of the pioneers on the target planets, and wants them to divert course to his planet to see if he’s alive. Cooper has already been blatantly making decisions based on what will get him home to his daughter more quickly, so you might expect the film – a film about love and family – to support that urge.

Nope. Brand is given a borderline hysterical speech about love reaching across space and time, and her argument is roundly rejected by Cooper. They go where he wants – a choice that exposes them to a psychopath on an uninhabitable world and kills a crew member. So it’s okay for Cooper to make mission-critical choices based on his emotions, but not for Brand? Why? Because she’s an emotional female?

By the end of the movie, Nolan has dug himself into a hole. Cooper’s supreme desire is to get back to his daughter, and the lesson he’s learned is (apparently) that he should never have left her – but if he hadn’t, the human race would never have survived. Plot and emotional through-line are directly opposed to one another.

So the final scenes are an ugly head-on collision of conflicting plot beats and emotions. Matthew McConaughey performs acting gymnastics, trying to plausibly send his past self information that will trigger the mission in one scene, and telling him not to go in the next. When Cooper’s finally reunited with an aged Murphy, she immediately tells him to get in a spaceship and go join Brand – a woman with whom he has no emotional connection beyond being workmates – on a barely habitable planet, because… well, who knows? It makes no damn sense at all.

So what’s the moral here? Make sure your plot and your emotional through-line are compatible. If your hero says family is the most important thing, make sure he acts like he means it – caring about his whole family, supporting others when they make similar choices, and ending the movie surrounded by what matters to him.

Keeping Things Fresh

Another subject that people on Twitter have asked me to cover in the blog is how to keep a long-running show “fresh”. After three seasons of Wolfblood, I suppose I should know a few things about that…

One of the things that CBBC have always pushed us to do is never repeat the same theme or story engine from season to season. The first season of Wolfblood was driven by the jeopardy of discovery: “Will the people around us find out our secret?” It would have been easy to repeat that threat in the second season – after all, it’s the obvious jeopardy in this kind of story, and there were still plenty more people to discover the secret! But it would have locked us into telling the same stories with different characters. So we moved away from that, exploring the wider Wolfblood world instead – and in season three, drawing our characters into a conspiracy on a scale they’d never faced before.

Another key to keeping the show fresh is to develop the minor characters. While the K’s as a unit function as fantastic comic relief, when we get one of them on their own, we can tell terrific character stories with them. The same applies to Jimi, Liam and Sam. The whole ‘werewolf hunter’ plot in season two began as a subplot to develop Liam’s character, and evolved into a key story element for the whole season.

Finding ways to use the adult world in a story without diminishing the child characters also gave us new stories and new emotions to explore. Tying the new characters strongly to the child characters – Rhydian’s mum, Jana’s father and pack – made them part of the regular characters’ stories, but great performances have made them popular characters in their own right.

It’s also easy to get stuck using a character in the same way all the time. Alric, Jana’s father, worked fantastically for us as a threat throughout season two – but the last time we brought him back, we decided to reverse all that and show him as a broken man who’s lost everything. Immediately everyone’s relationship with him changes and there are new stories to play. So look for logical, compelling ways to use characters in different ways.

Finally, don’t be afraid to break the format now and then. The season two episode “The Mottled Poppy” was essentially a haunted house story, completely different to anything we’d done before, and I think it helped show aspects of the characters and elements of our world that we wouldn’t have been able to show in a ‘normal’ episode. We couldn’t tell those kinds of stories every week, but once in while, they help keep the show interesting and dynamic.

Anyone else have any tips? What great techniques have you seen your favourite shows use to stay fresh and exciting?

All Aboard The Story Engine

A while ago, I asked Twitter for suggestions for blog posts, and one of the subjects that came up was the story engine.

As you might imagine, the story engine is the thing that’s pulling your narrative train up the hill, the reason why things are happening in the first place. It can take many forms – a specific goal, a threat to the protagonist or those he loves, a ticking clock. It can be extremely obvious – there’s no doubting what the story engine of Die Hard or Pacific Rim is – or, in a mumblecore or slice of life movie, it can be remarkably nebulous. But in any good story, it’s there, moving events along.

So, particularly if you’re one of those writers who starts off with character first, how do you find a story engine that will keep your narrative on the tracks? (Note to self: enough with the train metaphors!)

The best story engines are derived from the core of who your protagonist is. The story engine for Aliens is ‘stay alive and destroy the alien infestation’. But it arises out of the core of who Ellen Ripley is: a mother who has lost her child. That drives Ripley to protect the orphaned girl Newt, and it’s reflected back at her in the form of the Alien Queen, also a mother trying blindly to protect her offspring. The desire to stay alive, to protect your family (the company, the ‘family’ of marines, Newt) and wipe out whatever threatens it, is a powerful, primal story engine.

Which brings us to another property of the good story engine: it’s a primal desire. The screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder said that the best goals are the ones a caveman would understand. Survival, protecting family and tribe, physical security (money, property, job), love/sex, and the desire for some kind of personal fulfillment or artistic expression – these are the basic needs any human would recognize, and if they drive your story, you’re off to a good start.

For example, the fictional Mark Zuckerberg depicted in The Social Network might be a difficult character for us to empathize with, because his goal in founding Facebook is obscure. So Aaron Sorkin imposes a story engine that we’ll all understand by opening the movie with Zuckerberg being dumped by his girlfriend. That encourages us to filter everything he does through that rejection, to see it as a desire to win her back, or at least convince her she was wrong about him. With sex as our story engine, suddenly the rather dry story of how a smart guy founded a big company becomes primal, and accessible.

And the best story engines are broad enough to be flexible. Your story is going to go through a lot of twists and turns, victories and defeats, and hopefully a few unpredictable surprises. So your story engine needs to be broad enough to encompass changes of short-term goal, and the inevitable, necessary transformations your protagonist will undergo.

Unless we can feel the same story engine pulling us down the tracks, all the way through the narrative, the story will feel fragmented and confusing. The easiest way to avoid this is to ensure you have a smooth transition from want to need to goal to story engine. Take Die Hard: McClane’s ‘want’ is to spend Christmas persuading his wife to give up her job and come back to New York with him. His need is to realise her desires are as important as his. His goal is to save her: and the story engine, the fact that he’s the only person in any position to do so, is a mechanism for him to both realise his goal and move from want to need.

So, get that story engine working for you!