The TARPIS Theory

…and no, that’s not a typo! Stick with me…

So, let’s talk action sequences.

Some people say you shouldn’t put too much effort into your action sequences, because the director and the stunt coordinator will inevitably throw them out and design their own. But that, frankly, is a load of bull poop.

Firstly, the job of every sequence, every scene, every word on the page is to sell your script – and a half-assed version of anything, even an action sequence, isn’t going to sell anything to anyone.

And secondly? If you write the most exciting and original action sequence imaginable, I guarantee you that the producer who buys your script will want to see some version of it in the movie.

Think of the inevitable changes to your action sequences as being, in effect, another rewrite. When you write the second draft, you know there’s going to be a draft three, four, and probably five – but that’s no excuse for slacking off on draft two. You still deliver your best. Write the best damn action sequence you can, and worry later about whether it’s going to change or not.

So how do you write a great action sequence? You remember the magic acronym: TARPIS.

Now, you’ve all heard of the TARDIS, right? And what does that stand for? Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.  Excellent. Ten Doctor Who points to everyone.

Now, what you need to do in order to create a great action sequence is to shift one of those words a bit. Because action scene writing is all about

TIME AND RELATIVE POSITION IN SPACE

Action scenes are all about who’s where, in relation to whom, and how long they have before the next disaster strikes. In that car chase, where is the hero’s car? Where is the villain’s car in relation to him – falling behind, or catching up? What vehicles and other obstacles lie between them? How much distance does he have to cover before the lights go red in order shake his pursuers? And, maybe, what’s waiting round the next corner that we know about and he doesn’t?

It’s knowledge of all these variables that creates tension. If we don’t know precisely what’s happening, how can we be worried for the characters? The instant the audience loses track of any of the variables, you lose them.

So your job when writing an action scene is be absolutely sure what the obstacles and dangers facing your characters are, and then find ways to convey them clearly and effectively to the audience – ways that build tension and convey the characters’ fear, desperation, wants and needs.

The Ten-Second Version

I’m currently working on a spy thriller, and near the beginning of the film, our protagonist is presented to a team of spies as their new recruit.

In the first draft, I then launched into a series of tests and trials for her to prove herself worthy of joining the team, and to impress the team leader – establishing the primary relationship of the story, between new recruit and mentor-antagonist.

But that sequence never felt right. It slowed down the narrative. It felt obvious, predictable. It just wasn’t working.

And then this morning, I realized – I need the Ten-Second Version of that sequence. I need the one test, the one question to answer, that will convince the team leader that the protagonist is the only person for the job.

Why? Because near the beginning of a story, the dramatic process is not important – the decisions are.

Once your story is well underway, and especially in the third act, dramatic process – how the protagonist wins – becomes very important indeed. The audience derives enormous pleasure from seeing the protagonist learn from their mistakes, enlist the help of their allies, exploit the villain’s weaknesses and grow into their own power as a hero – and all of that needs to happen through specific, detailed actions.

But early on in the story, the dramatic process doesn’t have all of this emotional weight, and we can take shortcuts to get to the good stuff, especially when it’s near inevitable. (After all, if my protagonist doesn’t get onto the team, there’ll be no story, so it’s not like I can play this for suspense!)

All I need is one good reason why the team leader would accept her, one brief moment of proving herself – and the justification for that decision will play out through the rest of the movie.

So next time you’re struggling with motivating a decision in the first act of your story, consider – do you actually need the Ten-Second Version?

The Scene By Scene Outline

The scene-by-scene outline, or step outline, is a major part of the television development process. Every script moves from an initial, less detailed outline to a scene-by-scene before reaching script stage. This allows the writer and the script editor to examine the structure of the episode before adding the additional complication of dialogue, and to ensure that the number of scenes is workable for the shooting schedule.

As an example, here’s a snippet from the scene by scene outline for Wolfblood season one, episode five:

EXT. FIELDS – NIGHT – 22:08 

Wolf-Maddy and wolf-Rhydian bound away into the night, playfully enjoying every second of the full moon…

INT. CORRIDOR/ THE K’S ROOM – HOTEL – NIGHT – 22:45

Shannon goes to bed. She peeks in the open door of the K’s room – they’re flapping round and chattering – and Maddy’s bed is still empty. This is deeply suspicious…

EXT. TOM’S ROOM – HOTEL – DAWN – 06:00 DAY TWO

Tom has fallen asleep propped up against the bedroom window, looking for Maddy. And there she is, sneaking back to the hotel – but luckily he doesn’t wake up until she’s gone…

INT. HALLWAY – HOTEL – DAWN – 06:05

Tom tiptoes downstairs – to find Rhydian explaining himself to Mr. Jeffries. “I must have been concussed after all, sir – I don’t remember anything after leaving the quiz, and then half an hour ago I woke up in a field!”

Jeffries is suspicious, but he settles for threatening a trip to hospital the moment they leave the island. Rhydian says he’ll make sure the Vaughans take him for a check-up… Unable to prove Rhydian’s done anything wrong, Jeffries stalks away.

Tom asks Rhydian a few questions of his own, playing matey with him – “You can tell me” – But Rhydian’s defensive. He particularly denies that Maddy was outside with him last night. Suspicious, Tom watches him pad upstairs to shower, bare feet leaving muddy footprints.

 

As you would expect, it’s a basic summary of each scene in order, without dialogue as such. These are fairly short scenes – dialogue-heavy or complex physical scenes like chases or fights would require more detail – but you get the idea.

They’re normally a feature of TV writing, but I’m increasingly convinced of the advantages of a scene-by-scene outline for all kinds of writing, including movies. And here’s why.

It forces you to be specific. It’s fatally easy in an outline to write, say, “Freda searches the house for the stolen money”, and then get to script stage and be unsure how to tackle that. In the scene-by-scene outline, you have to decide which rooms she searches in which order, what she finds and doesn’t find, and how she reacts to it all. No more fudging details.

It encourages you to be visual. When you know you’re not writing any dialogue yet, your creative mind compensates by supplying visual ways to tell the same story. I find I have a far stronger idea of what a scene’s going to look like and feel like if I write a scene-by-scene outline first.

It speeds up the process. The agonising thing about writing a brief outline is that it’s not a ‘real’ story. It’s a sort of extended TV Guide blurb, and it’s nowhere near as fulfilling as writing real scenes. The agonising thing about jumping straight to script stage, though, is that it’s so slow that it’s easy to lose the energy and the dramatic thread of your story. The scene-by-scene outline falls halfway between the two. It’s close enough to a script to feel satisfying and fun to write, but without dialogue or the full detail of description, you can get it down on the page much faster, allowing you to keep up the momentum at this difficult stage.

It forces you to define how the story advances in each scene. Yes, that scene in the Hagia Sophia is going to look wonderful – but what actually happens in it? What is the scene for? What changes during it? If you don’t know what to write in the scene-by-scene outline for this scene, chances are you don’t need the scene.

It gives you a real sense of the shape of your story, without the distractions of beautiful dialogue. The scene-by-scene outline is all about plot, and this is your last chance to get the plot sorted before you layer all that lovely dialogue and get over-attached to the current version of things…

So if you have trouble moving from the ‘good idea’ stage to the ‘first draft’ stage, scene-by-scene outlines might just be the tool for you!

5 Ways To Reinvigorate Your Writing

Been a bit quiet on the blog while I’ve been finishing up Wolfblood season three, and now I’m entering that post-season slump that all writers slip into once a big project is finished. You know, the one where you look at all the other things you need to get started on and groan quietly to yourself. It’s not that you don’t want to write them – you may even be excited about them – but suddenly, getting started on a new project seems like really hard work!

So what can you do about this? Here are some things that I find helpful:

Change your technique. If you usually type an outline, hand-write it, or put it on index cards. You can even dictate it to a speech-to-text app and alarm  the cat with your graphically murderous imagination…

Change your surroundings. Work at the kitchen table instead of your desk. Work in a cafe, or even rent an office space for a few weeks. If you have no choice about the space you work in, try rotating your desk ninety degrees. (But don’t allow this to turn into that classic procrastination technique, “tidying your workspace”…)

Take your characters for a walk. Before starting work on each episode/ act of a film, go for a brisk walk, pretending your characters are with you. What do they notice that you normally wouldn’t? What do they make of the rich woman hailing a taxi, or the homeless guy at the bus stop? Which cafe or pub would they like to stop at, instead of your usual one? Once you have a clearer idea of the characters, the story will flow.

Seek out new experiences. Writers are novelty-seekers – we write partly to create novelty in our ordinary lives. Go experience an art form or an evening class you wouldn’t normally consider. Or go to a new place – even somewhere as simple as going into a shop that sells things you couldn’t usually buy. Novelty primes the brain to create.

Be sure you’re taking care of basic needs. If you’ve just finished a big project, sleep well, eat well, get plenty of gentle exercise. When this new project is a huge hit, you’re going to need to be at your best…

Anyone else have any good tips?

No One Talks About Nothing

So, I saw Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit a couple of weeks ago. Now, there’s a lot that could be said about this movie – for a start, it’s a movie about a Wall Street banker saving the world! – but here’s the thing that stuck with me most. Cargo pants.

You know what I mean. There’s a conversation where Ryan’s girlfriend teases him about how he used to wear cargo pants. Whatever they are. And they both say witty things and look like they’re having great fun, and it’s supposed to make us think they have a really deep relationship…

But it’s really a conversation about nothing. It doesn’t relate to them as people at all. For a conversation that’s supposed to humanise them, it actually turns them into simulacrums of humans, the smiling but formless non-people you see in clothing catalogues. 

You see this kind of conversation quite a lot in movies. Workmates quipping about how bad the coffee is, fighter pilots teasing each other about last night’s date disasters… Conversations that are so generic that they mean nothing.

Real people don’t say “Wasn’t it hilarious when I used to wear cargo pants?”  They talk about that exact pair of pants they had, the ones with the tear in the left knee, the ones they bought in a sale in that boutique in San Diego, the ones they left behind in the hotel and had to drive back and get them,  but the maid had already thrown them away…

You get the idea.  Conversation is specific, detailed, often unlikely and that’s why it convinces us these fictional creations are actual people. So next time you find yourself writing generic conversation, dig in and find the details that will make it real…

Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome

Yesterday I was at a BBC Writersroom event for action-adventure writers, listening to Adrian Hodges speaking about the BBC’s upcoming show The Musketeers. He had a lot of interesting things to say about reinventing familiar characters, about establishing the tone and world of a story, and about creating stories from a book with surprisingly little plot.

However, the thing I found most interesting was what he called ‘Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome’ – the way some shows trot out their supposedly all-powerful and scary villain every week, only to have him roundly defeated by the hero yet again.

The way I see it, there’s an understandable tension here. For your major villain, you cast the best actor available. You want to use him as much as possible. He wants to actually have something to do – something interesting, inventive, something that stretches him. The audience think they want to see him as much as possible –

But the more often they see him, the less effective he is. Because every time your supposedly all-powerful and terrifying villain is defeated by the hero, he becomes less scary. Eventually he becomes a buffoon, a figure of figure who the hero runs rings around, as the Sheriff becomes in many Robin Hood stories. Now you’ve got a dissatisfied actor, a bored audience, and all you ever did was give the public what they said they wanted…

Is there an answer to this? I think it might lie in something I’ve alluded to before – one of the show rules on Leverage, which co-creator John Rogers calls “Sterling Never Loses”.

Recurring villain Jim Sterling is used sparingly, which helps avoid Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome – but more importantly, he’s used cleverly. Whenever he appears, he wants something specific that runs counter to what our heroes want – and he always gets it.

Our heroes don’t go to jail, and they get what they want too, or some of it – but not by defeating Sterling. Though they may start the episode in opposition to his wants and needs, they end up working alongside him, or around where he isn’t looking, not directly against him. This allows both sides to walk away with what they want, each having benefitted from the other’s involvement: honour is satisfied, and the simmering conflict between them is saved for another day.

It’s an elegant solution to a perennial problem. And not a bumbling Sheriff in sight…

Theft Ain’t What It Used To Be

As many of you have probably already seen in the news, there was an audacious heist this weekend. But it wasn’t gold, or diamonds, or even drugs, and it wasn’t pulled off by masked men with guns or cat burglars.

Instead, someone sat at their computer and hacked a trading site called The Sheep Market, stealing the entire trading balance of Bitcoins, with a real-world market value that has been estimated anywhere between $5m and $100m. Since a lot of the trade on The Sheep Market – now bankrupt and closed down – seems to have been in illegal drugs, it may well serve their customers right. But the story does raise an interesting issue for screenwriters, which can best be summed up by asking a question –

How would you turn this theft into a heist movie?

Sounds promising. Clever thief, potentially shady targets, the victims tracking their attempts to launder the money across the web in real time… Until you try to dramatise the story into scenes – and realise every scene is going to be people staring at computer screens and hammering at their keyboards. (Which, I’m told, is not hacking actually works, but anyway…)

Theft used to be entirely personal. When Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor, he actually went into their houses or waylaid them as they rode through the forest. Then wealth accumulated in banks, and both in real life and in the movies, we moved to the Bonnie & Clyde model of bank robbery – and simultaneously branched out into the clever heist, as in Rififi and Ocean’s 11.

But we’re rapidly moving towards a world where money won’t be physical at all. So how are we going to write crime movies when there’s nothing to be stolen but zeros and ones in a secure computer file somewhere?

Art theft movies have been been out of fashion for a while now. I can see them making a comeback – but art and other object of value actually exist and can be physically taken, making for a dynamic and tension-filled story that’s easier to follow than the movement of theoretical numbers from account to account.

And of course, one of these days, someone will actually work out how to make a hacker-heist movie that actually works…

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Plot Twists Are Unfair

I often listen to movie soundtracks when I’m writing, and listening to one particular piece of music always reminds me of the  “Oh no!” movie moment it accompanies. Which got me thinking –

All the best plot twists are fundamentally unfair to the protagonist.

Your highly skilled protagonist has fought her way to the top floor of the skyscraper to rescue her sister – but the hostage is in fact in the heavily fortified penthouse one floor above, and it’s wired to blow if the protagonist enters.

Your protagonist the cake baker has pulled out all the stops to qualify for the Pastry Chef Of The World Competition – but this year, his arch-enemy has arranged for a savory round!!

Both those protagonists have worked hard, been brave and determined and sacrificed their own needs to get where they are. They deserve a break. They deserve, at the very least, justice. That’s only fair. But your plot should never allow them to get it.

Life should be completely and utterly unfair to your protagonist – with a little help from his enemies – because that’s what’s going to force him to rise to the challenge and become a better human being.

Qualities Of The Great Blockbuster Movie, part three

Many’s the time I’ve left the cinema with friends and said “Wasn’t that movie brilliant?” only for them to respond, “Yeah, but I really wanted to know more about that guy/that machine they had/what happened when they met first twenty years ago.”

And it’s only just occurred to me that this is not the sign of a bad movie – it’s the sign of a very good one. It’s the sign of a fully-realised story world, a universe that’s not a picture that only looks real from one angle, but a hologram that holds up from every angle of scrutiny.

If a minor plot point or a walk-on character has such depth and such emotion invested in them that you want to know more, then the writer has done their job very well indeed…