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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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.

The Journey Goes All The Way To The End

A blast from the past here, but… Captain America: The First Avenger has been bothering me ever since I first saw it. There’s so much in this film that’s brilliant. Truly brilliant. The first sixty minutes or so has a good shot at the title of Best Superhero Origin Movie Ever (only Batman Begins is a serious rival).

But then… what? There’s a bunch of stuff, not nearly enough Howling Commandos, a moment of genuine tragedy, and then the Arctic and the present day (the latter of which is actually handled really well). But none of it, well…

None of it seems to matter.

But why?

For a long while, I wondered if the movie has a villain problem. The Red Skull always felt a little out of keeping with the tone of the movie, and yes, more villain-hero screentime would certainly have helped established a meaningful conflict between them…

But I’m starting to think something else is wrong here. The real problem is, the hero’s emotional journey finishes partway through the movie.

Steve Rogers’ journey, within this movie, is essentially a quest to realise his own potential as a leader and a hero. There’s greatness in him from the start: Bucky sees it, Erskine sees it, Peggy sees it. But the rest of the world can’t. Even when he’s transformed into that deeply ironic Aryan ubermensch, the Army has no use for him except as, in his words, a performing monkey.

What Steve has to learn, ironically, is true courage. He’s always been happy to start fights he can’t win, but that’s just belligerence and self-righteousness. You can’t become a great leader that way. In disobeying orders to save his best friend, Steve assembles a team, shows leadership, and risks his life for someone he cares about. This is the moment he truly becomes Captain America –

And in any other movie, that would be the whole narrative. Bucky’s (wonderfully conflicted) shout “Let’s hear it for Captain America” feels like the last line of a movie – because, emotionally, it is. Steve has undergone his emotional transformation, for this movie at least, and the narrative should be over.

But it can’t be, because there’s still so much set-up for the Marvel universe at large to be got through.

Wait, I hear you cry: there’s Bucky’s death, for a start. Isn’t that part of Steve’s emotional journey? Yes, definitely – their relationship is the key to the whole (cinematic) Captain America universe –

But the writers have a problem here. It’s part of Steve’s emotional journey in the next movie. Hit it too hard here, and you not only risk tipping the audience off to what will happen next, but you undercut the next movie, leaving it repeating emotional beats you’ve already played here. So, inevitably, Bucky’s death has to be underplayed for the good of the larger narrative, leaving the second half of Act Two of this movie weaker than anyone would have wanted it.

And there’s the big showdown with the villain, right? Yes, but… really, where’s the emotional drive in Act Three? Aside from Steve’s final sacrifice – and remember, the teaser to the movie has already told us he survives – where are the stakes, the choices, the failures and the victories? What are we being asked to feel?

(Actually, I’m starting to think that Act Three is the weak point in many Marvel movies. Only The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have a truly satisfying Act Three – and why? Emotional journeys. But that’s a subject for another time.)

The point here, though, is that Steve’s emotional journey is already concluded. His choices here reinforce who he is, but they don’t reveal new elements of him, they don’t change him. He’s still that person he became when he turned the Captain America persona from a stage act into a hero – and if your hero isn’t changing and growing, then the action he undertakes is inevitably flat and emotionally meaningless.

So what can we learn here?

When adapting existing material, it’s easy to assume that in order to reach point F, you simply have to work through points A – E. To set up Steve Rogers in the modern world, simply romp briskly through everything that happened before he got there. But your character may not be undergoing a single united emotional journey during that period. There may be several, which the original material had time to cover – and you don’t. But if you don’t find an emotional journey that will cover the whole of your chosen narrative, you end up with some scenes that have meaning, and some that just don’t…

Things I Learned From… Divergent

Another month, another adaptation of a young adult novel! With The Hunger Games and the now exhausted Twilight franchise having established a market for female-led action-adventure for the teen audience, it now seems like everyone’s at it.

Divergent has all the usual boxes ticked: female protagonist who discovers she’s some kind of chosen one, future dystopia with strict rules that don’t quite make sense (“We’re going to stop conflict between political and social factions by… dividing everyone into factions. Yeah, that’ll work.”) Add a cute boy, a female villain and some big themes and we’re done!

Well, not quite.

The lesson I think we can learn as writers is – a central character who’s different isn’t enough.

Tris is Divergent, talented in every one of the five virtues this society uses to divide its population into thinkers, doers, the compassionate, guards against a threat that doesn’t actually seem to exist, and… ah, no one remembers the fifth one, right? So far, so good – but what does this mean for her?

As far as I can tell, nothing much. Being Divergent is something she simply is, not something she has to achieve, and that makes her a passive heroine.

In a well-intentioned attempt to cover this, the writers have filled the story with smaller goals. She has to hide her abilities – but since another Divergent turns out to have clues to theirs tattooed all over their back, clearly there isn’t that much danger of discovery. She chooses a largely unsuitable faction to join – but anyone can do that, it turns out, so this plotline has no bearing on her Divergent status. She trains endlessly to join this faction, despite having to be nursed along by her training officer and showing no great aptitude for it, and her divergency is of no discernable help.

Oh, and she has to prepare for a test that might expose her divergency, but that entire plotline derails when it turns out her training officer’s reactions to the test, not mention his backstory, are far more interesting and complex than hers…

In other words, she spends three-quarters of the movie running after goals that don’t relate to the supposed core concept of the movie, and which even make her look like a failure to the audience, as she’s rescued again and again by the male lead.

We have no measure of what it means, to her or to others, to be Divergent. We get no sense of how she thinks, how she feels, or how it’s terrible and/or wonderful to be different. Divergency remains just a label that makes her hunted, a shallow attempt to appeal to the teenage sense of alienation.

It’s only when the bad guys’ ultimate plan – which has nothing to do with Tris, and which she ends up fighting against almost accidentally – is revealed that Tris finds a real motivation to act, and by then it’s too late to engage the audience, especially in a 139 minute epic.

So let’s learn the lesson: action is not enough. Keeping your heroine busy is not enough. She has to want something – and being something and wanting something are not the same…

Things I Learned From… Dallas Buyers Club

Of all this year’s Oscar contenders, Dallas Buyers Club is the one that seems to be flying under the radar – in the UK, at least. It doesn’t have the ground-breaking technical achievements of Gravity or the all-star supporting cast of Twelve Years A Slave. It’s a movie that promises little in the way of uplifting  experiences: a movie about a man fighting the might of the pharmaceutical industry in the early days of the AIDS epidemic is never going to have a happy ending.

But it’s a tremendous piece of cinema, shot with extraordinary urgency and boasting truly Oscar-worthy performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about it, though, is the way it illustrates the great advantage of the cinematic film – the freedom that having a captive audience gives you to present an utterly unlikeable character.

For the first twenty minutes (at least) of the movie, Ron Woodroof is not a man most of us would cultivate as a best mate. He’s a promiscuous, drug-taking drunk – and the movie makes no pretence that any of that is particularly enjoyable, even to him. We first see him taking illegal bets and trying to flee with the money. He’s homophobic, has little respect for women, and doesn’t even seem to like his own friends that much…

I did not like this guy at first. If this had been a TV show, I probably would have changed channels. And by doing so, I would have missed a tremendous piece of drama.

The brilliance of the cinematic experience is that you’re committed: you’ve paid your money, you’re in your seat with your popcorn, and you don’t want to disturb the rest of the row by walking out. So you stay – and the movie has a chance to win you over, to show you a transformation on a scale that could never have happened if it had started with a more ‘likeable’ character.

Some people say that watching a movie at home is the same as watching it in a cinema. But is it? A DVD or download, like a TV channel, is perilously easy to turn off – forcing films to compete for the audience’s attention by making characters easier to bond with, easier to immediately grasp, and of course, likeable. Dallas Buyers Club is a movie that might have tested the patience of a’ home cinema’ audience – and that means it may be one of a dying breed…

 

 

 

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…