Logic Is Your Friend

If there’s one thing writers hate grappling with, it’s plot logic. “But she can’t fly the plane – she’s in the infantry!” “But there are only four hours between these two scenes – how did he drive from LA to the Canadian border?” That’s impossible. That’s illogical. That makes no sense.

This is why so many amateur writers try to ignore it. “Ah, I need that to happen to make the plot work. No one will notice that it’s physically impossible.”

Big mistake.

Of course we have to fudge the details now and then – for dramatic effect, for budget or location practicalities, even to fit the ethos of a TV channel. (The characters in Wolfblood mysteriously reappear from wolf-form fully clothed, because CBBC understandably doesn’t want young actors to film nude scenes. It makes no sense logically, but we cover it as best we can.)

But try to fudge a major plot point, and it will blow up in your face.

So we should hate logic, right? Well, no. The thing about logic is, sometimes it unlocks the entire story for you.

I’m planning a feature script at the moment. Essentially it’s a contained thriller, with a group of people stuck in one location over a long period (and, of course, slowly going nuts). I had a good group of characters and some interesting dilemmas and crises for them to solve. I even had a pretty good ending.

What I didn’t know – what I’ve been going backwards and forwards on for months – was who the protagonist is.

Then I started thinking about the jobs the various characters do – and I realized that one of the characters, purely by virtue of his job, is a regular visitor here, but not a local. The others don’t really know him that well. They don’t necessarily like or trust him, certainly not in a life-threatening situation. He has no roots here, no function, not even a place to stay or any possessions when he gets stranded here. He’s a drain on resources. He’s going to have to prove himself if he wants to survive.

So, of course, he’s the protagonist, because he has the most learning and changing to do.

Moral of the story? Always pay attention to the plot logic, because sometimes, logic is your friend.

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.

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 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!