Book Review: The Art of Screenplays by Robin Mukherjee

Screenwriting is a creative process and like all creative things, it’s a bit messy. Not that you’d think it reading some of the screenwriting books out there. Robin Mukherjee’s The Art of Screenplays: A Writer’s Guide is a rare thing – a screenwriting book that talks about story structure but never loses sight of what it’s really like to be a writer, in the middle of that messy, exciting, sometimes bewildering creative process.

book review - the art of screenplays - robin mukherjeeThe book covers the key areas of screenplay development; how to gather, ferment and communicate story, understanding structure through observation, exploring character, developing theme and the art of writing dialogue. It’s all in there and you’ll learn everything you need to know to craft your polished script but in a way that resonates with you.

His section on the early stage of developing a story was particularly helpful because it reflects that very random, bitty part of the process that so many screenwriting books skip over. It’s hugely reassuring to hear that you’re not alone in starting with moments and scenes and ideas and characters and plot beats all in a confused muddle and not necessarily even part of the same piece of work. Yes, the finished screenplay will have a very particular form and shape and there are expectations it probably should meet if it’s to ‘wow’ the industry. But The Art of Screenplays dives in to the swamp of ideas and ‘stuff’ with you and helps you to navigate your own way from the creative muddle to that finished script.

It’s become one of the books I recommended most often to writers. Because it’s written by such an experienced screenwriter, it really speaks to writers. So many screenwriting books are analytical; they are great at dissecting what makes up a successful screenplay, so you know what you’re aiming for. Some even take you through the process, step by step, in a very specific order – first you have your concept, then you add some characters, and so on until, voila – you’ve crafted the perfect script! But none of that has ever felt connected to the experience of actually creating something original.

It is also one of the most beautifully written books about screenwriting that I’ve ever read. So often our screenwriting books are dry, bullet-pointy affairs. This is not. This is a book to immerse yourself in. It’s a book you will learn a lot from whilst, I hope, having actually enjoyed reading it.

Genre: Writing Horror by James Moran

I kill people for money.

Genre - Horror - James Moran - Severance Photo Nick Wall

Severance (2006)

Fake people, obviously. In scripts. But they don’t feel fake to me. I have to breathe life into them, make them full, realistic characters, with hopes, dreams, prospects – and then kill them. It’s sadistic and awful and weird and I love it.

You have to love horror if you want to write it. If you don’t love the genre, if you don’t respect it, it’ll show on the page. Don’t write horror because you think it’ll sell, just write a story YOU want to tell, something you’re dying to get out. Doesn’t matter what is selling now, because the one thing that always sells is a good script.

Horror movies are like romantic comedies – everyone thinks they’re easy to write. But they’re not. You can’t just kill off a bunch of teenagers in a cabin (especially not in a romantic comedy). You need a proper story, strong characters, a believable villain, genuine scares, and a great ending.

Story

Horror is tricky, because you don’t just need one story – you need TWO. There’s the normal story that happens before anything goes wrong – and then there’s the horror story that kicks in and interrupts the first story. Set up the characters, put their stories into motion – and then fuck their shit up.

The normal story should be big and compelling enough to be a movie in itself, even if the horror part never happens. This is crucial. You should be hoping that it doesn’t become a horror movie! Once we’re invested in the characters and their situation, we should be as shocked and horrified as they are when things go wrong.

Ideally, you want the horror part to intersect nicely with the non-horror part – it should have some connection, one of them should help to resolve the other.

Characters

The characters have to be real, you have to believe in them. They aren’t just there to get killed in creative ways. We need to care about them, otherwise we won’t be scared – if they’re just dull cardboard cutouts, we won’t care if they get killed. Make every death hurt, make us yell at the screen and hope they survive.

They don’t have to be flawless angels – they really shouldn’t be – but they need to be people we can relate to. They’re our representatives on screen, and we should root for them to get through it safely.

What would you do in their shoes? Think about all those times you shouted at people in a horror movie, saying “why don’t you just do THIS?” – do that! Let them react in a realistic way. Let them be smart, let them try to get out of the situation. That way it’s scarier – they’re clever, but they’re STILL in danger.

How would YOU get out of each situation in the story? Every character is more or less a part of you, so think how you’d behave if you were feeling brave, if you were scared, if you were angry, sad, selfish, vengeful. Sometimes they’ll surprise you with hidden depths. You never know how anyone will react in a life or death situation.

Villain

You should spend as much time on your villain as you do on your main characters. Whether they’re a human, a ghost, a demon from another dimension, they need a reason to exist. What do they want? Why are they trying to hurt/kill the main characters? What’s their endgame?

They MUST have a believable, consistent plan, it’ll make them easier to write and to understand – even if you never explain their motivation on screen. It’s not enough for them to just be crazy. Why are they doing this? What made them this way? What do they hope to gain? Money, power, vengeance? What would make YOU do the things they do, what would push you over the edge?

If you were trying to do what the villain does, how would you do it? How would you stop the characters escaping? It’s almost a conversation between you, the villain, and the main characters. How would I get out of this? How would I stop me? How would I stop me from stopping me??

Scares

If you’ve set up your story, characters and villain properly, the scares will develop naturally. This is where you have to make yourself worry – think of the worst case scenario. What is the worst possible thing that could happen? Now how do you make it even worse? What would be the LAST thing you’d want to see appear in a darkened corridor? What is worse than being killed?

What might a determined villain do to stop you from foiling their plan? What might THIS villain do, how many people would they kill? What would make you jump out of your seat in the cinema, or when watching at home, alone, in the dark?

Try not to do fake jump scares. If you do, use them sparingly – a little goes a long way. If your horror movie has more fake scares than real ones, something has gone wrong.

Ending

You have several options here. The hero can overcome the threat, or fail and escape, or fail and get killed, or get killed *while* they overcome the threat. It’s horror, you don’t always need any survivors – but don’t cheat, don’t use “they all get killed” to hide the fact that you don’t have an explanation for the mystery!

If your horror and non-horror stories have been developing together, then you could tie them both up at the same time. The characters could use their normal skills to overcome the horror. Or they could overcome the horror another way, and that victory makes their normal life better.

The ending should be surprising, exciting, and satisfying – happy or sad, it should feel *right*. It should be inevitable, but not obvious. Push the characters into an impossible situation, and figure out how they escape. The audience has mere minutes to guess how a scene will end, you have months! Lead the audience down one path, then surprise them with a stealth attack.

It’s a game, a magic trick using misdirection. They’ll be trying to guess the answer, so do the opposite of what they expect. If you’ve done the opposite several times in a row, they’ll start expecting it – so do something else. The ending is like the punchline. Write a great ending, and they’ll forget any bits they didn’t like, they’ll just want to watch it all again.

The great thing about horror is the wide variety of stories you can write – from splattery comedy-horror to brutal slashers to subtle supernatural pieces. You can tell any kind of tale. Funny, scary, gory, tense, shocking, satirical, whatever you like. You can explore the human condition much more easily when people are fighting for their lives. And that’s why I enjoy killing people for money. Fake people. In scripts. Mostly.

Make it real. Make us care. Make it hurt. Make it count. But above all – make it good.

Genre - Writing Horror - James MoranJames Moran wrote ‘Severance’, ‘Cockneys Vs Zombies’, ‘Tower Block’, and episodes of ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Torchwood’, ‘Spooks’, ‘Primeval’, ‘Crusoe’, and ‘Spooks: Code 9′. His other work includes a Highlander audio play, the “TARDIS” Doctor Who Adventure Game, ‘Girl Number 9′, and ‘Crazy For You’, a short film he wrote and directed, starring Arthur Darvill and Hannah Tointon. He can be found on Twitter at @jamesmoran, and his website is www.jamesmoranwriter.com

‘Story’ Versus ‘Save the Cat’ – Screenwriting Book Review by Phil Lowe

I can’t claim to have read every book on screenwriting (I don’t suffer from procrastination quite that badly) but I’ve done my fair share, and these two hardy perennials are the books I return to most often when I’m stuck or needing a compass to navigate through a rewrite.

story vs save the cat screenwriting book reviewLike good scripts, they are a mix of the original and the familiar. Both, in their way, are shining examples of “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” “But which is better?” you can’t help asking. And I have to answer: it depends. They are both written by opinionated and provocative individuals, fiery pulpit preachers of The One True Way. Both are dealing, one way or another, with the Three Act Structure; each finds a very different way into it.

Story is the book which made me want to write fiction again after ten years in the world of business writing. A colleague lent it to me after a conversation about the design of team exercises. I read it and, like Keats on first looking into Chapman’s Homer, the scales fell from my eyes. I thought: “finally, after all these years, I get it – I see why I’ve never managed to plot effectively.”

It is a dense and thorough tome. Don’t enter without a distress flare and your eight favourite records. Lose yourself in it and you will emerge days later, dusty, bloody and gasping for air, your head ringing with phrases like “The Negation of the Negation” and “Extra-personal conflict”. Then, as the dust settles, you are left with simple, elegant ways of thinking about character and story construction – like the idea that story is driven by the gap between what a character expects to happen and what actually does happen. It’s a principle that applies not only to action, but dialogue as well (watch any episode of Eastenders to see how they make the dialogue crackle through each character giving the answer the other doesn’t expect).

Story is so thorough, though, it can put you off. Every time I look at those wheel diagrams of how to use minor characters to show the protagonist’s qualities, I find myself getting one of my headaches and I despair of ever being able to write anything vaguely well constructed. But if you go in with a “cherry picking” mindset, you can’t lose, so rich is it in nuggets.

So Story sounds like the complete package – surely the only book you’d need? Well…

At the beginning of a school holiday, my head teacher wife asked, in that casual way she does, “Are you busy over the next couple of weeks?” Five minutes later, I had “nomineered” to write an original school play for a cast of forty from scratch and have it ready to go at the beginning of the following term. This was no time for “The Negation of the Negation” – I reached instinctively for Save The Cat.

If McKee is the great academic of screenwriting theory, then Snyder is its ultimate pragmatist. Unashamedly populist where McKee is bombastic, his book eschews “Archplot” and “The spine of unconscious desire” for “The Pope In the Pool” and “Bad Guys Close In”. His adherence to box office takings as the ultimate measure of a film’s success will rile many (where McKee idolises Casablanca and Chinatown, here we kneel before Legally Blonde and Miss Congeniality). But this is not a man who wants to be seen as deep and intellectual – we are talking, after all, of the writer of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Put your prejudices aside, and you will find his legendary “beat sheet” a lifesaver if you want to generate coherent plot quickly. He enables you to step back and see the arc of your story with stunning simplicity, where McKee can make your head spin. His material on creating titles and premises by looking for the irony in your idea is a great thought starter, and like McKee he reminds us that story is as much about character as plot – which is where the title phrase comes in (I won’t spoil it for you).

If you go back to McKee after Snyder, you will find not only more subtlety but a more inclusive approach. Snyder sits Memento atop his demonology (It doesn’t follow his beat sheet and it didn’t make money), where McKee would happily include it in his “Antiplot” category. For Snyder, it’s not worth writing if it doesn’t fit; for McKee, everything fits somewhere.

If you can’t face buying both, which should you buy? Tough question: you can’t pick up Story and use it straight out of the box in the same way as Save The Cat! – but on the flipside, Story has more richness. If I had to come off the fence (while still keeping one buttock on it), I’d say go for Story if you’re rewriting and want to give your work a thorough stress test; but if you’re staring at a blank page and want to get the juices flowing, Save The Cat will probably unstick you the fastest.

Before you regard either as a panacea, though, consider: ultimately, both authors remind us why screenwriting is so ballsaching: both, in their own way, acknowledge that while there is a formula we must follow, we must somehow follow it without being formulaic. Sadly, you will not find the answer to the latter quest in any screenwriting book.

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist. He originally trained and worked as an actor and has a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com

Screenwriter Interview – Tripper Clancy

Script Pipeline Winner Tripper Clancy found management through the contest and this year has gone on to sell projects to 20th Century Fox & QED International.  Tripper has kindly agreed to share his experiences with Script Angel.

HM: The script that won the Script Pipeline contest was Henry the Second. I’m guessing that wasn’t the first spec script you’d completed. How many scripts had you written by then and how long had you been writing for?

TC: I can’t tell you an exact number, but I had probably written around a dozen feature-length specs before I wrote Henry. I had been in LA for five years at that point, writing for another two on top of that if you count film school. Most of the work I had done until then was with my writing partner, so Henry was an opportunity for me to stretch my legs in a solo effort and find my voice. I’m glad I wrote it.

HM: Winning the Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest in 2010 seemed to open lots of doors for you. Was that the first big contest you’d submitted to?

TC: Script Pipeline was the first (and only) big contest I entered. Since I was already a represented writer, I thought, “What good would a screenwriting contest do me?” But my manager at the time didn’t believe in Henry enough to show it to producers, something about it not being commercial enough—which was heart-breaking—so I decided to test the waters myself and submit it. When I won the contest, it validated my work and directly led to my new manager and agents. I’m still with them today.

HM: Have you always written stories? When did you realise you wanted to be a writer/screenwriter and that it could be a career?

TC: I grew up playing classical piano and guitar, so my first love was song writing. I probably wrote 100 songs by the time I was 18, but it was just a hobby, a fun creative outlet. My junior year in college at Wake Forest University, I took an intro screenwriting course. I’ve always loved movies, so I thought it’d be a fun class, but it was more than just fun. It tapped into that same creative outlet in a cathartic way. After that semester, I knew I wanted this to be my career… I just didn’t know how much work was ahead of me. Ignorance is bliss.

HM: What was first full script you wrote? What made you write it?

TC: It was called Tin Stars, about four buddies who decide to write a screenplay together. Holy shit, what a logline that is! It wasn’t Oscar-winning material, but I played around with voice over, dream sequences, and all those other supposed ‘crutches’ you’re never supposed to use. I think I got an A in that intro screenwriting class, but I’m pretty sure anyone who actually finished their script that semester got an A. Like winning a good participant ribbon.

HM: What did you do with it and how did you know what to do with it?

TC: I used it to apply to graduate film schools. I ended up choosing the two-year M.A. program at University of Texas in Austin, which is probably the greatest place on earth to be broke and write screenplays. It’s also where I met my wife, so yeah, I love Austin.

HM: Did you have a plan of where you wanted to be in five years’ time?

TC: I knew I wanted to be in LA and writing for a living. I had no idea how I’d accomplish that. My plan was to take whatever soul-sucking day job I could find that could pay the bills, and then write mornings/nights/weekends until I broke into the industry. And that’s what I did.

HM: Writers often struggle with the catch-22 that producers won’t read scripts by unrepped writers and managers/agents only take on writers if they’ve got a producer interested. What was your experience of trying to get the industry to read your script?

TC: I actually disagree with this theory. You can definitely land representation without a producer attachment. From my experience, I think managers more so than agents are willing to take a shot at an unknown writer if they believe in his/her voice. Managers can develop that voice and help guide it to a commercial place. Then, once a script or two starts to gain traction with producers/studios, your manager can set meetings with potential agents for you. But at the end of the day, managers or agents are only as good as the material you give them, so ultimately it’s up to you to write a great script.

HM: How did you get your first manager/agent?

TC: I wrote query letters. Lots of them. And then finally had a film school friend working at a small agency who was nice enough to push my query letter in front of an agent there, which got me read and eventually signed. But landing an agent or manager doesn’t guarantee you anything. They’ll slip your spec places, but if you don’t get a good initial response from producers, you could be searching for a new rep before you know it. Rejection is simply part of the process. I hopped around several places until I found reps that didn’t just believe in the promise of one spec, but believed in me as a writer. That’s the key, but it often takes a little while years to find that.

HM: Emerging writers often feel that if they could just break in and get that first credit, then it’ll be a full-time paid job where the work just keeps coming in. Is it really like that, can you ever just sit back and watch the work come to you and pick and choose or do you still need to hustle?

TC: If you’re looking to sit back and let work come to you, then screenwriting is not for you. It’s a constant hustle. You’re always being asked to prove yourself over and over again, especially in feature writing. As you move up, studios will contact your agents and bring you source material or see if you’d pitch on an assignment, and maybe they’re only asking you and one or two other writers. That’s a good situation to be in, but even then, you have to pitch your ass off to land the job over the other writer(s) who are probably just as deserving. One thing aspiring writers don’t realize is how important it is to be good in the room. Your previous scripts will get you in the door, but you have to win people over in the room in order to sell the pitch or land the OWA. You have to prove that you’re the only person in the world who could write this script (or at least the best one in their price range). Secondly, that first big check you get won’t be all it’s cracked up to be. Go check out John August’s “Money 101 for Screenwriters” on his website.

HM: What projects are you writing at the moment?

TC: I’m currently writing Stranded, a family adventure comedy starring Kevin James for Sony and I’m about to start work on an action comedy remake for a division of Warner Brothers. I also have a new comedy spec out to talent.

HM: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out?

TC: Write your fuck you script. Don’t think about the marketplace or what studios are buying—by the time you write your script, the landscape will have changed anyway. Sure, it needs structure, compelling characters, etc., but beyond that, just write the most interesting thing to you and don’t worry about its commercial value. With any luck, you’ll find your voice by doing this and if it’s a unique voice, doors will open for you.

Thanks Tripper!

Genre: Writing the Science Fiction Film by Robert Grant

There are a ton of good reasons why you should be writing science fiction. I’ll start with the obvious one – money – because no other genre can match science fiction at the box office. Take a look at the worldwide grosses for 2014 to date, 11 of the top 20 are science fiction (and 3 are fantasy, just saying…) so while it may jar with your art-house sensibilities, if you want get a producer excited, then a great high-concept, science fiction story will appeal to that basest of instincts – profit.

genre-sci-fi-attack-the-blockBut of course there’s a lot more to science fiction than that.

Is It Sci-Fi For The Right Reasons?
Good science fiction isn’t all alien invasions, giant lizards or post-apocalyptic cannibals, and there’s a reason why science-fiction is known as ‘the genre of ideas’, it’s because great science fiction asks big “What if..?” questions, the kind of questions that allow us to examine the day-to-day realities of this world by exploring the different realities of worlds we create. Science fiction lets us examine core social and societal issues and pose difficult and searching questions about subjects that concern all of us – pollution, over-reliance on technology, globalisation, genetic engineering, personal data, global pandemic, overpopulation, government surveillance – the list is endless, but it lets us do it without pointing directly at any individual or group, any particular religion or country, any specific corporation or government.

Science fiction allows us to shine a spotlight on something, bring it to the attention of the world and say, “Look at this! Look what is happening! Look what they’ve done!“, without preaching, and this is especially true if that something is out of our control or something we cannot easily change.

So the key to writing good science fiction is to have something to say. Don’t just use it as an excuse to have giant fighting robots level an entire city. You can do that if you want, but do it for the right reasons.

Are You Really Writing a Sci-Fi?
The next question to ask yourself is are you using science fiction as a genre or just a setting? Unlike other genres, science-fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. Romantic comedies are romantic and funny, horror films are horrifying, dramas are dramatic, and thrillers are thrilling. Science fiction can be all of those things and be science-fictional. Look at some examples:

  • About Time – is a romance and a science fiction film
  • Alien – is a horror movie and a science fiction film
  • ET – is a family adventure and a science fiction film
  • Terminator – is an action movie and a science fiction film
  • Never Let Me Go – is a drama and a science fiction film
  • Total Recall – is a thriller and a science fiction film
  • Sleeper – is a comedy and a science fiction film

Every genre has its particular story beats and you will save yourself a whole lot of grief and aggravation if you figure out your primary genre and then write to the beats of that genre first. So if you’re writing a science fiction revenge thriller then I would suggest that you actually plot a decent revenge thriller first, then as you re-write, build up the science fiction elements slowly, revealing your world through action and character rather than trying to build a ‘cool’ sci-fi world and then shoe-horning a revenge thriller plot into it. You’ll be rewarded with a far better screenplay if you do it that way, believe me.

Have You Thought Your Sci-Fi World Through?
Building a unique world for your characters, putting all the great stuff that’s been in your head on the page, is the most fun you can have while writing. But effective world-building requires the right level of detail to make it work visually, and well thought out, well-connected elements for it to make sense.

Arguably the two most important world-building elements in any science fiction setting are time and space, but by ‘time’ I don’t mean when your story is set, I mean the social/cultural stage that your world has reached, and by extension when I say ‘space’ I don’t mean the cosmos, I mean the kind of space that your characters inhabit. There are five world stages:

First Stage World
The time of primitive, nomadic peoples with few tools, living in basic dwellings, hunting and gathering to survive.

Second Stage World
The time of settled villages and small towns with permanent houses. Hunting and gathering is supplemented by farming. Taxation means law and order is established.

Third Stage World
The City. Small purpose-built housing means less space but new technology brings new opportunities. People now have leisure time and luxury goods, but there is also crime.

Fourth Stage World
The oppressive, dystopian world of our nightmares. The city is vast. People pay high prices to live in tiny spaces. Unemployment, poverty and crime are rife. Taxes are high but government services are poor, inefficient and corrupt.

Fifth Stage World
The dying world. The environment destroyed, natural resources depleted, and air and water polluted beyond recovery. Food is scarce, disease is rife. Eventually humans will die out, leaving a quiet and desolate planet in their wake.

Whether your story takes place on a newly discovered planet or in London of 1830, the relationship that your characters have to where they live and the tools and technology that surround them will be critical in building your world. Good science fiction rarely sits squarely within a single world stage, more likely it will sit at a point of change between two of the stages, exploring the effect that giant social and cultural change has on the characters as well and on society at large.

Get the science as right as necessary
The science always matters – even if it’s totally made up – but it really matters when you’re depicting things the audience know about. If someone describes a scientific principal, don’t ‘think’ you know it, make sure you know it, and then double-check with someone who does know it to make sure you understood it. And scientific thinking changes regularly with new findings, so make sure you’re up-to-date.

Basing your sci-fi worlds on the real world principals grounds them and makes them seem authentic, but this means knowing a little of what you’re talking about. In the same way that you should understand human and animal physiology when creating alien creatures, you should understand other sciences, arts, skills and trades to successfully create your own versions. If you’re going to have huge buildings then you should understand architectural principles so that you get the scale and proportions right. If you’re going to invent a language then you need to know about lexicons, morphology and syntax. The same goes for your systems of law, banking and commerce, and knowing proper military tactics will lend your armies a credible air of invincibility.

You don’t need to be an expert, just learn enough so that you can write about it convincingly, but above all, be consistent. It doesn’t matter if the physics of your world aren’t real as long as they are consistent and you never break your own rules. If it helps, draw maps and pictures, construct mythologies around your world and its inhabitants – whatever it takes to immerse yourself in your world. There’s a good chance that none of it will make it into your screenplay, but if they’re clear in your own mind it will make your descriptions come alive.

Put down the thesaurus and step away from the dialogue
Jargon and sci-fi go hand-in-hand. Anytime you discuss new technology or scientific principles, complex processes or advanced systems, inevitably the folk that work with them will develop acronyms, technical references and slang that only they will understand. What writers of science fiction must avoid is baffling, nonsensical, faux-technology. If you’re ever tempted to write a line like “They’ve re-interpolated the quantum field transmission data and reverse-engineered the resulting Heisenberg matrix to calculate our vector”, just remember that “They’ve found us!” is a much better line. It’s easier to say, easier to remember, has much greater impact and makes sense to everyone who hears it.

It’s also worth remembering that sci-fi names can be a source of much comedy if you’re not careful. Ixnys Zyxiz may look great on the page but if the reader can’t read it they’ll dump your script in the trash before they get 10 pages in, besides, it’s difficult to take anyone seriously when their name is Ambassador Zorax.

Write something that can be made!
Interstellar space travel and alien creatures usually require vast battalions of sfx people and multi-million dollar budgets to realise, so unless you’re Christopher Nolan or best mates with Will Smith, do yourself a favour and look for the small stories, the ones in single locations, with few actors, no special effects and write those. Explore social issues here on Earth, extrapolate from current technologies in medicine and genetics and find stories there. Explore the big-impact issues that affect all of us – often they’re the stories that are the most interesting, and more importantly, more likely to get made, and isn’t that why we write screenplays in the first place?

genre-sci-fi-WTSFF-Cover-smlRobert Grant is a filmmaker, screenwriter, critic, and script consultant, based in London, with a penchant for science fiction and fantasy. He is one of the core team behind The London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film and Literary Editor for SCI-FI-LONDON.com. He has twice served on the jury of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature, the most prestigious science fiction award the UK has to offer, and his book ‘Writing The Science Fiction Film‘ (Pub. MWP), is out now.

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Book Review: The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television

Guest blog by screenwriter Heather Wallace-Brown.

When I first decided to steal my thoughts from out of the ether to place them onto paper, upsetting the minimalistic look of my front room was the furthest thing from my mind. I’d heard people speaking about this screenwriting book and that screenwriting book, read of authors whose names appeared to be right up there with God and Shakespeare. It seemed as if to be a part of this screenwriters’ club I needed to get purchasing. I bought my first screenwriting book and read it like a novel. Before long, I’d heard of another book. And then another. Followed by…yet another. I didn’t care. I had to have them all. Soon my bookshelf was groaning from the sheer weight of all these screenwriting titles and I had little choice but to purchase another bookshelf. But just before I caught the tram out to IKEA, I opened up Amazon to purchase something quite unrelated to scriptwriting and up popped a book I hadn’t requested yet came in as recommended. (I ain’t runnin’ coz I just know you is gonna find me).

The Insider's Guide to Writing For TelevisionIt took less than thirty seconds to purchase, “The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television” by Julian Friedmann and Christopher Walker. I had no plans on writing for television but I had once spoken to Julian and he seemed like a nice enough bloke and not only that, this nifty little page turner turned out to be the best I’ve ever read on the subject.

Divided into two halves, Part One of the book is written by Julian Friedmann. Here, he not only explains how to write for television along with tipping you on how to transform yourself from naïve-greener to a hard-nosed negotiator, he also stresses the importance of research and networking, along with presentation and where to submit your work. Does one need an agent? You’re going to have to read the book to find out.

The second half of the book is by Christopher Walker. Here, you find yourself neck deep in a world of rich information as you discover the art in creating a story. He also offers tips on how to kidnap the audience’s attention, guides you on formatting and structuring, genres, writing good dialogue, giving birth to great characters and writing synopses and treatments. TV or Film, it really doesn’t matter the size of the screen you choose to write, as the information found in both sections of the book translates well for either.

This neat little book with its bright coloured cover proved a Holy Grail for me during the early hours of one Friday night/Saturday morning. I shall never forget how it helped me in negotiating an option for my script, as well as helping me to sound like a writer who had been in the business since the Great Flood. Believe me, if I can understand the legal jargon then anyone can.

And as for purchasing that extra bookshelf? I decided to throw out all the other screenwriting books instead.

Heather Wallace-Brown is a screenwriter who splits her day between being a student of psychotherapy and working on what she hopes will be her second option; a 3-part supernatural thriller for tv.

 

Genre: Writing Steampunk Films by Steve Turnbull

Steampunk? What’s that about then?

In the late 1970s and through the 80s, three authors—K.W. Jeter, Tim Powers and James Blaylock—had been publishing science fiction/fantasy created with a Victorian/Edwardian viewpoint which Jeter, in a letter to Locus magazine published in 1985, humorously called “Steam-punk”, a reference to the Cyberpunk genre.

harrietedgbaston - steampunk

Illustration by Darrel Bevan

It took another twenty years for the explosion of what we now call Steampunk to take place. Steampunk is not merely a literary device for the telling of tall tales. It’s a complete sub-culture with groups of people, across the world creating their own characters, equipping themselves (the “maker” part is very important) and taking to the streets. Or, at least, convention halls. There is also steampunk music which can be anything from the world music to true punk to jazz-rock-indian fusion, usually it’s the lyrics that define the Steampunk-ness, and whether the band dress up.

In the 80s and 90s traditional book publishing changed from being about literature to chasing money, in exactly the same way as filmmaking. It became almost impossible to sell anything to an agent/publisher that wasn’t “marketable to an easily targetable audience”. Which meant the niche of Steampunk was a no-no, except to a few established authors.

But the advent of author-publishing (not to be confused with vanity publishing, which is very different) meant that any type of story could be published. And it was.

In the film world Steampunk barely gained a foothold, there are a few stand-out productions like the anime Steamboy, (some argue that many of Miyasaki’s wonderful films are Steampunk) while Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is strictly Dieselpunk (1930s retro-futurism). The biggest reason for the lack is simply cost: Steampunk is, by definition, “period” so even for a modest production you’re talking prohibitive money. Then there’s the fact that much of the genre depends on outrageous machines—which means CGI, requiring careful production and costly post-production. Of course this is not an issue for animation but if you want live-action you’ve got your work cut-out.

The difficult definition

Wikipedia fails to be definitive, the best it can manage is this:

“Steampunk perhaps most recognisably features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era’s perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art.”

A large proportion of Steampunk literature feeds on the popularity of the supernatural with vampires, werewolves and Fae creatures. A smaller selection works only with the “real” although playing with the laws of Physics—perhaps closer to “Scientific Romance”, the original term for science fiction.

If one axis of the Steampunk multi-verse is supernatural versus scientific, the other axis is whether the world adheres closely to the real world of the period, or diverges from it dramatically. Hence you get worlds where the Roman Empire never collapsed and has now entered the Steam Age; or the mini-ice age of the 1600s got worse and displaced the world’s populations; or everything is just as it really was, except for Faraday’s “Principle for the Partial Nullification of Gravity”.

Writing Steampunk

Like all stories if you don’t have good characters the story will fail. There is the risk with something like Steampunk in getting caught up with the technology and forgetting character.

If you can tell your story without a Steampunk setting, do you need it at all? If it’s film or TV, and you actually want to get it produced, you might do better using a cheaper setting.

But there is something that Science Fiction/Fantasy in general, and Steampunk in particular, can do: they allow you to tell stories highlighting modern issues in a framework that avoids the risk of sounding preachy.

If you will excuse me for using my own stories to illustrate the point:

My setting is very close to the real world and, as a result, it’s filled with full-blown and unapologetic sexism, racism and every other bigotry under the sun. Every protagonist I write is female, one is Anglo-Indian, and there’s a female Chinese airship captain. Much of the action in my stories takes place in India, with some in Africa, and Manchester. Plus I write diverse sexual orientations, another problem area.

Many Steampunk writers ignore sexism and miss out on opportunities for adding important and valuable conflict to their stories. And, although less true now, the majority is also Empire-centric which is again very limiting.

Those who attended the London Screenwriters Festival 2014 and saw Pilar Alessandra’s talk on female protagonists will know what I’m talking about: As she said, don’t avoid writing the female experience where it works both for and against the character. In a Steampunk setting this can be amplified a thousand-fold.

I refer to Steampunk as a setting, rather than a genre because you can take any genre—thriller, mystery, action-adventure, or romance—and equip it with a pair of goggles. Regardless of what position on the grid you choose, writing Steampunk can be a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable adventure into an effective new world of storytelling.

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Steve Turnbull is a novelist and screenwriter of SF, Fantasy and especially Steampunk. His Steampunk works, all in the same setting, now encompass a web-series (thriller, Manchester 1911); a Steampunk feature (action-adventure, London 1909); three Steampunk novellas (murder mysteries, India 1908-1909, novel-length fourth on the way); a Firefly-style novella series (India 1908-1909); and a girls-own adventure series (East Africa, 1895). Plus one horror short story (Berlin, 1933, Dieselpunk). He has far more ideas than he has time for.

Find out more at his website: http://steveturnbull.me