Developing Your Ideas

We know that if our script is a confusing mess of half-formed ideas it’s not going to impress anyone. The most compelling scripts are focused. They have their theme, characters and story all working together, and deliver sufficient intrigue and drive to keep the reader reading and ultimately the viewer watching. That might be the goal but great stories don’t (or at least rarely) arrive fully-formed.

script angel - developing ideas - chaos

You might be lucky enough to have come up with a brilliant ‘what if’ premise. Or you might have a few half-ideas that together you think could be the start of something really interesting. So what to do next?

For some writers the temptation is to rush off down the first story-path that they see. While that might get you from a to b pretty swiftly, there is a danger that such a linear, focused approach so early in the development process actually shuts down other possibilities that could have led to somewhere more interesting. Your first idea is rarely the most original. Rather, originality and creativity come from making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.

If you’re the type of writer who is desperate to get to the end product as fast as possible, try creative writing exercises that force you to play, to be more chaotic and more experimental in your thought processes. For every first idea, try coming up with five alternatives. What if she said no, or said yes but was lying? What if it wasn’t set in contemporary urban London but in the wilds of Scotland in 1850? Does that lead you somewhere more interesting? Get comfortable feeling uncomfortable, not knowing the ‘right’ answer yet. Learn to embrace the chaos.

Other writers love to be in that experimental phase when everything is possible and nothing has to be ruled in or out. Early drafts of the story are full of many interesting half-formed ideas but there is no clarity and any articulation of it (logline, treatment, script) leaves the reader bewildered rather than intrigued.

If you’re the type of writer who loves to play with ideas, you might find it hard even to get to a first draft of your script, let alone a polished version, because narrowing down the myriad of options, having to choose what to focus on and what to leave out, is daunting. Having so many possible paths in front of you can be overwhelming and leave you feeling paralysed with fear that you’ll chose the wrong path. If that’s you, try giving yourself deadlines. Commit to a path, even if to begin with it’s only with regard to one element, for example, your protagonist’s character flaw. You can always turn back later if the path you chose turned out to be a dead-end.

This is the tight-rope we walk; spend too long meandering down every possible path and you’ll get lost and give up, rush too soon to push forward with your first idea and you’ll end up with something that’s been done before.  When one or two of the elements (theme, story, characters, story world) feel not only ‘right’ but exciting, then it’s time to commit and start to form the other elements around them.

Making stories is a messy process, but if you can embrace that and move forward to create a powerful form and structure to express your idea, then you’ll have nailed it – this time around at least!

 

 

Capturing Your Ideas

Most writers I work with worry about their story ideas – are they any good, have they got enough of them, how do they spot the ideas that have the most potential, are they choosing the right ones to develop?

I want to explore the start of that process and look at ways in which you can improve both the quality and quantity of ideas.

ideas - capturing

Firstly, when I talk about ideas I’m not talking about a fully-formed concept or story premise. Here I want to talk about the bit of the creative process that comes before even that; the capturing of the fragments that float into your conscious thoughts then as quickly as they arrived, have gone again.

Those random ideas can be a tiny bit of a conversation you’ve overheard that intrigued you, a location that surprised you, a story you read that sparked a ‘what if?’.

Being alive to the tiniest idea and getting it down before it goes is important. If it is strong enough to register, it’s worth capturing. And making a note of even the smallest idea can help you to build up a substantial collection of small pieces that, when combined, can produce a stunning and original story concept. Think of them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. No single note looks like much on its own but when you put it with other pieces you can begin to build a complete and unique picture.

Chris Chibnall has talked about creating  Broadchurch from a collection of unrelated ideas he’d jotted down over the years;  a sense of community (which he’d enjoyed writing on Born and Bred) but with a dark and contemporary twist, being inspired by the murder mystery of Twin Peaks, and being captivated by a stunning cliff-top location in Dorset.

All of the professional screenwriters I’ve worked with over the years have had some kind of note-collating system; be it a board with post-it notes, a concertina folder for scraps of paper, a notepad, a Word document or something else. Collecting in one place all of these random external observations might seem a bit pointless when you’re in the middle of an exciting new project for which it’s no use, but it’s an important habit to create.

Capturing and organising your ideas is important for generating those external story elements of any new project but it might not give you the kind of depth you need to turn your story into one with real meaning to you.

The theme of your story, the moral message you want audiences to take away from it, often comes from a more inward-looking and more reflective process. Many writers find that journaling is a really useful tool for digging deeper into their own thoughts and feelings. Spending time reflecting on the questions that are troubling you and exploring issues that are making you angry or sad can prove invaluable as you piece together and create meaning from your random fragments.

It’s also worth looking at your own strengths as a writer and making sure you develop your skills in the areas you are weakest. It’s easy to keep doing the stuff that comes naturally, but to grow as a screenwriter you need to work on the areas that aren’t in your comfort zone.

You might be a plot-driven writer, always spotting events that are note-worthy (a tragic accident, a cruel twist of fate) but not really noticing the people those things happen to. Perhaps you are a character-focused writer, always observing people and wondering about the psychology and motivations behind their behaviours.  Or you might be a brilliant story-world builder, always noticing the unique look, feel and atmosphere of a place.

Whatever your strength, keep doing that work but try also to see the world through different eyes, to keep your senses open to things you hadn’t noticed before. And always make a note of it – you never know when it might be the key to unlocking your next brilliant project!

 

 

Character Development – Psychology for Screenwriters

Over recent months screenwriter and business psychologist Phil Lowe (@grumpyrabbit) has been blogging about how different psychology and personality theories can be used by screenwriters to develop characters. Here is a quick run-down of what’s on offer in this series of articles:

Temperament theory goes right back to the ancient Greeks and divides us into four temperaments; The Guardian, The Artisan, The Idealist and the Rational.

Canadian psychoanalyst Eric Berne looked at people’s dominant drivers, dividing them into five primary types; Be Perfect, Please People, Hurry Up, Be Strong or Try Hard.

The Strengths Deployment Inventory assesses people according to their motivational value system; Altruistic-Nurturing, Assertive-Directing or Analytic-Autonomising.

(c) Personal Strengths Publishing, Inc.

(c) Personal Strengths Publishing, Inc.

The FIRO-B theory assesses a character’s preference when interacting with others; their desire for Inclusion, Control or Affection.

When placed in a conflict situation, is your character competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding or accommodating?

Phil rounds up other character starting points here, including a character’s emotional intelligence using the EQ-I, the Enneagram (offering a different selection of personality types) and your character’s basic energy using the Insights Wheel.

Finally, you can find out  how your characters react to change.

If you have any other character development tools based in psychology or personality theories, we’d love to hear about them in the Comments below.

Why hire a script consultant? by Brad Johnson

Why should I get professional feedback on my script? It’s a question I get asked all the time, and the answer can be frustrating if you’re looking for a black and white response. You see, there is no “right answer” to what the benefits of getting professional feedback are; in my experience, every client approaching the process looking to get something different out of it.

hiring a script consultant - Script Angel

Some writers are looking for validation. Often times, they don’t have other friends who are writers, and they just want someone whose taste they trust to tell them whether their script is any good and how to make it even better. Other writers are looking for more of a partnership – someone they can come back to over and over again as they revise their script, moving from draft to draft with the same person by their side. And then there are other writers who want a motivator – someone that will crack the whip occasionally, and make sure they’re staying on course, and on schedule. Maybe they want their script to be ready for a specific contest; they’re working towards that deadline and need someone to help keep them motivated and focused on their writing.

And these are all equally valid reasons. Everyone can identify with the fact that sometimes we are our own worst enemy. Sometimes we’re too close to a situation and can’t see things clearly. Sometimes we get bogged down in the mire and just need a comforting presence to help us through a rough patch.

Sometimes we all need help finding our voice.

And that’s why I love doing what I do. There’s nothing more satisfying than helping a writer discover how to tell their story in a way that is uniquely their own.

But even if you fall into one of the categories I just described, you still might not be sure if hiring a script consultant is the right move for you, and that is completely understandable. Which is why the opportunity coming up at Story Expo (Sept 11-13 in Los Angeles) is so exciting. Script Angel is offering live sessions where you can meet a consultant face-to-face for a quick clinic. You can sign up for either a Script Clinic, a 20 minute session where we will give honest and constructive feedback on the first 10 pages of your script and a 1 page story synopsis, or a Pitch Clinic where we’ll provide feedback on a pitch document or even listen to your pitch and offer advice on your presentation – what better way to work out the kinks and get over your nerves than to practice with Script Angel before heading into the Story Expo Pitching Room?

Either one is a great opportunity to dip your toe in and see if script consultancy might be for you!

Brad Johnson is a US based screenwriter, producer, and script consultant. You can find him here at Script Angel and on his personal website (http://www.ReadWatchWrite.com) or follow him on Twitter @RWWFilm.

Psychology for Screenwriters: Character Starting Points by Phil Lowe

I’ve reached the end of my series looking at how to use psychological models to build convincing characters with real dramatic potential. In this final blog, I wanted to mention a few which didn’t make the cut for various reasons, but which remind us firstly that there are several different ways to get a fix on your character, and secondly that there are a lot of models out there. This is more of a whistle stop tour than you’ve been used to from me, so you’ll need to do some further research on those you find interesting.

What’s your character’s emotional makeup? The EQ-I

I think I deserve some kind of award for doing a whole series based on business psychology without using the buzzphrase “emotional intelligence”. Sadly, my winning run ends here, with a model that helps you think about how your character’s emotional literacy affects their interpersonal effectiveness.

Psychology for Screenwriters - Phil Lowe - EQi2.0Model(SM)

Writers are supposed to be masters of cause and effect, and this model is built around it. Start at the top of the wheel: the better I know myself and my emotions, the better I can express to others how I’m feeling, the better the quality of my interpersonal relationships, the more effective decisions I can make, the less stressed I am. If you were a management client of mine in my day job, that’s the virtuous circle I’d be helping you to build. Of course, in my other guise as a writer, the last thing I want is for my characters to develop world class emotional literacy. I want them to be so hideously un-self-aware that they express themselves clumsily, destroy relationships, make disastrous decisions and stress themselves to the limit. This model gives you lots of options to mess with your characters’ heads.

Each component of the cycle in the diagram has three sub headings, and the full questionnaire would give you a rating on each. This is where it gets subtle. The EQ-i is great for looking at the contradictions that can hold a character back. Look under Self-perception: what if a character were to score high on Self-Actualisation (setting ambitious goals and wanting to achieve) but low on Self Regard (not believing themselves to be capable of achieving those goals)? Apart from thinking “hey, they sound like a writer”, you can see how just that one contradiction could give you a simple way into a character’s internal conflict.

A quick example: Jo Gillespie (Sheridan Smith) in the current ITV series Black Work. She combines high Independence (the ability to act without referral to others, in theory a good thing) with low Impulse Control (she doesn’t think before charging off on a whim) – which, as a policewoman, is unlikely to help her stay out of trouble and turns her Independence score into a liability.

What “type” of person is your character? The Enneagram

This is already popular with many writers. I don’t use it in my own professional coaching work, but I hear it recommended regularly. Like temperament theory it has roots in models of personality going back over a thousand years.

Psychology for Screenwriters - Phil Lowe - enneagram

The advantage of using this model to build character is it helps you get round the danger of making your character such a recognisable type that they become a cliché. Here’s where the lines on the diagram come in. You start with the character’s basic type (choose your label from the nine on offer), but each type will be nuanced by traits of the type that sits to either side, and also by the types to which the lines connect them. For good measure, under stress they will appear like a warped version of a type that is opposite to them.

A quick example: Sarah Travers (Cara Theobold) in the current BBC1 series The Syndicate. She is primarily a Helper (a servant who is also looking to be loved), with hints of Reformer and Achiever (she wants to do the right thing, as well as she can). The lines to Individualist and Challenger create a tension in her relationship with Sean – yes, she’s looking for love and security, but she can be suddenly and fiercely independent when crossed – and it’s Challenger which the Enneagram predicts is most likely to appear under stress, which gives her character its steely edge and stops her coming across as too good to be true.

What’s your character’s basic energy with other people? The Insights Wheel

The Insights model draws on the same Jungian psychology as the Myers-Briggs, another model popular with writers (but, sadly, more complicated to describe in a few words). This is another useful model when you want to get a quick fix on a character. In the real world, sales people use it to develop a hypothesis about a potential client they’re meeting by focusing on, initially, a choice of four basic “energies”: Cool blue (detached, reflective and objective thinker); Earth Green (quiet, values and relationship driven); Fiery Red (action oriented, reality-driven) and Sunshine Yellow (radiant, friendly and enthusiastic). Allow for the possibility of crossover energies between these four and you get the wheel below, with eight energies.

Psychology for Screenwriters - Phil lowe - insights-eight-type-colour-wheel

A quick example: Rust (Matthew McConaughey) in the first series of True Detective was an interesting example of an Earth Green, reminding us that “relationship oriented” for the introspective Green is very different from the outgoing, black slapping relationship orientation of the Sunshine Yellow. Rust is a dark, brooding, apparently isolated character, but his orientation towards personal values and authenticity in relationships was what brought him into conflict with his opposite in this model, the Fiery Red “Director” Martin Hart. Rust at first glance might not seem to fit the label “Supporter” in the diagram, but that’s the danger of making assumptions about labels – in his own way, Rust will support someone whose integrity he trusts.

So, the tour ends; and my head of Marketing reminds me to remind you to have a look back over my blogs in this series, and cherry pick those models which resonate most with you. Like the personalities in the models I’ve covered, as writers we are as distinctive as our characters, and your most authentic work will come from working with a model you feel at home with. There’s certainly no shortage of them. As always, approach with caution and please don’t psychoanalyse your friends, but if you’re working with fictional characters, anything that helps is fair game.

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com. Follow him on Twitter @grumpyrabbit.

Screenwriter Interview – Daisy Coulam

Daisy Coulam is a British screenwriter who has written for ‘EastEnders’ and ‘Casualty’ (BBC) and last year wrote the new hit ITV show ‘Grantchester’. Here she shares with Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie her screenwriting journey.

Hayley: Huge congratulations on the success of your drama Grantchester (ITV) which has been recommissioned for a second series. Can you tell me a bit about the project and its journey from idea to production?

daisy coulam - screenwriter interviewDaisy: Thank you! Diederick Santer and Dom Treadwell-Collins who were working at Lovely Day approached me with the book. I knew Diederick from EastEnders days and he thought I’d like the sad gentleness of James Runcie’s writing and characters. He was totally right. I read the book in 2 hours on a train journey and fell in love with Sidney, Geordie, Amanda, Leonard, Mrs M and Dickens.

We expanded a couple of ideas in the book to make serial strands – like Sidney’s wartime past and his love triangle with Amanda and Hildegard. But basically the blue print of the series was all there in the novel.

It took 2 years from acquiring the book to getting the commission. I was on honeymoon when I heard that we’d got the green light. My husband and I celebrated with beers in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest which was pretty surreal…

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

DC: I used to write stories when I was little – they were always pretty ropey and I never finished a single one of them. I was a procrastinator even then… I’ve always loved films and TV and reading though so maybe that set me in good stead.

I never considered writing as a career until I became a script editor in my twenties. I loved working with writers and it seemed such an appealing way of life. Being freelance, having control over your own working day etc.

I applied for the BBC Writers Academy using a script I’d re-written at The Bill (ITV). I never considered that I’d get on the course – there was so much competition and I didn’t feel like a ‘real writer’ – but when I did, it was like everything clicked into place.

HM: What was the first script you finished and what made you write it?

DC: I have a confession to make – I’ve never written my own spec script. The first script I wrote properly was my EastEnders commission via the Writers Academy. What made me write it? Fear of being sacked! To be honest, that fuels every script I ever write – I’m not sure the anxiety of being hoisted off a project ever goes away.

HM: How did you get people in the industry to notice your writing?

DC: I worked my way up from the inside – first as a runner then a script editor and storyliner. There are a multitude of ways in to writing but this route worked for me. You learn so much working on a production and you meet a lot of lovely people (people like you Hayley!). These people then go on to work on other shows and before you know it, you’ve got yourself a network. Without having to do one of those scary networking events where you get nervously drunk and can’t remember what you’ve said.

I was lucky. I had friends who trusted that, even when my first drafts were dodgy, it would all work out. I think writers need that space to make mistakes. Because – let’s face it – no one writes a perfect first draft.

If you do, I salute you – you’re my hero!

HM: How did you get an agent?

DC: My way of getting an agent was a little topsy-turvy. I didn’t find one until I’d finished the  BBC Writers Academy. Bianca Lawson who worked at Casualty at the time put me in touch with Hugo Young at Independent. He’s a dude and has been my agent ever since.

My advice about agents would be – don’t worry about it too much at first. I know that’s easy to say but there seems to be this horrible Catch 22 – you can’t get a job without an agent – you can’t get an agent without a professional piece of work.

Try and be relaxed about it – focus on writing something you’re proud of. The agent will follow…

HM: Emerging writers often feel that if they could just get their first screenwriting credit then the work will start flooding in and they’ll be able to sit back and pick the opportunities. Is it really like that?

DC: Yes and no. There’s no doubt about it, once you get a credit on IMDB  people sit up and take notice.

But that’s not to say you can take your foot off the pedal. ‘You’re only as good as your last script’ is horribly accurate. In my experience, you have to keep proving yourself script after script.

There will be bumps along the road – I’ve been sacked – most writers I know have at some point. It’s an ego-bruising experience. But you have to learn from it, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back to work.

On a positive note, you inevitably improve as you write more. My latest scripts are miles better than my first ones. And you get tougher – the knocks hurt but not quite so much.

HM: How many projects are you actively working on at any one time?

grantchester - daisy coulam - screenwriter interviewDC: I must admit, I struggle with this. At the moment, I’m working on Grantchester Series 2. But I have three other projects on the go which have had to take a back seat for the moment. In my experience there’s a very fine line – take on too much and you burn out, take on too little and there’s a risk that in a year’s time, you’ll still have nothing off the ground.

I think you just have to work on instinct. If you’re weeping at your laptop at 10 at night whilst consuming a family pack of Jelly Babies, then you’ve probably got too much on your plate…

Learning to say no is bloody hard. But it’s absolutely necessary.

HM: Are you focused on television drama or writing for other platforms, like feature films?

DC: There’s so much going on in Television at the moment – and so many wonderful shows being produced – that I’m very happy where I am. I’d love to write a film one day but the right idea hasn’t shown itself to me yet. I’m ever hopeful that it’ll pop into my head one day fully formed…

Do you always have to write a spec script to pitch a project to a producer or are you pitching with a two-line idea or a treatment?

DC: If you can boil your idea down to two lines, then I think you’re onto a winner. If you’re itching to write the script, that’s fine. But be aware that people in those (generally terrifying!) meetings want you to be able to sell your idea succinctly.

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

DC: Don’t be discouraged. You will experience knockbacks and rejections. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. Keep the faith – you are great!

Conversely, have the humility to realise that you’re not ALWAYS great. If someone gives you notes on a script, listen to what they say. If the notes make you angry, it’s probably because deep down you know they’re right. Or it could be that they’re wrong and haven’t read your script properly. But mostly it’s the former. Damn them…

I’ve found that sometimes it takes just one person to believe in you before everyone else follows suit. If you can find that one person – be that a producer or script editor – stay in contact with them. Not in a stalkery way. But if you have a genuine connection with someone, you never know where they’ll end up and where that will lead you.

Hayley: Thanks Daisy!

Daisy: No worries!

Mapping Character Change Using Psychological Theory by Phil Lowe

I’ve tended to focus in this series on personality models which emphasise how different we all are, as it’s generally the differences between characters which lead to drama. But let’s break the rule for the last in the series and look at a model which says we are all exactly the same when it comes to responding to a change in our circumstances – and which creates drama through a battle we have with our own psyche.

If you’re doing your job as a writer, your characters will spend a lot of time wrestling with some kind of change: losing a job, getting a job, receiving bad news, meeting a new partner, finishing with an existing partner, having an accident, being betrayed… Without change there is no drama. And our ability to understand the impact of change on a person comes from the “transition curve”, courtesy of a doctor who took one of the most dramatic changes of all – dealing with a diagnosis of terminal illness – and used it to map how we respond to any change.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross made extensive studies of the reactions of terminally ill patients on learning the facts about their condition. When she put her observations together, she found that each and every terminally ill individual went through a series of identifiable stages in the process of coping, or attempting to cope, with the reality of death. If you were to plot the stages over time, and graph them according to how positive one feels, you get the curve below.

character changeAfter a brief period of shock, you see that the curve goes upwards. How can such bad news result in a positive reaction? The answer is that the positive feelings are essentially self-deluding, for this is the stage of Denial. The stance here is ‘It isn’t true: the tests must be wrong; I’ve never felt better.’

If the patient can be convinced of the reality of the situation, this positive stance is wiped out at a stroke and the patient advances quickly to the next stage, Anger. This is emotion born of frustration and impotence, and all logic is abandoned, before a semblance of apparent logic returns in the stage of Bargaining. The archetypal example of Bargaining is doing a deal with God (“Cure me and I’ll do good deeds for the rest of my life”). And when Bargaining doesn’t work, then Depression takes over (“I can’t cope with this, I might as well give up now.”)

If the patient can be coaxed beyond this, they reach the point of Acceptance, the point at which one decides to face what is happening and use the remainder of one’s time positively. This will require some experimentation, until the truly positive final step is achieved and the patient has a way of living which is authentic and embraces their condition.

Notice anything, narrative structure enthusiasts? Is this not a little like the arc of a character through a story? Is the stage of Acceptance not unlike that moment at the end of Act Two (or Act Four, if you’re trying to impress the new head of BBC Drama) when a character accepts the need to change and sets off to make what s/he has learned about him- or herself work? Does the Denial stage not bear a passing resemblance to the “refusal of the call” stage of the Hero’s Journey? Because what does a good story do if not present your protagonist with an enforced change, and then watch how they come to terms with it? This is why the transition curve is so powerful – it connects us with a deep human truth which unites us all, and which is reflected in stories told throughout history.

But before you start making all your characters terminally ill, this curve applies to any change, even positive ones. What does every lottery winner say? “This win won’t change me” (while you smugly think “hah, you’ve clearly never read about Denial being the first reaction to change – you’re going to suffer, mother****er”. Or maybe that’s just me). It doesn’t even have to be used in the service of Drama. Sitcoms rely heavily on Denial, Anger and Bargaining stages: The battle against the need to change is a staple of British comedy, from One Foot In The Grave to Fawlty Towers. Of course in a sitcom the character mustn’t change, so they are doomed never to reach Acceptance.

A comedy told as a complete story, though, will go through the whole curve. In the recent Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy Rick Ford (Jason Statham), the alpha male obsessive foreign agent, is driven first by Denial (ignoring the rule to stay out of the mission), then Anger (becoming more and more of a loose cannon), Bargaining (as he tries to make an unnecessary partnership with Susan Cooper work) and finally, the Acceptance that Susan has done a good job. We leave him experimenting with a new phase as… I won’t spoil the ending for you. RomComs are another great example: the characters spend much of the film in Denial, Anger or Bargaining, as they each resist the call to change represented by their relationship antagonist. The film’s crisis is the point where they must Accept their need for each other, whereupon one of them runs to the airport and… you get the point.

So whatever genre you work in, ensuring that no character experiences change without triggering the transition curve will bring great authenticity to your script. And don’t only think about the major change that runs through the arc of the story; within one block of dialogue, if it’s doing its job properly, a character will be pushed out of his or her comfort zone and will inevitably display at least some Denial, pushing back to try and preserve the status quo.

This is my last blog in the series – but like any human being, I will go straight to Denial and do another farewell one shortly.

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist with a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com. Follow him on Twitter @grumpyrabbit.