Monthly Archives: October 2014

Genre: Writing Fantasy And Supernatural Drama by Debbie Moon

Fantasy and supernatural drama has gone from being ignored and derided to the genre of the moment. Twilight, Once Upon A Time, Sleepy Hollow, Game Of Thrones, (and dare I mention my own show, CBBC’s Wolfblood…?), and the massive market for young-adult fantasy and supernatural romance novels have made the genre more visible and respectable than ever before.

So what is it like to write?

wolfblood - genre - fantasy - supernaturalLike any non-naturalistic genre, fantasy is both liberating and difficult. If you can change the basic rules of nature – vampires exist, magic is real, faery tale characters can come to our world – then you can reshape reality in any way you like. But the way you reshape it has to make sense, to be internally consistent, and above all, to be relatable. The basic rule is – the world may be ‘unreal’, but the characters must still feel real. The reason Game Of Thrones is so immensely popular is probably not that it has dragons and White Walkers, but that it shows human greed, ambition, lust and family ties in a way that the audience can empathize with.

Fantasy also comes laden with expectations. Well, all genres do. Detective fiction has red herrings, false suspects and locked-room mysteries, rom-coms have the meet-cute and ‘the bit where someone runs’.

But the supposed rules of fantasy – magic, orcs, swords and prophecies – are so much a part of the public perception of the genre that it can be difficult to break free from them.

In the initial development period for Wolfblood, we spent a lot of time sorting through the tropes of werewolf stories and deciding which ones we wanted to keep and which we didn’t. For example, the narrative problem with most werewolf movies is that the werewolf can only ‘turn’ at the full moon. I was adamant our Wolfbloods had to be capable of transforming whenever they wanted. And that not only made the timescale of the series easier, it opened up new story possibilities – like the idea that they could lose control and transform involuntarily if angry or scared. Increasing the danger of discovery…

Then you have to get these new rules across to the audience. We chose to create a character new to the Wolfblood world, giving everyone someone to explain things to. And in the first few episodes, there’s an insistence that “We’re Wolfbloods, not werewolves”, pointing out that the rules were going to be different.

And fantasy is a fantastic genre for exploring social issues and philosophical issues through metaphor. Vampires have been a metaphor for alternative sexualities since their first appearance in fiction, werewolves are about the anger and violence in all of us. The current crop of fantasy fiction and drama has given people, especially teenagers, metaphors through which to examine and explore their own sexuality, insecurities, fears and hopes. That’s what really attracts me to the genre, and what makes it so much fun to write…

Despite recent successes, fantasy is still difficult to sell in television and particularly in film. Producers worry about the cost, and about selling the intricacy of the world to a casual audience. There’s definitely more openness to fantasy and the supernatural in children’s television than mainstream programming, though, and adult shows like Being Human and In The Flesh have won awards and become ‘talking-point’ series.

So if you want to write about the human experience from an unusual angle, and create a rich new world for your characters, try fantasy…

Debbie Moon is the creator and lead writer of the award-winning CBBC drama ‘Wolfblood’. She also has original projects in development with Ruby Films and Working Title and also writes the popular blog Never Get Off The Bus.

Book Review – Writing for Television Series, Serials, Soaps by Yvonne Grace

There might be a ton of books on screenwriting but most of them focus on the glamorous world of writing film. Film talent is making the move to television – even Steven Soderbergh’s got in on the act (The Knick) –  and so too are the publishers of screenwriting books. In her no-nonsense book experienced television producer Yvonne Grace guides you through the world of writing for television series.

Book Review - Writing for Television Series, Serials, Soap by Yvonne GraceLike all good producers and script editors, Yvonne has a passion for writers and storytelling, married to a pragmatic approach to the industry and writers’ place in it. Her wealth of experience, her passion for the storytelling power of television and her admiration for the writers who deliver those stories is infused through every page. While she doesn’t shy away from the truth of how tough it is (the deadlines she mentions might make your eyes water!) you always feel she’s on the writer’s side.

Writing For Television Series, Serials and Soaps walks you through the reality of writing on established series. It outlines the skills you’ll need to master in order to make a living (and it can be a good living) from writing on long-running dramas. She lets you peek inside the story document to which your commissioned script might have to adhere and gives you a fly-on-the-wall look at how the Story Conference on a drama series works.

The book also has some terrific interviews with the writers who have made the journey from aspiring to professional. Their stories of breaking in and writing on established series is both a practical ‘how-to’ and an inspiration.

After reading this book you’ll have a clear idea of what it’s like to write for a television drama series. You’ll also come away reminded of just how powerful a storytelling medium television series can be and hopefully be inspired to write for them.

Genre: Writing a Gripping Thriller by Charles Harris

Let me keep you in suspense for a little while. In my view, a thriller is a film in any genre but with added fear. Fear and suspense dominate the thriller – an almost constant sense that something frightening is about to happen – or is happening right now. This contrasts with a classic action-adventure, where the dominant emotion is fast-moving excitement.

collateral - thriller genreThe most common thrillers are crime stories (Collateral, Cape Fear, Psycho), though there are many spy thrillers (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold), psychological thrillers (Side Effects) and comedy thrillers (Charade). For obvious reasons, it’s more difficult to create thrillers from certain genres, such as sports, though I know of at least one – Rollerball. And the 2011 movie Margin Call is a gripping financial drama thriller. All good stories contain suspense – however in a thriller the suspense is cranked up (for you fans of Spinal Tap) to number 11.

Emotion

Genre starts with emotion, and as we’ve seen a thriller is all about fear. However, other genres in the film will demand their own emotions too. If your thriller is also a crime story, for example, you also need the emotions that audiences expect from a crime story – primarily injustice and/or mystery.

In Collateral the story centres on an innocent taxi driver who is hired by a man to drive him round LA, only to find that he’s chauffeuring a ruthless hitman conducting a series of hits. Worse, the cops think he’s the killer. Miss out the injustice of his plight, and the mystery of who the final victim is to be, and you miss a large part of what the audience needs.

Establish your villain

The second step is to identify your antagonist. To build up the fear that must run through the story, the villain of your thriller will need to be powerful and ruthless. Like the hitman in Collateral, he must be ready and able to inflict harm at a moment’s notice.

The threat must be seen as early as possible. Most often, that threat will be violent – hence the dominance of crime stories as thrillers. The current BBC 4 Australian thriller series The Code combines both crime and spy genres. The first episode opens with a dead body and a politician betraying a colleague. We are in no doubt from the start as to where the danger lies.

(The 2013 movie Side Effects is a rare example where the threat is not so much one of violence or death as the destruction of a man’s career and marriage).

Despite resembling the monster in a horror movie, a thriller antagonist shouldn’t be all-powerful. He must be human. In the best thrillers, we understand the antagonist’s motivations, even if we don’t sympathise – making the danger feel all the more real.

This also adds to the suspense by both making the villain less predictable and also offering a greater amount of hope. Like a light that shows up the darkness, the possibility of hope ironically serves to highlight the fear.

Thriller protagonist

At the same time, a thriller needs a particular kind of central character. As we’ve seen, there are parallels with horror, but in a horror story the protagonist is very much a victim, with only his wits to save him. In a thriller, the central character normally has more than that. She has skills she can, and does, draw on.

In the gripping 1967 film Wait Until Dark, the protagonist, Susy, is blind and being terrorised by vicious criminals. But despite her disability she has intelligence and resources to fall back on. For example, she manages to black-out the lights so as to even up the odds. Of course, the villains find a way round that, and the suspense mounts.

In The Code, Ned, a journalist investigates a suspected cover-up. The forces against him are vicious and unpleasant, but unlike in a horror movie, he has people he can call on, investigative skills he can use. Even his brother, who seems to have autistic tendencies, is relatively high functioning, especially when it comes to hacking computers.

Moments of terror

All thrillers need moments of sheer terror. The best kind of terror scenes combine unpleasant violence with sudden surprise. However, not too often – in this genre having too many big moments will reduce their effect. Stephen Spielberg tells how test audiences responded well to a shock moment in Jaws. But as soon as he tried to repeat the effect, the original stopped working!

In Wait Until Dark there are only thee major shock/terror moments in the entire film – but they are brilliantly effective. Thus a thriller concentrates on building tension, giving the audience few moments of release.

The problem with developing thriller characters

For all this, it’s crucial that we have reasons to care about the protagonist – which means she must be rounded and credible. However, in thriller so much emphasis goes on raising the stakes and developing the fear factor, that there is considerably less screen time available for developing character. Other films can use complex subplots to enhance characters, showing different traits and moods. But spend too much time away from the suspense and a thriller begins to droop.

This probably presents you with your biggest challenge – balancing the needs of the plot with finding time to evolve characters who are credible and three-dimensional. There’s no easy answer, you have to examine every single moment to see what you can squeeze out of it.

Thriller is a deceptively challenging genre. It takes energy, focus and enormous attention to detail. But it’s also a very popular genre, and if you get it right the rewards can be enormous – not only in financial terms but also artistic satisfaction.

Charles Harris is an award-winning writer-director and a director of Euroscript. His new book Complete Screenwriting Course is being launched this week, published by John Murray Learning. He’s also going to be at London Screenwriters’ Festival, Friday 24 to Sunday 26 October 2014, in the Euroscript Room. Find out more about this, his blog on screenwriting and his book at http://www.charles-harris.co.uk

Screenwriting Craft – Using Your Inner Critic

We all know that you can’t create original, interesting stuff with you inner critic whispering in your ear. I’ve been in brainstorming sessions where people were judging ideas before the ink was dry on the flipchart paper, stifling creativity and giving nothing the chance to grow or develop. Creativity comes from a freedom to fail, or at least to suggest something which might be bonkers but which might spark an idea that is perfect.

Image courtesy of Jim Tsinganos

Image courtesy of Jim Tsinganos

The freedom to think and generate ideas without judgement is crucial to creativity. So learning to banish your inner critic is a vital part of the creative process. But that inner critic, that voice that says ‘that’s rubbish!’ can also be your best friend if you learn to harness it.

Creating stories is not a linear process. Some screenwriting books might make it sound like you are supposed to come up with things in a sequential order;  decide what you want to say (theme), create a character with a flaw that needs to be overcome (internal journey) and a want that will drive the story forward (quest/goal), craft a plot that will create obstacles to achieving that goal.

But no writer I’ve ever worked with actually creates like that. Stories develop more organically than that. There’s a moment that you observed on the bus when some guy was arguing with his mate. There’s that film you watched last week that got you thinking about how differently people grieve and what loss is. There’s that person at work whose sunny disposition got you wondering if he’s compensating for some terrible trauma at home. There’s that newspaper article that got you thinking ‘what if we really could go on holiday to the moon?’

It’s a jumble of thoughts and images and people and moments and ideas. To begin with, it doesn’t make any sense. Now is not the time to worry that it makes no sense. Now is the time to run with those moments and ideas and see where they take you. Banish your inner critic.

But eventually, those ideas and characters and story moments begin to take shape. You find connections. Characters are starting to change because of the situations you’re putting them in.  You’re beginning to discover which character or story has the most resonance for you. For some writers this is when you’re outlining your story. For others the urge to get the scenes down on paper is overwhelming and you’re already bashing out a first draft of the script.

Either way, this is the time to invite your inner critic back into the room and ask for their help. This is when they come into their own. We’ve all watched films and tv shows that we’ve secretly (or maybe even publicly) slagged off. Critiquing material already out there is part of the learning process. We can not only say ‘that didn’t move me’ but we can see the mechanics underneath that caused that failure; I didn’t care about the character, the story world logic wasn’t consistent, the dialogue didn’t ring true.

That instinct and skill you’ve developed for recognising the flaws in other people’s work, you now need to bring to our own. Our inner critic has a tendency to just tell you ‘it’s crap’ but if you question them, you can find out why. What exactly about this isn’t working or needs to be better?

That nagging doubt in your head that the subplot isn’t really connected to the main story, that sequence you had fun writing isn’t actually moving the story on, that character you know you don’t really know – you’re probably right. If you secretly know it’s a problem, chances are, it is and a producer, script reader or script editor, with their strong story instincts, tonnes of experience and finely tuned script analysis skills, definitely won’t miss it. So, now’s the time to listen to that inner critic, the one telling you ‘you can do better’, hone in on those weaknesses and address them.

Those tangents, those bits left over from when the idea was focused in a slightly different area, you know they need to go. You do have to kill your darlings, to cut the moments and characters you’ve so lovingly created, because you know that this script will be better, stronger, more powerful without them. But they’re not gone forever, they’ve just waiting in that bottom drawer of ideas saved for another day, for another story set in another time and place.

Career Tips For Up-and-Coming Screenwriters by Drew Marke

Tips on what to do after you’ve made it onto the first rung of that elusive ladder…

If you’re like me, you’re a newbie writer. You’ve won a screenwriting competition or you’ve been selected by a new writers scheme such as BBC Writers Room or the Channel Four Screenwriting Course. So now you may be asking yourself WHAT NEXT? How do I convert this opportunity into a fully-fledged writing career?

labyrinth - screenwriting career tipsFirst of all, now is definitely not the time to rest on your laurels. In fact, quite the opposite. This early stage in your career is both tough and crucial; some days it will feel like you’re climbing a ladder, making some headway and other days you’ll feel more like Alice in Wonderland, trying to find your way through the labyrinth in the Queen’s Garden, feeling like you’re getting nowhere.

So based on my own experience so far and because I’m a blog junkie who can (and will) pull knowledge from other, more experienced writers who are a bit further up the ladder, here are some tips that may help you get to that next step in your career. Use at will:

GET AN AGENT?

This always seems to be a hot topic in screenwriting circles. After you’ve got that initial break, is it the right time to get an agent?

Some say yes. Some say no. Some cry Catch 22 and say that production companies won’t read your work without an agent, but then agents won’t look at the work of an amateur writer without a commission or similar.

Firstly, let’s dispel a couple of myths:

Myth: Agents won’t look at the work of an amateur writer without a commission.

Truth: Some agents are actually willing to read work from new writers, even those without a commission, especially if they’ve received recognition like winning a competition. An even smaller number of agents will look at your work even if you haven’t had any sort of breakthrough. Whether they’ll actually take you on at this point is another story. If your work is good enough, and I mean stand-out-can-hold-its-own-amongst-working-professionals stand out, then the agent may say to you: come back when you’ve won an award or got a commission – essentially something they can use as collateral to try and get you (more) work. So when you do get that breakthrough award, get in touch with the agent. Until then, there’s no harm in waiting. Having several achievements under your belt when you next approach them will only work to your benefit. You may even garner interest from more than one agent.

Myth: Production companies won’t read your work without an agent.

Truth: In large part, yes. But some production companies do look at work from newer writers without an agent, even companies that don’t accept unsolicited material. Caution: please don’t use this as an excuse to send an unsolicited email to 100 production companies with your script attached. Send a short personalised query to a few production companies, (preferably those who have produced programmes in the same genre as your script), asking if they would be willing to read your work, or alternatively phone and ask. If you choose this option, you have to be prepared to deal with a LOT of rejection. But if you are okay with that and can do this without annoying them with a deluge of calls and emails asking if they’ve read the script you sent to them – like two days ago – then you may reap awards, namely establishing a relationship with these companies, or having that producer or development exec recommend you to an agent. Two birds with one stone. Boom!

So with all that said and done, should you approach an agent after your first break? It’s completely up to you. But whatever you do, don’t rush the decision. Treat it like marriage. You don’t know how long the union will last, but make the decision to walk down aisle on the basis that it will last forever.

SET GOALS

Knowing what you want and putting a plan in place to realistically get there is a good thing. Of course the main goal for a lot of writers is to see their own original work onscreen or in the movie theatres. It can and does happen, for some writers right off the bat, such as In the Flesh‘s Dominic Mitchell and HBO Girls’ Lena Dunham. But these examples are rare. The road to getting your own series commissioned can be long and risky. Production companies and commissioners want proof that if they hire you to write your own series of say six episodes, you can deal with notes, redrafts and deadlines. And most of all that you can deliver the goods.

So after your initial break, you have to figure out ways to prove to them that you can deliver. Figure out your next step. Will you produce a short or maybe make the jump to your first feature? Is your aim to write an episode on a continuing drama (soap) in order to get your first commission? Do you want to produce a web series?

When contemplating options like those above, think about why you’re doing it before you decide if it’s the right way to do it. For instance, are you making a feature to make money or to showcase your work on the festival circuit? Are you producing a web series to gain an audience following for your writing or to show those in the industry what you can do, in the hopes that it will help you land your own TV show quicker? If you pursue the continuing drama route, do you want to become a writer for hire or eventually chase your own series?

No route is easy and often it takes time, money and energy, but knowing where you want to go and your plan to get there will give you focus and alleviate that feeling of meandering in your career.

KEEP WRITING

I went to a Q&A recently which featured a well-known writer in the UK. Something they said both shocked and inspired me. Even with a few TV show hits under their belt, at one point they wrote seven spec scripts/pilots in a row and NONE of them were picked up. Yes, seven! Their advice (and caveat) was to keep writing new material, even if one of your projects is green lit. You never know when that project will go into production and therefore when you will be paid. It could be months. It could be years.

So keep on developing new ideas and writing, preferably producing at least 2 new scripts a year no matter what happens after your breakthrough, because the most common question you will be asked not only as a new writer but at every point in your career is: what else have you got?

WEB SERIES

Making a web series or a webisode of some sort can be highly beneficial to your career. In some cases, it has actually made careers. Ask the writers of C4’s Run, Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan and Marlon Smith, who got a series commissioned off the back of a webisode; or Steve Stamp et al who got a pilot commissioned for a series called People Just Do Nothing after producing a YouTube series; or the creators of US show Broad City Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, who are now in their second season.

A webseries has several benefits: it can prove that your writing translates well from paper to screen; if you decide to get involved with the production, it can demonstrate your skills as a producer as well as a writer (note that the Broad City writers are executive producers on their show); you have more creative freedom to realise your vision because in truth you will have to make a lot more compromises when you work professionally in film or TV; and finally, you can build an audience for your work, which is great all round for your work and, let’s be honest, your ego!

FUNDING

If you have awards on your writing resume, this is probably a good time to apply for film funding. BFI, Film London, BBC Writers Room, and our very own blog right here on Script Angel are great resources to find out about funding schemes and competitions. Remember, the people behind these funds don’t just want to hand out money to anyone who claims they’ve got a great idea, they want to promote new, up-and-coming talent, especially talent that’s already proven they can deliver and can/will use the funds to advance their careers.

So use whatever awards or success you’ve received to “humble brag” (a great phrase I came across recently) on that funding application form and maybe you’ll bag the fund to make that great project you’ve got in your head (and hopefully on paper) a reality!

CREATING YOUR OWN OPPORTUNITIES

Just in case you missed it the first time, this is not the time to rest on your laurels. Don’t stop doing what you did before you got your initial break. Keep networking. Keep building your contacts. Keep LinkedIn-ing. Keep putting your work out there to competitions and schemes. Approach up-and-coming producers and directors who are in a similar position to you and also share your vision, and collaborate on a project.

Essentially, keep going as if you’re chasing your first break and never stop.

THANKS

Katy Perry (yes, I’m quoting Ms. Perry) says it takes a village to doll her up and prep her for her performances. Well, it also takes a village to make a successful writing career. By this I mean the people who are willing to read your work and give you notes for free, the industry professionals who give you advice, mentor you, champion you and/or recommend you for assignments.

I believe you should never forget those who helped you to get to where you are. Check in on them once in a while to say hi and maybe even thanks!

FINANCIAL PLANNING

A writer’s career is unstable, even when you’ve achieved success. Never assume the money you earn at any given point will last forever. Say, for example, you’ve just got a writing assignment and have been paid a decent if not handsome sum, if you think that money is enough to last you six months, do a financial plan that stretches the money so it lasts for a year. Because you can never, ever predict when your next assignment and pay cheque is coming in.

LASTLY, PACK A SANDWICH

It’s a long journey ahead of you… stay positive and good luck!

Drew previously worked as a project manager and freelance video producer before turning to screenwriting. Over the last few years Drew has produced several shorts (winning a Film London award in the process) and a food show web series (7xeps), which gained online audiences in the UK, Europe and US. Drew recently took part in the Chanel Four Screenwriting Course and is represented by Lindsey Bender at United Agents.