Tag Archives: genre

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

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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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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

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.

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

Hooking Your Audience – The First Ten Pages

Everyone knows that the opening ten pages of your script are the most important because whoever is reading your script, be it a gate-keeping script reader at a production company, a potential director or a Hollywood A-lister, they are making judgements and having an instant reaction to the material.

I recently ran a competition in association with the London Screenwriters Festival for which applicants had to submit the opening ten-pages of a script. It was a real joy to read well over a hundred entries, right across the genre board and each with a different tone and style. However, the problem that seemed to occur most frequently was that those ten pages didn’t raise any questions or propel me in any way to keep reading.

You might think that unless you’re writing a thriller you don’t need to worry about hooking your audience but nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever genre your script is, it’s your job to keep your reader hooked, just as the finished film must keep its audience engaged from one scene to the next. How you do it will vary enormously from genre to genre and will depend upon your style of writing but if want to keep your reader/audience you need to find a way to make them want to know what happens next.

Of course, in the traditional hero myth this early hook is a fundamental part of the story structure and is what makes us want to know the rest of the story. We meet a flawed hero, s/he is called to action – even before we set off on the quest we are made to ask the question, will our hero accept this call to arms? When they do decide to take on the challenge we’re propelled forward by seeing the hero face an obstacle to their goal, making us ask both ‘will they overcome this?’ and ‘how will they overcome this?’. In overcoming the obstacle in front of them (answering that immediate question), a new obstacle emerges/is created, posing another question. And so on…

Thriller, Action, Adventure and Mystery are all genres that are obviously structured in this way, clearly raising questions and in answering them posing another.  Recent thriller box-office hit ‘Jack Reacher’ is a great example of an opening ten minutes that raises question after question, propelling us forward and keeping us engaged. Someone (his face unseen) positions himself with his sniper rifle and kills a number of people. Right off the bat we’re asking ‘Who is he?’ and ‘why has he done this?’.  The police quickly arrest James Barr and we wonder ‘have they got the right man?’. Then instead of confessing as they expect him to, Barr says only ‘Get Jack Reacher’. More questions – who is Jack Reacher and why does Barr want him? Then as soon as we answer the question ‘who is Jack Reacher?’ we pose a new question, ‘can the police find Reacher?’.  TV crime series work in exactly the same way – someone has been murdered and urgent questions are posed – who did it, how did they do it and why did they do it?

Adventure stories can work in the same way but sometimes you don’t want to get your protagonist onto their quest too quickly, you want to spend some time setting up their world first. You might think that if you’re not introducing your driving narrative question yet (how will our protagonist react to this adventure?) then you don’t need to worry about those opening ten pages. As long as you raise that big question in the first twenty pages you’ll be ok won’t you? No, you won’t. Scenes that simply establish a status quo are dull and do nothing to keep a reader reading or a viewer watching.

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‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a brilliant example of how, even when you’re not stating what your quest adventure is within the first ten pages, you still need to be raising questions. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ opens with Dorothy upset that Miss Gulch has hurt Toto and wants to call the sheriff. Immediately we’re asking, who is Miss Gulch and can Dorothy stop her taking Toto? Dorothy even says on page 3 “what am I going to do about Miss Gulch?”. Dorothy says she’s not afraid of Miss Gulch. Zeke tells Dorothy that the next time she sees Miss Gulch she should walk right up to her and spit in her eye (p5) thus raising another question – when Dorothy next sees Miss Gulch will she ‘spit in her eye?’! By page eight we’ve got ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and the first hint of the real question that will provide the narrative arc of the film – will Dorothy get to the place of her dreams and if she does will it be all she dreamed of? Then Miss Gulch arrives (p10) with an order to take Toto raising the same question but now much more urgently, ‘can Dorothy stop Miss Gulch taking Toto right now and if so how?’ Next we bring into play the questions ‘what will Aunt Em do?’ and ‘what will Uncle Henry do?’. The questions keep coming right up until we get to Oz and start asking new but related questions which will keep us hooked right to the end.

I’ve written before about the demands of writing in the genre of Drama and the task of hooking your audience is just as vital in this genre as it is in any other. Looking at the opening ten pages of ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ you can clearly see that each scene is designed to both establish character and situation AND crucially to raise questions. We open with Pat (Bradley Cooper) stating that he wants Nikki back – right away we’re asking, can Pat get Nikki back and what went wrong here? Then we discover he’s in a psychiatric facility so while this might answer the ‘what went wrong for Pat and Nikki’ question is poses many more questions – why is Pat here, is he coming out, how can he get Nikki back? Then we meet Pat’s mum Dolores and discover she’s taking him out against the recommendations of the doctors, which raises the question – what will the consequence be of doing this and is it wise? Now Dolores discovers that Pat has lied about Danny. Now we’re asking, how will she react and will she take Pat back to the facility? Then we go to Pat’s family home and meet his dad. We see a picture of Pat’s brother hanging on the wall and a space where another photo used to hang. We’re wondering if in that space there used to be a photo of Pat and we wonder who took it down. If it was, as we suspect, his dad, how will his dad react to Pat coming home?

As with ‘The Wizard of Oz’, what on first glance look like establisher scenes (Dorothy on the farm, Pat’s family circumstances) are actually scenes that raise questions and make us want to keep watching in order to answer those questions. In neither case have we got to the meat of the story – Dorothy isn’t in Oz, Pat hasn’t met Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) – yet within those first ten pages the writers have kept us hooked by raising question after question. If you can do the same in a way that works for your genre, your story and your characters then at the very least you’ll keep your reader reading and that, quite frankly, is half the battle!