I’m moving home at the moment and seem to spend a good part of my working life walking the long aisles of B&Q looking for obscure plumbing parts, unorthodox light fittings and particular packs of bathroom tiles (that turn out to be broken on arrival home) to fix the various things that are wrong with the new place. Yesterday there was a blockage in the drains; time to buy some rods (from B&Q) and roll up my sleeves.
I’m between drafts, you see. A few weeks ago I completed the first ‘vomit draft’ of a new version of a script about a London taxi driver with a dark secret that was previously a novel and before that was an earlier version of the screenplay. To say that this one’s had a difficult birth would be true. Nevertheless, I am not taking that to be ‘a bad sign’. Finding the right form for a project or a story is not always as direct a process as I’d like and things can move from idea through a poem to a novel, from a painting to a poem, from an animation to a graphic novel and from a single thought image to a screenplay. Sometimes, also, from something to nothing. Nevertheless, I’m pretty happy with the vomit draft, which, in the end and after a slowish start, took about thirty writing days. I should explain that the vomit draft is generally completed as quickly as possible in order to (1)make you feel better that it’s no longer inside you, and (2) reveal aspects of the story that might not arise if you wrote more slowly and with too much intellectual (rather than instinctive) thinking. Not all vomit drafts are conceived equal and in this case it was based on a pretty clear treatment of about six pages (plus all the knowledge of the other novel and screenplay versions that have gone before it). In the past I’ve done a quick first draft froma detailed twenty-page treatment and still had new ideas along the way. The enemy at this stage is ‘staleness’. It has to be a live birth with characters and story elements that want to be alive and in the world.
But now I’m between drafts and moving home. This is not getting my current film script written, nor indeed the one after that or the ones even further out in deep space awaiting their discovery and translation into form. It has to be done, however, for I am attempting to create an environment that will function like the deck of the Starship Enterprise and allow me to boldly traverse my inner universe in the search for cosmic nuggety stuff to employ in scripts and books. But even the Starship Enterprise must have had toilets and drains and, though it had the luxury of ejecting its waste into space (we presume), there may have been times when they got blocked. And what I have are blocked drains. Or, to be more accurate, one giant distraction from work.
For most of the scripts I’ve written for films and TV since my first in 1982, I’ve been quite aware of the different models and craft techniques that different writers and writing teachers employ and offer (respectively). To put it another way, I ’m not a stranger to the work of Robert McKee, Syd Field, Christopher Vogler, Paul Gulino, Ronald R. Tobias and John Truby. (Americans, all of them). I’m not sure whether I’m carrying some American gene that tends to make me like these models, but I am aware that there is, for many English writers who write scripts, an aversion to anyone and anything that smacks of telling the writer how to ‘do it’. And, perhaps if we were talking about novels, poetry, short stories, I might agree. But scripts for films and TV seem to be something different. For one thing they do not have an identity in themselves; they are also, quite firmly, not works of literature. They are, if anything, instruction manuals. They are also implicit requests for certain people to spend money; usually a lot of money. There are some interesting questions related to this, such as: ‘Would I spend x million dollars/pounds/yen turning this script into a long stream of images and sounds?’; ‘Will this film generate three times (generally enough for it to at least break even) its production budget at the box office?’; ‘Will this film be seen by, entrance, make cry, make laugh, make sick, make scared, y million people?’; ‘Will the success of this film make it more possible for me to sell more scripts for more money and have more of the best pieces of my writing work transformed into films?’
Another question: ‘What will make it more likely to get my scripts turned into films?’ At this point it’s worth remembering (before, hopefully, instantly forgetting) that only a very tiny proportion of film scripts get made into films. One might think that this applies only to the waitresses and car-parking flunkies and taxi drivers and gas-station operatives and gardeners and sharecroppers who all have a script that they expect to get made. It’s also true, however, for really greatwriters. David Mamet, perhaps one of America’s greatest living playwrights and screenwriters (Speed-the-Plow, Oleanna, Glengarry Glen Ross) has admitted that only a small percentage of the scripts he writes for the screen (either under his own name or others) get made into films.
Let’s return to the question: ‘What will make it more likely to get my scripts turned into films?’ We may be able to increase our chances by working on things strategically. So, we can narrow the task down to three areas: ideas, execution, business. (Some like to call it the three Cs: Creative, Craft, Commercial). So for ideas we can ask some pretty specific questions: ‘How many ideas do I have?’ By which I mean: ‘How many ideas do I have that are in some readable form that look, feel and sound like a real, producible film project? Although I also mean: ‘How many ideas do you have or expect to have in your lifetime that at least you can consider ‘great ideas’, ideas good enough to change your life and the lives of others who experience the idea?’
We can come back to ideas and what form they need to be in, but now we need to turn to the second aspect of screenwriting: Execution or Craft. Of all the written forms it’s my belief that screenwriting is the most technical. Hence all the technical gurus who are willing to tell you about three-act structure, advanced versions of three-act structure, the hero’s journey, the 22-step-story model, the sequence approach, and so on and so on. These models are all designed to improve the storytelling structure of the script to fit the internal subconscious diet of what satisfies our own inner story beast. Not only do scripts have to hit various important story points at various intervals in the script, they also have to do a hundred other things really well. Like create unforgettable, motivated characters, provide interesting, twisty dialogue that works on at least two levels at once, and give an entertaining visual experience for the reader. The list goes on: use props in interesting ways that integrate the law of three; take advantage of the Karpman drama triangle and the ever-changing roles that characters take up between victim, persecutor and rescuer; create a convincing story world; foreshadow events in cunning ways that make the audience feel clever; and on and on…
The process of turning a great idea for a film into a great film script is one that encompasses a variety of storytelling skills, as well as a large number of decisions. It was Martin Amis who said that writing is making a thousand decisions a page and, while he was talking about prose fiction, the same is roughly true for scripts. Before the actual script can be initiated there are usually a number of important stages to go through before an actual script is written. These involve: the premise, the synopsis, the outline treatment, a step treatment, a full treatment, a scriptment and finally (but not really finally at all) a script draft.
Many writers spend a long time (days, weeks, months) working on a one- or two sentence premise that functions as a cohering idea for both the project and the writing process as well as a device to use when pitching the idea or even when publicising the film. At this stage it also gets known as the ‘logline’.
Premises are wondrous devices that can, when right, bring together everything that you need to know about the story. They answer the question ‘What’s your film about?’ in a professional, intriguing and appealing way. Let’s try to make one up; I was watching that documentary series on TV last night about Scottish trawlermen caught somewhere between a trough and a wave in the North Sea. It always scares the wits out of me. If, though, it were a film it might have a premise like: ‘A washed-up trawlerman, offered one last chance to put together a crew to track down and capture a monstrous giant squid, finds that his inner demons are at least as dangerous as the creature he finally confronts.’
Now this might not be the best film in the world and seems to owe something to Jaws, which is more of an ensemble piece and a kind of road movie at sea. It’s an overcoming-the- monster story, an action-adventure film with some mythic elements. Our film could contain some horror elements, but overall it sounds like it could be a bit dated, unless it were either updated or maybe set historically. Feels a bit derivative. There’s certainly a more naturalistic film to be made about the death of the fishing industry that focuses on an ensemble of increasingly out of work trawlermen (no, they don’t go into stripping) or desperate trawlermen pushed to the brink to preserve their livelihood. It would include a boat that didn’t come back (killing someone close to our main character) and, perhaps, a triumphant ending which involved the main character making a permanent difference to his community in some way. The discovery of something on the seabed (a ship, a plane), the raising of which seems to remove some metaphoric curse over the community. It seems to offer a mythic adventure structure, an odyssey-based story that is, nevertheless, based in reality. So we might have a premise that runs: ‘A desperate trawlerman, driven to despair through falling catches, has to work increasingly dangerous fishing grounds. But in the darkest, remotest part of the sea he discovers the wreck of an aeroplane that will change his life and the life of his community for ever.’ For the moment, though, just don’t ask me how…
Let’s think of another: maybe something a bit Woody Allen-ish. ‘A nebbish theatre director falls in love with his leading lady, only to discover that she is having an affair with his wife.’ A bit basic perhaps, but could be taken in amore interesting direction if it turns out that the leading lady is also two-timing Woody’s wife with Woody’s best friend. An ‘oh, the complexities of love’ kind of story … although we may need to decide whether it’s a full-blown rom-com (in which case it might need to be more ‘high-concept’ and that this might need to be reflected in the title) or a comedy drama that’s a bit more subtle and nuanced in the relationships and allows for scenes that don’t have a comic pay-off. It will also have clear themes about the nature of relationships and the ways that we screw up our intimate lives. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that both these examples won’t pass the time test: are they still attractive a week later? Worth reserving my energies for the ideas that won’t let me go, rather than the ones that I can’t let go.
P.S. The premise for the current script? A widowed taxi driver, determined to commit suicide, is faced with a search for the truth about his wife’s death. In the process he discovers both reasons to live and reasons to die, and has to face a dilemma that only he can resolve.
It’s important to be writing in one’s own territory; not to be straying into worlds where we know nothing but are pretending to be expert guides. Climbing through the branches of the genre tree, we might decide that we’re better at writing thrillers, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, action adventure and any of their sub-genres. We’ve studied all the films in these areas and we know what’s currently in vogue and we’re looking for the next kink in the curve that will offer an original treatment that will appeal to a contemporary audience. If we’re business savvy we will study the journals and mags that tell us what Hollywood (or London or Mumbai or Berlin) is buying at the moment. If we’re well connected we’ll be talking with directors and producers and asking them what they’re looking for at the moment. (They may tell us that they’ll know it when they see it…) If we’re passionate we may be looking to take one of our brilliant ideas and re-working it to fit a specific genre or a particular production method or format. Or we may just feel that our long-term genius project is just plain brilliant for any age or audience and let others decide about how it gets sold…
Understanding genre is an aspect of the business side of films which is intimately tied up with the notion that the primary function of a film script is as a set of instructions for a group of ‘other’ people (often a very large group) to carry out. Prior to that stage in the script’s life of actualisation, it also has to do a great job in selling itself, its storytelling, its dramatic sense to various people who hold various pots of money and have the responsibility to spend it in the way that’s most likely to bring them more money, more kudos, better career prospects, and so on.
Anyway, I got the drain rods home and went outside the back door to look at the manhole cover that’s been winking at me for a couple of days now. And as I lifted it off I was greeted by a swarm of ants, which had made one of those beautiful ant houses – filled with tiny tunnels – around the inside of the lid. I felt bad as I hosed them down into the ceramic drains that led inevitably to the septic tank. All that work. All that life. Now, though, it was time to get to work with the rods. And soon I had dislodged a McDonald’s scale stream of fat that was blocking up the pipework from the kitchen wastes into the drains. And after the fat came some strange, mushroom-like blobs that bobbed up and down in the ebbing water of the drains. And after a few times of not being able to get hold of them, I finally brought them to the surface on the spiky metal end of the rodding tool. They were not large white mushrooms at all. They were, in fact, either baby, or foetal, rats with tiny white feet and tiny white heads with tiny pointed faces and those buck-teethed mouths. I gagged on the spot. If those were the babies, where, I wondered, was the mother? Or, indeed (although I know nothing of rats’ breeding habits) the father? And as I turned around quickly I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the largest, fattest, hairiest, scariest…stop, please!
I’ve now read the draft of my taxi-driver story that I finished five weeks ago before I started moving. It’s hard getting back into it after such a break. I know it still needs work in a number of departments. It’s an unorthodox, multi-stranded plot and there’s some re-organising to be done. It’s ambitious in a way that I haven’t been ambitious before. But I think it needs to try to do something interesting and different if it is to work in the market place. We’re all now in a post-Inception world. So I have to make some decisions about the way the story gets told that will, almost certainly, dictate the extent to which the film that the script becomes is a success. There is so much to get right, so much to improve, so much to bring together. I hope that, following this next draft and together with my director, we can make the script the best script that we’ve both been involved with. That we can make a piece of work that moves and stimulates a significantly sized audience. I hope that I can bring together all my learning and experience from the years I’ve spent doing this and apply all this accumulated ‘stuff’ to next week’s writing. In other words ‘fix it!’ And I will fix it, just as soon as I’ve found that rat.
Extracted from Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (Full Circle, £28).