Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Letting Trends Set You


Okay, so it’s been a little while since I updated this little blog of mine with any kind of insightful hints and tips into the craft of writing and – as usual – it’s been birthed by my recurring and endless struggle with writer’s block.

So in today’s long awaited post, I’m going to be exploring some ways of finding inspiration through social media. Actually, I’m going to be doing it from a single source of social media (a social medium?) that we all know and love to hate: Twitter.

funny-twitter-facebook

Now, even though I haven’t blogged about this myself (because, as anyone who has read my blog *ever* will attest, I update about once every four years) a lot of the expert writing teachers are strongly recommending that all aspiring writers flock to Twitter. It’s supposed to teach us about engagement, character voices, brevity and all sorts of things that I’ve forgotten are things. Basically, the message is ‘tweeting good’ and you should take this opportunity to follow me on Twitter so that you can receive great insights like this from me on the daily:

Yep. Insights.

So why am I talking Tweeting today? It wasn’t actually to shamelessly plug my own feed, surprisingly, but to point you to the one handy tool that can help the blocked writer find inspiration: the list of what’s trending.

Now, as most of my audience is probably aware, a lot of what Hollywood does (or the publishing industry – I don’t want to forget the budding novelists) is trend-based. They’re either trying to follow one or set one at all times. Now, obviously, unless you’re a super-powered self-publishing novelist, your chances of getting your work out there whilst a trend is ongoing on Twitter are approximately similar to my chances of persuading Mila Kunis to let me film her playing NES atop Mount Everest. That doesn’t make them useless…

Most writers are familiar with the concept of a ‘word prompt’ contest; Writing.com offers one almost daily and the basic concept is this: Every day you get a word. You write a short story, or poem or haiku or ransom note based upon that word. Winner gets plaudits.

Think of Twitter like the world’s biggest word prompt generator. Instead of getting one a day, the trending function gives you unlimited, ever-changing prompts every second of every day. And you can use these to inspire you to write your way out of that block. Don’t believe me? Let’s see what’s trending right now, and we’ll see if we can’t find some loglines in there…

Trends

What should be immediately apparent is that you can’t and won’t be able to use every trend to generate an idea. For example, Pokemon and Shutter Island are existing properties. I don’t own the rights to them, I can’t use them outright… but maybe we can take Shutter Island as a concept, not a property, and do something. Things like “Bellator 158” are okay to discard out of hand, though. Unless you have a great sports movie in mind, of course. MTV Hottest, likewise, doesn’t spark anything great.

So what does that leave? Let’s take a look.

Life Lessons In Five Words sounds for all the world like it has the potential to be some kind of romantic comedy or romance novel; think “Silver Linings Playbook” or similar. Let’s think about it some more; what might those five words be? We could look at the trend and see what people are replying with, but that’s cheating our creativity. Let’s pick those five words:

Live. Love. Laugh. Dream. Believe.

I think those are five strong words we can use. They would even be title cards if we played five acts, or leitmotifs to draw from. So where’s the logline here? How about this:

Life Lessons In Five Words

“A cubicle worker is inspired in a journey of self-discovery by a cryptic five word note that he receives in his father’s will.”

I can see that movie. I already know how that could go. It feels almost like the beginnings of a Nicholas Sparks book, doesn’t it? Let’s try another…

Unmade Film Prequels could be interesting in some ways. Obviously, this goes back to the rights issue: we don’t own any film franchises, so how can we write prequels?

Well, simple. An idea isn’t something that you can own. Just because James Bond exists, doesn’t mean that a similar idea like The Bourne Identity can’t. So, let’s think of a film and figure out what happened before it, and how we can make that idea into something original.

Let’s try Rocky out for size, just for the simple reason that it’s a movie that everyone knows with a simple premise: An unknown club boxer gets the chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world and win the heart of the girl he loves. But what happens before we meet Rocky Balboa for the first time?

Think about what we know about him: He’s a small-time club boxer, he’s involved as some kind of enforcer for a loan shark, he’s a labourer. He loves animals. That’s a lot of unanswered questions to work with. Why did he become a boxer? How did he get involved with the mob? Why does he love animals so much? Rocky’s backstory could be a great movie.

So, let’s turn this into a logline:

Unmade Film Prequel: The Boxer

“After witnessing his father’s murder, a young farm hand trains as a boxer in an attempt to infiltrate the mob family who killed him.”

This character isn’t Rocky, but I’ve taken just a few unanswered questions from his past, given them an answer and spun a story from it. It makes sense in the context of who Rocky becomes, but it’s original enough that nobody can sue for it.

Now, I’m going to semi-skip “Turkey” for good reason: they’re currently having a bit of a sticky political situation (a coup which might eventually be a movie in its own right) but I will say this: there’s one hell of a Christmas or Thanksgiving comedy that could come from that as a name itself…

Finally, because I’ve now written more words in this entry than I ever intended, let’s circle back to “Shutter Island.” Now, obviously, that’s already a movie: an outstanding mystery-thriller set on a psychiatric facility on the eponymous island. That doesn’t mean that’s all the title has to offer. It’s time to channel my best Ted Mosby impression.

“Kids, way back in the day, we had this wonderful invention that we called a Dictionary, which was sort of like spellcheck but with some work involved. A Dictionary told us what words mean. It had a companion book that was also useful, called a Thesaurus. That told us what words were similar to the words in a dictionary. Together, they allowed us to do more with the English language.”

The kids, naturally, shrug at this point and return to Pokemon Go. But we’re going to go old school: we’re going to put the words ‘shutter’ and ‘island’ into a dictionary.

So, we learn that a ‘shutter’ can be a cover for an opening, a person who shuts (or closes) something or it’s a mechanical part of a camera lens. Those are things we can use for inspiration. And an island? Obviously, we have the geological definition of land surrounded by water. But it’s also something isolated, it can be a kitchen work surface, something a fuel pump sits on or a clump of woodland. That’s a lot of possibilities from two words. Maybe there’s something interesting about a man who photographs fuel pumps? Perhaps there’s a story about a hidden island in there. Interesting places to start. Let’s see what our Thesaurus throws our way, shall we?

So, a ‘shutter’ could be replaced with a screen, a cover, a shade or a curtain… all things which we use to hide things. Suddenly we’ve got a theme developing. Maybe our guy who photographs fuel pumps is doing it to solve a mystery? That’s certainly interesting. Can we add to that? I think we can.

Take a long look at some of the synonyms of the word ‘island’ and remember, we’re not necessarily taking them at what they mean in context.

Key. Refuge. Haven. Shelter. Retreat. Bar. These are all very evocative, versatile words. Maybe that fuel pump thing isn’t the most interesting thing we can do with the word ‘island’ after all. What if we take our photography theme and our mystery that needs solving and find a logline that looks a little like this:

“A photojournalist investigating a mysterious murder takes shelter among refugees in the aftermath of a tsunami.”

Yes, it needs work. It’s imperfect. But there’s a story there. You know that one of the refugees is going to be the killer without being told. You know that he’s got all kinds of difficulties to prevent him solving it. It’s a beginning.

And a beginning is the one thing every story has in common.

Try it for yourself, and let me know in the comments (or on Twitter) if you manage to make this work for you. It’s worked for me – my block is gone (for now!) – and now I have a whole bunch of new ideas to work on.

Keep writing, keep smiling.

Kriss

July 16, 2016 Posted by | Ideas, lessons, screenwriting, specs, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

[Development Diary] Lowering The Bar – #1


Before I go any further, let me preface this by saying that yes, I know, I said previously that I was going to spend 2012 tying up loose ends and finishing all my unfinished scripts. And that genuinely was my intention until I was tipped off on an exciting new opportunity.

Developing for the web is something that I’d previously considered; one of my unfinished projects, Housemates, was designed with the web in mind as something that I could produce with friends as a showcase for all of our talents. But the opportunity to do it, have it seen by a mass audience and be paid for it was too good to turn up.

This particular opportunity presented some very interesting challenges; the site that will be hosting and producing the show, ChannelFix.com, is based in the Philippines, which meant that I had to produce something that could be filmed over there but their target audience is for the American 18-30 market (give or take) which meant I needed something that could appeal there. Not the easiest set of parameters to write to. And it had to be low-budget.

Given carte blanche to pitch them whatever came into my head, effectively, I pitched two shows; the first of those shows, Lowering The Bar, is in the later stages of the writing process, which made it a great time to write a development diary to tell you how I got where I am with the project now.

Because I had to make this show to such a narrow set of guidelines, I decided to go with what I knew (to an extent) and pitched a show about a guy who arrives in the Philippines with a couple of his frat brothers to save his uncle’s failing bar.

It’s a sitcom, which means that it needed potential for conflict, which always comes from the characters and the situation. A group of American tourists is always great comedy fodder, so that was always going to make things interesting. Put them in a foreign country with its own language and culture for the long haul and you’ve got endless material to play with. Throw in a bar and a beach and you’ve got great settings for them to get into mischief. But it always comes back to those characters. Let’s meet them:

Scott – Our lead, early 20s and a former business student. He’s there to make the business a success and to reconnect with his family, but he’s hiding a secret from his alpha friends – he’s gay.

Mike – Also in his early 20s and was an engineering student. He’s calm collected, smooth and suave. He loves the ladies but wants to expand his intellectual horizons too. He loves to fix things – either literally or figuratively – and approaches every situation in a careful, considered way.

Tommy – the stereotypical frat boy, Tommy comes from a wealthy background but lacks intelligence. The fact that he graduated from college with a marketing degree is a mystery to everybody. He wants to party and get laid, his stupidity will get him (and the others) into trouble and he has a far higher opinion of himself than he should.

Riley – You can’t have conflict between guys without throwing a girl into the mix, that’s just the way life works. So enter the ridiculously attractive, super-snarky and highly intelligent bookworm Riley. Riley is Scott’s cousin, it’s her dad’s bar and she’s staying for the summer. She wants to have fun, but she also knows that she needs to keep an eye on the boys to stop them from burning the bar down!

Now, I’ve been lucky enough (he says, ironically) to work in various bars for the last few years, giving me plenty of experience to draw upon for stories here, but the most important part of writing comedy is to collaborate. That’s why I’ve been workshopping this at Zoetrope among friends, including my favourite comic genius, Shaula Evans and one of the finest unsigned writers I’ve ever come across (a 2009 & 2011 PAGE Semi-Finalist, 2010 Finalist) Jen Zinone. If we get a full series, hopefully those two fine minds (and others) will come aboard to write episodes for you to enjoy!

So, what more can I tell you? Plenty, but I’ll save it for next time when, hopefully, I’ll have a final draft of the script in pre-production in the Philippines and I’ll see if I can;t wrangle some notes, pictures and tales from the set for you to paw through!

In the meantime, don’t forget that the workshop here is still open for business and, if you want to track me down on Zoe, maybe you can join the LTB team!

Until next time…

x

March 7, 2012 Posted by | Development Diaries, networks, screenwriting, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NaNoWriMo: Day 10


So, we’re ten days into this year’s NaNo and I’ve finished the day on 14,301 words, which puts me 4,032 behind schedule for day 11. This is particularly annoying to me, because I spent most of the day looking up Mexican recipes online to decide what to feed Detective Reyes for dinner, then decided that she was eating burritos. If I’d come to that conclusion just eight hours earlier, I might have been ahead of myself. I also may not have eaten so much today.

Otherwise it’s not going too badly and I’ve learned a few things about myself:

1) I spend way too much time procrastinating. Especially by doing things like updating my blog when I could be adding these words to my novel. Well, not these words, but you know. This number of words. That’d be weird if I added these words.

2) I really struggle to write when I’m at home. I mean, I can write scripts at home with ease, but I can’t focus on a novel. I think it’s sheer volume of words: a standard 50ish page TV script has about 5,000 words, give or take. I’ve written three times that so far, and in a format that I’ve not written in since I was at school. Which brings me to:

3) Writing a book is ridiculously mentally and emotionally draining. I’m trying to focus on my book, but I’m just getting sick of typing. I’m having to keep information in my head that I wrote almost three chapters ago to use later on so as not to leave plot holes. I’m constantly questioning every characters motives and style of speech. I’m also now writing gibberish, which is why my blog entries during NaNo will probably lack any real substance.

And on that note, I’m off to bed. I need to get up early tomorrow; I just found out that I’m in a word war with a guy who’s 34,000 words ahead of me. And if I try really, really hard and get really, really focused, I might just be able to make a dent in his lead tomorrow.

Until next time,

Kx

BTW: I’ve added a NaNo widget to the sidebar of the site so y’all can watch my progress. Green means I surpassed my word target and ended up above par. Red means I wrote nothing. Yellow means I’m at par, Orange means I’m slightly below. You can literally see the pattern of my work change before your eyes. Fun, eh?

November 11, 2011 Posted by | Contests, Novels, Nuevo Oro, writing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking after the pennies…


Inspired by a comment on Shades Of Grey by Jane Frost (Thanks, Jane!), I’ve finally found time – and a way – of talking about an oft-overlooked issue for the spec writer: budget. But this isn’t just about the cost of shooting your script, but the way everything you write on the page affects somebody on the production team and the importance of being aware of that. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to budget. Nobody wants to spend $100m producing a script by an untested writer – admittedly, there are a couple of exceptions – even if you have written the next Avatar. So in today’s lesson, we’re going to talk about the importance of making sure that your scripts are as production-friendly as possible. In an ideal world, a producer would love to see a script that he can shoot for free. He has more chance of finding a Golden unicorn ridden by a mermaid, of course, but the lower you can make the budget on your specs, the more chance you’ll have of someone producing it.

Making it as low-budget as possible should never mean you sacrifice quality, however. If your screenplay is a retelling of the 300 in space, it’s natural that we’re going to see massive fight scenes, lots of special and elaborate effects. I don’t see much chance you’d sell such a spec anyway – it’s a deliberately extreme example to illustrate my point – but always be aware.

So how do we tell the story we want whilst reducing budget to its bare minimum? Well, if you’re writing space-based sci-fi or the next Die Hard, I probably can’t help you too much. SFX will cost money and they’re genre staples. So here comes my first advice on that score: If you can write them, stick to the low-budget genres. What are the low-budget genres? They’re the ones that, when you walk into Blockbuster, you see hundreds of. (I’m assuming you still use Blockbuster. If you’ve gone strictly Netflix/LoveFilm you need to hunt down a Blockbuster and take a look sometime!) We’re talking horrors, psychological thrillers, comedies, romances, coming-of-age dramas and their crossovers and ilk. You see so many of these being made because they cost much less to produce. And people are making so many of them for exactly that reason: it’s good business. These genres have huge fanbases and a low-cost, which makes them infinitely profitable.

Interesting fact: Remember that scene in Swordfish where the helicopter is flying the bus around Los Angeles? That scene cost $13 Million to shoot. In The Bedroom (starring Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Nick Stahl, written by Todd Field & Robert Festinger, directed by Field and produced by Good Machine Films) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture that same year. Its total production budget? $1.6 million. You could almost have made that movie ten times for what it cost to shoot that one helicopter scene. You don’t have to go big budget to make a big impression.

To keep your budget low, there are some pretty obvious things to keep an eye on. First, you need to reduce the ‘essentials’ as much as possible. Kevin Smith shot Clerks for $28,000. How? It has three locations, around six actors and no special effects. It’s also a classic, won two awards at Cannes, one at Sundance and was nominated for three at Independent Spirit and launched Kevin Smith’s career.  Again, an extreme example, but it’s exactly what producers hope for – a break-out hit that cost (effectively) nothing to make and made a 1000% profit. And guess what? You could easily write the next Clerks if you just keep an eye on your budget as you write.

A good grounding for writing low-budget spec features is to become a student of TV, especially sitcoms. Sitcoms have a core cast of four-six and three or four regular locations. You can test this for yourself if you wish – look at any sitcom and count the locations that appear regularly. Friends had four (five in later seasons), Cheers essentially had two, Frasier three, How I Met Your Mother had two for the early seasons. TV, for the most part, writes to a lower budget. That’s why the lessons learned there are so good.

So what have we learned so far? Keep characters and Locations to a minimum. But how does this affect the rest of the production crew? Location scouts and set designers are often paid by the day – per diem – the less locations you have to find or build and the less locations you have to dress, the less time you need to have these guys on the payroll. That saves money. You can save even more money by keeping the events that go on inside a set as neutral as possible. If you destroy a set in your script, you have to redress it if it appears afterwards. Another day’s money for the set designer. Likewise, if you keep the number of cast members to a minimum, you have to spend less time casting them. That reduces the money you’re spending on casting directors. Also, less actors means less actors salaries. And the two play into each other, too. Try and choose less populous locations for your scenes; a scene at Grand Central Station will require not just hiring the station for a day (tres expensive anyway) or building a replica but also filling it with extras. If each extra is costing $80 a day, that adds up. Nobody is going to believe your lead is at Grand Central in the morning rush if there are five people milling around. Always be considering how busy your scene is versus the cost of it if you want it to appeal to a producer.

Now, my next piece of advice goes against the grain. Assuming you intend to forge a career as a writer rather than having a one-shot hit (if you do, great, but it’ll take much, much longer) then your first sale is most likely going to be a production company you’ve never heard of, one you’ll Google a hundred times to check they’re legit, and they’re going to want the budget to come in just above zero whilst shooting in ten days. An easy way to achieve this is to fly against accepted technique – and it is technically very wrong in the world of features – and tell, don’t show. Obviously, if you’re submitting to top dogs or people who read too many screenwriting books without getting any real knowledge, they’re going to hate this. But here’s a simple home truth: Sometimes you can save money by having actors talk more. Again, Clerks is the best example of this. Rather than showing events that affect the story, the characters simply talk about them. Why? Because showing them required building an extra set, finding an extra location or hiring an extra dozen actors. You have to be skilled at this though. Don’t turn your film in to a monologue or have an extended scene filled with a conversation about ‘that time we were involved in that massive car chase where seventeen people died, that oil tanker exploded and half the LAPD smashed up their vehicles’ unless there’s a punchline. Because people would rather see that stuff. But in situations where you can save a scene by having someone talk about it, do it. I see a lot of writers using flashbacks to show trivial events and, yes, it’s great in theory. It adds colour. But shooting that insert gag where we see the guy running through the Mall Of America in a mankini being chased by dogs is going to cost money. And it’s just as funny as an anecdote in the scene you flashed back from.

Again, reduction of scenes, characters and budgets.

Assuming you absolutely must fulfill some latent desire to write the next Star Wars, I’ll give you a little advice regarding budgets and special effects: Minimise the use of special effects as much as possible, and always be thinking about their plausibility. I always wanted to see a film where the guy gets kicked off the space shuttle and his helmet comes off, forcing his head to explode. But you can’t just force an actor to put an M-80 in his mouth and film it. How are you going to shoot those pick-ups later on? Besides, I bet M-80s taste horrible. To do it more practically – and legally – you’re going to have to use CGI. CGI requires hundreds of man hours by animators and technicians. They don’t work for a daily rate, either – most charge by the hour. If that head-exploding scene needs a hundred animators putting in a hundred hours each at $100 an hour, that’s a million bucks you just added to your budget. I could shoot Clerks 33-ish times for that. Imagine you go more elaborate – Waterworld, for example. I know of several SFX experts who laughed when they heard about that film. Set designers panicked. You, as a newbie spec writer, cannot write that sort of film and hope to sell it as your debut picture.

You may not be a SFX guru yourself, but always be thinking of the plausibility of any special effects. Stunts apply here, too. As a golden rule, if you’ve never seen something similar done, assume it can’t be. It may not leave room for originality, but therein lies the challenge. Earn respect for that first work, though, and people will listen to the next one.

My final word on this – for now – relates to setting again. But not locations. Oh no. We’re going to talk time. See, you may have looked through the first few paragraphs and thought ‘Well, I’ve got a comedy, it has three actors, one location and no SFX. But it’s set in the 1720s.’ Guess what? That’s your budget through the roof. Period pieces cause untold hell for location managers, set designers, prop masters and costume designers. They now have to find or build locations that are architecturally relevant to the time period, design and make costumes that are period-appropriate and make sure that none of the props are anachronistic. Often these jobs cross over each other, causing chaos, confusion, extended production time and major, major headaches and budget problems. This came to mind as I have a passion piece I’ve been planning for a while; a TV teen drama set in the 1920s. I’ve wanted to try this for a while but, in my heart, I know I can’t sell it on spec. I can’t sell this until I have the credits to establish my credentials as a writer, a showrunner and (probably) a producer.  Will it stop me writing it? No. Will I be pitching it? No. Not until I have a reputation that means I can demand that agents, producers, networks and studios trust me with their time to pitch it. So there goes my final piece of advice for spec writers: Avoid period specs entirely.

I’ll be back as I think of more (maybe Jane will spot something I missed. Feel free to weigh in, Jane!) but, in the meantime, I’d like to invite you all to join my Writing Workshop & Forum. We’ve started slowly, but I’m eternally grateful to the eight members who’ve joined so far; we’re all welcoming enough that you’ll enjoy your stay, and don’t be disheartened by the lack of activity so far. We’re still taking baby steps, so come along, post whatever’s on your mind, ask questions and enjoy. Whilst I’m plugging things, I’d also like to recommend a new social networking site for industry personnel, aspiring or otherwise: Stage32. It’s basically Facebook for the film industry. Except without getting a thousand invites to join Farmville every hour.

On a very personal note, I’d also like to plug a favourite charity of mine, which you’ll see advertised in the sidebar to the right also. They’re called To Write Love On Her Arms, a charity that focuses on helping people – particularly young people – who are struggling with depression, self-harm issues, addictions and suicidal feelings. I’m pretty open about the fact that I’ve suffered with all four problems, and I wish there were more charities who were willing to reach out and help folk with them. I don’t want to guilt anyone into doing it or beg, but I would like to ask that if you’ve enjoyed my blog and found anything I’ve posted useful, please click on either the link above or the one to the right and help them out a little. Even if it’s only a dollar, I’m certain they can put it to good use. Who knows? One day I or someone you love could use their help. The work they do is so valuable, so important, and I cannot state my passion for helping them out strongly enough.

Until next time, in the words of Jerry Springer, take care of yourselves… and each other.

K xx

October 2, 2011 Posted by | lessons, networks, screenwriting, specs, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Shades Of Grey


Though the name might suggest I plan more discussion on characterisation, I actually want to discuss another grey area in screenwriting. The near-sale.

Just as there are three acts to a screenplay, there are three ‘acts’ to the career of a screen writer. Act one, as always, is the beginning.

In act one, our hero – you – has decided that s/he wants to write a screenplay. To do this, they have certain things they must accomplish before setting out on their journey towards success. They must learn the craft, the format and the art of storytelling. They must find their story and work out how they’ll tell it, planning meticulously as they do so.

In ‘act 3’ we find our conclusion as the hero finally makes a sale, finally sees some money in their pocket, their name in lights and earns the title of ‘professional screenwriter.’

My focus today is on the second ‘act’ of the screenwriter’s story, which I call the ‘grey area.’ As with a screenplay, act two is often the most torturous, emotional rollercoaster on the writer’s journey. It has highs and lows, twists and turns, brings happiness and heartbreak. The grey area is the longest part of our story, but it’s also the one with the greatest learning experience along the way.

The grey area covers that wonderful time between our initial education and our first sale, a time when we’re regularly completing scripts and trying to market them. How long does this period last, you ask? As long as a piece of string. Some get lucky, selling their first script within weeks. Others, myself included, wait years within touching distance of that first sale.

For years we plug away, knowing that what we produce is good enough. But still the producers don’t call, the agents don’t respond, the futures looks bleaker. It looks bleaker, but it’s an illusion. The future doesn’t ever get bleaker; we’re always learning something new to take us forward and make our futures brighter.

So why write this particular post? Hope, I guess. I wanted an excuse to renew my own, but also to give other screenwriters in the same position, who feel stranded in the ‘grey area’ a little hope of their own. To reach out and to tell you – all of you – that you’re not alone. That your frustrations are understood by your peers.

More importantly, I wanted you to know that, if you keep plugging away, that first sale will come. It will. That much I promise you. And should I ever sound like I’m losing that hope when I post here, I want you, all of you who read this, to jump on me and remind me of what I said.

September 20, 2011 Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, specs, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Back To Basics…


One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from running the Trainee Writer contest (that isn’t really a ‘contest’) is just how difficult a job studio readers, agencies and the like actually have. As writers, we like to bitch about how hard it is to break in. Some people have even tried to sue their way in. The truth is hard to swallow, but here it is: The vast majority of scripts they receive aren’t good enough.

How do I know this? Because most of the scripts I’ve received so far haven’t been good enough. And I’m getting just a small fraction of the number they receive. Luckily, I’m patient enough to look for the potential in a script; I’ve no financial incentive to do this, I just want to help make the people who take the time to send their scripts my way better writers.

As you’ll have noticed, nothing I’ve received so far has inspired me to champion it, but everything I’ve seen so far has had the potential to be something special with just a little work.

It’s in that spirit that I decided to write this post. You see, a lot of the places things have fallen down are on the most basic tenets of the art of screenwriting: layout, structure and characters.

Layout

The first thing that any reader will notice, whether that’s just little ol’ me or the guy who does Ari Emmanuel’s reading for him, is the formatting and layout of your script. There’s a standard format for a screenplay, yet many writers have fallen at this most obvious of hurdles.

If you’re writing in Word – which is almost as old-school as pen and paper – there are readily available templates on the internet to help you get it right or, if you Google hard enough you can find actual margin measurements.

The easiest way to jump this first, most basic of hurdles is to get yourself some good screenwriting software. For my money, there are only two that are worth a damn: Celtx and Final Draft.

Celtx is free to download and the ideal tool for the beginner screenwriter; it has format templates for film, stage and radio scripts as well as the facility to write prose and doesn’t complicate itself with too many advanced options. Whilst I’ve found it’s not idea for writing teleplays, it is the software that I started out on, and it still has a place in my heart.

For those of you willing to spend some money for a more complete screenwriting program, there really is no other option but to buy a copy of Final Draft. Priced at $249 (a free demo is available), Final Draft is the industry standard, used by all the top writers the world over. Whilst it still does all the basics of formatting, it has alternate templates for different types of movie. For television writers, it has templates for almost every major television show currently on the air, too.

Whilst there are other alternatives, none of them come close to giving as complete a set of tools as Final Draft does.

With a screenwriting program, you can immediately avoid the embarrassment of having a script rejected on first sight because of something so easily fixed.

Structure

Structure is another easily fixed aspect that people often overlook, usually because (in their zest to finish the script) they don’t spend enough time planning out the story they want to tell. I realize the irony in my saying this, as I openly admit that I’m not much for planning on paper – only in my head – but it’s a skill that many writers, especially beginners, will find to their benefit.

I could write a hundred thousand words about structure, but the truth is that I’m going to hand you off to people who already did; as a screenwriter, it’s vital to constantly evolve, to always be studying your craft. These four books will answer all of your screenwriting questions, especially those about story structure:

Screenplay by Syd Field is still, for my money, the greatest book for the newbie screenwriter ever written. It covers everything from layout to story structure to characterization and everything else. This is the book that taught me how to write for the screen and I still use it as my first point of reference for any questions I might have on the craft.

Successful Sitcom Writing by Jurgen Wolff is a wonderful ‘how-to’ guide to everything you could ever wish to know about writing sitcoms. Wolff, a former writer on such shows as Benson and The Love Boat, breaks down the sitcom to minute detail and this book is a must-have for any and all wannabe comedy writers.

The TV Writer’s Workbook by Ellen Sanders and Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin are equally good resources for television writers in general. Though both break down many of the same things, including everything I’ve brought up today, the small differences between the two make it worthwhile to own them both; what you don’t learn from one, you’ll learn from the other. And if you read both, you’ll know almost everything important about TV writing.

Characters

Whilst by no means the easiest thing to write, it’s arguable that characters are the most important part of your script. You can have the most rigidly formatted script and the most intricate, beautiful and emotionally involved story of all time, but it ultimately means nothing if the characters don’t work.

The characters are the conduit by which we, as the audience, become involved in the story, how we relate to the events on-screen. There are two main types of characters: protagonists and antagonists. Your protagonist is your lead character, the person who drives the story, the person you want us to relate to most. The antagonist is largely the opposite; the character you want us to hate, that your protagonist hates. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t relate to them – you want your audience to form a relationship with every character.

To do that, the key is making every character you write as three-dimensional as possible. I don’t mean by using some tacky cinematic gimmick that forces the audience to wear glasses; every character needs to feel real to the audience. And the best way to mak that happen is to make the character feel real to you.

The following advice is as valuable to you in the pitching stage as it is in the writing stage: Know everything about your character. The best way of doing this is to write a full biography of your character. The best way I can demonstrate this is by giving you a sample bio from one of the leads in Improper Representation, Scott Weismann.

Scott Jonah Weismann was born in Los Angeles, California on November 25, 1985 to parents Joseph and Linda; raised in the LA suburbs by orthodox Jewish parents, he found himself in an unorthodox friendship with the kids next door, JJ and Rosie Marquez. They were, and remain, lifelong friends.

At school, Scott was a top student. Straight As, great extracurricular activities, class valedictorian. As a high school senior, after JJ had graduated, he began to date Rosie – a relationship they kept secret from her brother – until the morning after prom night when he suddenly left Los Angeles without giving her any explanation.

He attended Columbia University, gaining his Law degree and graduating top of his class before going on to work at a prestigious New York law firm. It was whilst working there that he started dating Vanessa, a fellow associate and recent Yale graduate who he would eventually move in with and become engaged to.

Eventually, the pressure of life in the fast lane got the better of him and he began to slip into a moral downward spiral; after cheating on Vanessa with a paralegal he met whilst in trial, his relationship with her disintegrated: the paralegal worked for Vanessa’s brother at a rival firm. The situation exploded mid-trial, erupting into a fist fight between Scott and his brother-in-law to be.

With Scott’s reputation destroyed and his career in tatters, he’s decided to return to Los Angeles in an attempt to rebuild his life.

Scott’s hobbies and interests include music and video games; he has an affection for hip-hop, reads obsessively and hates cats. His favourite film is Manhattan and his favourite author is Elmore Leonard.

From that most basic of information, I have a basis on which I can build an entire personality, a template by which I can predict his reaction to every situation.

Once you know your characters, the next challenge is dialogue. And dialogue is something I’m going to save the explanation of for another time…

August 20, 2011 Posted by | agents, Contests, lessons, screenwriting, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Origins of a Trainee Writer


I’m going to kick off this post by noting that there probably isn’t a lesson to be learned here. Since I launched the Trainee Writer contest I’ve had a few e-mails asking about my background as a writer.

As I’ve always been careful to point out, I’m not a successful writer by any stretch, as the blog’s original name, Failing Writer, suggests. But I have a driving passion for the medium that I’d like to be able to pass on and encourage in other writers.

It’ll come as no surprise to learn I come from a colourful background; I grew up living just below the poverty line, the son of long-since separated parents, raised by a single mother and, eventually, a step-father. I left home at 17 and began attending a local college, combining an 8-hour day of education with bartending at night, often attending college 9-5 and working from 8-4 each night, squeezing in the chance to eat and sleep sporadically in-between. The focus of my studies between 17-19 was always writing: I studied English, Media, Film and Psychology.

By this time, I was also working towards a career as a professional wrestler which was cut short by both injury, poor training and worse choices; I chose to pursue this career because I had a love of both sports and performing, and there’s no better combination of the two. As a teenager, I also dabbled extensively with acting appearing in school musicals on a regular basis, which (along with school drama lessons) is where I developed my love for live theatre.

For a time, I considered attending stage school when I’d finished with regular school, but the cost was prohibitive. I continued to study, however, and maintain those studies to this day: I’ve been known to devour every book on acting theory and every actor’s autobiography I can get my hands on. I still consider The Empty Space by Peter Brook to be the finest book on acting theory ever written. When I was 19, I made my first foray into the world of stand-up comedy, a sideline career that has seen me supporting two of the UK’s finest television comedians at live gigs, Simon Amstell and Jack Whitehall.

When I finished college, I spent my summer focusing on my training as a wrestler, living with and working alongside my trainer at his day job as a loader in a mattress factory. That autumn, I left to attend the University of Teesside, where my focus was Forensics or, more specifically, Crime Scene Science – the theory of examining and processing a crime scene and the collected evidence.

During this time, I’d become close to a girl who would become the mother of my children – not long after we got together, in fact – and dropped out of school for good. Or for now, at least. We moved in together and I ended up both wrestling and serving as head booker (pro wrestling’s version of a showrunner) for the wrestling organization that she owned.

After years of trying to establish myself as a businessman in my own right, and various other problems, our relationship dissolved around four years ago and I ended up moving back home to live with my maternal grandparents. Since then, I’ve worked office jobs, gone back to bartending and been a medical research lab rat, all the while struggling to climb above the poverty line. In fact, at this stage, I think I’ve actually found a whole new line below the poverty line called “Dude, you’re screwed.”

Throughout all of this, I never lost my passion for film, for television and for screenwriting. I wrote my first feature as a precocious 12-year-old (I’ll be damned if I know where that script is now), began dabbling with sitcom writing aged 17 (Thanks to Jurgen Wolff’s excellent book Successful Sitcom Writing.) and co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced my first documentary at the same age. Typically for me, I couldn’t take it seriously and ended up making a mockumentary instead, focusing on the importance of corners and how they hold the universe together.

Also at seventeen, I was given the opportunity to take up work experience at a television show called Gamezville, also known in the US as Play To Z when it aired on Nickelodeon. Though my remit was largely to make tea, run errands and play video games, I showed my willingness to work hard and was eventually rewarded with being allowed to shoot some B unit segments, take part in production meetings and contribute to some of the writing and ideas process for the show. I even appeared sporadically as either an audience member, part of the now-legendary “G-Team” or, on two occasions, as a guest reviewer. All-in-all, a tremendous experience of shoestring budget television production.

After Gamezvlle I put my pen down for a while to focus on studies, but not before I’d submitted a script as part of my Film course. The script, a feature called Mrs. Mafia, not only gained me an A+ as coursework, but came back with the note ‘develop this further, this has massive potential.’ My teacher was right, and I’m still developing it – it’s one of those scripts I pull out of the draw occasionally, completely rewrite, and always hope to get perfect this time. I consider it one of my magnum opera. If I ever get a draft I’m super-happy with, rest assured you’ll hear about it on the blog!

Post-college, university and horrible relationship, I found myself at a crossroads. I was brokenhearted, I had nothing left to give mentally or emotionally… so I started writing again. And writing, and writing and writing. I’ve barely stopped since, in fact. My confidence grows with every word I write and I occasionally find myself within touching-distance of the lucrative deal that’ll take me from ‘wannabe’ to ‘professional’ screenwriter.

Call me naive, but I set myself a target of breaking a television record when I started writing again in earnest: I wanted to break Josh Schwartz’ record and become the youngest show-runner in television history – he was 26 years old when he sold The O.C. to Fox. Unfortunately, that record is out of my reach (I turned 26 back in April this year) but I know that time is on my side. If I keep writing to a good enough standard, and keep being prolific, somebody is going to take a chance on me some day.

Hopefully that answers some questions about my background and – if I’m lucky – will inspire some of my readers to never give up on their dreams, to make decisions, to stick with them, and to have faith that good things will come if you just keep working at it. They say that Rome wasn’t built in a day; I thought I’d built Rome when I was 17. I hadn’t. But now I’m laying bricks again.

Until next time,

Kriss x

As an addendum to this (which I thought of whilst enjoying my post-publication cigarette) I’d just like to take a moment to thank the people who are all, in some part, responsible for my choosing this career path.

Paul Harrison – My year 6 teacher, the first man to introduce me to the works of William Shakespeare. Without a doubt, he was the man who first helped me discover the true joy of the theatre. Not only was he a great teacher, he was a great mentor and a great moulder of men; he undoubtedly played a large part in making me the man I am today. If you ever happen to read this, Paul, get in touch. I probably owe you a round of golf… and beers.

Alan Kingston – My secondary school music teacher, the director of all of our school musicals and the man who encouraged me endlessly to explore my talents. Oddly, he also taught my step-father mathematics and he, in turn, taught me how to do algebra when I was five.

Annie Evans – My college film teacher, who taught me almost everything I know about breaking down and analyzing a film, and was the first person to formally teach me screenwriting.

Jim Tustian – My college media studies teacher, who let me loose with the camera with which I shot my mockumentary and taught me the art of both reading the subtext in the media (especially that The Daily Mail is evil) and taught me all of the theory I still use in the art of shooting a film.

Ian Banks – Another college media studies teacher, a man who a butted heads with numerous times yet introduced me to Ealing comedy and encouraged me to expand my horizons regarding historical film and film theory.

There was another teacher at the time whose surname escapes me, Adam, who introduced me to the Marx brothers and encouraged me to really throw myself into my writing. I wish I knew his surname, but maybe I can ask around and someone will enlighten me.

Obviously, on top of all this, my family and friends have encouraged me; my mother is a voracious reader and has read more books than anybody I’ve ever met, even if you don’t include Danielle Steele novels as literature, she’s still miles ahead of me. She often reads my work and encourages me to write more.

Also, I should thank God, I suppose. Maybe if I play nice for a change, he’ll cut me a break and I’ll sell something.

August 4, 2011 Posted by | screenwriting, writing | , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the ‘write’ path…


God, I hate cheesy puns, but having walked five miles home in the wee hours of this morning, I’ll hope you’ll forgive me for not exactly being on top form today.

After taking a depression-induced week off from writing anything at all (I may blog about that over at AC at some stage) I’ve decided I need to get my head back in the game, because work is piling up. I have four reviews to write for OMS (two of my reviews from last month can be downloaded from that page, actually – they’re in The Sampler) and I need to get my head back into the novel, as well as writing this blasted one-sheet, which I really mustn’t keep putting off.

The novel, it seems is going really well. I’ve just come to the end of my prologue and already I’m starting to get inside the head of Detective Reyes and feel my way into her story. As I’ve said before, I’m not a planner. I have no idea where the track is leading at this stage – I know the basic outline of my story and a few of the key characters. I know my prologue and I know my opening chapter at this point, but everything beyond is a mystery. Incidentally, if I get the opening chapter right it’ll be a real tear-jerker for some.

Without spoiling too much, I hope, I’ve gone into extensive research about the procedures for a police funeral – the pipes, the last call… I was tearing up just reading about it, let alone when I started actually listening to the calls on Youtube. If I can create one tenth of the emotion I felt while doing the research on the page, y’all are going to hate me and I’ll have to get the book sponsored by Kleenex. Seriously, you’ll be drowning in tears, not choking them back.

On the screenplay front, I’ve been strongly considering adding a few more pages to what I feel is going to be my magnum opus, Trailer Park Blues. It’s a working title – one I’m working on – but it should be a really special piece if I get it into the right hands. I actually have a fairly good idea who those ‘right hands’ are, too. When it’s finished, I’ll see if I can attach them to the picture (and talk about that process extensively on here, I’m sure) and get the ball rolling on things.

Actually, talking of getting the ball rolling on things, I was contacted recently by a producer from LA about the possibility of coming on board with an Anglo-American sitcom. It was literally just a touch-base e-mailing session, but it’s given me some hope for my week.

On a final note, I’ll be adding a few more works to 26 this week, because I kind of have a hankering to drop some deep emotional thoughts on paper. Hopefully I’ll finish it before I have to rename the collection 27!

I’ll be back with some lessons as I think of them. In the meantime, I’d like to recommend a friend’s blog to y’all. I say ‘friend’ – it’s not like we hang out and such, but she’s a fantastic writer I discovered through WP – C-C Lester’s blog, The Elementary Circle, can be found by clicking on the link. Go show her some love, especially if you’re into YA Fiction. And, let’s be honest, who isn’t?

She recently posted the prologue and first chapter of her book, Mercury’s Child on there. And it’s phenomenal. After reading it, I cannot wait to get my hands on the finished book.

Have fun, kids.

Kx

June 2, 2011 Posted by | agents, Development Diaries, Novels, Nuevo Oro, screenwriting, Trailer Park Blues, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

[Development Diary] Outbreak #1


Like the majority of writers, I find my most simple pleasure in life comes from adding text to a work in progress. To ironing out the wrinkles and tweaking the story. So this morning, whilst submitting it as an in-progress work (and back-up to my usual spec, Holland Park) to another potential agent, I decided it was time to knuckle down and finally get my first draft of the Outbreak pilot finished.

Outbreak is a sci-fi/event television concept for which I’m writing a ‘premise pilot’ – it’s a concept I’ve talked about before and one that John August brilliantly deconstructs (and, in fact, denounces) here. In this first episode, we meet our hero/heroine combination for the first time: Newly-promoted (the inciting incident) NYPD homicide detective JIMMY O’BRIEN and his super-genius high school senior girlfriend, ROBYN CAMPOS. We also meet a cast of supporting characters; LAUREN and MARILYN are Jimmy and Robyn’s mothers, respectively; JOHANNES VAN ZYL, Jimmy’s partner; MICK HARPER, Jimmy’s new boss in homicide; BARESI, the grizzled veteran of the homicide department; DR. STETLER, the department’s ageing forensic expert; PADDY O’MALLEY, owner of the cops’ favourite local bar; ASYA, AUSTIN and BRIONY, Robyn’s school friends and TRAVIS WILSON, Robyn’s history teacher.

Whilst almost every screenwriting guru in the world will be screaming “THAT’S TOO MANY CHARACTERS!” at me now, it’s perhaps worth noting that I consider them ‘supporting’ characters. This is very much Jimmy and Robyn’s story, but giving them a large group of people around them gives me scope as I move forward; one of my pet hates with television is when someone introduces a new friend. colleague or family member that we’ve never seen before, but they’re supposed to be ‘best buddies’ with. The Simpsons subverts this brilliantly. So the mothers may not appear in every episode. Baresi may not appear. Professor Wilson may not appear. I may only use one of Robyn’s friends at times, if any. O’Malley and Stetler would only appear when needed, too. Each character serves a specific function in the show; in the pilot, I introduce snapshots of them to the audience, but not so much that it would take away from the overall story.

The premise of the show if, for me, what made the project so interesting. We pick up our story on April 7th, 2031, eighteen-and-a-half years after a Smallpox outbreak decimated the global population, reducing it from the 7 billion(ish) it is now to just 100 million. While that may sound implausible as a premise, it’s worth noting that this is perceived, by government agencies around the world, as being a potentially very real threat. Even the CDC considers this a strong enough possibility to have an emergency plan in the event of such an outbreak. I’ve talked about this before, but my first challenge was how to convey this strange new world to an audience. In my first draft, I combined narration and pictures, a 5-page ‘history’ lesson that looked like this:

FADE IN:

EXT. NEW YORK CITY - DAY

TITLE: NEW YORK CITY - OCTOBER 2012

An elevated view over Central Park and the Manhattan skyline
captures the hustle and bustle of the world’s busiest city.

ROBYN (V.O.)
It was just a normal day in New
York City--

EXT. WALL STREET - DAY

Wall Street is full of business-types walking around in suits
talking loudly into cell phones. You couldn’t squeeze a
cigarette paper between the traders on the crowded sidewalk.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Wall Street was still packed, the
bankers were still trading--

EXT. BROADWAY - DAY

Broadway, a mix of tourists and arty types crowd the streets.
Names of shows in bright lights hang on theatres, scalpers
openly sell tickets on the streets.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Broadway sparkled with the bright
lights and promises of star names
in grandiose musical extravaganzas--

EXT. TIMES SQUARE - DAY

Times Square, as always, is alive with activity. Tourists are
everywhere and so are their natural by-product - souvenir
vendors.

ROBYN (V.O.)
That’s when it happened. The even
that everyone - the government, the
people, the experts - had feared
for over three decades--

INT. ENTRANCE OF 42ND STREET STATION - DAY

New York’s busiest subway station. At rush hour. There are
people everywhere, commuters from every borough, even from
outside the city. Thousands of people headed in every
direction imaginable. In there, somewhere, a man is dropping
a test tube.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Thousands of potential witnesses
missed the biggest crime against
humanity in human history; the
defining terrorist act of all-time.
If you’d seen it, you probably
wouldn’t even have noticed it--

INT. 42ND STREET STATION - DAY

Somewhere in the crowd from earlier, a man - his face unseen -
walks through the crowd. He’s dressed for business - a suit
and tie, a briefcase, a copy of the Wall Street Journal
tucked neatly under one arm. He’s knocked from side to side
by those passing by as they force their way through the
crowd.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Even if you had witnessed it, you
almost certainly wouldn’t have
survived. Hardly anybody did.

He nonchalantly puts his hand into his pocket and pulls out a
test tube. Without stopping, without even slowing down, he
throws it on the ground. It smashes immediately - the
beginning of the outbreak.

ROBYN (V.O.)
They’d been predicting these events
for years, right out in the open.
It was public knowledge that the
next big terrorist attack was going
to be biological. As simple as
dropping that one test tube of
Smallpox in the middle of a major
metropolis.

He carries on walking, unchallenged, unquestioned, everyone
was too busy to notice anything. The smashed glass on the
floor just regarded an inconvenience, as litter.

EXT. TIMES SQUARE - DAY

His face still unseen, the man emerges into Time Square,
amongst the thousands of people, all those tourists with
hotels to go back to and nations across the globe to return
to.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Years later, forensic experts
figured out that it started in New
York, probably in a tourist hot
spot, just by retracing the steps
of the first to die--

He stops among the gawping tourists that have stopped to
stare at the Jumbotron at One Times Square and again, reaches
into his pocket and drops another test tube before calmly
walking away, into the throng of people and disappearing into
the crowd.

INT. A NEW YORK HOSPITAL WAITING ROOM - DAY

Patients arriving in A&E. Some sign in, some are already
awaiting triage, most are coughing and spluttering.

ROBYN (V.O.)
At first the hospitals just assumed
that flu season had started a
little early--

INT. AN EXAM ROOM - DAY

A DOCTOR is examining a YOUNG GIRL, who clutches a worn-out
teddy bear as her MOTHER stands by, worried.

DOCTOR
Can you say ‘ahh’ for me, sweetie?
She does and he checks out the inside of her mouth, a
standard exam to check on a sore throat.

DOCTOR (CONT’D)
How long ago did you start feeling
sick?

YOUNG GIRL
Just yesterday and today.

MOTHER
She’s got a rash on her stomach,
too.

DOCTOR
Can I see it?

The girl lifts her t-shirt to show him her rash.

DOCTOR (CONT’D)
Looks like she’s got chickenpox.
It’s unlucky to get a cold at the
same time, but she’ll be okay.

MOTHER
Chickenpox? That’s not possible,
she’s had it before.

INT. A NEW YORK HOSPITAL WAITING ROOM - DAY

More patients, almost all coughing, all spluttering as
doctors run around attempting to triage them.

ROBYN (V.O.)
It was two weeks before anyone even
suggested smallpox. By that time,
thousands were already dead.
Emergency rooms across the world
were packed to capacity.

INT. NEWS STUDIO - NIGHT

A YOUNG NEWSREADER sits at a desk awaiting her cue as make-up
people and tech crew run around ready to go live. She’s
visibly extremely nervous and definitely too young to be in
the anchor’s chair under ordinary circumstances.

ROBYN (V.O.)
By the time the public became aware
of the outbreak, almost a million
deaths had been confirmed in the US
alone.

The chaos calms and the lights come up on the studio. She’s
live.

YOUNG NEWSREADER
Good evening. Breaking news as the
CDC confirms that the global
epidemic that has so far claimed
the lives of around a million
Americans is Smallpox.

INT. A BAR - NIGHT

A busy bar. Everyone is glued to the television as the news
breaks.

YOUNG NEWSREADER
The White House is urging people
not to panic and has announced that
it has deployed military personnel
to oversee the administration of
vaccines across the country.

EXT. A CHICAGO STREET - NIGHT

Chaos everywhere are the streets are lit only by the fires
that have engulfed various buildings. People are rioting,
looting, fighting in the streets as the police struggle to
contain them.

ROBYN (V.O.)
Eventually the people learned that
there simply wasn’t enough vaccine
for everybody. This led to
panicking, riots, looting.

EXT. LOS ANGELES CITY HALL - DAY

More rioting, with cars set ablaze as fire crews and police
desperately try to get the situation under control. A rioter
throws a Molotov cocktail trough one of the windows of city
hall. Others soon follow suit.

ROBYN (V.O.)
It would’ve been a nightmare under
normal circumstances, but with a
highly-contagious and deadly virus
already spreading like wild-fire,
the people turned their cities into
giant petri dishes, allowing the
disease to spread at a faster rate
than ever before.

EXT. A LABORATORY - DAY

A scientist in a biochem lab raids the stores of viols of
medicines. Finding the one he wants, he inserts a needle into
it, loads it up and injects it into his arm before grabbing
more viols and some spare needles.

ROBYN (V.O.)
The people with access to the
vaccines took care of themselves
and their families first. By the
time any got released to the
public, there was barely enough to
vaccinate more than a few million
people.

EXT. NEW YORK CITY STREETS - DAY

TITLE: SIX MONTHS AFTER THE OUTBREAK

The streets are almost deserted - at least by living human
beings. There are bodies laying in the street, some being fed
on by once-domesticated dogs who now roam freely.

ROBYN (V.O)
Within six months, the global
population had been reduced to less
than one-hundred million people.

INT. A HOSPITAL DELIVERY ROOM - DAY

A delivery room in an under-equipped and understaffed
hospital. On the bed, YOUNG MARILYN (mid-late 20s) is pouring
sweat as she gives birth. A MIDWIFE holds her hand as a
single doctor (DOCTOR #2) tends to her.

MIDWIFE
It’s okay, you’re doing fine.

DOCTOR #2
Okay, Mrs Campos, one last push
when I say.

Marilyn begins to hyperventilate - she wants this baby out
now.

MIDWIFE
Control your breathing.

She does as she’s told. Over this:

ROBYN (V.O.)
Of course, that’s the story as I
heard it. I wasn’t actually alive
when the outbreak started.

The midwife mops Marilyn’s brow.

DOCTOR #2
Now, push!

Marilyn gives an almighty push and we can hear the sound of a
baby crying.

DOCTOR #2 (CONT’D)
Congratulations, Mrs. Campos. It’s
a girl.

He hands her the baby and Marilyn looks into her daughter’s
eyes for the first time.

MIDWIFE
What are you going to call her?

MARILYN
Robyn. After her father.

Now, whilst those five pages explain the entire back story of the show and how the environment, the New York the characters live in, came to be that way, it also kills an element of the mystery of the show, takes up five pages and, frankly, is boring as hell.

So instead, I decided to use a more visual way into the environment. When time stands still, as we see in Cuba to this day, everything falls into disrepair. The image of New York, one of the world’s most glamorous cities, in such post-apocalyptic disarray is striking enough – even in disrepair, New York would still very distinctly be New York – but I wanted one more layer to the visual image to really set the tone:

EXT. NEW YORK CITY (MET MUSEUM) - DAY 1

TITLE: NEW YORK CITY - APRIL 7TH, 2031

A busy New York street, so run-down that it could be the
Bronx, Queens, Havana... or Sarajevo. The street bustles with
life as decades of old posters peel from the wall.

Despite the obvious signs of urban decay, there’s not one
single homeless person on this street, no street vendors.
Yes, it could be Cuba, but this ain’t Havana. This is the
Upper East Side.

The striking image is complete with the mention of a decaying Upper East Side; for most New Yorkers, the idea that Manhattan’s most affluent district could fall into disrepair seems almost unfathomable; it would be akin to tearing some of the heart and soul from the city. And that is what I wanted to get across.

With this change in my opening scene, the focus of that scene also had to change. I effectively had three choices: the montage (which I used for Holland Park), the walk-and-talk (a technique adapted from literature, whereby you introduce two characters in conversation with each other right from the start) or an action sequence. Sci-fi convention dictates that an action sequence is usually the way to go and, with a police officer as a lead character, the opening scene became obvious.

In the scene, which I’ve printed in full in a previous post (if you do a category or tag search on Outbreak you should find it), Jimmy witnesses a mugging whilst buying coffee, chasing the mugger around the Met and into Central Park, which is in an equal state of disarray, before apprehending him on the softball field. Introducing our hero, Jimmy O’Brien, with an act of heroism. But by closing the scene with the deliberately clichéd cop show line (“You’re under arrest, dirtbag” ), I also have an opening to introduce Robyn as a Deadpan Snarker (“Book him, Danno”) with a heart of gold; she ‘just happens’ to be in the park with a group of young kids she’s looking after right where Jimmy is making his arrest. Contrived? Definitely, but it lets me establish the relationship between my leads right off the bat.

Interestingly, it’s the middle of this scene where I choose to throw yet another, almost unnoticeable nugget of the mystery out to the reader and (hopefully) eventual viewer. Van Zyl arrives as back-up, taking charge of the arrest so Jimmy can spend a few moments with Robyn (the Bro Code demands it) but as he does, we learn that there’s something unusual about him: He’s South African.

Obviously, under normal circumstances, there’s nothing unusual about being South African. However, you do have to be a US citizen to serve with the NYPD. (You can be a foreign-born, naturalized US citizen, but this is dramatic license being used.) The other unusual thing in the scene, one that I’ll openly admit was inspired by Joss Whedon’s wonderful series Firefly, is one that’ll become a recurring theme: he talks to the mugger in Afrikaans. Later on in the pilot, I’ll introduce both the idea (and the reason) that everyone under the age of 25 speaks Afrikaans as well as English. Why? Well, I can’t spoil everything for you.

At the point in the script’s development that I’m at as I write this, I’ve introduced all of the above characters as organically as possible. The mothers are standard meddling mothers and best friends; Van Zyl is both Jimmy’s partner and a charming womanizer; Harper, Baresi and Stetler are involved in solving the case of the week; by virtue of Professor Wilson’s lessons, we learn small pieces about the history of the outbreak, etc. We’ve got our case-of-the-week and we’re in the process of solving it – red herrings, dead ends and werewolves, oh my! – and we’re leading up to two things: a solved case and another piece of the show’s myth arc being revealed.

What ‘experts’ may find interesting is that I’m not a ‘planner’ – I don’t plan act-for-act, scene-for-scene breakdowns for my scripts before I write them. I have an idea of what the story is or the episode. I know, in my mind, roughly how I intend to get there. Then I write it and re-write it until I not only have the story I wanted t write, but also so that it makes the most sense as an episode of a television show. Every screenwriting book you will ever read says my methodology s wrong. Ignore them; I find my method works better than their does for me. You may find that intricately planning things is the way forward for you. Nothing I write on this blog is intended as gospel, just a new perspective.

Fly by the seat of your pants. Live a little. And failing all else, keep writing… which is what I’m going to do now.

Until next time, vaya con Dios, mi amigos.

Kriss x

May 15, 2011 Posted by | Development Diaries, lessons, Outbreak, screenwriting, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments