Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Teaching your characters to drive…


Ever watched a movie and thought ‘that would never happen?’ or wondered why a movie that sounded so amazing from the synopsis or looked so great in a trailer failed to deliver? Chances are that somewhere along the line, somebody forgot to sort out the character arc of one of the lead or key supporting characters.

 

Our characters are the tent poles upon which everything else in our scripts needs to be hung. Everything about them – their personalities, their desires, their personal journeys – is vital because they hold our entire story together. So today, I’m going to teach you a little bit about character development and how it relates to story; I’ll start with the basics (a nice refresher for those who have been doing this a while) then throw in some more advanced things to think about and pay attention to. The goal of all of this is to make your characters more compelling and add depth to your cinematic world.

 

So where do we begin? Let’s start to build a screenplay from the very basics: turning a concept into a plot using the characters. Let’s look at a highly-clichéd example – the teen rom-com. We’ll keep it as basic as possible, because (I assume) we’ve all seen at least one of these movies in our lifetime. So let’s tell the age-old story of the nerd who fell in love with a cheerleader.

 

Right from the start, we have our two characters that we’ll keep as stereotypes (for now) to keep this easy to follow. NOAH is the nerd; he loves math, video games and is obsessed with the TV show Firefly. BRITTANY is our cheerleader. She loves clothes, shoes and tormenting people, and is dating a quarterback. Because that’s, like, her job or something.

 

See what just happened? I added a character. TYSON, our quarterback, is necessary because he’ll serve as our antagonist. He, as Brittany’s boyfriend, is the obstacle standing between Noah and what he truly desires. And yes, he’s a stereotypical jock. He likes beer, girls, cars, sports and shoving nerds into lockers. Lovely.

 

These are our three leads. They’re very, very typical of this kind of movie, so nobody will criticize you for using them too much. It’s not original (yet) but there really are no truly original stories anymore. So how do we make them all more interesting?

 

Let’s start with Noah. Yes, we already know he loves math, video games and Firefly. But he’s going to need more than that to a) make the reader/audience like him and b) to get the girl. And that’s what we’re rooting for, right? So let’s make him a bit cooler. Noah also speaks Chinese, plays bass and has a passion for restoring classic cars. In fact, when he’s not doing homework, playing video games or watching Firefly reruns on SyFy, he’s most commonly found in his garage, either working on the ‘68 Mustang he’s been rebuilding from salvaged parts or jamming with his band. Bands are always cool, right? And I vaguely remember that a certain someone loves cars…

 

That’s right, Tyson. See, in a love triangle situation, it’s far more believable that our hero will steal the other guy’s girl if they have something in common. I mean, she obviously has something in common with the guy she’s with, doesn’t she? So it makes sense they’d have at least one thing – other than her – in common too. Tyson loves classic cars. In fact, his old man bought him a Chevy Camaro as a gift when he got his license. But we need to give Brittany a reason to want rid of Tyson, otherwise Noah’s the bad guy for trying to steal his girl. So we make them different. In fact, we take some of Noah’s attributes and give Tyson the polar opposite ones. Noah loves math, Tyson only uses it for working out his passing average. Noah speaks Chinese, Tyson barely speaks English. Noah likes Firefly, but the most intellectually stimulating show Tyson has ever watched is Sportscenter. Noah is a nerd, Tyson hates nerds. They might be able to talk cars, but these two characters are already set up to hate each other.

 

So where does that leave Brittany? Well, ultimately, she needs to have more in common with one guy (Noah) than the other (Tyson), but it’s important to reveal this slowly. She might be impressed with Tyson’s Camaro, for example, but her favourite movie of all time is Bullitt. So a ’68 Mustang will probably get her a little hot under the hood. She might like football, but she’d rather play Madden than the real thing. She likes beer, but she can always introduce Noah to beer later. Firefly? She owns the box set. And she won’t find Noah’s habit of switching to Chinese mid-sentence as annoying as others – not just because of this, but because her (adoptive) parents are Chinese. She speaks it fluently.

 

So now we have three characters with a lot more depth than just their stereotypes, and we’ve even found some originality in there. It’s time to break out our trusty index cards (what? You don’t own index cards? And you call yourself a screenwriter! Buy some!) and see what scenes we can get from these character traits.

 

Scene Ideas

 

Let’s see what scenes these character traits give rise to; once we’ve got possibilities, we can begin to organise them and thread them all together.

  • Tyson catches Noah admiring Brittany from afar in the hallway and stuffs him into his locker.
  • Noah is practising with his band, as they’ve got a big band competition coming up. Unfortunately, he’s distracted thinking about Brittany and he opens up to his bandmates about it. One of them, his best friend LISA, is clearly torn about giving him advice because she has a thing for him.
  • Tyson gets wary of Noah’s growing relationship with Brittany and goes to pay him a visit. He finds Noah under the hood of his Mustang and is quietly impressed with the nerd’s ride. Not impressed enough, however, to stop him warning Noah off and dropping the catch – and the hood – on his head.
  • Noah and Brittany get teamed together on a science project; she insists they do it at his house because she doesn’t want him to know where she lives. While working on it, she begins to find out the things they have in common – similar music tastes, cars, etc. These study dates slowly become more and more like regular dates when he impresses her in small ways.
  • Noah discovers that Tyson has cheated on Brittany with her best friend, CANDY, and decides to tell her. She accuses him of making it all up to split them up.
  • They attend the spring formal; Tyson has Brittany as his date, Noah goes with Lisa. Noah is still too distracted by Brittany for Lisa to win him over. Lisa and Noah argue, Lisa leaves, Noah follows but finds only Brittany, who’s looking for Tyson. While Noah and Brittany argue, they turn a corner to find Tyson making out with Candy. Brittany slaps both of them and storms off. Tyson storms off in the other direction, leaving Candy and Noah together. Candy asks Noah if he wants to make out in a throwaway gag and he walks off to resume his search for Lisa, leaving Candy confused.
  • Outside the formal, Brittany and Lisa collide in the parking lot. Lisa lectures her for breaking Noah’s heart, Brittany figures out that Lisa is in love with Noah and (in the process) that she’s in love with Noah, too. She even learns that the way she treats people is awful for good measure. Awkwardly sowing a seed of friendship/rivalry between the two.
  • Brittany and the popular girls tease Lisa for being, well, unpopular in the girls’ bathroom.
  • At a band practise, tensions arise when Lisa finds it hard to play a song that Noah has written about Brittany. Noah yells at her, she storms off and the drummer, WILL, tells Noah to wise up and realise that she’s into him and it’s not fair to ask her to play songs about Brittany.
  • In a big final showdown, everyone is in crisis. The band are backstage for the contest but Lisa hasn’t arrived. Lisa is busy working herself through to the point where she realises that it’d be selfish not to go and Brittany is cheerleading at the big game. This leads to the big resolution, where Lisa arrives, the band go on and Brittany realises that she’d rather be with Noah than at the game, telling Candy to take the head cheerleaders job she always wanted because she realises popularity isn’t everything, etc. Brittany heads to the band contest and arrives just as, at Lisa’s suggestion, they play the song Noah wrote about her. The crowd go mental, the band win the contest and Lisa drags Brittany onstage to be with Noah, leading to the kiss of destiny.
  • A big aftermath scene shows Brittany and Noah having their happily ever after, Lisa and Will dating and Tyson getting his just deserts when he finds his now-girlfriend Candy making out with a random nerd. Probably at prom or something.

 

You’ll probably notice a few things while reading this: A) This isn’t a complete plot. B) I haven’t made use of every character trait I mapped out and C) this isn’t in any kind of order. The idea at this point isn’t to have a complete plot, but a set of scenes that I can write to get myself moving. The left-over character traits give me things that I can use to make up the scenes that string them together. And the order? That’s the joy of index cards – you can switch them around until they do make sense!

 

You’ll also notice that in the process of scribbling this together, I added three new characters: Lisa, Candy and Will. All three of these characters add key elements to the plot which serve to drive the action along.

 

Lisa serves to both provide a character that can give Noah advice and to provide a reflection on the main romance by way of her (rather complex) feelings for our hero. It’s also vital that he have a female best friend, as it gives me options down the line – she isn’t just there for him to talk to, but he’s comfortable enough with her to ask her for girl advice and we can use her to show how he interacts with women he knows versus those he doesn’t.

 

Candy serves as Brittany’s antagonist, but from the unusual position of also being her best friend. The way their relationship fluctuates gives Brittany’s world depth – she’s her partner in crime, her confidant and her sidekick one minute, while the next she’s proving the very caricature of the difference between the two worlds. Her purpose is as much to provide Brittany with a rival as it is to highlight the superficiality that Brittany is moving away from by remaining fairly constant while Brittany changes.

 

Will, meanwhile, serves as the voice of reason at the times when Noah needs it most. He’s almost the voice of the audience, telling our hero the things we already know when it becomes vital that he knows it. Simply put, he’s there to pull Noah’s head out of his arse. Also, he serves the purpose of softening the blow for the viewers who will inevitably begin to root for Lisa a little; he’s not the guy she initially wanted, but he was the one paying attention to her when nobody else did and he’s clearly a good guy. They work together well enough to satisfy the audience’s desires and tie off a loose end in a simple, effective way.

 

Just knowing the purpose of these three characters isn’t enough reason to have them there. Yes, it’s important that they serve a purpose, but they have to be fully-formed in order to fit into your finished work. It’s just as important to both your character and story arcs that you make them fully three dimensional.

 

I’m not going to go into as much detail here on these characters as much as I did with the three leads, but I will tell you that you need to go as in-depth with your supporting and minor characters as you did with your leads. Even the tiniest discrepancy is enough for someone to say ‘I’m not buying that’ and move onto the next script.

 

Another important character point that helps drive plot is the concept of background. You’ve undoubtedly heard people talk about background before, and specifically about how you should know what each of your characters was doing immediately before you started telling your story. And they’re right – that can make all the difference between an average script and a great script. But let’s take that one step further. I’m of the opinion that you should also know what each character was doing immediately before they entered each scene.

 

Did Brittany stop at the Drive-Thru for a coffee and a McMuffin between the game and the band contest? Probably not. But what if she did? That changes the emotions of the scene entirely. And knowing these little details are tools that you, like the great writers, should be willing and able to use to add depth to your script. Always remember: the characters need to feel like real, three-dimensional people. And real people have lives of their own even when you aren’t around to observe them. So should your characters. Always be thinking about what could have happened off-screen that can improve the way a character comes into a scene.

 

I’ll cover the lone concept of plot more thoroughly down the line, but for those of you having character trouble that’s holding you back, I’ll give you a quick checklist to iron out the snags.

 

Character Checklist

 

For each character, do you know:

  • Their goals. Short- and long-term?
  • Their complete backstory?
  • Their likes and dislikes?
  • What makes them special/unique?
  • How they speak?
  • How they change?

 

If you can’t answer all of the above- for every character – then you need to work on that character.

 

One final thing to remind you – it’s vital that, like a puzzle, you know exactly how your characters fit together. Why would the depressed, psychopathic goth chick and the rich, handsome pretty boy fall in love? Why are a cat and a dog best friends? Why do the aliens want to work with us instead of killing us? They must have something in common. And if they don’t, your whole plot just fell apart in much the same way those relationships would in real life. People don’t just bond arbitrarily, they bond based on having something – anything – in common.

 

I’ll undoubtedly be back with more on this, but until that day comes…

 

Happy writing.

 

Kriss

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May 23, 2013 Posted by | 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

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

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

“A whole new world…


…a new fantastic point of view…”

Yes, it’s a blog (predominantly) about screenwriting, so I’m definitely allowed to quote Aladdin as a tenuous link to the content of today’s entry.

Actually, today I’m not talking about the art of screenwriting – there may not even be a lesson to be gleaned from it. Just a casual post about my latest writing exploits.

Today, I decided to finally undertake the one writing task that’s been eluding me for years. For ten years, I’ve been threatening it and now I’m finally going to do it: I’ve started work on my first serious attempt at a novel.

I always said that one day, I wanted to create a fictitious world against which I could set a variety of stories; I suppose the inspiration from that was in part drawn from my screenwriting hero John Hughes’ legendary setting of Shermer, IL, A completely fictitious town that played host to Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink, amongst others. It’s a common device for a writer, so don’t think for one second that I’m claiming to have reinvented the wheel; I’m very well aware that such great writers as Terry Pratchett, J.R.R. Tolkien and L.J. Smith have all done it, to name but a few. So, with my first novel, I’ve decided to do exactly that; it’ll be the first to be set in the town of Nuevo Oro, California.

Nuevo Oro is a former gold rush settlement on the Mexican border; originally settled by a handful of European immigrants who traveled west to find their fortune in 1850, they named it ‘Golden Hills’. In 1852 After having all but mined every ounce of gold from the surrounding environment, most of the original inhabitants left to seek their fortune elsewhere, leaving behind only the most successful family in Golden City. the Carvers. With enough money and livestock to maintain their lifestyle, they had no reason to leave.

A year later, a second wave of prospectors comes through town – this time crossing the border from Mexico. California, at this time, had only recently seceded from Mexico to join the USA, so many Mexicans felt that laying claim to the gold was their right. When they found the virtual ghost town that ‘Golden Hills’ had become, they quickly settled in, rechristening the town ‘Nuevo Oro’ (New Gold) and sparking a 150-year family feud between the Carvers and the leaders of the migrant prospectors, the Reyes family.

Where do we join the story? In the present day. Nuevo Oro has grown to become a small city; though certainly not a sprawling urban metropolis like Los Angeles or San Francisco, Nuevo Oro has all the amenities that any Californian city needs to survive; it’s a college town with a thriving technological industry, a small movie studio and a high crime rate.

Enter our hero: the first book centres around Selma Reyes, the youngest descendant of the original migrant Reyes family and the city’s only female homicide detective. Following the suspicious death of her partner – found stabbed in his mistress’ apartment – she’s determined to find his killer. To make matters worse, she has a new partner; if the stories she heard growing up are true, she should despise him – but she has a murder to solve and John Carver might be the only person she can trust.

Obviously, I only started writing this today, so don’t expect to be reading the finished book next week, but I’m excited to finally be starting on my ‘long-awaited’ debut novel.

The thing that excites me most? Being able to tell the many stories that can be found among the citizens of Nuevo Oro – having the ability to populate my city with the stories of those characters who may live there and having the scope to write them in whatever genre I see fit – all of the ones I enjoy, like YA, fantasy, satire and romance, will probably feature – is possibly the greatest freedom of all. I have a blank canvas on which to paint as rich a tapestry as I see fit.

Expect a development diary and excerpts along the way.

Vaya con Dios,

Kriss x

May 17, 2011 Posted by | Development Diaries, Novels, Nuevo Oro, writing | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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

Who’s Flying This Thing?


One of the hardest things when trying to conceive a pilot is trying to decide what your premise is. Obviously, this will depend on the kind of writer you  are; some like to have a story come to them and tell it, then work out settings later. Others, myself included, like to come up with a vague premise, an outline, and shade in the colours later.

There’s no right or wrong way, but I just wanted to share my method with you, based upon three of my own works. We’re going to talk about the conception of Holland Park,Outbreak and Housemates.

You’ll find it amazing how closely the things you grew up with and the things you enjoy watching will influence what you write, regardless of how much you try to avoid them. When  was a kid, and even to this day, I was a massive fan of Dawson’s Creek. I’ve since moved on through almost every show in the genre: The O.C.Gossip GirlOne Tree Hill,HellcatsWildfireHeartlandThe Gilmore Girls, 90210DegrassiThe Secret Life Of The American Teenager and I’m currently loving Pretty Little Liars and Hellcats. It’s safe to say that teen drama is my ‘thing’. I even moderate over at Teen Drama Forums, so it was a natural next step for me to one day create my own teen drama series.

There’s an old saying which, paraphrased, goes a little something like ‘to get where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.’ Before I could write a teen drama, I had to become expert on the genre. On its nature, on its conventions and on its history. It was time to do the thing many writers dread: Research.

I sat and watched every teen drama pilot I could get my hands on, even going back to watch shows I’d never, or hardly, seen before: Beverly Hills, 90210, the originalDegrassi  series, Party Of FiveMy So-Called LifeFreaks & GeeksSummerlandYoung AmericansHidden Palms… you name it, I probably watched it. By the end of it all, I had such a tight handle on the genre that I now feel I could write for almost any teen drama show going – and I was definitely in a position to create my own.

A key convention of the teen drama is that the shows are character, not event-driven. That means they’re more about how the characters interact with each other than catching the villain-of-the-week. The other convention that most teen dramas rely on is the premise pilot – usually someone new arrives in town, or an event happens that changes everything. Just think of these five examples:

  • The O.C. – Ryan steals a car, ends up in juvi, moves in with the Cohen family, leaving Chino for Newport Beach.
  • Dawson’s Creek – Dawson, Joey and Pacey have been fiends for years. Then those pesky hormones appear… and so does Jen Lindley, mysterious reformed bad girl from New York.
  • Both 90210s – new family moves to Beverly Hills from the mid-west and has to settle into an alien environment full of rich kids and the pretty/vacant.
  • Hellcats – Marty is going to have to drop out of college unless she can find a scholarship. When she discovers she can get one for cheerleading, she rents herself a copy of Bring It On and learns to both cheer and speak cheerleader to join the Hellcats. And learns that Cheertown is not a ‘Cheerocracy.’
  • Pretty Little Liars – four friends who have drifted apart following the death of their best friend are brought back together… when they start receiving mysterious messages from the deceased.

So now I knew where to start – I needed a premise. Because new kid in school is tried-and-tested, I started there. I’d read an article in one of the trashy gossip magazine where a British pop star, Lily Allen, had made a comment about growing up in the media spotlight. Since her father was also a pop star and actor, she’s got some insight into this. So I thought ‘what if the focus of my show is kids in a similar situation? Children of celebrities, child stars, their ‘normal’ friends? And what if my premise involve another child star, an American child star coming to join them. I now had a loose idea of my show’s premise.

Now I had to come up with a story. I had to introduce my American child star, Casey, into this world. And to do so, I needed to demonstrate how big a deal he was in the show’s world – so I had my three most ‘normal’ main characters, Anna, Drew and Gwen, be the first to spot him and comment on his presence. But now I had to explain why he’s there. Add a hoard of zombie-like paparazzi and Casey’s crying ‘mom’ and the show was in business. If you want to read it for yourselves, there are several drafts floating around the net – my penultimate draft can even be found over at TDF.

Also found amongst my lifelong televisual diet is a strong love of science fiction – though very, very rarely the aliens-in-space style of Star Trek, even if I am a Star Wars fan – I’m more a fan of the character-based human drama-type sci-fi: FlashforwardDark AngelA Town Called Eureka, Firefly/SerenityLostJericho and Fringe are favourites though, of course, I do love The X-Files, too. So when I decided I wanted to create a science-fiction pilot, it was always going to be along those lines. Never one to stray far from my teen drama roots, however, I also took inspiration from another of my favourite shows, Veronica Mars.

While this probably seems like a strange mix of shows to draw inspiration from, I went about putting the basis for the idea together in a very different way to Holland Park. ForOutbreak, I had to create the world first. In sci-fi, the setting has to be as much a character as any of the people (which I believe Joss Whedon mentioned during one of theFirefly DVD commentaries) and, as such, was the natural starting point.

I’d known for a while that I wanted to do a post-apocalyptic drama. At first, I wanted to set it against the backdrop of a nuke-based war or terrorist attack, which led to me beginning work on  a show called Archangel with my friend and fellow writer Dave Burgess. As time progressed, however, we began to discuss the implausibility of a nuclear attack on the scale we needed and couldn’t avoid comparing our show to Jericho. And, if you’re comparing the show you’re writing to another in the room, it’s going to continue as the idea progresses. That said, when the time is right, we’ll probably pick up Archangelagain

Having been forced to go back to the drawing-board and reexamine my approach to the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre, I started looking for a new premise. It was whilst watching an episode of The West Wing (Season 1, episode 5: “The Crackpots and These Women” – written by Aaron Sorkin) that I was almost gifted the premise, the germ of the idea. In that episode, C.J. Cregg (played by Allison Janney) learns that thee are only seven(?) doses of smallpox vaccine in the world and that, if one were to be released in Times Square, you’d have to surround the infected with 100 million uninfected people to contain it. Inspiration can come at you from all angles, even the C story in a popular television show.

Thinking that it had to be a made-up stat, one that couldn’t possibly be true, I took to Google to research it. Whilst exaggerated (there are about 7 million doses of the vaccine in the US and the CDC action plan calls for another 30 million to be imported from South Africa) the story had enough legs for me to make it a viable backdrop for a show.

So my story begins with a smallpox outbreak? No. although I tied that, it required so much narration that the viewer would’ve lost interest. The golden rule of screenwriting is ‘show, don’t tell’ – I needed to create a visibly decimated world. Enter Jimmy O’Brien, one half of my dynamic duo of lead characters:

FADE IN:

EXT. NEW YORK CITY (MET MUSEUM) - DAY

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.

A WELL-DRESSED WOMAN - well-dressed for 2012, anyway - in her
early forties stops outside the Metropolitan Museum Of Art,
where the historic building has started to fall into
disrepair, some of its windows boarded.

As she stops to check a message on her cell phone, she’s
knocked screaming to the floor by a passerby, but this is no
accident. A MUGGER grabs her phone and purse and begins to
make a run for it.

Her scream alerts JIMMY O’BRIEN, 19. He’s tall and handsome,
a fully-uniformed member of New York’s Finest. And he’s been
interrupted whilst buying coffee. He quickly spots the mugger
and gives chase.

JIMMY
Van Zyl, call it in!

His partner, JOHANNES VAN ZYL, 28, radios the mugging in
immediately. The mugger cuts around the back of the Met and
sprints straight into Central Park as Jimmy gains on him with
almost every step.

The park looks the same as it always has until they cross
East Drive and the mugger makes a break for the softball
field with Jimmy only a few strides behind.

EXT. CENTRAL PARK (SOFTBALL FIELD) - DAY

The softball field looks like hell. The grass is a little too
long, as though maintaining it hasn’t been a priority. It’s
here that Jimmy finally catches the mugger, bringing him down
with a tackle that’d make Ray Lewis proud.

JIMMY
You’re under arrest, dirtbag.

[Apologies for the formatting, WordPress doesn’t allow for proper script formatting.]

With this opening scene, I’ve set up the show’s world. We now know that we’re 19 years (ish) in the future  – you should always spec a time-related pilot for the next year, it probably won’t be made the same year you write it – and that New York is stuck in 2012, in much the same way that Havana s often said to be stuck in 1955. Also, note that I’ve made a point of mentioning the urban decay and that we’re on the Upper East Side. The two would rarely be synonymous in the modern day – it tells the reader that something isn’t right in this world right from the start.

What was very important to me with Outbreak was that it shouldn’t be overtly sci-fi. As important as the smallpox-related backstory is to the show, it’s something that can be revealed over time as necessary. This show is about characters, but it’s also a mystery giving me the perfect opportunity to marry it with two other genres: The police procedural – Jimmy is promoted to become a homicide detective during the first ten pages – and, showing elements of my Veronica Mars influence, the teen detective show.

Whilst the overall arc of the show is about finding out who is responsible for the original outbreak, Jimmy and his high school senior girlfriend, Robyn make for a formidable team, each solving their own cases and, in the process, gaining a nugget or two of information about the outbreak itself – one step closer to their overall goal.

This type of show is often said to be the hardest to create – and they’re right, it’s no cakewalk – because of the complexity involved. You have to know from page one who your ultimate villain is. You have to know how you want the pieces that track him down to come together but, more importantly, as with all television, you need to know how to go about keeping the audience interested in your show. I’ll discuss devices for that in another post.

Finally, because I’ve realized how long this post as been – verging on a novella – I want to talk a little about the conception of HousematesHousemates is a pilot borne of necessity; like several of my friends, I’m a frustrated actor. I don’t live in London, where most of the work is, nor can I afford to. So I decided to create a project that we could all use to showcase our abilities. Noting the success of web series such as The GuildAnyone But Me and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, I decide that what we needed was to make a web show of our own. However, that wasn’t without its problems – when self-producing, you’re responsible for both the budget and the fundraising on your show. And since I’m no millionaire, I had to do the near-impossible: Eliminate the budget. Housemates had to be a show we could make for free. But how?

Webcams. In the 21st century, almost everybody has the privilege of owning one, making them an ideal tool for the low-budget film-maker. I knew I could eliminate my budget simply by writing a show in video diary format. Such shows are rare and because, in our case, the actors are so spread out that it’ll be impossible to have them in the same room, I needed to aim for two things: strong characters and funny dialogue. On a show where you don’t have the budget to show the fridge, let alone blow it up, you need to get creative.

You need to capture your audience’s attention and you need to make them laugh. Fast.

So on that note, I’ll leave you with the opening scene of Housemates:

OVER BLACK

GEMMA speaks first, with a lazy Essex accent.

GEMMA
That thing you were saying in class
today?

The rustling of activity on a desk can be heard as she
pauses.

GEMMA (CONT’D)
“You only get one chance to make a
first impression.”

The sound of a CIGARETTE LIGHTER.

INT. GEMMA’S ROOM - DAY

Meet Gemma (18). She’s an attractive brunette, dressed
stylishly but wearing just a little too much make-up. She
takes a long drag from the cigarette in her mouth, then
exhales it upwards, slowly, just like Katherine Hepburn
might.

GEMMA
Well, I think I make a great first
impression.

She pauses again and starts to dig inside her nose with a
pinky finger. She inspects her findings and, satisfied, wipes
her finger somewhere out of shot. She then inserts the
cigarette back into her mouth.

GEMMA (CONT’D)
(slightly garbled by the
cigarette)
Don’t you?

FADE OUT.

TITLE: HOUSEMATES

Until next time,

Peace x

May 14, 2011 Posted by | Holland Park, Housemates, lessons, Outbreak, screenwriting | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

[imported lesson] Getting Into Character: How The Internet Can Help Improve Your Writing


Note: The following is an article that originally appeared here in September 2009 but, since I now have my own blog, I felt I should reprint it as the advice contained herein is largely still relevant.

Getting Into Character: How The Internet Can Help Improve Your Writing

By Kriss Sprules

In the 21st century, being a screenwriter is easier than it has ever been. We have limitless choices of software to write with, thousands of production companies to sell to, and tens of thousands of different outlets for those works. But one thing that all the technology in the world can’t do is help you to improve your creativity.

First off, you have a great idea. You know it’s great, you believe in it and you know the format of screenwriting. You’re all set. So you write your script and all is well. You’ve told your story, you have a great three act structure and all your plot points and act breaks work together to tell an exciting story. But something still seems off. What is it?

For a large proportion of screenwriters – and I know this from the sheer number of scripts I read – the ideas and the story are no problem. Where things fall down are when creating characters. I had, and at times have, the same problem. So I’m going to share my dirty little secret with you and tell you how I escape the problem.

To write great characters you need to get inside their heads and in olden times, the only way you could find out what someone was thinking was to read their diary. Impractical and problematic. (Don‘t believe me? Try reading your sister or girlfriend’s sometime). Except nowadays, everyone puts their diary on the internet in the form of the blog. The easiest, fastest way to get to know someone in fact, is usually to read through their blog on MySpace, or their Facebook notes.

So how does knowing this help? Because, just as you can get to know someone by reading their blog… you can get to know your character by writing one for them. Sounds crazy, no? Well, I promise you it works. For my latest project, a TV pilot called ‘Holland Park’, I was struggling to make my characters work. So I decided to take one of them and blog as them. Sophie’s blog, The Fabulous Life Of Sophie Dexter, can be found here: http://sophiedexter.blogspot.com

I plan to blog as her at least once a week, about all the exciting things that happen in her life, in an effort to understand how she thinks. Because, contrary to common belief, you don’t tell your characters how to think. Sure, you come up with the basics, but if the characters won’t take on a life of their own, you don’t have a show.

Now, you may think it’s risky, throwing a character out to the public like that. And it is. But I’m a marketing man by trade. I decided to try and set up an internet following for my characters to help sell the show, so I created a Facebook group, too. You’ll see the fan page box on the blogs. Why do that? Because that’s how people know she’s a character. But also, it helps you to gauge interest in your show.

So it’s a two-fold process. You get to develop your character, the public gets to see your character develop AND you might gain some interest in the project your working from out of it. Plus, if you’re writing for TV, once your show is on the air it’s a nice little Easter egg and point of interactivity for the new fans to find.

Kriss Sprules is a producer and writer from the United Kingdom.

Now, as you’ll probably note, it’s showing signs of age. I mean, I mentioned MySpace and it was written during the creation of Holland Park, but I stand by the advice – if you really want to get inside your character’s head, create a blog for them or you could even go all out and make them an entire Facebook profile. Nobody knows your characters better than you do, but the more you know about them, the stronger and more confidently you can pitch based on them.

That’s two lessons in one day, not a bad start for the new blog.

Keep reading,

Kriss x

May 13, 2011 Posted by | Holland Park, lessons, screenwriting | , , | Leave a comment