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

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

Frustrating Firsts


Remember the first time you typed the magical words “FADE OUT”? That feeling of accomplishment of having finished your first script and feeling ready to take on the world? Amazing, wasn’t it? So, for my first blog post in far too long, I want to address something that’s been bothering me of late – the debut screenplay.

Why has this been bothering me? Because in the 21st century, anyone with a laptop and a bootleg copy of Final Draft has decided that they’re a screenwriter, and they expect that their first 90-page (or, more usually, 72- or 175-page) effort will sell immediately and they’ll be catapulted to the Hollywood A-list. And it happens once per million scripts. In fact, your chances are only mildly slimmer of winning the lottery than they are of selling a debut script.

As a big internet trawler (it’s not ‘procrastinating,’ it’s research), I come across a lot of forum/discussion posts by folk who’ve written their first script and are asking how to sell it. Don’t waste the effort is my advice. Just open a new window, type FADE IN and start again. Even starting the post with “I’ve just written my first script, it’s AWESOME and AMAZEBALLS! Now, how do I get it to Tom Cruise?” is a massive waste of effort. Tom Cruise isn’t going to read your first script unless, if you ever become ‘lucky’ enough to make an impact on this business, become a major director and slowly befriend him, you decide to show it to him as a bit if a laugh twenty years from now.

See, your first script is a lot like those other milestone firsts in life: the first step, the first kiss, the first car, the first home, the first time you had sex… all felt like they were awesome at the time, right? Except you fell over after your first step, the first kiss was sloppy, awkward and too wet, the first car was a rust bucket that cost you £200 and you only got 100 miles out of and the first home was actually a dingy, damp room in a house that you shared with a crack addict and an unemployed musician who was “just working at Starbucks until I find a new drummer, man.” And the first time you had sex… well, I mean, I was pretty awesome the first time, but I know for most people it was probably the most exciting thirty seconds of their life before one of them had to use the time-honoured phrase “I’m sorry, that’s never happened to me before…”

See, it is a truth, universally acknowledged, that the first scripts every screenwriter – aspiring or successful – ever wrote was terrible. Mine would be charitably describable as a steaming pile of dog shit on a hot day. Most people have similar experiences to relate.

So kids, don’t sweat the first script… just get it done, put it in a draw, and use it as a learning tool. Zepplin wrote a lot of crap in the early days, too. And there’s a reason you’ve never heard any of it. The first five scripts (minimum) are your apprenticeship. They’re where you apply the lessons you learned from the last screenwriting book or blog you read. Sure, if the premise is good, they might one day see the light of day in some form; maybe you win an Oscar, remember the script you wrote about the Clown with AIDS when you were nineteen and decide to play with it again. I don’t know. But selling takes time. Don’t panic, don’t worry and – for the love of Christ – don’t go on the internet telling people it’s the greatest thing since Citizen Kane. Those of us who know better just treat such claims with mild amusement – and that includes every experienced writer, director and producer on the circuit.

I’ll be back very soon with an update on the irons I have in the fire, but until then… look after yourselves, and each other. (Springer ending!)

Kriss

March 28, 2013 Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, specs, 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

Competition: It’s good for the soul.


As my regular readers will know – thank you for being a regular reader, by the way – I’m something of an oddity among screenwriters, because my main goal, my focus as an artist (that sounds pretentious, but writing is art, okay?) isn’t primarily on the golden ticket, the cash cow that is feature films. That isn’t to say that I don’t or can’t write them. After all, the principle is roughly the same with both media. But I’m one of the breed that would rather write for television than see my name stuck in the small print at the bottom of a movie poster every couple of years.

The trouble with being a television writer is how little support there actually is for the budding television writer. There are thousands more guides to writing for features than television out there, both on the web and in bookstores. There are arguably more opportunities to break into features in an age where everybody with a digital camera can become a director-producer-whatever else you want to hyphenate in there.

In television, you write thousands of specs, mail them out to anyone with a postal address who might vaguely know someone who occasionally does catering on the set of Days Of Our Lives in the hope that someone, anyone up there will read it and decide you’ve got what it takes. You call and e-mail hundreds of agents, literary or otherwise, hoping that one of them will say that they’ll read it and represent you. You get an unfathomable amount of rejections.

There are so many independent movie production companies at this time that if you shop a half-way decent 90 page script for long enough, someone will option it for way below Guild minimum and produce it on a shoestring budget. You’ll see your name in lights, on that movie poster, but in reality, very few people will actually see the fruits of your labour.

Despite that, the feature writer is rewarded, supported and encouraged. Not just by their thousands of peers on wonderful sites such as Triggerstreet and Zoetrope, but by the hundreds of people out there willing to run (and sponsor) competitions that offer the budding feature writer some much-needed affirmation.

In television, we don’t have that support. Going from the top of my head, the only two television pilot contests I’m aware of are the excellent TVWriter.com “People’s Pilot” contest and the ongoing Storyboard.tv contests, which have received mixed reviews. Aside from that… nothing. Some film festivals – usually the minor ones – offer contests for television writing, but at the cost of extortionate entry fees with no real benefit of exposure from them. There are plenty of festivals for produced television pilots, too. But nobody really offers the humble television writer the chance to get that positive affirmation.

With that in mind, within the coming hours I intend to launch a television writing competition of my own. Sort of. It’s not strictly a contest in traditional terms – there’s no cash prize, there’s no option or production deal on offer. The prize is something arguably more valuable: exposure.

For this contest, there will be no entry fee and no exaggerated promises. There is no deadline. You will receive feedback from me for your entries and you can enter as many times as you like. If I like what I read, I’ll post my review on the blog for the world to see and make the script available to download.

Why does that benefit you? Frankly, I’m something of a publicity whore. Every time I post to my blog, I pimp the link all over the net: On Zoe, on Twitter, on Facebook and to over 1000 industry professionals by posting the link to the various groups on LinkedIn of which I’m a member.

By the time you read this, I’ll either be in the process of or have already finished adding a page to this website giving all the competition details. The contest will be open to entries in the form of 30-minute sitcoms (pilots and specs), hour-long dramas (pilot and spec) and 30-minute soap operas (pilot and spec.) I’ll read anything written for television, with the exception of MOWs – you can enter those in most feature contests – as long as it’s in English. Though I may also consider scripts in French, Spanish and German (e-mail first to check, they’ll take me much longer to read and review. Especially if you want the feedback in one of those languages!)

Submissions are being accepted NOW. Click here for details.

I look forward to reading your submissions.

Kriss

August 2, 2011 Posted by | Contests, screenwriting, specs, writing | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Triggers for a premise.


I was recently directed by my friend Shaula to a web article about creating a show for the USA Network, which inspired me to talk about the things that can trigger you into writing.

In a nutshell, the article observes that all USA shows have titles that are common phrases in the English language, that they all take place on a sunny locale and that the lead character always has a wacky sidekick and an obvious love interest. Given these most basic parameters, it wasn’t long before I’d come up with a premise for a show, Boxing Clever, about a crime-fighting boxer/college genius.

The lead character would be a Columbia student who boxes to pay his way through college; his wacky sidekick would be his trainer, an ex-NYPD detective. His unattainable love interest the trainer’s daughter, who serves as a homicide detective with the NYPD. Yep, two quirky sidekicks, a love interest and family politics. This is almost HBO.

So let’s take it through the steps:

1. Find a Catchy, Bland Title, Preferably Two Words, That’s Already a Phrase in the Lexicon.

Boxing Clever – ‘To use inventive thinking above all other attributes in order to achieve an end goal.’ (UrbanDictionary.com)

Catchy? Check. Bland? Check. Two words? Check. Already a phrase in the lexicon? Bingo!

2. Create an Unlikely Duo; One Rule-Bending, The Other Uptight.

Oops. Still, I have an unlikely trio. The daughter would be uptight, by the book. The boxer will bend rules, he won’t think like a cop. The trainer? Thinks like a father who used to be a cop.

3. Make Someone a Rookie With a Desireable Area of Expertise.

The boxer? Used to be a Marine. And he’s studying Forensic Mathematics. Boom, done.

4. Add Will-They-or-Won’t-They Chemistry.

Look, the boxer is an ex-Marine, so he’s tanned, muscular and good-looking. Shes a bad-ass detective who’s also very, very hot. It’d be a crime if they didn’t get it on. And the victim would be the audience.

5. Add a Sunshine-y Locale…

I have it on good authority that New York sees sun in the summer. That’s good enough for me.

6. … So You Can Have a Poster With Characters in Sunglasses.

Well, the show’ll have actors, right? I can probably make them wear sunglasses for the time it takes to use a camera. Boom.

So that’ll be my sure-fire USA Network hit. I’m only half-joking with that pitch – they annoying part is that some people will actually consider that a good idea… which means the bad part is that by putting it on the internet I now have to write it faster than they do. Balls.

Anyway, let’s go interactive: Use the guidelines and the comment feature to pitch your own USA show to me. Best show wins a thumbs up.

I’ll be back with more shortly…

Kx

July 7, 2011 Posted by | lessons, networks | , , , , , , | 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