Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Writing Comedy: My Process

Everyone writes differently. There are definitely no right or wrong ways to get words down on the page - there are certain standards and formats that you can use to your advantage, to present yourself as knowledgable and professional. The most important thing you can do is figure out what works for you - then stick to it. There's no point in forcing yourself to write the way someone else does it, just because they do it that way. Try new ways to set up structure or pull out story, sure, but if it doesn't work for you, don't be afraid to say that it doesn't work for you and go back to what you've always done.

I write comedy. It's a bit of a beast, comedy, because there are so many different types. There's romantic comedies, action comedies, balls out comedies, sitcoms, sketches, radio, television, film - it goes on and on and on. My style isn't about having a huge belly laugh every minute, mine is about making people laugh with a touch of humanity - something to think about at the end.

As a result, my first drafts aren't always so funny. I have to resist the urge to go back and tear everything apart in my early drafts - but this gets easier the more I write, as I know that I'll probably tear it all apart in rewrites anyway. The first few drafts are all about getting the story right. The comedy comes later - there are always a handful of jokes in the early drafts but I'm more concerned about character arcs and plots instead of making people laugh. If jokes are there, it's because they've happened naturally when I've written them.

The key thing I've found for me is to give myself permission for my work to not be bang on the first time around. It's okay if it's not perfect - that's what multiple drafts are for. I can do a lot of work beforehand - outlines, scene by scene breakdowns - to make sure that the structure will do what it's supposed to in the early drafts (and, I say 'a lot of work' but I know that I, personally, do less figuring out everything beforehand and let a lot of things happen on the page), but I need to remember that writing is a process, not a science. It's part of the process to change, shape and mould things as you go along.

Another key thing I've learnt about myself as I write is that you have to trust yourself to be ruthless. You need to trust your instinct. Where does your script begin to soar? That's most likely your strongest part. Where, when you re-read, do you feel like it's still a bit of a slog? That's likely a part that needs work. Don't be afraid to acknowledge this. I find that looking back over my core idea for the scene and simplifying is a great way to cut extra weight. Likewise, getting out of scenes early and starting them late. The more scripts I read, the more I realise that this is really vital.

Once I've got the structure locked, the story strong, that's when I start to do passes on the jokes. There will always be some in my early drafts - some I've worked out in an outline or a breakdown, some have happened on the page as I wrote. But they're probably not the greatest jokes. Sometimes they are and they make me laugh like mad, so I'll leave them in. Other times, they're not working for the comedy as well as they should and so I analyse the scene, the character, the line and see what I can do to up the laughs and ramp up the hilarity.

I'm lucky in that I have a great co-writer who has a nose for comedy. That means that we can talk about scenes together and we'll always end up throwing around new jokes, ideas, trying to keep the ball rolling until we hit the wall and then come up with a few more. Even on our individual projects, we work together in feedback on drafts, to try and bring the best out of the script.

Right now, I'm doing a first draft of our sitcom pilot. It's been planned, written, torn apart, re-written. We've hit character problems, created new backstory, found new running jokes, developed new storylines. We've tried different structure formats to make the spine strong, started outlining and hit problems. Now, we've gotten to the point where we've an outline we feel good about and I've started the new first draft this week. And I just wanted to note this somewhere - that it's okay for this draft not to be particularly hilarious; I trust Anton and I to enhance the comedy in later drafts. These early drafts are all about structure, story and character. Without those three, you've only got ink on a page or pixels on a computer screen. And that's not all writing is. Writing is about emotion. Emotion comes out of characters you can relate to and a story you enjoy. And you can't have either of those things without a solid story structure.

Right. Good little pep talk. Back to it.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Disciplined Writing

I didn't want to write a blog post today. I'm not feeling it. I've got a billion and five other things to do and surely another day without a blog post wouldn't be that bad? It's all right cause I'll write one tomorrow. And it's okay cause I'm working full time again and there's loads of stuff going on. I can justify it by telling myself I'm tired/busy/ill and promise myself I'll definitely do it tomorrow.

But today I decided I have to write a blog post. It's been too long since the last one and I have very definitely been throwing myself into scripts, writing and working. And I'm going to make myself do it, even though I don't particularly want to. Even if it's rubbish. Because at least then, I'll have written a blog post and I know that the next one will be better (and hopefully way more interesting).

It's the same with writing scripts. Or editing your film. You need to make sure that you're doing it regularly, that you exercise that muscle or else it'll become stiff and then when you try to dive in when you think you're ready, it's a much harder slog. A little bit of writing every day will help you to become a better, stronger writer, who can create amazing characters and scenarios at the drop of a hat.

The best thing about writing is that you can come back tomorrow and fix all your mistakes from today. In hindsight, perhaps writing a blog post about not wanting to write a blog post isn't the best idea - as once it's published, I can't really rewrite it or tweak it. Or maybe I will. But at least I'll have written something to make my blogging brain start to grind together again. And that way, I'll be more aware of potential blog post topics (although any questions are always welcomed) and I'll become used to the routine of writing a blog post every week once again.

I'm going to be the first to acknowledge the fact that this is very definitely NOT the best post I've ever written. I knew from the very beginning that it wasn't going to be. But you know what? The more I write, the better it feels. I'm working those muscles and getting back on track. It's a point that I think a lot of creative people come across at some time and I'm ploughing through it. Pushing against it and making it happen. Determination to get through to the other side and have something to show for it.

I do feel bad that this has been such a rubbish post though. Let me make it up to you. Have a unicorn on a rainbow.


Friday, 28 June 2013

What Is Research?

Research is, undoubtedly, one of the most important parts of writing. It doesn't matter how good your script is, if you have moment that doesn't ring true or doesn't make sense, you snap your audience out of the story - and you never want to do that. Research is the reason I clear my internet browsing history once a week - some of the stuff I search could look quite strange to an outsider. I would even go so far as to say that research is THE most important part of writing.

Note that I said important part. Research is oh so very definitely a part of the writing process. Just because you aren't scripting, that doesn't mean you aren't writing. Looking into how things can actually happen - how a building would collapse, how to reshoe a horse, how to roast a turkey - is so important to the final outcome of your script. If you get it wrong, it throws people out of the story. I remember I once watched a show with a protagonist who was on the Tube on the Central line get a text message. Another film had visa regulations that were wrong. It broke the suspension of disbelief for me because the research wasn't done right. 

Saturating yourself in the genre you're working on - watching hours and hours of sitcom or romantic comedy films or slasher flicks - is part of honing your skills to write something fantastic. After all, how can you write something original if you've no idea what's been done before?

Never underestimate the power of research. You could stumble across a scene or storyline that's exactly like yours. Then you need to figure out if you can make it different enough or scrap it. There's nothing worse than pitching your work to someone who turns around and says 'Oh, that sounds like The Godfather,' but you've never seen it and suddenly your storyline is shot. If you've spent months slaving on the script, then where are you? Frustratingly enough, it happens. 

Never, ever beat yourself up if you spend a day watching something of your genre instead of typing 'EXT. RAIL PLATFORM - DAY'. Getting all the information you can is a key part of arming yourself so that you can write the best possible version of your story when it comes to that. 

And that could be what sets you apart from the other scripts in the pile. 

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Always Be Prepared

It's nearly mid June. Say you've got something coming up. Perhaps something like the London Screenwriters' Festival. Say it's coming up at the end of October this year. There is a fantastic opportunity for you to pitch something there, to talk about your work, to get yourself out there. But NOW is the really crucial time for you as a writer or filmmaker.

You need to decide now what projects you're going to take in with you. To be your answer when people ask you what you're working on at the moment (they always do). To have something ready when they say 'What's it about?' so you don't end up rambling about your story and they end up getting confused or overwhelmed by your rough pitch.

You need to decide now what you start to work on before you get there, so that you've got something to show for it. Even if you aren't pitching (if you are pitching, you definitely need to do this around now), you need to know what your strongest projects are to talk about with other writers.

Honestly, start thinking about it now. Put in the development time to get it to a readable place if it comes to that. If people want you to send them something, make sure you've got something to send. Give yourself the best possible shot to get something up and running out of it. I've lost count of the amount of stories I've heard of people saying 'I pitched last year and got a lot of interest in my idea but I didn't have anything ready so I never sent anything through.' Don't be that person this year. Be the person who has a strong idea, a solid pitch, a one page outline ready to send (or give out on the day - but ONLY IF THEY ASK).

Consider what you want to get out of the festival. Then arm yourself with the tools to get it. You wouldn't go into battle with just an idea of how it's going to go and hope you'd win. You'd have weapons and strategies and concepts to give yourself the best possible chance of winning. Do the same at your festival and event. But start planning NOW.

If you aren't sure about your project or know it's not prepared enough to pitch at whichever event you're headed to, I run a script reading service and would love to help you out with your script. Find out more here.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Thoughts: Into The Woods, John Yorke

I recently stumbled across a tweet during a EURO scriptchat session about a month ago that I had the foresight to favourite to investigate later. It was a tweet that mentioned a book called Into The Woods by John Yorke (who has an impressive collection of credits - just Google him for a proper rundown, but he knows what he's talking about!) and that every writer should read it. Two weeks later, I was battling with restructuring my feature and at a bit of a loss as to how to approach it as the beat sheets I was working with weren't helping me as much as I needed them to be. So I went to Amazon and fished out the Kindle preview of Into The Woods and started reading.

I have to admit, the beginning did take me awhile to get into it. But it was enough for me to buy it and start reading.

And, boy, am I glad I did.

What Yorke has put into this book is not only a breakdown of structure, but also the entire writing process. From script structure to character arcs, from dialogue to fractural beats, it's a fantastic and informative resource on how stories work. Delving beneath Vogler's Hero's Journey and examining a five act structure, Into The Woods is exactly what I needed to help with my rewrite.

Yorke's angle is a five act structure. I found this infinitely interesting as this is definitely what I lean towards as a writer, even though it was always masked as three act structure. That doesn't mean that one is right and one is wrong - think of it like a paintbrush. Every artist prefers a different style of brush but you can still use them to get a beautiful painting at the end of it. You might not use five act structure, but I think that the book has the ability to help every writer strengthen their skills and hone their craft - particularly in the beats of the second act where a lot of films often lose their steam.

The way Yorke breaks down the five act structure has helped me immensely with restructuring my film - making sure the beats are right and on point for the story. He talks about mirrored beats in each act and how they compliment each other as the story goes on, which kind of blew my mind when I read it. It works so incredibly well and it's gobsmackingly simple but so effective.

The book discusses so many things: structure of television shows as well as films, which I found useful for a different project of mine. It talks about story at its core, the function of story in society and what stories mean to us as people. Characters, dialogue, subtext - there's everything jam-packed into this iPad sized eBook (I bought the Kindle edition for immediate access, but the paperback is really handsome and I'm hanging out to get that one soon too). The only thing it doesn't touch on is subplots, but I think you can apply the same theories to subplots on a more simplified level.

It's one of the best books on screenwriting I've read. Definitely in my top two (the other being Linda Aronson's Screenwriting: Updated - the first book on screenwriting I ever read and I still think it's the best one for a new screenwriter to read, before Snyder or McKee or Vogler) and I think everyone should read it, no matter what level of writer you are.

Brilliantly for anyone in London, the London Screenwriters' Festival are holding a Breakfast Club with Yorke next week, on the 7th of June. I'd recommend everyone who can get there to go, mostly because I can't as I'm on the other side of the world right now.

You can then all make me jealous by telling me all about it!