Never Give Up

 

Writing is like any skill or hobby – you need to learn a lot before you get good. Sure, you can have natural talent, but it takes more than talent to create a prolific output of work. And as things change, your writing changes. As you grow as a person, your writing will grow with you. I know lots of stories about people who become parents wanting to create more content relevant to children. They have new life experiences to share now that they have kids. Likewise, someone who has travelled the world will write different stories to someone who has stayed in the same place their whole life. Neither is good or bad, it just creates different life experiences for writers to convey.

The hardest thing about writing, I find, is matching what’s on the page to what’s in my head. It’s like when I draw – I often have an image in my head that Michelangelo would be jealous of, but when I try to commit it to paper, the perspective is out, it’s much more simple than I imagine and it’s nothing like what I want it to be. And so, it’s frustrating when I know my script isn’t right, but I can’t figure out why. That’s when despondency can set in and I resist the urge to go over and over and over again.

believe

I’ve been working on a film script for a few years now. On and off for maybe four years. There’s a lot that I like about it but there’s always been something that doesn’t quite work. In the space of those intervening years, I’ve worked on my writing a lot. I’ve done courses, I’ve written other scripts, I’ve co-written sketches, co-developed ideas. I’ve grown a lot as a writer and as a person. I’m definitely not the person I was four years ago, nor am I the writer I was four years ago.

The biggest problem for me was that this issue has been present for the last two or three big passes I’ve done on it. I mean, really sticking out like a sore thumb. But it seemed like a blind spot to me – I could not for the life of me work out what the main problem was. And now it’s been there for a year and a half, maybe two years, and the project has stagnated. Massively. I’ve had other people read it, I’ve gone over it myself a thousand times, I’ve talked about it at length with my co-writer, Anton. I did a pass where I changed small things, I did a ‘writing from scratch’ pass which I think might’ve made the whole thing a bit worse (but that’s okay, cause I know I can fix that easily enough).

Nothing that I did has fixed it.

So I took a breath. Something was fundamentally flawed and no amount of banging my head against the wall was going to fix it. I left it alone. Really alone. I’ve not really thought about it or wanted to think about it for around two and a half months now. I’ve been busy with work and other projects. It did, of course, tick over in my subconscious. And I kept coming back to the same conclusion – the way I’d built my main character wasn’t right for this script. There was something wrong with him. I didn’t want to think about it too hard, I knew it would open a can of worms I didn’t have the time to dedicate to fixing it just yet.

Then, yesterday, I thought I’d start simply. I’d read a script, one that I’ve used as research for this project before. I’d look at that and I’d map the journey of the protagonist to see how they handled his journey and maybe that would unlock something about the way I was writing my main character. So I started to read. I got about a quarter of the way through the script and I suddenly realised a completely new way to portray my character.

It’s funny, because the two films have nothing alike on screen. The thing that I was researching in that script was about ensemble pieces, even though I’ve long since decided that that’s not the right road for this project. But there was enough in the script to┬ámade me think about my lead differently, to figure out a way to change him that will provide much more conflict and friction in the story.

I have no idea if it will work yet, but I feel like it’s a good step in the right direction. This is just a little reminder to myself, more than anything, to never give up on something just cause it’s hard. Sometimes you just need a little more time to really break something open. So never stop trying to find that.

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.

Rewriting.

This week, I’ve decided to continue on rewrites of a project of mine I haven’t touched in months. It’s interesting actually, because up until yesterday, I didn’t feel like I was ready to work on it. I was genuinely concerned that if I’d started working on it last week, or even two weeks ago, that I would manage destroy the good place the project was currently in.

I gave myself time (because at this moment, I’m lucky enough to HAVE time to give myself) and didn’t move on it before I was confident that I could do it justice. I waited an afternoon to give myself a little more distance on the project, rather than making a mess that I’d then have to unpick when I did the next rewrite and create a hell of a lot more work for me.

And these two days, I’ve been really happy with the way it’s coming together.

I remember when I started this rewrite, it was a real battle to get from scene to scene. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m back in a certain headspace or what, but what I’m writing at the moment seems to ebb and flow really well. And I’m discovering how tightly woven my earlier draft was. I’m trying to shave subplots out of it and realise that it links into something earlier or later. It’s frustrating but it’s great fun.

It’s also been a great chance to get back into the world and spend some time with the characters again. I’d forgotten how much fun they were – mostly because I’ve been working on other projects and hanging out with other characters instead – but it seems as though their voices are still ever present and clear in my mind, which is making each tweak easier to accomplish too.

So perhaps if you’re having trouble rewriting, perhaps give yourself a little more time away from it. Don’t be over critical of your work – get someone else to have a look over it and make sure they’re willing to tell you what works and what doesn’t. After all, in a rewrite, it’s just as crucial to identify what works as well as what’s broken.

After all, if you cut out a bunch of plot and character that works, it means the second draft will be a lot less strong and potentially more plot hole-y.

Sorry the post is short this week – but I really am eager to get back to it!

Happy writing!

P.S. Don’t forget, if you are rewriting, I run a script-reading service and am more than happy to help you to get from one stage of your script to the next!

Think About Your Audience…

Rewrites. 

A word that sends a shiver down the spine of most writers.

Not me. But I’m a bit weird like that.

I’ve just done what I hope is the final rewrite on With A Little Help From Our Friends. I’m not planning on doing any more until I’ve locked in what’s actually happening with it, but for now, it’s pretty much good to go. I read it for the first time in a few months and realised that something was missing. It took me awhile focusing on other things in the script – and, admittedly, a lot of the notes I made were more directorial than writer-focused which was an exciting twist on the usual process – before I realised what it was.

I was putting the audience in the wrong position in the beginning.

When I get to a certain stage in a script, I find it really helps push the story to think about who the audience is going to click with and who you want them to click with. For instance, if you’re writing a mystery film, you’re NOT going to reveal the killer in the first scene and so the audience clicks with the detective character. If you’re writing an action flick, you want them to click with the hero, not the villain. Or perhaps the damsel in distress character and then the hero comes in and sweeps her/him off to safety and they race away together.

In most scripts, there is a character who is essentially representing the audience. It isn’t always the same character either – it varies. Shakespeare did it: the character who identifies the characters, who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, the one who is in the same position as the audience and asks the questions they can’t. In movies, it’s often the protagonist – they discover the rules of the world at the same time as the audience. It has become a lot more subtle (usually) since Shakespeare, but consider how you want your audience to feel in each scene and push that emotion as far as you can.

The audience is the most important thing you’ve got to focus on as a filmmaker.

After all, if you’ve got no audience, you’ve not really got much of a film.