Thursday, September 30, 2010

What my mother never said

I went to the "Made in Dagenham" Q&A with writer William Ivory on Wednesday and I had written a blog on it. But I just deleted it because of what my mother never said: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all".

It's not that he's a bad person or a bad writer (clearly not that) or that the interview was uninteresting, it's just I don't think he had anything to say worth repeating.

Damn. Just had to justify myself, didn't I, and see what happened?

Anyway I've been thinking about the science and technology of story. When I say technology I don't mean computers or software, or typewriters, or pens, or paper, or bits of stick with clay tablets.

Technology means techniques that can be applied to achieve a result. Anybody can be taught a technology of how to do something. Like the technology of plastering a wall. Doesn't mean they'll be a great wall plasterer but it means they could achieve a result that's not appalling (assuming they've practised the techniques as well).

Lack of technology is a bad thing when you're trying to achieve something, though occasionally you have to work it out for yourself. And sometimes there's bad technology which, if you try using it, will just end you up in trouble - and then you'll think "I can't do it" when the truth is: you don't know how, in fact worse, you think you know and you don't.

But let's do the science bit first.

I think you can divide "Story science" into two types, I have no idea what to call them but I know how to describe them, they are the Biology and the Physics of Story.

Originally (and still to a large extent) Biology is about classification. People looked at living things and began to classify them: Birds (feathers and fly), fish (live underwater) and so on.

Then there's Physics, about looking at things, suggesting rules to describe a situation, testing those rules to see if they work and if they work 100% of the time you've got a Law.

What's the Biology of Story? Campbell's Monomyth is an example of classification. So are Polti's 36 Dramatic Situations. Vogler's work is based on the Monomyth so that's classification too.

But, and I think this is important, sometimes you find something which does not fit the current classification. Does that mean it's not a living thing? Well, some people will say "yes, that is exactly what it means", like the man who, coming face to face with a giraffe, exclaimed "there ain't no such animal". Or the so-called doctor who proclaimed "I would rather err with Galen than accept Harvey's truth." - Galen stated blood moved like tides in the body, Harvey proved blood was pumped by the heart. Proof is not enough for some people.

The Monomyth is a classification. It does not mean that all stories have to contain those elements. They may but it cannot be stated as Truth.

What about the Physics of Story? Aristotle's Poetics, is the only one I can think of. Physics is different to Biology, Physics always applies. (I've probably pulled this metaphor a bit further than it should go, it's going to break any moment.)

Aristotle analysed plays that entertained and plays that failed to entertain (even though they were the same format and on the same subject) and came up with a set of principles which can be used to analyse any story to determine the degree to which it will succeed or fail.

(You have to understand that I write these blogs off the top of my head mostly - once they've had a chance to ferment a bit. This is not wine that's been laid down for years, more like a Beaujolais Nouveau.).

Then there's Story Technology - it's engineering. Engineering is about application of techniques (using tools) to produce the desired result - like a bridge. The bridge may not be perfect but as long as it does what it's supposed to do, then it's a good bridge.

Story technology is that. It's a form of engineering which may not produce a perfect story but as long as it does what it's supposed to do, then you've got a good story. (A bridge may be so well made that it's used as an example - so could a story, of course.)

So do we have story tools? Well, you can create a story that fits the Monomyth classification but that doesn't guarantee success. This happens all the time. Or you can apply Aristotle's principles and you will end up with something dramatic.

Of course a person's ability to apply these is dependent on their understanding and talent. So there's no guarantee it would be a great story. But it would work.

There are what you might call "lesser" tools, these are purely mechanical and designed to help you think through the story (index cards, for example). You can hammer a nail by hand, but it's easier and quicker to use a nail gun.

There are little bits of technology that can be used in specific areas, like dialogue: "Keep cutting out words until it stops meaning what it's supposed to mean - even if that means cutting the whole speech" (a little gem from Russell T Davies).

There are lots of tools to help you write well, whether and how you use them is up to you.

What about McKee? He comes under classification and "lesser" tools, that's not intended as an insult, it's just where he fits in this analysis.

What's on the turntable? "Time has told me" by Nick Drake from "Five Leaves Left"

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ooooh, that was good

The fourth of the MetFilm school evenings, once again with Justin Trefgarne.

We started with a viewing of "La jetée", an unusual and highly influential French short-ish film (about 30 minutes with no dialogue just voice-over and almost exclusively black and white stills instead of moving pictures) - it was the basis of Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys among others. Without going into detail let's just say opinions on the film were divided but nobody was injured. I liked it a lot.

But that wasn't the point of the exercise - Justin then split us into groups of three (luckily there were 21 people in the class) and had us pitch the film to the rest of the class. We had 20 minutes or so to prepare the pitch as "writer", "director" and "producer".

This was a mean trick to play on those who hadn't liked it but the evening was actually about some training in how to pitch - very handy for me as I've never done it and I have signed up for the pitching at the Festival which is now only a month away.

I was teamed up with Jean and Julia, and they liked the film too. We were all experienced in talking to groups, Jean is a photographer while Julia is a copy writer with a good understanding of marketing. I pretended to be the Writer, Jean was Director and Julia was Producer. It was a good combination and undoubtedly had an influence on the end result, modesty* forbids me to say more and it wasn't a competition.

So the pitching began and after each Justin asked for comments and gave suggestions on what could be improved (he's very diplomatic). A clear statement of who we were, the story's genre, a brief description of the story (a teaser), sufficient understanding of the story that you can answer questions, and passion. After all, if you don't believe in it, who else will?

An important thing to understand about pitching is that it will change into a conversation with your "audience" and it's important that it should. So rather than being exhaustive in your pitch, leave gaps in the story so questions can be asked. And when you reach the end: Stop. If you allow there to be silence, the people you're pitching to will fill it.

This really couldn't have come at a better time for me, as mentioned I will be doing it "for real" in a few weeks. I enjoyed it and have a much better understanding which means it's far less scary.

I wonder what Justin's going to do to us next time...

*Modesty is my best quality.

What's on the turntable? "The Henry Suite" by Rick Wakeman from "The Grand Piano Tour" (a version of his "Six Wives of Henry VIII" album)

Monday, September 20, 2010


This is the next instalment of my reports on the London Screenwriters Festival short MetFilm evening class course ... phew. There was a two week break between the second and third evening, and I've been a bit busy the last week hence the delay.

New speaker Justin Trefgarne a writer-director. He is a man with strong views, but a very gentle way of putting them. He has experience not only as a writer and director, but as a script reader and script editor of many years, so he knows what he's talking about.

As with Claire Moorsom he asked everybody to say who they were, what they'd written and their favourite film. As usual there was a wide variety which he noted with interest - since when he does this with students the choices tend to be limited to Pulp Fiction.

His first bold statement was that all writers should direct - at least once. Possibly one or two in the audience had while a few more of us had had something produced. His reason for this is his viewpoint on scripts: A script is just a manual for the director and the actors, and a writer needs to know how that works.

Then we got into his fundamental view of what a film is: A set of questions and answers. The concept of the central dramatic question is well known, but in his view a good film goes further than that, it is a constant posing and resolving of questions - sometimes questions are resolved immediately, sometimes partially, sometimes not until the end (occasionally never). The hard questions to answer are the real dramatic questions, others are simply "practical" questions.

The more dramatic questions a film poses, and the way it answers them, is what makes it good.

He then demonstrated by asking us to watch the first 15 minutes of Michael Clayton, it wasn't a huge hit when it was released and that was probably to do with the title. But, as it turns out, the title is fundamental to the central dramatic question of the film: "Who (really) is Michael Clayton?"

It was a very interesting exercise, one that I'd recommend. After we'd watched the fifteen minutes we spent the rest of time going through it slowly and looking at the interplay of the questions and answers. With occasional running off at a tangent, except they were always very useful tangents: explore a character by what other people say about him/her; close-ups make the audience worry because they can't see what's around the character (used a lot in horror) but in Michael Clayton the camera is on him a lot of time even when other people are talking.

Quick report ... now it's back to work.

What's on the turntable? "Catwalk Blues" by Gordon Giltrap from "The River Sessions"

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Coming over all Victorian

I (and those around me) have been having a very Victorian weekend.

Apart from the alternate Victorian timeline I've been working on for the world domination project, a friend had a Victorian role-play evening to mark his 50th birthday, which was jolly fun. Met lots of people I hadn't seen in years too, which was nice. My, how they've grown.

It is the Teacher's birthday today, and she received a ton of stuff for the Victoriana role-playing game (quite incidentally co-authored by someone I know). And I received a copy of Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel through the post.

Boilerplate is a steampunk movie project that J J Abrams has in the pipeline. Although to call it steampunk is a little disingenuous. Boilerplate is a robot from history. It is not a comic book, nor is it a major deviation from history, it's just a single robot in history. Boilerplate started as a website with the robot being beautifully photoshopped into old photographs. It details Boilerplate's presence at historical events from 1893 onwards.

However what I find particularly interesting is the book's educational value: apart from the addition of Boilerplate, it provides an accurate description of US-related historical events. More accurate than you usually find in places like ... oh, Wikipedia, say.

It would not be revealing too much to say that Nikola Tesla is a major player in the alternative history that I have been working on - and the inventor of Boilerplate meets up with Tesla in about 1893...

What's on the turntable? "Sogg" by Amiina from "Kurr" (I'm coming over all Icelandic again)

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Red Planet result

Well, I'm out with Mara (otherwise known as Tec), but I'm in good company.

Onwards and upwards.

(When I was young I used to whistle on my way home from school - very often I would improvise on the tune Sweet Georgia Brown, currently playing in my ears.)

What's on the turntable? "Sweet Georgia Brown" played by Coleman Hawkins from the very best of...

Sunday, September 05, 2010

It isn't real, y'know

I was doing the ironing, which is something I seem to do a lot of when I get home at weekends, and watching a film - we have a TV conveniently located in the room where the ironing is done. The film in question was the new Sherlock Holmes which is a fun film and good for passing the time when you're ironing.

The next bit is spoilery if you haven't seen it, but not seriously since I'm focussing on a very specific sequence near the beginning. And you actually know the result of the sequence before you see the process.

Holmes is in the process of disguising himself while on the move; he adds a false nose as the first step, then borrows Watson's coat. There is a circus setting up in one of the London squares he passes through and here he picks up most of his disguise. And the disguise works perfectly.

So far so good, what's my point?

It's a circus. Why is it a circus?

Look at it this way: he could have had all the pieces of his disguise in his rooms. But that's a bit boring, the fact that he has to pick things up en route makes it more interesting (also demonstrates his abilities as a thief, which is relevant, as is his skill at disguise). Then again he could have grabbed these items from any unsuspecting person he found along the way, perhaps some people playing cards.

But no, we do have lots of people he could have stolen from, but he has to go through a circus.

Because this is the biggest and most outrageous place he could come across in London. It's spectacle, it's exciting. And feasible.

When we write a story with a theme - something that's actually going to mean something to someone - it's not real. But it does have to be interesting and as the writer you are within your rights to make it as interesting as possible, more than a right, it's your duty.

The writer and blogger Alexandra Sokoloff wrote recently about the different rewrite passes you should do for your script (whether novel or screenplay) and that's what you need. It is possible that in the first draft of Sherlock Holmes the character did put together his disguise in his room. Or in a later draft, from people along the way. But a circus is better.

Stories are artificial constructs that have to appear completely real. The characters and the plot are a vehicle for the theme and, as such, they cannot be anything but artificial. But being artificial does not detract from the story, on the contrary, it's what makes the story.

But ironing is very real - perhaps I should spice it up with some extreme ironing.

What's on the turntable? "Piano improvisations" by Emerson, Lake and Palmer from "Welcome back, my friends..."

Thursday, September 02, 2010

World Domination - the preliminaries

Oooh, aren't I the bloggy one all of a sudden.

As Chris the Director said, over here, we had a meeting at the weekend. You know, like a business meeting. When I say "like" a business meeting I mean it, because we were sitting in the middle of the Cheshire countryside talking while wives and children were having fun.

This is not to say that we weren't having fun - talking about potential futures is always fun. And in this case we were discussing a new buzzword: transmedia stuff (you can look it up here).

It's all Chris's fault. We first met when he contacted me and asked if I'd read a script of his - he had read my scripts on Shooting People and particularly liked Air because it was possibly the only script on the entire 'verse that represents Live Action Role Playing accurately. Which is not surprising considering my history.

So I gave him some notes on his script and after chatting a bit we decided to film some of my script Monsters, the results of which is here. We got on well so decided we should do a web series and I wrote the first version of Winter. It was okay and would probably have been fine.

Then we talked more. Chris had been working on a Steampunk feature script and we both agreed it would be really cool if I re-wrote Winter in his Steampunk universe. So I did. And this confused a lot of people (including Jez. Hi Jez!). But with this came other problems, apart from the script, we don't have a lot of money and if Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow took $30M (knocking off $10M for distribution and promotion) to make and ours is a third the length but also has a completely digital backlot...

So we kind of hit the doldrums a bit. We knew it was possible to do but could we do it?

Of course we could. We just needed a plan. And that's what we did at the weekend, we made a plan. We started at the end - Winter filmed and released - and worked our way to the beginning. And then I wrote it up so it almost looked like a business plan.

So now we have a plan, and we also now have a name for the whole enterprise - Chris had actually been using the word all through our discussions, and the original conception is his so it seems only fair to use his word.

But I'm not telling you what it is yet. That will have to wait for the official launch of the project. And there are a couple of steps ahead of "official launch" which have to be achieved first.

So what's this got to do with world domination? Well, Winter is only the beginning.

So if you know (or are) an artist or illustrator who might like to do some piccies for a Steampunk project that's going places, get in touch.

What's on the turntable? "Take a Pebble" by Emerson, Lake and Palmer from "Emerson, Lake & Palmer"

One to read

From Roger Ellory's blog:

"As I have commented before, this writing business is a strange one. Seems you spend half your life alone, sat in some room somewhere, hammering away at the keyboard creating your latest work, and the other half of the year in new and far-flung places explaining yourself to strangers."

What's on the turntable? "Somehow ... Someday" by Yes from "Open Your Eyes"

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Met Film School - Part 2

So ... last night was the second night of the free screenwriting course as part of my London Screenwriters Festival ticket, once again with Claire Moorsom.

It's kind of tricky, we have a huge range of writers on the course from people who've barely put finger to keyboard to create a screenplay, to those who are pretty competent and experienced. Which means that not everything is either going to be new, or of interest, but this week was a good one for me.

Again it's not necessarily a matter of anything being new (little here was "new" to me), it's both the environment, and the difference of viewpoint - particularly when it's the viewpoint of someone who's worked with writers for a long time.

So we were looking at character, what is that makes a character in a story effective? Where effective means: the audience experiences an emotional reaction to the character (doesn't matter so much what that emotion is, as long is it was intended by the writer).

(Why do we call those who write screenplays "writers" and those who write novels "authors"?)

One of the key elements put forward was "contradiction but not inconsistency" which is to say people are full of contradictions but those are the person's character; while a contradiction is the behaviour of a person that does not fit their character.

A character has values - things they care about - which inform their behaviour, they have commitment, drive, complexity and depth. And characters in stories have to be like this - after all, who's interested in someone who wanders through life doing nothing?

These motivations lead to conflict with the environment and characters around them, which in turn reveal more about their character.

One useful item which I had not come across before was the emphasis on Choices and Decisions. I mean, it's pretty obvious that a character makes decisions as they proceed through their story. What's not so obvious is that the depth of a story increases with the number of decisions the characters can make and how they affect the plot.

I want to discuss the artificiality of stories in another blog entry, but it comes out here: We have characters whose decisions create a plot line (or plot lines) , but as the writer we generally know where we're going with the plot. So the characters are pre-destined to make certain decisions ... and yet the depth of the story is affected by the choices available.

The point is: the audience does not know where the plot is going, and do not know what decisions the characters will make. The less predictable you can make those decisions the better the audience will like it - as long as it is not contradictory behaviour.

Claire commented that it's common for writers to play it safe with their characters. For whatever reason they don't put enough pressure on them - and it is absolutely essential to make the decisions hard, and make your characters really suffer. The audience will love you for it.

A final point (well, for me, unfortunately I have to leave a little before the end because I have a long way to go, so it might not actually have been the final point) was about a character's transformation in regard to the narrative spine of the story. Identifying the change of your main character (we did discuss the stories where the protagonist does not change, as I did here) and isolating three key scenes at the beginning, the middle and the end gives you the narrative spine of your story.

Now that's a useful technique.

(There was more, of course, discussions and so forth - and there'll be stuff like this at LSWF and much more besides. You know it makes sense.)

What's on the turntable? "The Diary of Horace Wimp" by ELO from "Discovery"