Structure, emotional beats, turning points, act breaks and so on. All important stuff when writing scripts, especially so when it comes to full features. These things are wonderful for troubleshooting and spotting areas to improve. They are helpful tools to analyse your work in a (somewhat) more objective way. That’s all good stuff.
But I find they are also a trap. Because if you worry about them too early, you could be restricting the most important part: making stuff up.
Just coming up with the story, the scenes, the characters and, with all that, the entertainment should be a free experience. An open exploration of ideas. You have to gather all the fun parts. See them play out in your mind. Once you’ve got more than enough and you have them down, then you can worry about all those other things to help yourself make it all work. And the better that exploration and the more interesting the stuff you make up is, I find the less you really have to push to get that structure, beats etc. working. If it’s fun, it’s fun.
So focus on the most important and most fun part first: just make stuff up.
Whenever we write a story for a show or film, we get notes. A script editor, head writer, director, exec, whoever will point out things that don’t work for them, problems or difficulties and often offer solutions too. It is part of the process and a very important one.
But dealing with notes is not always easy because, all too quickly, we get so close to our story that we can have a hard time seeing it any other way. Or during its early stages, we explored it so many different ways that we have already ruled out some suggestions we’re now seeing in the notes. Sometimes it is just hard to know where to start with them.
So here’s a simple tip. It’s something I do. After waiting 24 hours (I always need time for notes to sink in), I rewrite the notes at the top of my document. Not just transcribing them, I reword them in a way that suits me better (how I would have phrased them) and I lay them out so they are line by line, like a ‘to-do’ list.
This does two things. The first comes from rewriting them in my own words. Now the notes are no longer alien. They are no longer an outsider in my story. They are there in my document, in my story and in my words. It makes them personal to me. And so often I find that, even as I write them, my mind is already creating ideas and solutions that I didn’t see while reading them in an email. Usually as I write these notes, I’m actually also writing the solutions or new lines along side them.
The second thing is even simpler. Because they are now laid out like a ‘to-do’ list, I use them as one. When I’m confident a problem is no longer a problem, I strike it off the list. It gives me a sense of achievement, gets me closer to my goal and I always have clear focus on what it is I am actually tackling at any given moment.
It is a simple thing but it makes a big difference to rewrites and polishes.
Procrastination is one of those things I would find very hard to recommend in many areas of children’s media production. And yet when writing, procrastination is a core part of my working method.
Why? Well, generally I won’t put word to page until I know what those words are. I need to see the scenes. I need to hear the voices. I need to experience my story playing out. Without that, I’ll get lost in the words I am typing just at that moment and lose sight of everything around them. I need to work through the story from a few perspectives and have different options available to me, so that I can be sure that the words I type aren’t just the first words that happen to be sitting at the front of my vocabulary.
That takes time.
It is a process that can be rushed if needed. I can start with a scene and try to play it different ways as I lean back on my chair ready to catch any great thoughts on my laptop. But the truth is that some of the best moments seem to hit at odd times rather than being forced out. They happen when I’m doing other things. When I’m procrastinating.
And if you realise you’re getting results from something, use it. So here’s how I use procrastination to get results:
I break stories into tiny notes, basically lists. These are just one-line descriptions of each main event. If I have a gap in the story or a problem area, I note that and usually put some marker down (I tend to use a bunch of these: *********). Above this story description, I will write questions on things I need to solve or something I want to achieve but haven’t yet (often: make more use of this secondary character). The length of this document will vary massively depending on what I’m writing. Less than a page for a TV episode but it could be four pages or so for a feature. But it will always be very spaced out and easy to scan.
And now to the procrastination. Just before I go somewhere, like bringing the dog for a walk or having a shower or even out for the day at meetings, I will browse this document and pick something to tackle. I’ll read the notes and try to imagine the pieces I have already for that scene or problem. Sometimes that isn’t much but I will still try to visualise as much as possible. I’ll try to hear the character voices even if they aren’t saying anything worthwhile yet.
And then I go and get very busy not writing a thing. Sometimes nothing happens. I might just forget the notes or I might think about them the odd time but get no further along. But other times magic happens. Seemingly all by itself, my mind will start to play out pictures or throw out ideas. Every now and again, one of these will be really good. When that happens, procrastination is working as it should and all is right with the world… as long as I have something with me to take notes.
Every TV episode I write has to justify its existence. Yes, people want volume and that alone can be the aim. For some shows, it doesn’t matter if every episode blurs into the next. But for me, I want to add something. Offer something that hasn’t yet been covered. I approach this in different ways on different shows and different episodes but I usually have the same thought behind it – how might this become a child’s favourite episode?
For that to happen, an episode needs something to define it.
You just have to think about how a child asks for the episode. “I want the one with the balloons!” “Can I see the one about the dog?” and so on. Quite early on, I found myself applying what I have come to call the Friends Title Method. Remember Friends? Of course you do. The episode titles in that show were all “The One With…” There was:
The One With The Monkey.
The One With Russ.
The One Where Joey Moves Out.
They all followed this format. For me, thinking of it that way means that I have clarity as a writer. If I know what the one thing is that defines the story, everything I write serves that and should strengthen it. For kids, it separates out the episodes and makes each one unique in its own way. Every episode offers something a little different and so justifies its existence.
So when I’m working on a story, I ask myself what episode this is and I refer to it with that Friends title system – it’s the one with… And now I always know what defines that episode.