When I started writing properly… actually, let’s define that a little before continuing. I wrote scripts and stories a LONG time ago but I don’t really think of them as writing properly. Why? Nobody bought them. And, being honest, I barely pushed them. When you write, you’re a writer. But for me, it was when someone actually took an interest in my writing that the pressure came and I felt it was proper writing. It had to be.
So when I started writing properly, I had to learn to tell a story well. I had read numerous books on scriptwriting and story but knowing the theory and truly understanding it and being able to apply it are very different things. I learned through doing, by having a wonderful script editor who steered me along the way and then by later reviewing the work I had actually done (an important step).
When we learn, it doesn’t always stick. I have mentioned here on this blog that I love having reminders of principals, ideas and anything that I have picked up along the way. But eventually, it goes in. And it becomes a part of you.
And here’s the danger: what you learn becomes formula.
You hit a point where, without realising it, you’re applying the same tricks over and over again. I have seen this in animation and I see it in writing too. When you have been around a while, directing and editing, it becomes easy to spot in the work of others and yet not so easy to spot in our own no matter how long we’ve been doing this.
I am currently writing a short form comedy. Really, these are sketches. Situations, setup and gags. And what’s funny (not good funny) is seeing how desperately, years after having no clue how to form a good story, my mind wants to force a full story in here. A beginning, middle and end. My brain is screaming at me to make these bigger. Okay, so I feel it’s a positive that I like to tell a story that rewards and it is somewhat understandable, going from 80 minute feature films to 2-3 minute episodes, but I’m having to consider this: am I finding it difficult to move away from the story formats because they have become habit?
Possibly. And this is why it’s always so important to try to retain an awareness of our own work. It’s not easy. We can’t do it all the time. But it’s great to take a time out, look at what we’re doing, at what is working and not working (being honest!) and to reset. To refuse access to our usual tools so that we can force ourselves out of the habits. I find I need to do this quite regularly. It really helps because it keeps me fresh, allows discovery of new methods and tricks and explorations and then, at the end of it all, I can revisit my old writing toolbox and find that, actually, a lot of these tools are still really useful. Using them is now an informed decision, not just habit.
So here’s what I recommend: even if you just want to do one thing and you’re really good at it, try writing something completely different. Consider it playtime. Write anything you like as long as you can’t fall into any familiar patterns. Then review and see how it worked out. It will keep your writing fresh.
I love structure and find it an incredibly useful tool. But it comes with its own built-in pitfalls and here is one of them: if you plot your story to a specific structure from the very beginning, there is a danger that you will funnel your characters down unbelievable paths in order to get them to hit certain beats.
If your story target is too clear even before you have a sense of what is happening, what the characters are doing and why, you start to herd your characters in ways that restrict the storytelling. And in the process, often making the characters behave in ways they shouldn’t.
It is an all too common story problem that characters do things to serve the needs of the writer rather than serving their own needs. It happens so easily. I know because I have been guilty of it myself. I have a great idea for a scene but, to get there, I have to push characters in ways that don’t quite fit who they are or what they should want. And because it is all too easy, you have to be very wary of anything that invites that risk into your work methods.
Nailing down your structure before having a sense of your characters and story can do just that.
My advice is: know your premise. Know your characters. Know your starting point. Then let your characters take you where they should go. Let your mind wander in and out of the scenes, each character playing it the way they naturally should without you worrying about the end point of that scene. Make notes on all of that stuff until you have enough to build a story. And THEN sort out your structure.
That way, your characters are living, acting and reacting. It isn’t just an exercise in herding.
People know I don’t buy into the cult of failure we have had over the last few years. A fear of failure is what pushes me to do better. It is what keeps me from giving up too early. And it comes as a package with a strong desire to succeed. Just as I can’t see a fear of heights being all that much of a bad thing (it has so far kept me from plummeting to my doom), I have never seen much of a reason to invite failure openly.
Failure is too easy. Anyone can fail. Anyone can put their hands up, declare their work a disaster and go do something else. That’s why so many unfinished books stopped at three chapters. It’s why some would-be screenwriters have folders full of movie openings and no finished work. Working hard, sticking at it to do something right? That’s the hard part.
The problem, the one which I think gave the cult of failure its good intentions early on, occurs when that fear of failure prevents you from trying altogether. That’s when it beats you. If you’re trying something you haven’t done before (and you should), it comes with the risk of failure. You need to accept that. I’m not so convinced about embracing it, but accept it. Because the possibility of failure should never stop you trying.
But as soon as you get started, you’re going to need a drive for success to make it work, to give it the absolute best shot you can. That’s whether you’re writing a story, selling a show, running a business, making anything. Imagine that feeling of finishing that last page of script and knowing you wrote that, you finished it. Picture getting it to a point where people read it and think, wow, I need this. Think about that moment your show gets greenlit. Or its first broadcast, finished exactly the way you want it. I remember when learning to drive being told that I should look where I want to go. We tend to veer in the direction we’re focussing on. There’s probably some sense there. Definitely when it comes to goal setting, I think having that clear target and focus is crucial.
So once you get moving, look to the success and leave that threat of failure far behind.
In the world of media, I have seen a lot of unrealistic expectations over the years. I see people with what might be the beginnings of an idea who expect others to throw a fortune at them to take it off their hands and actually do the work to turn it into something good. These people tend to wonder what is wrong with the entire industry when that doesn’t happen. Oh you’ll regret it when I’m rolling in money and this is the biggest property on the planet.
I also see a lot of more humble people daunted by how intimidating the industry can be. Gripped by that fear and a sense that they don’t have what it takes. Afraid to sit down and really develop their idea because it may end up awful and it will all go horribly wrong. I’m not a writer. I’m not a creative. I can’t draw. How will I get anywhere?
And this may come as no surprise to some of you but, regularly, I see these two things in the same person. Because the fear of sitting down and doing the work can often result in a defensive need to offload a project long before it’s ready. Someone take it! Now!
This is a fun business to be in with lots of wonderful people doing wonderful things. But the truth is, it comes with hard work. Sitting down and just doing the work, often on your own before anyone else believes in it, comes with the territory. It’s what you take on when you decide this is what you’re going to do. You have to work hard to prove what you’re doing has any value or has a place in a world saturated with high-quality media already.
It’s not an easy path to walk down.
But if you do, if you put in that work, you will find people who like what you’re doing. You will get to know why something you tried didn’t quite take and you’ll be better prepared next time. You’ll find the enthusiasm grows as you get closer, as you help others on their projects and as you get to be a part of the process. Then, when you find champions for your own work (and if you stick at it, you will), you realise you can do it. You have probably already been doing it. It’s not easy. It’s unlikely that someone will ever dump a truck full of money at your house for your concept, even when you put in the work. But it is still rewarding. It is still worth it.
So do the work. Keep your expectations realistic and do the work. Enjoy it and keep doing it.
A question I get asked fairly regularly is: how do get my concept to a broadcaster? When I dig a little deeper into this question, what I find is that there is a perception that the broadcaster lives in a castle on a mountaintop guarded by a fierce dragon who will toast you and then eat you if you dare stand anywhere near the bottom of that mountain holding a concept document.
It’s not true.
There is no mountain and the dragon just wants to make sure you aren’t some random gibbering kid off the street. And even if you were, they would probably let you in anyway.
Here’s the reality: broadcasters need good content. And that content might just be what you have. They actively want to see it.
Yes, you’ll find at certain events that they can be difficult to reach. Often that’s because they are being hit by every producer in town with “Why aren’t you buying MY show?!” or they have vanished off because one of those producers is spending the rest of that year’s budget taking them to a fancy lunch. They might be there to speak or to find out certain things rather than be pitched to every couple of minutes. You’ve got to understand what that must be like.
And yes, sometimes they will be incredibly slow to answer an email and will require nudges. They are busy people. That’s the reality.
And generally you will want your work to be of a certain standard. Few people are going to have patience for a half-baked idea scribbled on a post-it if this is the seventh pitch you have given them since 9am earlier that day.
But nevertheless, they want to see your content. They can be reached and, when they can find time for it, they will want to see your idea. Usually, they’ll be very happy to meet with you. They can be incredibly welcoming. So how do you it? First, look to see if there are proper channels you should go through. Certain publications such as Kidscreen will do ‘meet the buyer’ specials in which broadcasters will often say how they would prefer to be reached. Some broadcasters have website submissions or some clear contact systems on their sites. Many will make their emails or those of the relevant staff freely available. If you’re just starting out, see if you can find the right person and ask how they would prefer you pitch to them.
More than all of that, go to industry events. Don’t randomly assault broadcasters or pitch to them in the toilet. But sooner or later, you’ll be introduced to some of them and you can then follow up with a mail. Hey, remember me? I have something I’d love to show you. Can I set up a meeting? Or send you some material?
Your well-presented project may be exactly what they are looking for and they don’t want to miss it. So polish up your work, know that they want to see it and then show it to them.