When we start on a new project or a new job, our thoughts often go like this: OMG what am I supposed to do now?! How do I muddle my way through this one and not get fired?! When we reach a certain level, I think we become a bit more sure of ourselves and what we can offer.
If you find yourself in the former situation, there is an easy way to help that. If you are in the latter, it is something that becomes even more important because it is when we get complacent that the real problems can start and soon we find we’re not doing as great a job as we thought we would. So what to do? It’s simple: ask.
Ask how your client would like a job done. Ask how you could be most helpful to your peers or collaborators. Ask and you’ll get the answers you need to do a better job.
Take script editing as an example. I have found over the years that there are many different types of script editors, all offering completely different things and all with the same title. Some take a big picture view looking at theme and form and they ask the big questions. Others don’t want to mess with a writer’s story but will help them tell it better by getting into the details and working on a line by line process. Some are just looking for the red flags and are like a quality control process. All of these have value and they will help different types of writers in different ways. But they won’t all help all the writers all the time.
So if I’m script editing, it makes sense for me to ask: what will be the most helpful to you? What are expecting out of this process? We will often find that the job needs more than we’re told (because what people want and what they need are not always the same thing) but it gives us a fantastic place to start the process.
When in doubt, ask. When not in doubt, ask anyway.
Let’s make an aspirational character, someone who the audience will want to be. Someone to inspire them and motivate them. A little older, a little wittier, a little cleverer and with a great set of skills. We can do this in cartoons with snappy, cool heroes. We can do this in reality television with stories of amazing achievements.
Good, right? Not always.
There is a very fine line between inspiring children and putting them off altogether. What you see as aspirational can sometimes seem to the audience as unachievable. Out of reach. Showing them a champion gymnast might demonstrate what is possible with hard work and dedication. Or it might just tell a kid that their awkward forward roll that they were so proud of was actually nothing and highlight the massive chasm between where they are at and where that champion is.
Having something to aspire to can be great but I’m sure we have all tried something at some point in our lives and found it so tricky that it just doesn’t seem worth the effort (me with a Rubik’s Cube, for example). It has to feel within reach or have smaller, more achievable goals.
Children’s art shows historically seem to get this right. It is quite rare that they create something on these shows that children can’t have a good stab at themselves. The idea of making a bird out of coloured paper can have kids running to the kitchen to try. Fifteen minutes later, there is a new picture on the fridge and a very proud happy child. But had they shown a master portrait painter instead, fifteen minutes later there would likely be torn up pages and tears. And that’s if any child even bothered to try.
So I feel we can learn from the art shows even when it comes to creating fictional characters or building all sorts of other entertainment. Be careful not to undermine the amazing things that children are capable of right now. Keep in mind that what might seem normal to you (buttoning up a coat) can be amazing to kids, depending on the age group. Aspirational can still be good but be careful not to frustrate. As with anything else, always keep in mind your actual audience.
Structure is a wonderful tool for helping you lay down your story. It can provide a framework for what otherwise is a sprawling list of stuff that happens and things people say. For me, it provides clear targets to hit and that helps me get going in a story. And it helps when I get stuck too – what if I try to lead to a big moment here? What is that big moment going to be? I ended the last section on a downer, how about the next section ends on a high? And so on.
When plotting features, I let scenes play out in my head without guides or limits but, when it comes to arranging them, I use the most basic film structure as a template so I know where to put them. Without structure, I feel the stories would be like playing Pin The Tail On The Donkey only without a Donkey.
Once you’ve written something, a sense of structure needs can also be a great troubleshooting tool. Is a section sagging? Have a look at where beats land in a very traditional structure and see if yours are way off that. By the way, just a little thought here – the thing I hear most often is that a story drags in the second act. In my view, that’s because the story structure that is actually described in most books or templates is actually a four act structure, not a three act one. Dividing what people call a second act into two and treating each half as an act in itself may help avoid what is usually called a second act lull.
So, structure is a fantastic tool and a great place to start.
BUT… be careful not to get too hung up on it. A story should be engaging, fun or emotional. We should want to turn the page or keep watching. We should want to be immersed in that world and should believe that world. If we do, then it’s job done. Is it enjoyable? Do people love this story?Those are the things you need to look for when your story is laid down.
If you’re using structure as a way to show why a story or movie that everybody loves is actually rubbish, you’re doing it wrong. It is simply a helpful tool to help craft a great story. Don’t use it to break stories if they’re actually working as is.
It is never to late to mix up how you do things, to try different methods and find better ways. So I thought I would share a change in how I am handling script notes at the moment. Will this method stick? No idea – check back with me on that one.
I have written about handling notes before. Essentially what it boils down to is this: don’t react instantly. Read the notes, then forget about them for 24 hours or more. Let them sink in. Then evaluate them. Try to identify the core problems being addressed in the notes (like an illness, sometimes a symptom can mask a different problem). From there, you make your fixes as required while always aiming to improve, tighten and clarify as you go.
But my approach has changed for the last few scripts I have completed. Here is what I have done instead:
Don’t even consider the notes. Just go ahead and make the changes exactly as suggested without worrying about the real causes or the bigger picture. Then wait that 24 hours or more. Now read through your story and make a note any time something feels wrong. If you can tighten, do it. If you can cut, do it. Tweak until until it feels right.
The first method, my traditional system, is careful and considered. The second is not, at least not at the start. The risk in the second method is that the changes made may miss the underlying issues that led to the notes in the first place. But the huge positive is that it doesn’t allow for any rejection of the ideas in the notes based on little more than ‘I had it this way before’. When you actually start to evaluate the story with consideration, the changes are already in place and you have moved on from that earlier draft. You are now evaluating a new version of that script and, because you went straight ahead and made those changes and they aren’t from your own gut, it allows a touch more objectivity.
So if the first method has worked for me, why change?
What prompted the trial was writing on a show this year from creatives who have an incredibly strong sense of what the show is – every note without fail made the episodes better exactly as described (I have to be honest, that is not always the case). I realised several episodes in that their notes came with a safety net. And I also noticed that, as a result of that, I would tend to find my own fixes and tweaks around those notes because I wasn’t worried about tackling their notes. It meant we all caught more and the scripts got better easier. I also think it could be more efficient from a time perspective and my workload has been particularly heavy this year.
I have a feeling that the best method will vary from project to project, from notes to notes and especially from writer to writer. But if you are a writer and find you have trouble tackling notes, from separating yourself from those early drafts, try this second method and see if it helps.
The biggest mistake I think anyone can make in a pitch bible is a wall of text. People won’t read it. It takes up too much time. Unless your text is pure gold, it’s like wading through a swamp. And if it is pure gold, will people have the time to find that out?
More often than not, very busy people are scanning through pitch bibles. So you need to get to the point and keep it lean.
And yet, if you strip it down to the bare minimum, you always run the risk that someone will flick through it and think, this feels a little thin. Is it underdeveloped? Not a fully-realised concept?
So how do you keep it lean and to the point while making clear that your concept has depth, storytelling potential and a fun character dynamic? Active images. Try to get every picture telling a story. If it is simply a single character illustration, tell us who they are in their pose and expression. If it is a setup made to look like a still from an episode (I would always recommend this), make sure it feels mid-story, mid-action. That way it gets people thinking about how the characters got there or what will happen next. An image alone can get the message across that there are stories to be told.
Even if you are showing off a particular aspect, try to tell a story. Showing off your fancy backgrounds? Maybe show a character playing in your fancy backgrounds. Keep it active. Inspire the imagination so that, even if someone doesn’t read one word in your bible, they have a good idea what it is about. And hopefully, they’ll be making up their own stories as they look at your pictures.
Bank work whenever you can. Waiting for someone to come back to you? Get something for the next step done. Have something fall through? Use the time to get ahead on the work you have or even might have. Push forward and bank the work, even if you don’t need it yet.
I think the trick to really getting things done and delivering is not about keeping up. It’s not about measuring everything to hit that deadline. It is getting well ahead of it. You see, something is going to get delayed or some problem will crop up somewhere. It could be really small but it will happen. If you’re on track for hitting that deadline and then a problem or delay arises, you’re no longer on track.
So any chance you get, push forward. Get ahead.
Will this ever cause problems in itself? It can come with a risk. Let’s say you have delivered a script or submitted a scene of animation and you’re waiting for feedback. If you get stuck into script 2 or that next scene, there is a possibility that the notes from the first one will change how you should have approached the next phase. But you have already begun to work through ideas and problems so, even if you have to make considerable changes based on that feedback, you still have a head start.
Keep going. Push ahead. Bank the work for when you need it. Your future self will thank you for it.
I have been writing on projects from several countries this year. Holland, Australia but most of my writing has been for Norway. I’m writing in English for what will ultimately be broadcast in Norwegian. And I don’t speak Norwegian so I must have faith in the translation.
Has this affected my approach to scripting?
Yes, absolutely. On two features I wrote so far this year, I began to realise that certain quirks were making translation more difficult. In English (and no doubt in other languages), we tend to use many different words to describe what is essentially the same thing. We condense actions and those much-maligned adverbs into more creative and sometimes subtle verbs. We play with our language.
But when your writing changes from one language to another, certain contractions and slang that require interpretation just won’t work. The more subtle distinctions become problematic. Words that rely on context can be mistranslated. And subtext is something that requires great care because your underlying subtleties could become underlying nothing at all once translated.
As I have mentioned here before, I tend to write out loud. I speak it and then write it down because written language is not the same as spoken language. So now, as odd as it may sound, I’m writing in an accent and that helps me find language that will translate more directly.
So yes, my approach to scripting has changed.
But what I’m realising now is that perhaps it shouldn’t have needed to change so much. Perhaps there are things I can learn from writing this way. Because the one thing this awareness of translation is always pointing me towards is clarity. Making every description clear. Making every line clear. So that there can be no misinterpretation about the intention. Gone is any flowery language. Gone are little language witticisms that will have me chuckling at my keyboard while having a translator scratching their heads. Back (strangely enough) are the adverbs – because that keeps your core verb clear and out in the open.
Simple, clear language. Language that works, both in the descriptions and the dialogue. Easy to translate. Easy to read. Just easy.
And you know what? That’s probably the way a script should be no matter what language you’re writing it in.
I have been very fortunate so far in my career to be working with wonderful script editors. Hilary Baverstock turned me from a person with ideas and a keyboard into a writer. I know I have mentioned Hilary before here but that is worth saying again and it likely won’t be the last time. Hilary has been so helpful. I’m now working with an incredibly helpful editor on the current TV and feature work I’m doing (just posting this after a call in which she really helped me make sense of a rather cryptic email).
Having had that great help over the years is what motivated me to be as helpful as possible when I work as a script editor myself on shows like Nelly and Nora.
So ‘helpful’ is really the key word in all that. I remember some years ago overhearing a writer complain about their script editor because the editor didn’t like that the writer wasn’t doing exactly as he was told. I will never know more than that about that particular situation. I don’t know if the script editor was a problem. I don’t know if the writer was being difficult. But I can tell you that the relationship probably wasn’t working and that would have been detrimental to the final product.
It is generally not a writer’s job just to do exactly as they are told. Anyone with a keyboard and a spellcheck can take dictation. It is a writer’s job to craft a story and deliver the absolute best work they can. It is a script editor’s job to help them do that. It is a crucial role. And for it to work, the writer must see the value in the help that is being offered by their script editor. Writer and editor are a team. There must be trust. As soon as one person becomes the enemy or even the boss, it breaks down and it will be very difficult to repair afterwards.
It takes openness and work on both parties at the start. It’s a relationship. Writers – be good to your script editor. They are your friend. Script editors – be good to your writer. They are your friend.
Just a little outline/treatment tip today. I have mentioned before just how important a good outline is before you get stuck into a script. The more you catch problems early on, the better your final product will be. Here is a way of testing the individual parts of your story.
Divide your outline at the main beats – where something has changed, the story takes a turn or a big event happens. Hopefully your divisions will look quite even or at least not look totally random when you put all your headlines in bold.
Now go through your story backwards, from bottom to top reading a section at a time. When you’re working backwards, you disrupt the overall flow of the story. You have to take each part in isolation. You’re not still coasting on that previous great moment hoping that it will carry the next one. So this is a really good way of revealing the boring bits.
If a section isn’t interesting in itself, that is a problem that you need to address. Each section should have you feeling like, yeah, that’s fun or that is a strong moment. Each section needs to be clear, even when taken in isolation. Do we know what the stakes are in that section? Do we know why it matters? At the end of the section, has something changed? It should. Has something been achieved or, alternatively, has a plan failed that now requires a new plan?
Each section should feel important even without the context of the rest of the story.
So divide up your story and go through it backwards, like that film Memento. It will reveal different issues to tackle than those you see when going through it forwards.
In today’s post, I’ll break down the 12 main stages of writing a script, whether a short TV episode or a full-length feature. This is how to write a script. Or more specifically, how I write a script.
But this actually misrepresents the process. Let’s take another look at it…
That’s more like it. Take a look at the sizes – they represent the importance and the time dedicated to each section. You’ll notice that stage 6, actually writing the script, is one of the smallest sections there. The most important for me is getting it right in the outline. That is the template from which everything else will work from.
Get it right in the outline and the writing of the script itself is easy. Then you just have to work on stage 12: making it great.