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.
The first question anyone should ask about a story, whether you’re writing yours, working on telling one in some form or you are evaluating one from someone else: is it fun? Hopefully you won’t even have to ask that. It should be something you feel.
As strange as it may sound, it is all too easy to lose the fun in stories.
You might add spark with conflict. Or rewrite it all to bring out the theme. And what’s really the message here? Are the beats in the right place? Maybe restructure the second and third act. Watch out for safety issues and that imitative behaviour. Oh but that one part contradicts what a character did six episodes ago so strike that. Is the language right? Maybe tweak that. Oh but now it’s too long so you’re going have to cut anything that isn’t absolutely essential to the story. Does that joke really advance the story? Cut it.
Writing is hard. Making TV or film or apps is HARD.
There are so many things to consider and so many passes at any given story. And in all of that, it is just too easy to lose the fun.
Don’t let it happen. Make space for fun. For smiles. For whimsy. For magic. Life has magical moments and you can bring these out even if your story is designed to be very grounded. Does it advance the story? Not really? Okay but is it going to make kids smile and laugh and maybe jump out of their seats to bounce up and down? If it will, maybe that’s more important. It doesn’t mean what you’re making should be a random mess of ideas that made you smile once – it still needs form. But the form should be a way to offer the fun to your audience. It’s like the package and bow around a gift.
Flanderisation. It’s a real thing. TV Tropes describes it (or rather its American form, Flanderization) as “The act of taking a single (often minor) action or trait of a character within a work and exaggerating it more and more over time until it completely consumes the character”. It comes from Ned Flanders in The Simpsons who began as a good, conscientious and church-going father to contrast Homer Simpson. Over time, his religiousness became obsessive and that was really all there was to Flanders, except for a few ‘diddlies’ thrown in.
Sometimes this is a very deliberate move. A character trait that was initially meant to be minor turns out to be much better for the character and so a decision is made to bring that to the fore and heighten it. That can be a really good thing. Sometimes it moves nicely in reverse – Fraiser began life in Cheers as an exaggerated, less-rounded version of who he would later become as a series regular.
But often Flanderisation happens slowly and unknowingly over time and that can reduce a character to one note.
I suspect a character is at most risk of this when there is a switch in writing staff. Because a new writer can watch the material and see the results but they haven’t experienced the process of getting the character to that point. They are seeing the surface (the artists reading this will recognise that same difficulty in replicating styles). They are looking for anything to help them pin down a character, to help them know that character. At this point, reducing a character to some clear bullet points can actually be an incredibly valuable tool for a writer. It isn’t a bad thing.
But it comes with the risk of Flanderisation. So you have to watch out for it, whether you are that writer coming on to a project or if you are working with a new writer on your show. Starting with the basics of that character is good. It helps you differentiate them and find their voice. But then you have to allow them to live. To have more dimensions.
As is common on my little blog, this post comes as a note to self. I am taking over a show defined by previous writers and it’s a gorgeous show with lovely, often subtle characters. It is a greater challenge to pin down more real characters. I have already caught the Flanderisation creeping in. But as with anything else, simply being aware of it is often all it takes to avoid it. A reminder post-it above the desk can make all the difference to a project.
One last little thought: we usually apply the term Flanderisation to characters but watch out for it in other elements too. Making something set in the ’80s and everyone has Flock Of Seagulls hair? You’ve just Flanderised the ’80s.
I hate using the word ‘busy’ because I feel it can take away from what is actually important: progress or results. But there are times you look at your workload and, yes, the simple truth is that you’re busy. Time is scarce, deadlines are looming, you might have several things on at once and your output isn’t as fast as what is coming in.
It is during times like this that it becomes more important than ever to know the difference between being busy and getting results. One doesn’t matter. The other does. It is so easy to get swamped in busy. Too easy to get to a point where getting through the day is the goal and indeed all you might achieve. Before long, you’re lying to yourself about where you’re at – busy is good, therefore things must be good. If I’m working long and hard then that’s a good thing, right? I shall be even busier and then I can feel even better.
I have seen this in animation production and I’ve seen it in plain old everyday life. It doesn’t work.
But if you can switch focus away from being busy and on to what you’re actually getting done, you can get some results each day. Then your workload reduces and you can get even more done the next day. So how do you do it? I come back to an obvious piece of advice I have given here often: make lists.
But here’s the thing – when my workload is truly full and runs the risk of getting overwhelming, I change the nature of my lists. Here’s why: if you end up with a huge sprawling list and things stay on it for weeks or months, you will feel like you’re sinking. The overall list expands, it is hard to focus on what you might get done and it becomes harder and harder to keep up. So now when things are busy, even if it is just me working on writing and development, I switch my lists to the way I work them when I’m directing teams of animators on tight deadlines – small daily lists.
My to-do list is wiped clean. Then the only things added to it are things I can achieve that day. I focus on only those thing. If something else comes in, if somebody is looking for something, they can go on tomorrow’s list if they’ll fit. But today is fixed in a small list of things I need to do. Things that, once done, can be struck off the list cleanly with no doubt whatsoever that they are done. So at the end of every day, that list is a measurement of results and nothing else.
The busier I am, the smaller my to-do list. The smaller my to-do list, the more I get done.
It took me a long time to realise it but it just comes down to one of the greatest challenges in our lives, especially in creative industries and arts – the need for focus. Smaller targets and the focus gets narrower.
So I added ‘write site post’ to my list and here it is.
Ever have one of those days where the ideas don’t come? The writing doesn’t flow? Or your pencil goes nowhere? Your brain isn’t quite doing what it’s told? Maybe you’re spending half the day on Twitter rather than actually getting anything done? I have those days. I think we all do sometimes. Here are a few things you can do. You probably won’t like the first one…
1) Be hard on yourself
Thing is, if you let this happen every day, you would get nothing done. Lack of productivity drives me bananas and those hard days really get to me. Being busy is nothing. Actually delivering the goods is what counts. I can be very hard on myself on the unproductive days and, after years of this, I have become convinced that this is a good thing. Because otherwise, it’s just too easy to give in. You have to give productivity a shot and try to push through it.
2) Go easy on yourself
I never said I was consistent. At a certain point, you have to accept that you’re not going to achieve exactly what you wanted today. Look, it happens. Accept it. You can pick it up tomorrow.
3) Procrastinate effectively
On these days, we tend to do everything other than what it is we are supposed to be doing. This can be incredibly useful because often we’ll do things we find unpleasant just to avoid doing our work. So use it. Get those other things done you have been putting off. Do your accounts. Send those emails you forgot to write. Write a blog post (can you guess what type of day I’m having?).
4) Give your brain a rest
Maybe you need a recharge? Not everything comes out fully formed. Sometimes whether writing, planning or designing, you need time to let things simmer. You need to move away from what you’re doing and give your brain a rest while, really, it’s probably working away in the background. Have a rest, go for a walk and you might come back twice as productive tomorrow.
5) Try to avoid a social media cycle
These are the days we can descend into a Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr cycle (insert your social media of choice). If that’s useful because you’re actually doing stuff to boost your profile, fine. Otherwise, you’re going to eat up your day and feel bad about it afterwards because it wasn’t how things were supposed to go.
6) Create something else
If you suspect the day might really be a write-off, maybe go and create in some other form. If you draw, make music. If you write, draw a picture. Express yourself. I believe that is really important for well-being. That’s why you’ll see the odd pixel art doodle hit my Tumblr even when I have a crazy deadline looming. And you don’t even get to hear the odd musical doodles. Creating in other forms is good for us.
So there you go. These days happen to the best of us, it’s not just you. Try to make the most of it in any way possible and, hey, if all else fails, go out for ice-cream.
If you have an idea, write it down. That is so important. Keep a notebook or use the notes function on your phone or tablet. Just be sure to write down every idea. Firstly, because you’ll forget it. Secondly, because that note might not have relevance now but you might come back to it much later and find value in it. Thirdly, because old notes can inspire entirely new ideas and lead you in all sorts of directions.
Notes are where ideas are stored.
But note-taking is much more than that. I have only truly realised recently just how many notes I make. I have physical notebooks all over the place, old and new. My devices are filled with pages and documents. And they aren’t just a place where ideas sit to be used later – they are where ideas are actually formed and are shaped and become so much more than they once were.
You know those scenes in movies where a mathematician has worked out a problem and there are equations all over the walls eventually leading to some breakthrough? Those are my notes. You can’t retain all that stuff in your head at once. When you focus on one part of your concept, you generally do so at the expense of the other pieces. Whereas working through them in notes puts them down so you can move on from them, or move around them or play with them.
It is like forming a mind. Every doodle, each scribbled sentence is like a neuron. Can’t do much on its own but keep adding to it and amending and growing and one day something sparks and you have created life.
And when you are dealing with your own notes, they’re just for you. You don’t have to show your process. You don’t have to show the directions that didn’t work. The little disasters. The crazier thoughts. But it is so important you try those things and work through them.
So take notes. But also play with notes and doodle and scribble and write and add and amend and create. There is life to be found in notes.
Children are soaking up the world at a phenomenal rate. This is not always easy. For younger children, I often liken it to Superman being overwhelmed by the sound of voices everywhere or that guy in Scanners hearing the thoughts of everyone at once. The amount of information thrown at us is incredible and, as we grow, we build filters. We can pick and choose what gets by our filters and what we focus on.
So when making content for kids, this leads to a whole bunch of things to consider. Firstly, they do take in information. They’re taking in probably far more than we are, just like Superman. They are smart, they are trying to interpret, they are using context and knowledge to inform and they are actively learning all the time. They see and hear and know often much more than we realise.
And they get subtlety.
The difficulty is that, with the amount they are processing, they don’t always get the subtlety you want them to. It’s like leaving a post-it with ‘get milk’ on the fridge when the fridge is covered with a hundred other post-its. Sure, you might spot it and get milk but you could just as easily end up having your tea milkless that evening.
So where does that leave us? Well here’s my take: when making content for kids, you can allow for subtlety. You can let those grey areas happen, because not everything in life is black or white. Especially when this is approached with an honesty about the lives of children. Give children a sense of the variety in the world, even the unpredictability.
But when it comes to core story points or messages, be direct and as crystal clear as possible. Hit those things hard. No ambiguity. Clarity is key. Somewhere out there, Superman is listening to a million voices. If you want yours to be heard, shout louder and say what you mean.
I have been writing children’s feature films recently. Quite a different experience to writing short formats with a lot to look out for and so much more to keep track of. One thing that is true for short format but becomes so much more apparent in longer format is that nothing exists in isolation. Every change has a knock-on effect on everything else.
When you realise this, sometimes changes can terrify you as you watch a domino effect of fixes due to what seemed like one small tweak. But it’s so important to recognise the positive power of this effect.
You can give some scenes so much more impact, more emotional weight or more comedy without changing the scenes themselves. Look back at the setup. What can you change or add to your setup to maximise the effect of the moments you want? For example, a woman finds shoes. Yay! Happy moment. Change your opening to a woman realising she just lost her legs and you change the entire effect of that scene. Change the opening to that woman having lost her shoe business and she’s living on the streets and now maybe these shoes become an uplifting moment at the start of building herself back up. Odd examples and not exactly right for children’s films but you get the idea.
And it becomes so important to look for this cause and effect. Otherwise your temptation might be to push the effect scenes much harder. Woman finds shoes. Instead of looking a little sad, now she bursts into tears and roars at the sky. It’s going to feel forced. But tweak the setup and you don’t need more than her looking sad to get the effect you want. And it will feel earned.