We’re well into January already but any time someone says that they are making a list, my brain follows with “checking it twice”. Thing is, that’s a REALLY good thing to do. Well done, Santa Claus. That’s how you stay on top of what must be an insanely difficult job, especially when it comes to pipelines and management.
For me, I find there are a couple of very different work situations in which this is crucial. One is in a production or fixed delivery work situation. We know what needs to get done, we know when it needs to get done and it is a case of making that happen on time while getting the absolute best quality. Making that list and checking it twice is key to avoiding pitfalls that will mess up your productivity. It allows you to keep a very clean chain of events, so you can know what needs to be done at every stage.
And while you check that list for the second time, remove the non-essentials. Take out the fluff or what is your equivalent of needless red tape. The fewer steps in a process, the fewer places there are for communication errors or blockages. You just need to be careful that the step you’re removing is not the one that ensures your quality control. Keep a simple, clean list and you’ll always know what you and everyone else needs to achieve.
The other possible work situation for me is both easier to manage and infinitely more difficult. It is when I am working on development or exploring ideas in order to find what might come next. Easier because it usually involves very few people to manage and sometimes it’s just me. More difficult because it doesn’t come with built-in deadlines or clear stages and, the truth is, results are not guaranteed.
Where production comes with a need for order to make it work, creating on your own with a small team can be like floating in a huge sea of chaos with many, many stops to make a cup of coffee. And more coffee. It is fluid by nature. And so some clear goals need to be set down so that you have something to aim for. Something to drive you. And something to acknowledge and celebrate when you get results. Make a list of the core steps. Check it twice. And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, set or acquire deadlines.
When you check your list that second time, watch for the parts that don’t really contribute. Most of all, in this work scenario, watch for the grand sweeping barely-achievable goals that are just too big and vague to be any help. Strike off “make a hit show” or “write a series of novels” and instead stick to the individual steps that might get you there bit by bit.
I’m sure he is taking some well-deserved time off now but, when he gets back to work, Santa will be back to making those lists and checking them twice and we can all learn from what that man achieves each and every year.
I was sad about Carrie Fisher at the end of 2016. Who wouldn’t be? Such a huge part of my life. The night the news hit, I rewatched the first Star Wars movie. Such a fantastic film in so, so many ways. No big surprise that it has endured for so long.
The trash compactor scene? Superfluous. It could be cut or replaced and nobody would ever notice. Nothing builds to it and nothing is affected by it afterwards. It’s just a thing that happens.
Now Star Wars is Star Wars and it’s totally awesome and it gets away with it without a problem. And it’s a good scene, right? If it’s a good scene, we’re going to want to keep it. But we aren’t all as fortunate and excellent as Star Wars and, really, being a good scene or even a great scene isn’t always enough of a reason to keep it. When a scene could be so easily switched out without affecting the story in any way, it’s worth asking ourselves whether we should really have it at all. Wouldn’t it be better to replace it with a scene that actively contributes to where the story is going? That adds a skill or some determination or info that will come into play later? Something that will be paid off? Or something that directly says something important about the characters or the theme?
In screenwriting books, we often read about the need for complications and obstacles and they aren’t wrong. But if they’re JUST obstacles and then they are overcome, you’re just chucking stuff at your characters without really building your story. This is like those old black and white TV serials, which of course Lucas was hugely inspired by. You could miss a bunch of episodes and it won’t matter at all even if what you missed contained fantastic scenes.
But if you can go a step further and add those complications and obstacles in a way that, once they are dealt with, your characters have now progressed clearly in your story, then you’ve got a section that means more. Something that has some real impact. And often the test is: what happens if I cut this? If you have huge holes to patch then you know at least that the section moved the story forward. That doesn’t mean it’s good yet! But at least it progressed the story.
So ideally, there should be two reasons that it’s really hard to cut scenes:
1) It’s an awesome scene.
2) It moves the story forward.
One without the other should be very hard to justify. Fix it or cut it. When someone goes through your story, they shouldn’t want to cut a scene. If someone else suggests it, everyone should be horrified at the thought and instantly shout reasons why it needs to be kept. Make your scenes hard to cut by making them great AND crucial to the story.
Then be prepared to lose them anyway as you refine your story further.
There are lots of ways to entertain, lots of ways to engage. Making stuff for kids, we tend to go the positive route. I like that. Sure, we can challenge children and present them with new ideas and get them thinking and I think that’s exactly what we should be doing. But when we do this right, we tend to wrap all that up in fun, laughter and a strong dose of heart.
But when we’re coming up with stories, it can be hard to know how to focus ourselves to achieve that or how to really pin down just what it is we’re doing. When we talk about story, we often split it into two completely different categories. One is a very structured, recipe-like approach, which is helpful but, if that’s all you’ve got, you’ll be leaving your audience cold. The other is where we get into flowery language and often what feels like very intangible stuff. Make it more dynamic. Capture the soul of the character. This is good but can you make it more reflective with a hint of longing and yet all wrapped up in joy?
What is it we really want?!
Well, here is one simple aim that I think can totally change how you think about your story: make your audience feel good. Make them feel good about themselves. Make them feel good about being part of the experience you’re giving them. Leave them feeling better than they did before they experienced your story.
It’s such a simple thing and it can lead to many different solutions and, really, you have probably been aiming for it anyway but actually exploring your story with this goal clearly in mind can have you looking at it in a whole different way. Does it make them feel good? Does it make them feel good about themselves? This is important for adults because it’s part of why we recommend shows or music or whatever. We feel good about being part of it. It’s much more than “you might like this”. It’s “I’m awesome because I found this for you and I’m now part of it”.
For kids, young kids, they don’t share the same way adults do but the same feeling applies in different ways. It can be “this made me feel good and I want more of it”. And really, that’s a very basic thing in entertainment and it’s odd how we don’t always think of aiming for that. We get so wrapped up in telling stories that we forget to think about what it’s like to hear them, to experience them. That’s audience awareness.
So when you’re having a hard time pinning down the intangible stuff, ask yourself this: what can I do in my story that will make my audience feel good?
Writing is rewriting. So they say. And they are right, whoever they are. Right in the sense that your first ideas will hopefully be full of soul and early passion but they will also be raw, messy and loose and often simply not explored enough. Your first ideas are not always the best. They are just first.
The real magic comes in pushing and exploring and then tightening and streamlining and merging and cutting. Most of all, it can come in finding the surprises. Your first attempt is not likely to be the one that surprises because it is the very first thing you thought of.
So exploration is essential.
But it is important to note that rewriting alone does not get you that. In fact I find that the actual physical process of writing, typing stuff out, is engaging different parts of my brain to those that do the exploration. It’s possible that actual rewriting might get you little more than an edit.
You need to truly explore. Push the scenes, let them play out differently. Try things. But that process of taking your first ideas and pushing, testing and streamlining? It doesn’t have to be written. It certainly doesn’t have to be in a full draft or manuscript that you’ll ever show anyone. You don’t need a first draft. It can be scribbled notes. Recorded memos. Scenes built with Lego (this might be time-consuming). You don’t have to start your first draft of anything until you are ready. In fact, if you can afford the time, you might be best avoiding that for as long as possible. Why? Because sometimes it can be much easier to shape a story when it is not laid out in the way you lay out the final product – we get too attached to words that way. I know I do.
For me, I’m relying more on notes and outlines now to work out my stories. Often very rough at the start. I take think time and I work on them, get notes and amend. I don’t start a real draft until I know every beat and it is never the first draft of the actual story. Because a first draft has a unique energy, that soul and early passion, if I can effectively do rewriting in advance I can get that script working really well and keep that first draft energy. Sure, it will still need work. You can be certain of that. But the better shape the story is in when you deliver that first draft, the easier it will be to get to your final draft and the better it will be when you get there.
I think I like this approach because it is how we tackle animation production. In animation, we effectively go through the editing process before producing the actual animation. It means you know your story is working beforehand and, from there, you can focus on the life and the fun and the energy.
So yes, writing might well be rewriting. But just keep in mind that you can do a lot of the rewriting up front. What might be labelled ‘first draft’ on one script means a whole different thing on another. We all have different working methods but my advice is to make your first draft script so much more than a first draft story.
It can be very interesting to study stories that made it to screen (or indeed bookshelves) for reasons beyond just the story itself. What I mean by that is, for example, Star Wars Episode 1. A new writer pitching that script would have had it torn to shreds and a bunch of other writers would have been brought in make it fit with more traditional story expectations. The weight of Star Wars and Lucas meant that didn’t happen so we were presented with a sort of ‘what if?’ scenario: what if you can study a story before all the usual conventions get applied?
It isn’t all that often we get a huge movie that allows us to study why other movies stick to certain story conventions.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is one of them. A beautiful looking movie. But I think nobody but Rowling (or Lucas or the Wachowskis in their day) would have been allowed to put this story to screen. That makes it very interesting to study. Before you object, I don’t mean to disparage the movie by the Ep1 comparison. You see, we’re so used to story ‘formula’ that veering away from that isn’t always a bad thing in itself. It is just a different story. One we can learn from.
So in a movie and stories in general, I think three questions are really important:
1) What’s it about?
2) What is the climax?
3) Who is the main character?
Obvious questions, right? The trick is that each one should relate to the other. While the answers to 2 and 3 are very clear in Fantastic Beasts, they aren’t all that related to each other. The main character doesn’t act in the climax beyond a few words that don’t really influence the outcome. The outcome is taken away from the main character, who wasn’t even all that aware of the events leading to that climax until just before it. I have a feeling many would struggle to come to a consensus on what the answer to 1 is. Is it the title? If so, the climax didn’t relate to the main story. Was it the story being teased throughout that then became the climax? If so, the main character wasn’t a part of it. I have seen that part referred to in reviews as the ‘subplot’ and yet that’s the big climax of the movie.
Story convention tells us that the main character should drive the story. The story should be about something that presents a goal for that main character, an obstacle to overcome or a quest of some sort, ideally an area for growth. The climax should be that character’s and that story’s ultimate showdown, where they bring everything they have earned or learned to overcome the final challenge and achieve their goal (or not if it’s a sad story although we’ll still expect growth).
This works whether its a true life story of a broken person overcoming an addiction, a huge ridiculous sci-fi story to save the universe or a little preschool story about a bunny learning to tie their shoelaces. It is what keeps your story moving forward, gives it focus and brings it all together at the end for a satisfying conclusion.
So what happens when we don’t get that? Well, we can see that right here. Fortunately for Fantastic Beasts, it presents an incredible spectacle with a bunch of very entertaining scenes and characters. My daughter loved it and that’s what counts. I will often make the argument that, if a script or book has you turning that next page eagerly, it’s working. But I have to wonder if there was any tension at the climax? Whether many people were truly invested beyond just enjoying the spectacle? Or, if people were truly invested, whether it would have been possible to heighten that. That’s a hugely important thing in story. You have give someone reasons to really care by the time we get to the end of your story. That doesn’t just affect the feeling we have while watching it – it affects what I call the aftertaste of a story.
Ever enjoy the experience of a story but then you forget afterwards what it was about? Or you start picking holes in it yourself? Or you liked it but never really want to see it again? That’s the aftertaste. The moment to moment experience can drive us through a story in an exciting way (Star Trek Into Darkness). But without coherence and strength and earning each emotional beat, you can be left with a hollow aftertaste and a feeling that it never really made a lot of sense (Star Trek Into Darkness). The aftertaste is important.
So it is possible to tell stories any way you like. You can ignore story conventions altogether and never learn about them. Or better, you can learn them and choose to discard them. But unless you’re Rowling or Lucas a decade or so ago or the Wachowskis around the same time, you will have a much harder time getting your story out there for people. You might think, but Rowling did it and it worked. It did. That’s true. But no story is perfect (maybe Alien) so perhaps consider how the film could have been with that same spectacle, that same world of wonder and magic, that same entertaining cast but with a story driven by and for that main character, leading to a climax where everything for him was on the line and he was the only one who could achieve the final aim.
The great thing about learning about story conventions and getting to a point where you truly understand them and they become a part of your work is that they give you the choice. You can use them to make your story better. You are not a slave to them. They are your tools to help you tell your story even better. And when you read a book or see a film that doesn’t use these tools, for whatever reason and whatever outcome great or not, study it. Think about the different things you could have added or taken away from that story in an attempt to improve it.
I’m not saying you’ll do better than Rowling. But you will learn from it.
I love to keep documents of information, ideas or just things I’ll need to refer to later. Documents last longer than memories and are often easier to find when you need them. This week, I’m pulling up one of my most important documents. At the top is the heading: how long things take.
Yep, just how longs things take.
You see, the biggest problem we all face when we say yes to something is misjudging how long what we’ve just said yes to will take. It is when our schedules get all cramped and messed up that chaos happens and something goes wrong. And we creative people LOVE to say yes to things. Most creative people take years of training to start to say no to requests. Even all those years later, we are really at a disadvantage when someone asks us to do something we really enjoy.
Saying NO to requests is really important. It’s how we make sure we deliver on the stuff we say YES to.
This applies to all sorts of requests, often even within work we’ve said yes to. But a good example is my pixel work. That’s my hobby. My work, my career and what I do is children’s media. But someone totally rad will ask for pixel art and I’ll want to do it. My gut will say yes.
That is where this document comes into play. A list of a whole bunch of little tasks, especially the tasks we don’t often count as real tasks. And scrolling down, I’ll see ‘make one animated pixel art gif’. Beside it, the time it took to make the last one. Do I have that time now? Honestly, the answer is probably no.
I still love to be asked because something will come along that is just too awesome to turn down. But when I do say yes, I need my love of making rad things to be tempered by the basic reality of how long things take. That’s just one example, of course. Really, we all need to know how long our processes and tasks take and I know first hand that the memory of that experience doesn’t always match the reality. Even when it does, the reminder is important. I’m fortunate enough to be making all kinds of content long enough that I know how long most things take but, even then, having it written down makes that reality impossible to ignore.
I guess it comes down to a recurring theme on this little blog: making informed decisions. That’s really the key here. Keep that knowledge handy so any decision you make is truly an informed one. And learn to be okay about saying no to requests.
A drive for quality is everything. It’s not just about wanting your work to be better. It’s about expecting it. Here’s the problem – a lot of people won’t tell you when your work is not good enough. They’ll be polite if they’re your friends or colleagues and, if they’re a client, they’ll soon just work with someone else. Responsibility for quality control is ultimately your own.
Where this becomes tricky is when you are across an area you aren’t familiar with. I remember this when making the Dino Dog app, for example. I know if an animator is giving me their best. But a coder? I had no idea. I didn’t know good code from bad code. Having gone through that process, I have a far better sense of what is possible and how but that was a real challenge for me.
Sometimes I’ll see potentially good work that is let down by one aspect (all too often, the visuals) and I understand how that can happen. The person who is at the top is kind of like how I was with coders and their creative person is telling them that it’s good work when really it’s not good enough. That can happen. And the longer it goes on, the more you associate that work with ‘good work’ when, actually, you’re way off.
Some work is simply not good enough and you won’t get anywhere with it. Harsh, right? Yup. But it’s true.
So how do you avoid that? First, your own drive for quality has to be very strong. I feel that comes with doubt as part of the package. Yes, people like to list the virtues of confidence but, if you’re sure your work is great, will you ever aim for better? If you go in doubting the work is good enough, you will challenge yourself and others to look for better. But the other thing you need to get, to avoid the cases where you simply don’t know, is a second opinion. A real second opinion. And like I wrote right up there in the first paragraph, friends and colleagues will be polite. You need to keep asking until you get an answer that is hard to hear.
Hearing your work or that of your team is not good enough can hurt. But it’s what will help you make that work better and that’s what you need if you are going to do well. Push hard for that second opinion, especially if the first opinion was “it’s great”.
Disclaimer: I have never written Star Trek. Instead, I’ve been reading the late Michael Piller’s book Fade In, on writing Star Trek Insurrection. Being honest, reading it is like being at work. It documents his ideas for the movie, the notes he got back, the discussions over the roles of actors and then the subsequent drafts. Nothing too dramatic. Actually, he had it pretty easy. I’ve had it pretty easy too for the most part so, yes, while I haven’t written a Star Trek movie, this all feels really familiar.
One thing really struck me at the start of the book. He describes the initial concept he pitched and then describes the notes that came back. Instantly, I looked at the notes and thought, well a lot of that ended up in the final movie. If the problems were identified right at the start, how could that happen?
As I read through the book, what became apparent is how good Michael Piller was at two things which, personally, I think worked against his movie.
1) He was great at talking people round.
I guess it’s hard to see this as much of a negative. To succeed as a writer or anything else creative, you have to be able to make a really great case for your ideas. You need to be able to pitch them well and get people on your side. Those skills are crucial.
And yet where this skill betrays you is if you’re talking your way into proceeding with problems that have been clearly identified. You have to know when to stop talking and start listening and really take the notes seriously. Most of Michael Piller’s process as he describes it was rejecting the notes and either talking his way round them or he would use his next skill which I think worked against the movie:
2) He could patch holes quickly.
For every problem he didn’t just talk his way out of, he patched it with a quick solution that allowed him to continue without him having to completely re-examine his story. That too is a good skill and it allows you to keep up momentum and I know he had a preproduction deadline staring him in the face. But the thing about patching problems is that it doesn’t actually remove them. People still ask questions, still pause for a moment to wonder about the actions of a character or the reality of the situation. Even though you add lines in that explain those things, people have still been taken out of the movie and may or may not accept your explanation.
I think the problems required more thought. More willingness to tear open the story and make real fundamental changes. Because for me, the way to tackle a script problem is not to actually find a solution or a fix – it is to remove the problem altogether. Don’t give an answer to the question. Prevent the question from ever being asked. And that usually takes a LOT more thought and, unfortunately, often requires going back many steps in the process to achieve.
I don’t mean to come down hard on Michael Piller. In his life, especially with Star Trek, he achieved more than I have ever achieved and his work on the TV show was excellent. The reason these two things stood out to me is for the same reason that reading the book felt like work – they were all too familiar. I too have talked my way into going ahead with story problems when I shouldn’t have. I too have patched scripts when I should have taken a step back and really looked at why the problems were there in the first place. So I guess in a way, I’m really meaning to come down hard on myself for doing this in the past. As is so common on this blog, this post is really a note to self. But maybe you’ll see it’s something you can watch out for too.
Great movies and shows will only come from great scripts. We have to be willing to listen to every note, hear every problem and we have to do what it takes every time to make that script better.
Here’s a thing about your creative endeavours, whether it’s that project you’re pushing, that job you’re hoping to get or your whole career – you need to keep up the momentum. It can be so hard to get any kind of movement at all. So when you do get it, even a hint of it, you have to keep pushing and keep that movement going.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Nope. Absence makes the heart (or the mind or whatever) forget. People move on and they notice other things and other people and, soon, that momentum you felt you had is gone.
It’s not easy, especially when you have to bury yourself away like a hermit to actually get some work done, as I’m sure many of the writers will understand. But you have to get out there and keep up a presence in whatever form you can. Even if it’s just a blog post about keeping up a presence.
Get out there and build that momentum. And when you get a tiny bit of movement, don’t let up. Stay out there as much as you can and let people see your newest work, hear the stories of what you have coming soon or even just see your face around. Keep that momentum going.
I remember the first feature script of mine that was ever optioned, well over a decade ago. The concept was sound but I was in the fourth draft when I knew in my heart it wasn’t going anywhere. It was dropped soon after.
When I look back on that script now, I realise that I didn’t actually write four drafts of that story. Instead, I wrote four first drafts. Each time, I threw everything out and I started again. So maybe I avoided some problems but I introduced a whole new set of problems. That’s expected in a first draft, especially from a new writer which is exactly what I was.
Soon after, I was working on a different feature script. People liked it. But when it came to the second draft, I caved and couldn’t fix it. I moved on to a whole other story.
Movies can be overwhelming due to the length. Fixing story problems is hard. Pulling structure together is hard. Moving scenes around is hard. Patching logic holes, making sure everyone acts in character, it’s all hard. You only have to see movies to know that certain problems slip through the cracks so everyone finds it tough. And everyone had told me how important the rewrite is. How important it is to let go of the parts you might love when tackling notes. And generally notes (even your own) mean a big list of things we don’t like.
What we sometimes forget to focus on is: what do we already love?
For whatever reason, I got a lot more protective when I began to write TV scripts. I have a feeling that’s because TV scripts are smaller and more manageable so it is easier to see all the knock-on effects to changes I’m about to make to a draft. It was still very important to learn how to tackle notes, be flexible and not get stubborn but, when I approach new drafts of a TV episode, my first goal is to make sure I don’t lose what is working. I make a note of the good parts. Then I set about fixing the problems, patching the holes. It’s a fixing job, not scorched earth. And each draft gets better and better rather than losing the very things everyone liked in the first place. Side note: this is something that is very important to me when I work as a script editor. The writer MUST know what bits I love already.
It is only in the last couple of years (and three produced features in) that I approach feature drafts the same way I do TV scripts – protect what is working, fix what is not. Make a second draft a second draft, not a whole other first draft.
It’s not easy. It might sound strange to some people but it can actually be easier to start from scratch on a whole different story than it is to fix one in progress. But fixing the existing story, improving it, working at it is exactly what needs to be done. That’s how you get to a good script that can make it to screen.
Protect what is working. Fix what is not. Sit down and do the work.