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.
You know what advice I LOVE? It’s the advice that has me nodding my head and thinking, yeah, that confirms everything I have thought about my work and my life and the world. This advice makes me feel good about myself and I should remind myself to keep on doing what I’m doing and everything will turn out just fine. Oh look, a butterfly! Isn’t life wonderful?
The problem, however, is that the advice we really need isn’t always as fun to hear. It’s the advice that challenges us, means we might have to change something in how we do things, makes our life harder. Seriously, who wants harder?! Certainly not me.
But that’s the very advice we might need sometimes. Here’s the thing – improvements require change. And change is hard. Keeping that change up is even harder.
I saw one of those videos about how finished is better than perfect. That’s good advice. You’ve got to finish and deliver and faffing around forever, no matter how lovely your unfinished work might be, is no use to anyone. Some people really need this advice.
I was just about to share the video when I thought of some people I have encountered over the years who would watch this and nod their heads and think, yeah, this confirms everything I have thought about my work and my life and the world. I’m going to just throw this work down, shove it in an email, might even stick some words in that email and I’m going to hit send. Finished is WAY better than perfect. When actually, the advice that those particular people need is the harder advice to hear – that they need to spend more time with their work, really push themselves to get it better and better and build up their own sense of internal quality control. Because while finished is better than perfect, great is much, much better than sloppy.
Different people will benefit from different advice. We are not all the same. Not even close.
So listen for the advice that is harder to hear. We may not like hearing it but it might be exactly what we need to hear.
The world is divided into two groups of people – those who will read that heading and say “Hammer Time!” and those who will say “Collaborate and listen!” As it happens, this post is not about MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice. It’s about creative careers.
Here’s a thing: creative careers aren’t easy.
I started as an animator many years ago in the days when everything was pencil and paper. I remember seeing older people in their thirties, maybe some in their forties, travelling the world as they moved from production to production in search of animation clean-up jobs or whatever. Even back then, I got this feeling that I didn’t want to be that person. At some point, I was going to want to settle down. To stop having to chase that next job.
I looked ahead and, even just starting out, I knew that continuing exactly what I was doing probably wasn’t going to lead to a place I wanted to be.
I worked hard over the years. Not always focussed. Not always knowing where I was going. But I still amassed a good set of skills and, now, each role I can play in this business helps inform and support the other roles. So I have been very fortunate. I need the work and that is often dependent on productions, just as it was back then. But it’s easier to do from here, settled with my kids, and I can often create my own work in many ways.
And yet it is still true for me that a creative career isn’t easy. Even now, I have to project ahead and look at the path I’m on and try to figure out where that will lead me in the next 10 years. Or 20. I have to stop (no, not Hammer Time or Collaborate and Listen). Stop that day to day, to-do list to to-do list motion that just keeps me on a fixed path. Stop and review – where I am, what I’m doing, whether it is working, where I want to be and how I might get there.
It is a little time out to assess directions and I think it is hugely important. Probably in every career but definitely in ours.
My advice is that you start this early. Not all the time. It might only be once every few years. But do it. Stop. Take a look at where you are. Take a look at where you want to be, keeping in mind that it might not be where you thought you wanted to be the last time you did this. And consider how best you might get there.
We can deconstruct a script, point out the plot holes, wonder if the structure is really hitting the beats in the right place, explore the character dynamics, question the motivations, tut-tut at the typos, throw out the designs, play with the composition, alter the pacing, pull out the examples of what worked and what didn’t and suggest changes throughout hoping those examples apply in this case (they often don’t) and we can, bit by bit, torture over every element, large or small, in what we’re making. And we should. All those elements will help you as part of the process.
BUT the proof is in the reactions of your audience. The smiles, the laughter, the gasps, the cheers and the tears. When everything is finished, that is what counts.
At the weekend, I was at the premiere of the live-action children’s feature GRÅTASS GIR GASS in Stavanger, Norway. I wrote other films in the series but I didn’t write this one so I had a little more objectivity while watching the audience, taking in what hit and what really grabbed the children. The kids had been playing around the Gråtassland theme park all day and so I wondered if the energy would really be there. It was. And towards the end, there was (SPOILER) a chase sequence that revealed one of those crucial audience feedback moments we look for. The loud laughter and cheering from the kids was all the proof anyone would need on whether this movie hit or not.
They were invested. They were entertained. And yes, they laughed. The proof was in the laughter.
I’m sure many of you have seen articles attempting to knock Frozen through theory – how the villain comes out of nowhere, why story parts don’t work as they should and so on. All it takes is going to just ONE screening of that movie with a cinema full of kids to understand why that movie is a hit.
Sure, by all means question the details and try to learn from them. All those elements at the top of this post are important. But never lose sight of the fact that it is the audience reaction that counts. Arguing theory to a room full of cheering kids is a total, utter waste of your time. Listen to your audience. Learn from them. Know your audience and learn how to entertain them. That is paradoxically much more simple and far more complex than what you’ll generally read in a book about writing.
Listen to the laughter and aim to entertain.
Gråtass Gir Gass opens across Norway this Friday the 9th of September. If you’re there, bring your kids and listen for that laughter. Well done to all involved!
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.
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 lot of people have passion for their own work and the desire to create something wonderful. The dream of really really take ownership of their work. And yet, more often than not, those people achieve much more when working for someone else than they do on their own projects. They might tinker away at their projects once a month or so. Or just wish that’s what they were doing and then feel bad that they haven’t actually achieved anything. Sound familiar?
So how do you focus yourself on your own work when you get a bit of time? For me, there are several ways of doing it but what they really come down to is replicating the pressure of having a job. When you’re an employee, usually someone tells you what they need and when they need it. And once you have a goal and a deadline, you have a target and you get to work and great things happen.
When you have your own projects, you probably know your big end goal. But you may not have broken it into smaller tasks yet. And I’m willing to bet you have no deadline.
So set a deadline. Better yet, get yourself a deadline. What’s the difference? If you set a deadline, you can shift it. You get busy and so you put it off for a week. Two weeks. Months. But if you acquire some sort of external deadline, that’s likely to be fixed. An application to a funding body. A submission to the Cartoon Forum. A trip to a conference or a market. Set up a meeting for that market with someone important and then put that date in your calendar. Congratulations – you just got yourself a deadline.
Now put that in whatever diary you use to keep track of what you’re doing, whether it’s your phone calendar or a series of scrappy post-its stuck to your computer. Break down what you need to do into smaller goals and create smaller step deadlines between now and your fixed deadline. Never lose the pressure of that big deadline. In fact, if it doesn’t feel pressured enough, get more deadlines to meet. Become a gatherer of deadlines.
Then meet every one of them. Before long, your project will have turned from an idea to a developed pitch concept and, if you keep at it, hopefully much more than that.