Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Review: Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV or Film

In a time where things are uncertain in film and television, a question that gained renewed relevance is diversity - how do we ensure people form different communities and backgrounds don't lose out on work, training and opportunities as production crawls back to life? Just as important, how do we reflect that in our writing? How do we show off the multicultural society and times in which we live, in a dramatic and compelling plot?

Consultant and Bang2Write head honcha Lucy V. Hay, a name familiar to my readers and anyone in the online writing community, is no stranger to providing writing advice, as well as advocating for more thoughtful debate and open-mindedness in writers. This crystalizes in arguably her greatest book, Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV or Film, as she discusses the value of diversity in novels and screenplays, how writers can better implement it without being tokenistic, and contextualises it with current success stories in media.

Combining industry insight with a good all-rounder on character, Hay provides a guidebook built on what feels like a painfully obvious yet overlooked aspect of writing: WHO your characters are and what they represent. Hay, chapter by chapter, writes in a bubbly and lively style, making the many stats from surveys and institutes regarding representation in media and literature, much more digestible than it should be. Through this, she then breaks down, in wholly unpretentious terms, how this correlates to spec scripts and books, the mistakes new writers make and how to fix them. 

She's comprehensive with character too: not only going over the old chestnuts of heroes and their character development arcs, but also encouraging you to think about your supporting cast and even incidental/background characters. These kinds of 'blindspots' are something every writer has, at some point, done in their writing. Hay is not interested in shaming you - rather, she just wants you to engage more thoroughly with your process and ask 'why?' Indeed, that warm tone I described above helps what could be patronizing come off as not only welcome, but compels you to want to do better.

Hay, however, is also critical of the pro, as well as the anti-side, when it comes to this discussion, arguing that true representation should not just be about simply heroes, nor the ever-sticky question of 'role models' in stories that defy the standard white-hetero-male paradigmn that, regardless of your own politics or tastes, has been the default for a long time in media and literary canons. Why, Hay posits, can't women, BAME and LGBT persons get the fun parts like villains or sidekicks? Why does every story have to draw attention to their condition or orientation: why can't they just have adventures and escapades like the regular white guys in movies and TV shows do? In turn, from an industry perspective, this could only broaden the available opportunities for people from under-repped backgrounds.

Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV or Film is, to put it succinctly, a great primer on creating layered and varied casts. It comes highly recommended, as does her free E-book, Writing Female Characters.

Monday, 1 June 2020

What next for UK Film & TV? - A Response to Ewan Morrison and John McVay

Crystal balls are not much help right now, as everything is in flux and could go any which way. June looks like a make-or-break month: thus far, VE Day and other bank holidays haven't lead to an explosion in cases, but will that hold true as kids go back to school and shops reopen?

On the Film & TV side, it's also very touch and go: Soaps are developing strategies to shoot and keep elderly actors off as much as possible, with Emmerdale resuming operations last month, Coronation Street next week and Eastenders aiming to do so by June's end. What's more, Warner Bros., Disney and Netflix are working with the Tory government to restart in the next month or so, with safety measures, on major productions like The Little Mermaid and Matt Reeves' The Batman. Ideas being put forward include skeleton crews for filming; actors doing self-makeup; floor markings; minimizing stunts; prioritizing outdoor shooting and favouring local crews.

But that's now - what about new productions? What kind of shows could be made? Well, the BBC ran a piece, interviewing several high-profile industry folk on that question. Among them were screenwriter Ewan Morrison (The Outlaw King) and PACT boss John McVay, who voiced thoughts and concerns. The main ones being settings for shows, as well as scale and logistics.

Both raise valid and important points: the bigger the project, the more headaches it will be to keep everyone safe. The reduction in spectacle, too, could lead to some more creative filmmaking and storytelling that isn't reliant on eye-candy to woo audiences - indeed, such a cost cut from budgets could lead to some leveling of opportunities for lower-tier writers to staff on more prestigious shows, now that you don't have to fret so much over money. Morrison's remark about seeing more shows in both smaller yet more fantastical locales like space or underwater could lead to a resurgence in domestic genre programming, which is great for nerds like me who want more homegrown sci-fi and fantasy (and even work on them...).

From my end, I think the idea that we could be entering an era of more conservatively budgeted shows that could, as a by-product, take more risks (in slight difference to Morrison's view) is a huge-plus for new talent, an issue that both Film and TV have, admittedly, not done a great job of engaging with. Apprenticeships and prizes are all well and good, but newcomers need solid, professional credits to get anywhere. That said, this is still a short-term solution: like it or not, you can only reskin a confined show so many times before people will want to see dragons and armies again. A healthy industry, regardless of circumstance, is one that produces a variety of content - too much in either high or low is bad for creatively, careers and culture. Expensive shows limit who can work on them, but cheap ones will only be able to take on so many people. In addition, depending on the show, certain people may get left out altogether: make-up artists, special effects artists, set designers, costumers, stunt people etc.

Like it or not, McVay must know that eventually, big shows will have to start up again. You're dealing with months, if not years, of contracts, deals and other paperwork behind these big-timers, and far too many types of professionals who need the work. You obviously don't want sets to become outbreak points, but this, like so much else in the Covid pandemic, is the result of various societal problems crashing into each other. I think this present anxiety is based on an idea of Covid remaining exactly as it is right now, which no version of the science, optimistic or pessimistic, supports. As discussed before, our understanding of Covid has rapidly changed, and relatively fast. Even if we don't get a vaccine by year's end, we will likely have measures, and probably treatments, in place to file off the worst parts (ala HIV).

As for Morrison's 'resurgence of big-budget animation' prediction, I'm going to have to err on no from a drama POV (though Morrison doesn't specify what age-group he's indicating: does he mean a four-quadrant British Pixar, or a return to the more experimental days of Watership Down and The Plague Dogs?) Anyone involved in animation fandom has seen this crop up many times over the years - the odds of the BBC or ITV making what amounts to British Anime (animation meant for a prime-time audience that isn't strictly comedy, to pick up the current need for drama shows) is pretty much a non-starter. Amazon and Netflix might (and have) in small doses, but by the time you could get a dramatic show animated, the live-action industry will likely have found workarounds on how to shoot, thus rendering it moot in most cases.

Plus, working from home doesn't mean the process'll go any faster in creating regular cartoons and adult animated series - material still has to be vetted, altered and given notes, in addition to all the pre-planning like designing, storyboards and animatics.

In so far as Morrison's worries over Covid being an excuse for producers to double down on adaptations - on the one hand, that's a real risk. In times of trouble, people stick with what's familiar. People who already bemoan our TV being dominated with novel adaptations have every right to feel frustrated, and that IP value is only going to increase as companies need to carefully marshal resources and pick the best project to get a return on.

At the same time, however, I do think we must be careful not to adopt a dismissive attitude (especially not after Morrison advocated a progressive stance with genre content earlier in the piece) - in times where money will be tight and people, including and especially children's, access to the arts is going to be impacted, Film and TV could pick up the slack and introduce classic works to new generations. How many of our favourite books, sometimes the very things that inspired into creative careers, came out of us watching the movie or TV version first? And, frankly, shouldn't creating quality productions matter more than where they came from?

Something which the article doesn't touch on much, but anyone active on Twitter and the like has seen, is the indie debate. There, the question is could this be a new golden age for independent films and content that can be made with few resources and people? Some seem very confident in it, and I see the rationale, but there's a flip side: these projects may be more open and able to social distance, but the lack of money also means less PPE and safety measures can be put in place. how many actors and filmmakers are going to gamble on a project which pays little-to-nothing, just for exposure? (if anything, the golden age could be for audio productions.)

It will be tough - you're effectively rewriting decades worth of habits and practices in a matter of weeks. For newcomers, it's a scary time and it seems like it could all vanish at the drop of a hat. For veterans and even for those of us who have climbed up the first couple of rungs, like myself, it's all on the razor's edge, and only by being wily and careful, can we navigate this.

But, as McVay himself points out, this could be an era of innovation, where cream rises to the top and we find ways to overcome adversity. This could, too, see a meaningful increase in diversity behind and in front of the camera as new opportunities and methods arise. Some doors close, but others could yet open.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

A Screenwriter's Questions in the Time of Covid - What can you do?

The UK film and TV industries are on one giant hold, and understandably, you as a budding, or even moderately advancing, screenwriter are concerned. Can you talk to anyone? Will anyone read scripts? Can you staff on shows, or ask to staff on them if/when things resume? Will things resume?

I can't offer all the answers, but I can, at least, give some heads up about how you can deal with this present situation.

1. Is anyone still out there?
 Yes, yes there are. Production has stopped (nobody's filming and, ergo, no one is commissioning new material), but development people are still reachable and likely working from home, since you don't need an office to read a script or do other paperwork. Usual decorum rules apply, as discussed in past blogs, but you can still give a roll of the dice and ask a fitting producing or development person if they'd be interested in reading your script.

Indeed, now may be the best time, while people wait and plan. No troublesome commutes or sudden meetings or festivals/conventions - just zoom from home. Space to read is up - it will still take a while, but hey, he who dares...

2. Can I get on a show?
Staffing on a TV show as a writer is, well, out for the time being - that phase counts as part of production, and since nothing is getting made, shows are not getting green-lit/recommissioned and thus, not hiring. I should know, as I was in the middle of talking to a few about this before the penny dropped. How soon they will restart is anyone's guess (many hope some time in the summer, but the more elaborate, international shows may well be out till next year. All depends on if it explodes again or not).

However, all is not lost: keep an eye on the trade presses, as they will keep you up to date on if and when something is coming back. Have a short but sweet email on hand for when it's so, giving some quick praise and why you think x show is great, and why you'd like to write for it (indeed, here is where some part of your background could come very in useful. Do you have an experience or viewpoint that others may not?)

3. Can I still look for an agent?
While I've seen some on groups and threads say not to, I've chatted with some pro-writers who say it's not an issue or inappropriate. Plus, I've been doing it and had no problems with getting read requests. Just make sure you A) Have a damn good script and B) Read the guidelines on the agency website. Chances are, if they get back to you, they will make clear it will take a little longer than normal to reply to you. Like in normal times, patience is a virtue here.

Indeed, this and the first point tie together - getting a referral from someone in the industry will improve your odds of being read, so I'd advise doing it that way first, instead of just sending your script to an agency with nothing. Remember, you still need to stand out on the reading pile from all the slush.

4. What should I write? Is a bigger-scale script going to screw me?
With so much unknown yet about finances and travel, it can be really daunting to think about what shows will get made. All that matters, however, is the writing - a badly written cheap show or film won't impress anyone. Passion and emotion will out. Plus, as I've discussed in the past, be mindful of what your goals are at this stage - create and run your own show, or get on producers' radars and get staffed on similar shows and projects? Period pieces, fantasy and anything bigger budget will be much harder in the former category (usually, companies will just buy books and IPs for these), but can be useful on the latter.

Having a nice, tight, contemporary drama serial or feature is never not a bad thing to have on hand, and can work in both scenarios. However, don't trend-chase: if you want to stand out, write a script that is informed by a subject you care about or perspective only you can bring, thanks to your life experiences and history.

5. How can I write? I have no drive for it!
This is a malady which, I'm sure, many will have seen all over Twitter and the like - writers feeling helpless and lost, just ravaging the biscuit tin, or ploughing away on Animal Crossing or Doom Eternal. No matter how much they yearn, they can't summon up the drive to write. You can't set a routine or page count or just get up!

Well, let's turn to some pros for guidance on what you can do to try and get yourself back in some level of gear. First, let's start with a nice all-rounder from a selection of great writing talent, including aces like Sarah Phelps (The Pale Horse) and Chris Lang (Unforgettable). How are they managing?

Also, screenwriting superstar John August (Aladdin, Big Fish) shares with us his 'writesprint', a planning system, and how it gets him going for the word toil:

And lastly, instead of a read, how about a listen with the excellent Write Along Podcast, hosted by Doctor Strange screenwriter and friend to the struggling artiste, C. Robert Cargill. It's exactly what it says on the packet - primers to help you get out of jams and sticky situations in your writing, as well as figuring out what method works for you:

Hope those five are of use to you, and as said last time, if just can't, don't. Focus on you first and foremost. Take care all you.

Friday, 1 May 2020

(Not) Writing in the Time of Covid - And why you should not feel bad

Hey. Been a while. Longer than I had promised or planned for.

Funny how fast things change. I had articles in mind, projects I wanted to talk about, things I wanted to say as lockdown went into effect. But then, reality came in, and before i knew, March 31 became April 15, and then May 1. Time became a blur, broken up only by biscuits and watching back old Two Fat Ladies episodes. I just, for as much as I wanted to, couldn't find the will to write. I wasn't depressed persay, but I just couldn't type, or scribble. I just wanted to lay back and let the world run by.

My story is not alone, and sadly, many writers are in worse straits than I. Family, finances, food, relatives getting sick and then, sadly, not making it - it's heartbreaking how in 2020, so many social evils are still permitted to run through our society, hurting the vulnerable. These are tough, scary and unpredictable times, and you know what - there's nothing wrong with just waiting.

There isn't. At all.


Anyone who tries to guilt and call you a failure because you're not writing is, to put it mildly, a complete and utter tool. You owe no one anything - the industry will still be there, and it will still be, when you want to get back up. Right now, the focus should be on you - getting through, looking after yourself, and, most importantly, not stressing yourself or giving into harmful mindsets. If your idea of coping is playing games or watching movies or playing with your kids or pets, or even just laying back on cushions and chilling to something smooth on iTunes, do it. You are not committing a crime: you're just getting by.

And it is easy to think that all there is is darkness - news and the social media cacophony of the ignorant and the doomsaying can be crushing. However, there are, and is, bright spots: the timescale for a vaccine/treatment has been shrinking, down from 18 months, to 12 to potentially within 2020 (obviously, a cure existing and being widely distributed are different things, but still), in addition to the titanic research effort around the globe; global recovery rate of victims is 4x the death rate and has passed 1 million; the job market will now see the use and need for work-from-home, meaning certain sectors could be greatly levelled in favour of people with circumstances that would make office commutes difficult (financial, family, disabled); there's greater awareness of the challenges facing freelancers, and there's has been greater calls for not just support, but potentially rethinking the system and what securities they have. Plus, public sanitation and hygiene is probably the highest it's been in forever, and companies/local governments will have to maintain that if they want anything to happen economically so, again, another plus.

I know it's cold comfort for some, but we don't help frontline workers or the vulnerable if we only ever think in the purely negative. And, just as importantly, we don't help ourselves. Don't feel guilty for not writing, and don't feel guilty for being anxious. We all are. These are times humanity has not had to collectively live through since before the middle of the last century. But, like the tides of the sea and the consistent satisfaction of a chocolate digestive dipped in tea, there will always be a tomorrow.

Take care.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Diary of a Spec Script Day 39-44 (24th-29th Feb)

Alright, so I had a little hiatus, but it was for good reason. As you'll recall from last time, 'Project A' fell apart on a narrative level and needed a rethink. I went away, did some brainstorming and tinkering, and found a way forward. I decided to change up the family dynamic and background, playing up the working-class dimension and having it be less of a fragmented family story. Before, the idea was to use the fantastical adventures as a way for divides to heal, but the two sides didn't merge. Instead, I decided, let's just make it a team show, and it felt more natural.

In moments like this, it's important to 'listen' to your characters - if something just feels wrong, don't go there. That's your characters saying 'I don't belong there. It's not how I tick'. Forcing your characters to be something that they're not is a surefire way to waste your time and write a script that reads as hollow and disjointed. You want to put your characters in peril and make them do things they don't want to, that's drama, but having them act in ways that are completely counterintuitive is not.

With that, I quickly cracked out a short treatment that contained most of the beats I wanted. Subplots were a little thin, but hey, now at least I had clear indications of what was available and where they could go. The characters also didn't get in the way of the adventure and felt like everything worked as one cohesive unit.

That said, another issue rose - time. I had other writing projects that were more pressing, from a career perspective, and couldn't spare a whole lot more time at this juncture to experiment with this one. At least, for now. So here is where I had three roads to go down: Pull, Push or Pass.

  • Pull - Continue the present strategy - keep devoting time and energy to it and just find a way to compromise with the other stuff.
  • Push - Get it written in the time left. A vomit draft that will get down just the absolute basics and save basically any and all fine tuning till another time.
  • Pass - Just junk the project. It's too much hassle and it took so long to even be functional, so why bother?

I opted for push and cracked down on getting it written within the week. It was tight, but I found it liberating and, along the way, made notes for ideas I could add or that arose, for next time. This draft is very much as basic as it could get, clocking at the bare minimum for something that's meant to be a four-act, hour-long piece. In first drafts, as a rule, getting done is what counts - you don't need to worry a whole lot about spelling or tweaking and rejigging scenes. That comes later - just get it down.

Naturally, while there is always relief that hey, it got done, I did feel a bit of disappointment - a big thing I had stressed throughout this was a renewed emphasis on really pounding out and breaking the back of the treatment and the outline. This was going to be a new and different way for me to write scripts, where more time is spent prepping the treatment/broad strokes of the story - however, in the end, it kind of went back to my usual method. Best laid plans, as they say.

So, what happens now? Well, I'll be turning my gaze towards other projects, includign Never The Bride. However, 'Project A' will be returning before too long, I guarantee, loyal reader. I hope what this phase of the script's development has demonstrated is just how mercurial and temperamental the process can be. If you ever run into situations like, I hope I've demonstrated its normalcy and taken off some of the stress and pressure. You didn't irreversibly f*ck up - it's all part of the journey.

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Thursday, 13 February 2020

Diary of a Spec Script Day 35-38 (Feb 4th-7th)

And well, as to be expected with any creative journey, we come to the first major roadblock. I don't view these as negatives - annoyances, but not terrible things. Instead, they are challenges, obstacles to force you to interrogate your process and beliefs in a story.

So, I got to work, rejigging the step outline, following a round of reading and notes. All going well - expanding the teaser, clarifying the action and what each specific character was doing. I was looking to recreate a style and vibe reminiscent of Secret of the Unicorn - nice, creppy house, mobsters and quick wits. All very nice and dandy... until I came to the first big scene in my first act. This is where things started to spin out: I was trying to effectively introduce the core family and give the audience a sense of who they are and what their respective conflicts are. The mum's an overworked nurse struggling to hold the family afloat; the older child is on bad terms with Dad owing to life choices; the younger child is disabled and wants to gain some kind of approval, and Dad's a deadbeat whos given up his real life goals.

At first, I simply streamlined and reordered the scene - it was a before-school/breakfast scene, so just shifted up the arrival of the bus and tightened the time to make it more of a rush. Nothing like a bit of time pressure to get people to reveal themselves. But then, as I progressed from there, more started to come undone from the treatment - the conflict with Dad made less and less sense. Why was he a deadbeat in this way? How did the reason given provide enough justification? What's stopping him from going away or being a workaholic to get away from that reason? This has bigger knock-on effects as the tension between him and the older kid was the backbone of the story - their coming back together again gave the story a heart, beyond the adventuring and treasure seeking shenangians.

I tried to just power through it (in line with past strategies I had used) and, well, it only got worse: the mum had less and less agency in the plot; the disabled child got lost in the shuffle of everyone else; the treasure clues became more archetypical and less inventive. Slowly, the whole thing was falling to pieces and no amount of raw gut determination could change that.

Something author and writing instructor Lucy V. Hay has discussed came to light here: I hadn't interrogated my concept enough and, worse, hadn't pushed my characters enough. It was eitehr too generic, driven more by nostalgia, or too disjointed to make sense or be emotionally gripping. The family are the key to this story: if they don't add up or do enough, what's the point? Treasure and history are nice and all, but what's the glue? What's the reason to care? Why watch/read this and not someone else's adventure?

Naturally, as a fellow writer (possibly a newer one), you might wonder: how did you not notice this in the treatment? In fact, what's the point of any outlining if you can't see mistakes ahead? A valid question, but one which is a bit simple: creativity is not a scientific formula. You cannot just plug in a and b and get c - it can change and vary alot, depending on what you're writing about. Plus, writing about something in broad overviews and prose can create a presentation of events that, when put into a more action-y format don't work. Like I said before: it's easy to tart up weak treatments.

So, I put on the breaks for a few days. I need time away from the project, make notes, brainstrom, and just reconfigure my approach. I have some notions rattling around in my head, but I need space to properly crack it. Rest assured, the fight ain't over...

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Friday, 7 February 2020

Diary of a Spec Script Day 32-34 (February 1st-3rd)

The work of honing and expanding a treatment gets underway. In revisions, I find it good to take your time and really work on individual scenes - especially ones that gives us a greater lens into the chaarcter's mind and psychology. Even in an ostensible old-school-esque adventure yearn involving lost Russian treasure, it's still important to ensure consistent and interesting characters who gain something out of the experience beyond material wealth. In this case, it's a story about ideals and expectations - how we can have something set in our minds, how we get disappointed, and how learn to accept, and possibly even love, the change.

Something which I got from my time on the Corrie scheme was the idea, more so than I had done previously, to treat every paragraph in the treatment like a scene or beat. In the past, I tended to be less strict, allowing one scene to occupy multiple paragraphs to detail and pull it out as much as I could. However, being direct and to the point is an important component of screenwriting and, to be quite frank, if you can say something with brevity, then clearly you've not thought it through enough and are just writing filler.

Indeed, it is tempting to throw in loads of trivial details to pad out a treatment - here is where you can be tempted to go really purple prose in your writing. Now, sometimes, there is leeway: if building up a picture of the world or environmnet helps you decode or unravel the character, then that's fine. But exorbitant detail about things like clothing, or over-descriptive actions, or just minor elements of the scene that don't connect to the core dramatic action - ditch them.

Something else that I'd like to highlight - what happens when you don't know everything that a character will do, or how a scene will play out? Is it right or proper to force yourself to slow down to really finetune one element, or do you just move on? Now, you might think it's the former, since I've talked at length how this treatment was going to be a more deliberate affair than past ones. However, I take the cue from C. Robert Cargill on this - if in doubt, just put in a placeholder for what you want to happen in the scene. Remember, when you write on spec, you're on no one's schedule but yours - do what you have to, but getting it right is more important than being a perfectionist.

Next time, onto the step outlines. Let's see what ends up changing.

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