Friday, 3 July 2009

We are what we write

With CBBC stuff, Ustinov stuff and the regular work, I've been a bit swamped with script reading whilst trying also to write myself (which I hear is traditional for a screenwriter.) But during the course of the reading and discussions with clients, some interesting things have come up that I thought would be worth sharing.

One question that came up was this. I told a client (he shall remain nameless unless he wants to comment below!) that he wrote confidently, to which he replied, what in real terms does that actually mean? It's obviously positive thing, but how do I know what it is that I'm doing right to get this response? And it was an excellent question - because I have never quantified it in those terms. It's just a feeling you get whilst reading a script. I've also been told that I write confidently so it was worth thinking about what this actually meant.

I feel it suggests that you have a certain control over your understanding of a project. You know the world and the characters inside out, you know what's going to happen, when and why. If it's a series pilot for example, you give the impression you know exactly how the series will pan out. Notice I said give the impression. You don't of course actually have to know every single beat of a 6-13 part series. It would be frankly staggering if you did. What was it that Toby Whithouse said about Being Human - something like that he knew in the final episode Herrick would walk into a room and George would step out of the shadows. That was it! And it was then a case of working out what has to happen to get to that point. I'm working on a series idea at the moment where I know in the final episode, one particular character will be shot by another particular character. How it gets to that point at the moment I have no idea! So what does it mean to write with confidence?

Like I said it's more a feeling you get, so I will describe it in metaphor. Think of a person, so cool he glides not walks. He can chat comfortably with either sex, he is basically the Fonz. Now think of that in terms of the words you put on the page. Are the characters described with a few punchy verbs, is the dialogue crisp and economically written, do scenes flow into one another to make up sequences, acts and ultimately a complete coherent story?

And it occurred to me just now that the antithesis to all of that is overwriting. Overwriting betrays a lack of confidence. Because if you are unsure about what you are writing, you can often feel the need to over state and over explain things. This is the other reason that it's preferable to have a script as tight and as short as possible. (Whilst still doing justice to the story of course.) It's not just because readers/producers can't be arsed to read long scripts and will visibly sag under the weight of epic after epic landing on their desk.

They say you only have one chance to make a first impression. This is never more true than with screenwriting. Unless you are Paul Abbot (see here) you won't recover from turning in a bad first draft. You'll go on to write other projects, but that particular one, with that particular producer/company/agent, will be dead. So it's worth spending the extra time to go through it all and ask yourself have I done everything (plot, character, dialogue, action) as economically as possible? People take courses to become more confident and assertive. They are qualities we desire and other people admire. So it makes sense that you definitely want to be described and known as someone who writes confidently.

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