Sunday, January 10, 2010

Note and rewrites

I'm currently on the third draft of the second episode of my BBC Drama eighteenth century comedy/drama thing. If the second episode script goes down as well as the first episode script, a series will be commissioned. So I'd like to hand over something as polished as possible.

Which means it has to be funny (my take on the original subject matter, a journal about life in high, or nearly-high society London in 1762/63 was to treat it like a sitcom: half hour episodes with lots of cutaways, and a slightly fractured narrative, which is a poncy way of saying 'like Arrested Development, only with wigs), but also the drama has to thicken a little. I have to start to set up to more serious plotlines, and also gently remind the reader that although eighteenth century London might seem like modern times only less iPoddy, it is many ways an entirely alien culture.

Which entails rewrites, and notes. I worked out a system for this, which is that I write the first draft of each episode as big, and silly and unhindered by the source text, and hopefully funny as possible, and then the script editor and producer sigh, and say things like 'yes, but did that actually happen?' and 'look, this isn't Carry On Dangerous Liasons: The Silly Years', and 'no you can't suggest those two had an affair, we'll get sued by their descendants' and I say 'OH MY GOD I DIDN'T ASK TO BE BORN!' and run off and hide for a week.

This actually works surprisingly well (although those lost weeks really add up), as it regularly forces me to go back to the source text to prove, usually successfully, that real life is far stupider, and funnier than fiction. And as my script editor said "Well, we're only going to make it less funny, aren't we?" So as a system, I'm okay with it.

The downside of this, of course, is that the gentle insistence of the average BBC script editor has a cumulative effect much envied by lesser forces such as the wind, or the tide. After having justified the same slightly iffy scene in three different passes, you start to think 'well, maybe they have a point'. And usually they do.

It is weird though, moving from comedy to drama. In comedy, really the only point a scene has to have is to make the viewer (or, to be more honest, the producer) laugh. That's usually it. That's enough. But in drama, there's narrative tension, inciting incidents, raising the stakes (I'm moaned about this so often my script editor apologises every time she uses the phrase, so now I feel guilty), and these things called 'story beats' I really must get round to looking up. They all have to be accounted for, and it's EXHAUSTING.

However... plots are absolutely my weakest point. When it comes down to it, I'm simply not that interested in them. I love crime fiction, but hardly every have the slightest idea what's going on in the average Raymond Chandler, for example. Although quite often neither did Chandler himself, to be honest, so I don't feel too bad about it. So for me personally, script editors are an absolute godsend. They don't tell you how to write dialogue, or what your characters are supposed to think or feel - they're like mechanics, making sure it's all ticking along nicely under the hood, so you can get on with the fun stuff.

So what it comes down to is, once you've written something, you then have to justify it three or four times, take it apart, put it back together again and see if it works, by which time often a lot of the fun has vanished and you're having to treat it like an actual job or something, but always oscillating wildly between the two poles of:

1) they don't know anything, my first draft was AMAZING and any changes to it serve only to take a wild and beautiful dream and crush it beneath a STEEL BOOT, and:

2) oh crikey blimey, I would happily have released that AWFUL first draft on the world if they hadn't pointed out its terrible flaws, I would have had to kill myself in shame, I don't know the first thing about writing scripts, what if someone FINDS OUT!

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that although, as usual, I am enormously tempted to do the bare minimum on this next draft and hand it in with 'WILL THIS DO' on the front, I am instead going to take a deep breath and do it properly, in a way that will make it gooderer and more fun to watch. I can do that. I helped a man jump start his car this morning, and thought it didn't entirely work, or in fact work at all, I found out his name was Roger, and it wasn't my fault it didn't work, and we shook hands, in the snow. And if I can do that, I can do anything.

I appreciate this post didn't really have a point.


POE said...

This post almost makes me want to change career to be a script editor. There's a (tenuous) point for you.

Rob Self-Pierson said...

Nice to read you again, James. Nice post. Yes, completely without point, but entertaining. As I embark on yet another chapter breakdown for MW, these words make a lot of sense. Pointless sense, yes, but good sense.

Good luck with the series! And well done again with Campus.

Rebecca said...

I think story beats is what Save the Cat is about. It sounded fairly simple, and the author - not too long deceased Blake Snyder - seemed to explain things in a very entertaining manner. But then he came out with 3 more books - like Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter's Guide to Every Story Ever Told, so I'm not sure how simple it actually is.

But maybe the first, simple book may be all you need to know about story beats. Or not. Just mentioning it in case it may be of some help. Good luck!

Brennig said...

I disagree re pointlessness. Insightful, as usual. Thanks.

james henry said...

Thanks for comments! I should probably say I was exaggerating a bit for comedic effect, and in fact, am fairly sure story beats are a kind of vegetable.

Hannah said...

As interesting and amusing post as always - thank you! And POE - you are not alone in that, I'm relieved to say. Probably not the thought one should come out of a post all about the actual writing, but it came nonetheless.

And I am still trying to work out what the source is for this potential series.

drettworlb said...

Sounds like a great process you've got going on there, good work, I hope it all comes to fruition. Pointless ... maybe. Funny, yes! :)

Piers said...

Hannah: Mustard.

No, hang on, that's a tracklement.

Eleanor said...

Oh crud! Nanny Ogg's Cookbook appears to be one of the casualties of the move ... unless Igor borrowed it?

No. He'd have left a note.