Monday, November 10, 2008

Aaaaaaaaand relax

Something I would never have expected when I started out in The Job That Mostly Involves Sighing: having a drama script rejected (or judged harshly, or basically receive anything other than total adulation) is way more painful than having my comedy writing shat on from a great height.

I suspect this is because comedy provokes, or at least aims to provoke, a visceral, physical reaction. You either laugh at it (or maybe smile thinly, whatever), or you don't. And if the writer has written something he really, truly, considers funny, then he has to accept that not everyone has the same sense of humour. So if someone reads one of my sitcom scripts and just plain doesn't like it, then... no harm done. No two people quite have the same sense of humour. You can't really take it personally.

Last year, I had a comedy script works its way up through the various levels of the BBC Comedy department, culminating in a meeting with the then-Head of Comedy Jon Plowman, which was, you know, fun, in its own way. He eventually turned the script down, on the grounds that 'ultimately, it didn't make him laugh', and as reasons to turn down comedy scripts go, that one would seem to be fair enough. Obviously, a small and bitter part of me was muttering 'wait, My Hero did make you laugh?', but it was an honest and straightforward kind of rejection, way preferable to the standard commissioning behavior of keeping you waiting for six months while they wonder if they want something more primary coloured.

Drama, however... well it's a strange thing. When producers, or commissioners, are reading a script, they're unlikely to react to the drama with the same intensity they would to a comedy script. They have to intellectualize it, try and picture the finished product, view it from the point of view of the 'average viewer', as if such a creature existed. And in order to help the producer or commissioner process the script intellectually, they need a toolkit. Hence the utter fracking tyranny of Robert McKee's 'Story'.

Not that books about scripts, and structure, and story, are automatically bad. I'm actually quite partial to 'Story', which does as good a job of explaining story 'beats' as any handbook I've come across, and I highly recommend Christopher Vogler's 'The Writer's Journey' if you have any interest in films as modern myth, Joseph Campbell, and all that Jungian-style archetypal larking about.

No, the problem comes when people who aren't writers pick up these books, and make the fairly basic error of assuming that any script that follows all the rules of 'Story', second act curtains, story beats and all, must be solid. It ticks all the boxes, follows the same rules as highly-produced Hollywood blockbusters, therefore must be watertight, Grade-A narrative product.

When I wrote a while ago about Stephen Moffat not using outlines, I left something out. Or rather, didn't update it appropriately. You see, a couple of days later, I was chatting with a couple of story editors employed by a large broadcasting company.

'Did you know', I said in the breathless tones Russell Brand must have had after discovering a secret directory of the home numbers of Britain's most respected comedic actors, 'Stephen Moffat doesn't use outlines!'. At which point the temperature dropped noticeably, and one of the script editors audibly harrumphed.

'Yes, well', said the other script editor 'Frankly you can tell'.

Only later did it occur to me that this was the equivalent of the work experience guy interrupting a record company meeting with exciting news about this whole 'downloading' thing, or perhaps one of the smaller mammals enthusiastically pointing out the increasingly bright light in the sky to his dinosaur mates.

I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with this, other than I'm sort of killing time at the moment while I wait for any of up to four different projects to either get the chop or move on to an interesting and exciting new stage, involving me being given amounts of money to make up stuff. And if the main one comes off, my new rule is that I'm going to attempt to work exclusively with people who, when given a choice between the average piece of weak-ass Saturday night television that ticks every box in the 'Story' checklist, but still manages to clunk along with leaden dialogue, two-dimensional characters and utterly predictable stories, or something like Blink, are capable of picking the latter.

ALSO: in other news, Brooker responds to Pegg re rahhhhhh zombies versus uuuurrrgghhh zombies.


laurence timms said...

[Trainee tea boy interrupts work experience guy] But how can they tell he doesn't use outlines, those majestic script editors?

God, I feel like I've got a big green flashing light above my head.

James Henry said...

Laurence: I feel like that most of the time, whether it's to do with writing or not.

To explain: their implication seemed to be, although I didn't really work this out until on the train home, that because Moffat's scripts don't quite follow what is rapidly becoming a template of how to write a 45 minute ish episode of telly, there was some lack of supense to them, or that dramatically they weren't quite right, or tidy, or Done The Way These Things Should Be Done. And that last bit might be true, but the rest certainly wasn't.

I should probably ask them, to make sure that was what they meant, but I only met them the once. Which was enough to worry me.

To be fair, the vast majority of script editors I work with simply aren't like that, and I might do an online interview with one soon, a) to show this, and b) to make it clear exactly what it is they do.

Jurie said...

I have some screenwriter friends who become very annoyed when I mention McKee and his ilk, but I've learned to irrationally dislike Vogler all on my own. I've interpreted his book as saying, hey, you know those formulaic movies Hollywood has been making the last 20 years? *I made that formula* The man is responsible for an enormous amount of human suffering - where is the International Criminal Court when you need them?

Nothing wrong with Campbell and similar archetypes, but surely there are original ways of having that inform one's writing?

James Henry said...

I know a lot of people who really hate Vogler's book, and he's probably responsible for the 'producer as creative force' meme that's doing incalculable damage to film and television - but I don't really mind him turning Campbell's ideas into a formula. I often have problems with structure, so find a formula quite useful - I just get unbelievably annoyed when people think that because you have a formula, you automatically have a great story. To use a cooking analogy, Nigel Slater's recipes are brilliantly simple formulas, but if you use stale ingredients and don't even try to muck about with adding some random ingredients you happen to have lying around, you're going to end up with a very unsatisfying meal.

Jurie said...

Well, I agree. Or, also, if reading Vogler's book at the right time gives you the insight you need to develop your skills, why not?

On the other hand, I was not impressed by Vogler's arguments for the Hero's Journey in Pulp Fiction. At some point it becomes like finding the number 23 or 42 in anything - yes you can make a case for finding a pattern in something, but is it still useful? What are the odds that the original writer, consciously or unconsciously, used that pattern? Is this still about craft, or about finding the pattern?

As you say (I think), the key is knowing how to use a formula and also, I would argue, knowing why that formula works. Cooking is a great metaphor for that as well: if you know the basic cooking techniques and understand why they work, you can cook a great dish from a simple recipe.

Jayne said...

As a totally uncreative person all this scriptwriting malarky is going right over my head. However, as far as Brooker is concerned - well he would say that wouldn't he?

*shuts up now*

ps go buy Patroclus some mini apple pies

pps - oooh, wv is skingrrl. Me likes

laurence timms said...

James: je comprends. Thankyou.

Do an online interview with a script editor, please. That'd be incalcuably fab.

Maybe there has always been a minority of script eds who fold their arms and tut when they read things that aren't Done The Right Way. It's just that The Right Way gradually changes over time.

Personally I buy into Campbell's work. In all the stuff I've written I've referred to it, oh, once. But as Jurie says, you can always retrospectively fit theories to just about anything.

James Henry said...

Sorry Jayne: I do always sense one lot of readers fading out with these posts.

Jurie+Lawrence: I agree, you can make the monomyth thing fit just about any story, and there's an argument that it's a very masculine approach anyway, which doesn't fit female protagonists very well. So yes, Vogler did luck in, to some extent there.

Jurie said...

Good point about the masculinity: I remember that when I read Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, I was wondering how women are supposed to self-actualize :)

James Henry said...

They're not. They're clearly just there to cook the Returning Hero a big tea for when he gets back from the Underworld.

Dim said...

Great stuff. I nearly cried after watching "Blink". Had to go for a healthy long walk to recover, then transferred the episode to my laptop so I could watch it more often*. I think it's always interesting to hear how other writers work, whether it's the "Outline, detail, then rewrite" thing or "In a cafe, longhand, followed by rewrite as I type it up." The mistake is to believe trying to work the same way will automatically bring you instant success. For example, my own seven volume magnum opus about the trials of a boy wizard, written exclusively in Scottish cafes, has got nowhere.

*ie, when I was supposed to be working.

Anonymous said...

Re: running Zombies.


This will be going in the script...

Piers said...

I know I always want a big tea when I return with the elixir.