"His writing and production are exquisite" Stephen Fry
One-page writing course
Updated when I can. It's hard enough writing, let alone writing about writing, let alone writing about when I'm going to write about writing.
No, YOU format it properly
1. What Are You Trying To Say?
Which of the following two people would you like to spend two hours of your life with:
- Gladys, who says "Hey, I don't have anything in particular to say, I just want to talk."
- Mary, who says "I have something very important to convey."?
Audiences could spend two hours working for charity instead of listening to your nonsense. If you're making them attend to your thoughts and feelings, they had better be meaningful and considered.
Your story must be about something: you must have something to say. Even if you can't articulate what that is, you must know what it is. (*You don't need to know this before you start)
For example: Withnail and I isn't really about the staggerings of two dissolute actors: it's articulating the thought that at some point you have to stop partying and grow up.
The theme of a story tells you what to put in it, from dialogue, to events, to setting, to characters.
- Characters: Withnail is a person who cannot learn the lesson of the film, and remains miserable and unfulfilled. "I" eventually does get the message - he cuts his hair, gets sober and gets a job.
- Setting: Britain is learning to grow up from the swinging, drug-fuelled sixties to a more sober and practical future: as Danny says "They're selling hippy wigs in Woolworths".
- Dialogue: Danny says " If you're hanging onto a rising balloon, you're presented with a difficult decision - let go before it's too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope? ". This is a wonderful metaphor for the theme, and it's the dilemma facing "I" and Britain.
- Events: They try everything, but the situation is unsalvageable. "I" must leave.
* If it's any good, your story will be complex. It may not be immediately clear to you what the theme or message of your piece is. That's fine, let it come to you in its own time.
2. You Can't Break The Rules Unless You Know Them
"I don't want to write formulaic stuff."
- All formulaic writers ever
If I tell you to drive from London to Manchester avoiding Little Nibley, you're probably going to look up Little Nibley on the map. To avoid something, you need to know where it is. To avoid the formula, you need to know exactly what it is.
Picasso didn't start off as a cubist, he learned to draw first. Stories have always tended toward a common successful structure, perhaps to do with how we perceive, how we learn, and how we get bored. Over the past couple of centuries, some people have studied this structure and articulated it. Why not benefit from this amassed wisdom instead of starting from scratch? Would you want your doctor to work things out from scratch without reading a few books?
Furthermore, the goal is not to write something that avoids the formula, its to write something that's much better than the formula. Again, to do that you need to master the formula. Good writers master it, whether they know what they're doing overtly or not.
One of the reasons often cited for not reading books about writing is: "They're lecturing us on writing, but how many hit films/books/plays have they written?". Answer, usually none. But picture your favourite inspirational schoolteacher. Are they famous? My brilliant life-altering Science teacher never won a Nobel Prize. Lesson: teaching is a different skill.
The best writing books rationalise and reflect things that you sometimes half-know. They make you feel OK about some things you do know that you didn't know were standard practice. They also give you a plank to cling to, some confidence in the difficult journey across a blank page. If you acquire knowledge you can then ignore it. If you deviate from a winning formula, do it because you're leaving it choking on your fumes, not because you're ignorant.
My two top tips are: Save The Cat by Blake Snyder. It's mercifully brief and to the point. Snyder was not a good screenwriter in my opinion, in fact I'd say with great affection that he was a hack. This is why his book is so useful: he forensically dissects and distils to achieve a blueprint to do one thing: sell. I never ever stick to his blueprint, but I always find it a hugely useful point of reference. He may not have been a good screenwriter (although he sold a few million's worth of screenplays), but he was a wonderful teacher, and his utter joy in the process of screenwriting and teaching it is a marvellous thing. A hugely successful showrunner I know groaned into his beer that sitting in front of a blank screen for hours on end was agony. Blake Snyder reminds you to enjoy yourself.
My other tip is John Yorke's dazzling Into The Woods. It's entertaining, scholarly, comprehensive and covers more or less everything anyone ever thought of thinking about writing.
3. The Natural Resting State Of A Good Writer is Mortal Terror
I'm going to tell you, using my uncanny telepathy, some of the problems you have with writing or starting to write: You tend to keep getting up to make a cup of tea or smoke; you can't find time to write; you get writer's block; you'll write when you've finished reading that book; you'll go on a course first; you're looking for a writing partner because you write better with someone else.
The reality of all these symptoms is that you're really, really scared. This is a sign that you're doing it right. Writing, like acting or falling in love, is exposing your soul to criticism. You're not rescuing the injured from a battlefield, but you are doing something that is nevertheless genuinely scary.
If you're a beginner and you're not worried, that's called arrogance, and that's no good. The only thing that calms the fear for me is the evidence that I've done it before. I still feel scared, but I know I completed a script in the past, so that evidence makes things better. The trick is to just keep going.
Remember, the answer is that you're scared, and that's good. Practical steps to overcome this are on their way.
4. Overcoming Writer's Block
Imagine that your task is to build a house. All I want from you is the best possible house that your imagination can create. Money is no object. How many bricks will you need?
Let's imagine that you think hard about this task and you come up with a whizzy design for a colossal palace. The last thing you want is to run out of bricks - you want your imagination to be unfettered so you can create a masterpiece, however tall and extravagant it may be.
So when I ask you how many bricks you will need, the answer is that you want as many bricks as you can get. If, in the end, you just decide to build a shed: big deal. You have lots of leftover bricks, it doesn't matter. You've completed the task - the best possible house.
The bricks in writing are ideas. Before you start writing, you need to come up with an enormous number of ideas to build your story with.
Furthermore, and this is crucial: don't try to come up with good ideas. It sounds insane, but you don't want to restrict yourself in any way - you want a free flow of thoughts. If you filter you'll block that flow. Bad ideas, or half-ideas may become better in future.
The last, last process is the edit. No idea is to be thrown out. The first process is the generation of as many ideas as possible.
Practical Step 1:
Get a whiteboard, or a large pad, or a wall (I use a large art pad because it's difficult to lose - remember notes are no use if you can't find them or can't read them). Write your topic in the centre of the space. Then just quickly write ideas next to it. They can be anything: rhymes, odd thoughts, half-thoughts, ANYTHING. Remember - you throw the rubbish out later - for now you keep everything. If we're writing a heist movie, it might come out as:
HEIST - feist feisty robbery burglary rubbery grab smash thugs joker machine gun teller auto-teller sayer Leo Sayer mask balaclava the battle of balaclava betrayal hood security camera insecurity camera goes wrong goes right Mr Blue Mr Pink cops chasing bullion Brinks Mat old men
and so on…
You can do the same exercise with every piece of dialogue or a character. Write it in the centre of a page and just come up with ideas, and more ideas, and then more ideas about the ideas. You want so many ideas that the audience will be constantly delighted and surprised. You want to pack your script with substance using every tool in your box to make this story excellent.
Now, I'd repeat this process again and again for each part of the script, but one thing that has come out of the exercise above is The Battle Of Balaclava. I'm getting an image of a stupid bank robber suddenly piping up and saying something like "Ever wondered why these are called Balaclavas? It's from the Battle."
For example, if we like the idea of The Battle of Balaclava as a piece of dialogue, we could write that in the centre of a page and:
BATTLE OF BALACLAVA - war fight bash skirmish Napoleon Crimea Baklava Paklava filo pastry pistachio nuts etc etc
Perhaps you don't know how they get away from the heist. So again, we could try:
GETAWAY - run fly flight flight risk car puncture mechanic bus train horse get lost walk hobble sidewalk (steal a bike) bicycle thieves holiday getaway stakeout car stakeout-horse
So now, lets's use this. Some dialogue might come out as:
Luis: Why is it called a Balaclava?
George: What do you want to call it?
Luis: I don't know. A face hat I guess.
George: Put it on! It was a battle, you prick.
Steve: A battle about a hat?
George: PUT IT ON! Yeah Stevie. It was battle about a f***Ing hat. Because Napoleon, see, he was a Muslim, and he wanted to cover his face, but Hitler was a open-face guy, so they had a battle.
Steve: SCREW YOU, GEORGE! I never went to school.
(He pulls his gun)
George: No shit. You want to do this now?
(He pulls his gun too.)
Steve: Yeah, pussy, I want to do this now.
Luis: Napoleon was a Muslim?
Not a masterpiece, but now we have some pre-heist dialogue. We could expand the quirks and characteristics of the hoods here and make them central to the plot if we wanted to.
Practical Step 2
Take in some references. Even if you're just writing a comedy sketch, read/watch/listen around the subject. If you're writing about betrayal, read reference books about famous traitors. Watch films or plays that are similar to yours. Reference books - Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is wonderful. Above all, don't just absorb references in the medium you're writing. If you're writing radio, watch films, read books, etc. Google the pants out of your subject. Again, make (legible) notes about everything - you can never have too many ideas.
Researching in this way is courageous: it's easy to panic and desperately dive into writing, but then you'll have nothing to write. It's scary, but keep going. The confidence will come with time.
An example of packing a script with ideas is Groundhog Day. Having established the premise of a day repeating, the writers make the hero go through every possible thing he could do with that situation. Watch it and see if you can come up with anything else that could happen with a character endlessly reliving a day. I think it would be hard! You get the impression that the writers respect the audience enough to make a supreme effort. We haven't just been fobbed off with a decent idea and told to enjoy it: the creators of the film have used every possible tool in the box to make it as good as possible. That's why they deserve our hard-earned ticket money and our two hours of attention.
5. Some quick tips
1. Time yourself and write for 20 minutes at a time. This is what I do, then I break and do four minutes of physical exercise.
- It gives me a motivation. At first, it's really difficult to "just write", because, as discussed, it's terrifying, so help yourself with an achievable goal.
- It gives me a deadline. Writing is urgent, it just doesn't feel like it without a boss in the office. Give yourself a boss.
- You need a break. Changing from one project to another is as good as a break for me.
- Instead of drifting off and thinking about dinner, I tend to race to get this bit finished before I have to stop. My day is packed with writing.