The aim of this project is to create a hour (or half hour) stand-alone drama completely from scratch as a sample script to get work with production companies and networks. A drama good enough to attract the considerable acting talents of someone like Paris Hilton. How she was overlooked by the academy for House of Wax is a mystery not even Sherlock Holmes could work out.
Firstly though, Mr Jordan gave a talk in The Smoke and Lianne and David were kind enough to report on it. Luckily he didn't say "who gives a toss about characters and passion" or I'd be well embarrassed. This is what he did say:
"You need to find your characters first and your story second when you create a show. It's madness to go story first, characters become story vehicles."
"Writers should use research to justify what we're doing."
"You have to find the heart and soul of the project. Lots of people have an idea for a story. That's not a whole world. You need a reason to tell a story."
"Great stories are great, but great shows have character. They're character-based, not story-based. Get your characters right and you'll get longevity in series creation."
"The way to success in creating shows is character, passion, emotional truth. Don't try to second guess commissioners. You should write what you're passionate about."
"Writers are always looking for excuses not to write, an excuse why they haven't been discovered yet. I didn't know anything when I started."
"A writer writes. Characters first. Know what your story is. Have a beginning, middle and end. That's about it. I think of my main story as like a big, solid coat-stand. the bottom is the beginning, the top is the end and everything else is in between. I hang other stuff on it, like you hang coats on a coat-stand."
"If you're talented as a writer, talent will out."
"Sit down and write what's in your heart."
OK. By now you should have focused on yourself and your passions for a while. Now it's time to think about theme.
One newspaper story I chose, from my local evening rag, was 'Council could have saved murdered boy'. A man was jailed for life for killing his two year old and the boy's aunt complained that social care had known the child was in danger and dropped the case.
Now even if other people chose the same story as part of the exercise, they may take from it a different theme than I would.
Is it about the bureaucracy of local government? Hard-pressed social care? Evil social care? Underfunding? Bullying? Young parenthood? The cycle of abuse? The criminal justice system? Childhood? Infertility? For me, it's about fatherhood.
You have to know what it's about - that will help keep you focused and help the story.
Once you've nailed your theme, think about whose point of view you want to tell the story from. Is it the boy's? The father's? The social worker's? The aunt's? The copper's?
I like the copper. Maybe the death is simply the turning point for the young copper who finds the body. And who thinks of quitting in despair.
You have to know who it is about - that will help keep you focused and help the character.
The copper may represent my point of view of despair at child abuse but the character can't be my mouthpiece. He has to be believable and three-dimensional.
Let's face it, it's not very believable that he's thinking of quitting. He knew what he was getting into when joining the police and he's had the training. So I need to add backstory to make it convincing.
Backstory is crucial because just as we haven't just arrived on earth this actual minute, neither have our characters. Most of my psychological make-up is as a result of my childhood, never mind what's happened in the last year. Characters have lived lives before the story you're writing about and how they have lived will affect their behaviour in that story. Indiana Jones falling into a pit of snakes is interesting to watch, no doubt, but when the character is given the backstory of being terrified of snakes then we're scared along with him - we're emotionally engaged.
So back to my copper. I ask questions and I brainstorm. What if this is the last straw after several horrible cases? What if he's having trouble at home with his wife? What if he's on heroin? What if he's on the take and about to be exposed in the papers? What if his whole family are coppers and it isn't what he really wants to do? Hold on. Or specifically what if his big wig pig father forced him to be a copper? Bingo! By choosing the copper's father as a reason it's still focused on my theme fatherhood.
You have to have an opposing viewpoint to that represented by your 'hero' (or protagonist) who would be your villain (or antagonist). There has to be conflict or there's no story. We might naturally try to avoid conflict in real life but avoiding it in our writing makes it doomed to failure.
Antagonists don't have to be evil, they can be friends, allies, parents and lovers. Antagonists are just the source of and the driving force of opposition causing the central conflict. I say central conflict because there should be other conflicts going on as well.
So if my copper represents compassion there has to be an anti-compassion character. Maybe his Chief Inspector father? Maybe the dead boy's father? Maybe both. Can I have two antagonists? I'll have to think about that one.
Just by brainstorming and thinking about character I've got the basis of an interesting premise, characters and story.
Now it's your turn. Go back to your newspaper clippings and use one of those as a basis for a story like I have just done.
Choose the theme and then choose the best point-of-view character to explore that theme and who/what the antagonist will be. Look for stories that have clear conflict at its core and ask 'What if..?' That will make the writing later on much easier.
You might feel passionately about the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent civil war but your theme of war is good or war is bad doesn't have to take place in the offices of the Prime Minister or President, it could be from the point of view of a whistleblower who works for the government; a woman who supports the war has a boyfriend who doesn't; a boy might have lost a parent in the fighting - it could be a boy born here or an asylum seeker. Look for the potential in getting the audience emotionally involved, with a strong central relationship which has a clear conflict.
Of course, you can take ideas from elsewhere other than newspapers as long as you follow the same process and it's coming from character and truth and your own personal passion.
Variations on a Theme - Top guru Bill Martell says "What is a theme? It's what your film is really about - the POINT rather than the plot. The moral of the story. When I first started writing I didn't think theme even existed. People would ask me what my script was about, I'd answer "It's about a cop chasing a serial killer" and they'd come back with "No, what's it REALLY about?"
Screenwriting: Theme - Isaac Botkin believes "Theme is the real heart of good screenwriting"
Theme Me Up Scotty... The Unknown Screenwriter says "So TRUTH is THEME. Theme is the INNER LIGHT at the end of Your Protagonist's tunnel. YOUR TRUTH — not MY truth."
PostSecret - Lianne gives a couple of good sources for getting ideas.
Shorts Project: Idea - In this post Robin tries to get an idea for his short. Robin hates people who talk about themselves in the third person. Although Robin is beginning to like it. Robin may do it all the time.
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