19 June, 2008
I finished my second draft which I was really chuffed with and did a quick script swap with Lucy.
On a positive note Lucy liked my disease of the week, PKD, and the unpredictable way I treated it. As I said before my research made the ending much more dramatic and made me reluctant to take advice regarding not bothering with research. The other thing about research is I think we should at least try not to piss off people who might have the condition.
On a less positive note, Lucy didn't buy the relationship between my 16 year old protag and his 7 year old sister as it was too paternalistic. She used the phrase "Waltons-esque". I accepted that but saw nothing wrong with it so left it.
Lucy laid into my characterisation of Cathy, the step-mom, but it was really just the one scene. When I looked at that scene again the problem was about me wanting to keep two really good jokes. For all my talk of character-driven stories I really didn't want to lose those jokes just to have realistic and believable characterisation. It took me two hours working on that scene to find a way to have my cake and eat it.
I changed some other stuff based on what Lucy said to make it clearer and also changed some technical stuff.
Adrian Reynolds emailed me offering to read my Sharps for me as a sample of the script and story development work he does. So once I had finished the next draft, off it went to him. Little did I know that he would end up nailing my biggest persistent writing problem.
Rather than give me notes he suggested we meet up or talk on the phone. Arranging a meet was difficult so we arranged a phone call. He explained that he prefered to tell it live and explore options for developing the script further.
I was a bit unsure about the no-notes thing but he says that he’s looking at what the writer has done and what the writer wants to do or can do rather than a standard script report template where you can miss what the writer wants to bring to the table. So the nature of the discussion can vary each time. It’s the difference between static and dynamic. He makes notes for himself which the writer can have if they want. But like everyone else, in the end, I didn't feel I needed them.
He started off by finding out my reference points and what writers I like. He named Jimmy McGovern - yes, Paul Abbott - yes, Mike Leigh - not really, Shane Meadows - No, not at all.
Now I understand that theme is important and thought I had one when I was writing but when I tried to explain it to Adrian it was vague and woolly. It was clear from the script I wasn't sure of the theme and he felt I should be able to state the theme with confidence.
Adrian went on to say that I was too polite with the characters and the world and asked if I had heard that before and actually I had heard something similar but it didn't make sense. He said that the characters were too nice and there was not enough conflict which went back to what Lucy was saying about the idyllic sibling relationship. But there was clearly a life and death conflict there and, you know, some people are nice.
Adrian then quoted Paul Abbott who said that you want the story to be the biggest story of the character's life. I needed to engineer characters by putting them in the worst situation and putting them through hell. You want them to have a terrible time, to have a tidal wave of emotions.
Just as I knew about theme but failed to act on it properly, I know about conflict and making things hard for your main character but didn't take it far enough. I realised that, for whatever reason, I actually enjoyed writing the fantasy family. Yes, I'm sure they must exist but that isn't the issue. The issue is that, however brilliantly written it is, it's going to be too dull and too boring.
Adrian said that my story was a nice tune and a nice melody but was like Smells Like Teen Spirit played by the James Last Orchestra. Ouch. But the music analogy drove the point home. (Although I really like Paul Anka's version...)
The other key point was that it can be controversial and doesn’t have to be a Public Information Film, it can be from a radical perspective.
Adrian then tried various ways of getting me to look at the characters differently including trying to imagine how McGovern or Abbott might have treated the story and stunt-casting - imagining a famous actor in the role and what they would bring to the role.
Adrian felt my main character should be more of a rock-star and be drinking heavily earlier then he does in the script. We brainstormed reasons why he might be drinking heavily earlier - as I couldn't just have him doing it for the sake of it. I rejected one particular dramatic suggestion as it didn't feel right and was taking it too far away from why I was writing the piece. However it sparked off an ideal solution. Just by making the younger sister into an older step-sister, it added extra conflict between them and the dad and step-mom.
45 minutes later we were done. Adrian checked my confidence levels and to be honest the rewrite seemed like a big ask and Adrian encouraged me to chill and have confidence, even going through a useful relaxation exercise.
After I put the phone down I just put the script away for a few days. It was a lot to take in and I didn't want to rush with changes that I might regret later. When I did eventually start working I made the necessary changes quite quickly. The previous draft starts really pleasantly before the outside force comes but now there is massive conflict within the family before the outside force arrives which is so much better.
Adrian offers to have a look over the next draft as well and give notes on that but due to the encroaching deadline I couldn't take him up on that. It's much better than it was but I would have liked to take it to another draft. I might do a fifth draft anyway as it's for my portfolio and that's the main thing not the competition.
Whatever happens with Sharps, the real value of the exercise is that now I understand where I'm going wrong, my next script should be better. - in theory. And it's much easier to implement the lessons learned at the outline stage rather than in the final draft where it is much trickier to do.
The writersroom blog is updating regularly on the Sharps process.