Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Storylining & Plotting Part 3 – A Day In The Life


In Part 2, I suggested that the best way to make story-lining fun and easy, or less like pulling teeth and easier, is to have a bigger list of ideas to choose from. You need a pilot episode and 5 one-paragraph outlines to sell you show. So you should be picking from 10 well-worked and plotted ideas. Those 10 should be chosen from 20-30 decent, usable ideas. And those ideas should be drawn from pages of one-line ideas. Maybe 50-100. (Ok, everyone does it differently. But this is roughly how I do things).

50-100 ideas may sound like a lot to some. But let’s remember these are just one-line ideas. Not fully formed stories with a beginning, middle and end. This are ideas like ‘Geoff decides to sell his dreadful garden produce at a farmer’s market’. ‘Sally finally confronts her hairdresser with the news that she is truly dreadful at cutting hair’. That’s it. Nothing more needed at this stage.

All you need for this long list are jumping off points. Ideas that trigger stories. So, think about your characters. What do they do all day? And is there a story or moment for each stage or moment in that day? Let’s try this now. (I’ve never done this before, so that’s exciting).

Think about one of your main characters and keep asking questions about who they are, what they’re doing and, crucially, why they do them:

Geoff is asleep in bed. What does he wear in bed? Is there a funny reason for that (based around an traumatic event that happened one night – he used to wear pajamas until…)? Does have something on the bedside table, under the pillow or under the bed? A book? A weapon? Why? What wakes him up? An alarm clock. The bin men? Is he likely to oversleep? Why? Why not? He gets up. Shower, bath or excessive deodorant. Why does he have to do things differently this morning? Does his bathroom plumbing work okay? When did it last go wrong? Why? He's getting dressed. What does he wear to work? Why? Why can't he wear that today? How does he buy his clothes? Catalogue? Online? Has he had a bad experience of this? Why? What is it about him that made it ridiculous/impractical/tense. He have breakfast. Porridge? Cereal? Toast? Is there a new regime for the mornings? Is he going to meditate instead? Meditate then fresh fruit? How does he do his grocery shopping? Supermarket? Online? Farmers Markets? If he's unhappy with something, would he take it back and complain? What would happen in that case? Or does he have a run in with a delivery guy? They go work. How do they get there? Drive? How does your character feel about cars? How did he acquire this car? Did he get ripped off? Why? Was it MOTed and serviced? Is he driving around uninsured and untaxed without realizing?

You get the idea. Keep going. All day. It will take you all day – but this is essential work. You can’t make an omelette without going out and getting eggs in the first place. But these stories are your raw material. You need lots of them.

This ‘Day in the Life’ trick that I’ve just thought of is unlikely to produce scintillating stories, but here’s what it might do. Trigger stories in your own life – or the lives of people you know or lived with. Something about being woken in the night, bad plumbing, a bizarre online shopping experience, complaining at a supermarket, having your car fixed or driving it illegally unaware (or fully aware, you rebel). And these stories are a much better starting point for stories, because these feel like stories that are fresh, real and could happen – because they did happen. They have detail in them that is hard to make up. But for now, make a long list of these stories. One or two lines. Keep moving.

Watch the Seinfeld DVDs. Many episodes have an ‘Inside Look’ with the writer and it seems that almost every story in the show is based on something that happened to one of the writers or someone they know personally. Loads of George stories happened to Larry David. One of the most memorable is where George quits a good job in rage, realises his mistake and goes back in the next day pretending he didn't quit. You couldn't suggest that for a story unless you'd tried it yourself. Ultimately, comedy, even artificial, overlit audience sitcom, is about truth. True characters, true motivations, true moments. That's the stuff your after. Interesting stories with the ring of truth.

Now, flick through a newspaper or some magazines. Sit in a cafĂ© and observe people. (Avoid turning on the TV or surfing the web – as you’ll just end up watching rubbish daytime TV or looking at Facebook, which probably won’t help). Go back to ideas you’ve had for other shows. There may be a movie idea you had five years ago but has come to nothing. It could be an episode of a sitcom. If your character has a specific job, read trade magazines and websites for that industry. Even better, talk to people who do that job in person. Ask them lots of questions about their best day at work, their worst day, a typical day, etc. Visit where they work if you can. Do whatever it takes to generate triggers for stories that ring true.

Keep going for as long as you can. Then stop. Come back to it. Stop again. Do a bit more. Come back to it again. Soon, you should have a list of 50-100 ideas. Maybe more. You now have plenty of eggs with which to make your omelette. We’ll work out how to pick which eggs to use in the Part 4, and hopefully come up with a better metaphor in the process.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Storylining & Plotting Part 2 – Low Hanging Fruit

Let’s be honest. Being a comedy writer is a dream job. When I explain what I do for a living to my 4-year old daughter she gives me a very odd look. She finds it hard to understand what I do because to her, it doesn’t sound like a job at all. I figure out what people in TV and Radio shows say to each other. Is that really a job? Why can’t you be a train-driver, dad? Or a builder? In fact, to many of my friends and family, my job barely sounds realistic. Sitting in Starbucks writing jokes seems a bit of a cop-out from society. And sitting in a room coming up with ideas and plots for a show doesn’t sound like a day's work.

And yet, put most people in these situations and they’d panic. You give most people the freedom to create stuff and they find it impossible for a variety of reasons. Either they wouldn’t think of anything original or interesting, or they wouldn’t be able to bring themselves to express it. For most people, the blank page is terrifying. It’s why giving speeches is one of the great fears in society. It’s not just standing up there – it’s reading out what you’ve written.

It’s a Hard Life (although no real actual physical labour is involved)
The reason I say all this is because storyline and plotting is incredibly hard work. And it feels odd doing it because it is strange thing to be doing with your time. But, as we established in the last post, storylining and plotting your show is vital. It is hard work but conversely, you know when it’s going well because it doesn’t feel like work. When your show is firing on all cylinders and throwing up lots of juicy comedy moments and jokes, you really do feel like you’re being paid to join the dots.

Sometimes, plotting is a hard struggle and at 3pm on Thursday afternoon, you’re feeling tired and bored and cross that you didn’t really get much done in the morning and you were going to go to the gym and frankly you might as well have done given the slim pickings that have made it onto a piece of paper. So far, so observational. What can be done to reduce the number of tired and tetchy afternoons? How you feel ‘in the room’ as you’re trying to plot out episodes is a fairly good guide to how well you’re doing.  I’m sure some very memorable episodes of TV have been ground out over hours of sweat and crossed words, but usually the good stuff comes when it all feels natural, straight-forward and easy.

When this happens, you’re doing what business people call ‘plucking low hanging fruit’. You’re developing ideas and stories that are just so juicy you can’t resist sinking your teeth into them and it’s a joy and a hoot. And it doesn’t feel like work. It’s going well.

Where do these ideas come from? It’s a simple. A huge long list of ideas you’ve already come up with. And on that list are some ideas that just stand out. They’re exciting. They feel fresh and new and plotting them out feels like it could go in multiple directions, produce character conflicts and set-piece scenes we haven’t seen before.

So What Are You Saying?
So, what I’m saying is that you can start plotting and planning too early. Let’s say you’ve got an idea for sitcom, and you’ve got your characters. What do you need now? You need to write a pilot script. And you need to five one-paragraph outlines for what happens in shows 2-6. Here’s what I would do (and this is predicated on the idea that I don’t really believe in ‘set-up’ pilot episodes. In a first series, every episode should assume that the audience have never seen the show and you should reintroduce the characters properly so it's crystal clear who’s who and what the set-up is.)

I would try and come up with ten usable storylines – and pick the six that you think serve your show best and feel most fresh and original. And write your pilot based on the one that’s most exciting, interesting and useful. To get those ten usable storylines, you should thinking of pages and pages of ideas, maybe 50-100 ideas, each of which involve a key character doing something interesting.

As many of these storylines as possible should be active stories that centre around your key character (eg. decides to throw away old junk or take up a new hobby or confront someone about issue). This will drive you along further and faster than than passive stories that start from outside the show and ‘happen to’ your characters (eg. selected for jury duty or wins lottery). From that, you’ll get some juicy low-hanging fruit.

So in Part 3, we’ll look at how to go about generating this great big long list of ideas.


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Storylining & Plotting Part 1


The Americans don’t really have comedy panel games like we do. Why? Maybe they don’t have a culture of them as we’ve had, despite the fact they come up with What’s My Line? in the 1950s, which established the panel game as a thing.

But maybe American TV went off panel games because American TV is all about making money. (For the record, I have no problem with this). The problem with an episode of a panel game is that it is a poor long-term investment. It may deliver ratings in the short term, but as a rule of thumb, they don’t make you money for years and years. If you’re going to spend $500,000 on an episode of TV, you’re going to want that back eventually. You won’t get that back for a couple of years – which means your show needs to be watchable and enjoyable in three, or seven, or fifteen years time. It’s need to be syndicated, and sold on DVD and iTunes. You’re just not going to want to watch episodes of today’s panel games in years to come.

Panel games are all over our cable channels in the UK, but that is because they are very very cheap to repeat, I believe. Moreover, the original cost of the panel game is covered by the initial broadcast on the original network. Everything that’s after that is gravy.

Why Sitcoms Are A Better Investment Than Panel Games
It’s worth asking the question – why are sitcoms a better long term investment? A panel game is often just joke after joke. Pure and unalterated banter. Two and half hours of parlour games designed to allow  professionally funny people to swap wisecracks, edited down to a 28 minutes. What's not to like? Have I Got News for You, QI, and Would I Lie to You are all lovely shows – but they’re not addictive like a sitcom. They don’t make you want to own it on DVD, or give it to your sister for Christmas or watch six episodes in a row, even though you’re very tired and have to be up early. (Come on, most of us have spend the best part of a whole day watching about ten episodes of Friends back to back)

Panel games have jokes. And they even have characters or personae of sorts, eg Davies & Fry in QI, Mack & Mitchell in Would I Lie to You? Hislop & Merton in Have I Got News for You? And, as Dave Cohen has pointed out to here, these characters embody a classical British class warfare of sorts. But these characters don’t have stories. Nothing actually happens.

You need stories. Surprising twists and turns. Plots.

The Importance of the Story
I’ve probably said this before, but stories are the chassis on which the sitcom is built. It seems odd an comparison to make since the chassis is such an unexciting part of the car, compared to the body work and the engine (if you like that sort of thing). But I’d say the body work and gadgets are the jokes. And the engine are the characters. Your characters are driving your show forward. They have wants and needs (not the same thing, obviously) and obligations.

I don’t know much about cars, demonstrated by the cars I own (A Ford Mondeo Estate) and cars I have owned (VW Golf, Metro, Peugot 405 and Peugot 309). I had an accident in the Peugot 309. A strong cross wind and standing water on the road causes aqua-planing at 60 mph on a dual carriage way near Towcester. I hit the central reservation. The car was just about okay to drive to the hard shoulder. But it wasn’t fixable, because the chassis had been damaged. And if the chassis is damaged, there’s no point fixing the bodywork, mending the electrics and retuning the engine, because the vehicle is fatally flawed.

And in a sitcom, if you’re story isn’t right, if it’s not solid and sturdy, no amount of jokes or funny set-pieces will be able to remedy the underlying weakness. You need a proper story structure. If a joke doesn’t fire, that’s doesn’t matter. Your script should have at least a hundred of them, so another one will be along in a moment. Plus it might be fixable quickly – with a new joke.

But if your character does something they would never do, that’s really annoying and will get in the way of the next ten jokes at least. If that happens twice in ten minutes, your viewer is probably going to switch over. If there’s a massive coincidence that solves your two plots with a magic wand at the end (what is known as a Deus Ex Machina), your audience might not tune in next week because they feel they’ve been cheated. For the majority of scripts that get written and never progressed, produced or broadcast, the story may well be the main problem.  It’s not allowing the characters to move forward in a way that seems plausible, effortless and funny.

That’s why the next few blog posts are all about storylining and plotting.

Nothing Up My Sleeves
I should point out that I don’t have any special secret knowledge on this, or an inside track. I have a degree in Theology from the University of Durham. I have no qualifications in screenwriting. I’ve never been on a course. I just have a few years of experience of sitting in windowless rooms with big white bits of paper and filling them with ideas, bits, stories, set pieces and jokes, and drawing arrows connecting them. Writing them all down, reassembling them, re-writing them and then going over them again.

I don’t know of any short cuts. It just takes time. And I think people assume that because it takes time, they must be doing it wrong. I tend to think the opposite way. If someone says a script took no time at all, or ‘wrote itself’, or was written in a night, I’m very suspicious. They’re either lying, or they mean they wrote the actual dialogue very quickly because they’d spend ages on the outline (in which case they don’t understand that writing is as much about the outlining/plotting as anything else). Or they really did write it from scratch in no time, in which case the odds are it’s truly terrible, especially bearing in mind what Hemingway said about first drafts of anything.

So storylining and plotting, here we come. Part 2 is here.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Guest Characters

One thing I've learnt (and had to relearn the hard way several times over in the last decade) is that in sitcoms, it is very hard to make guests characters as funny as the regular characters. This is easy to forget because its always counter-intuitive. New guest characters bring fresh ideas, different situations and new angles, so surely they're easy to make funny, right? Wrong. Now why is this?

Let's take a step back and remember what a sitcom is. It's not a comedy about new situations and funny lines. It's a half-hour story about characters that we know and love in their usual surroundings. The audience are used to seeing the world through their eyes. The audience love the regular characters. They are invested in them. They are not going to love a strange shop assistant or over-the-top hairdresser in the same way. They know the regulars and what their hopes and dreams are  and therefore why their lines are funny. One-off characters bring uncertainty, which is why the most successful, funniest and most useful ones tend to be very quick and easy to understand and larger than life.

As Usual, Seinfeld Leads The Way
I think this is why the writers of Seinfeld were so successful at introducing and occasionally reprising their guest characters. The successful and memorable ones tended to be completely extraordinary and at least partly based on truth eg. The Soup Nazi or The Bubble Boy. Their names explained exactly who they were so the audience were up to speed straight and we could get on with the jokes. A catchphrase helped that along too ('No soup for you!'') But what we enjoyed the most about these characters is the reactions of the regular cast to them. Seeing George humbly bowing to the Soup Nazi and then being cheated of a bread roll and then being banned is funny - because it's George. And then there was the unpleasant incident with the Bubble Boy... Other characters in Seinfeld weren't funny at all but downright annoying, intentionally so because they put the regular characters into awkward or unpleasant situations, one of the most obvious examples being the infuriating comedy hack Banya. Banya made Jerry funny.

So What?
So, it's worth looking at your one-scene character - and remembering that the audience are not invested in this character as much as you by a long way. If possible, give the jokes to the regular character. Quite often, a joke can be switched around so our hero is able to have the punchline and it still feels like it's all in character. As writers who are maybe slightly jaded about our regulars, we often get excited about the new guy, the new voice, the new attitude and therefore the new jokes that are possible. The audience are a lot less interested in this guy than you are. Wherever possible, give your jokes to the regulars.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Pull Back! Pull Back!

A question that's come up from Twitter from a man called Simon goes thus:
"At what point do you stop trying to mend a story that isn't working and go back to square one? Is there a deciding factor?"

It's a good question and one that's really hard to answer. In a way it's no real surprises that this is a tricky one because the Simon who posed the question is the extremely experienced Simon Blackwell (who's written for The Thick of It, Peep Show, Old Guys and been nominated for an Oscar for In the Loop. He has moved beyond asking question about font sizes.)

Story-surgery is required at a number of stages - and is more easily done early on in the process. That's why is worth being brutal with your story or outline before you start writing a script. It's like baking a cake. Mary Berry says to make sure you measure the ingredients carefully. If you don't, it's very hard to remove flour from a cake and add an egg when the cake is in the oven. The script equivalent of removing flour from a cake is through-the-night rewrites, caffeine overdoses, panic, sweat and weight gain. This, in my experience, can be exhilarating, once or twice but is mostly no fun, especially if you're the sort of person that likes to be home in time to read stories to your kids before bedtime (which, being a writer, you probably are).

I Wouldn't Start From There
So my annoying wise-after-the-event experience is that the best cure is prevention - ensuring that your story flows organically and yet mechanically, progressing with every scene or beat. And that each of these progressions is in character. It's possible to get too hung up on jokes early on, which normally comes about from not trusting yourself to come up with them later on. But if you've got proper character and they are merrily walking into comic situation for good characterful reasons - making things better and then worse again, and then better - it will be funny. Jokes will come.

My latest modus operandi is to plan, plot, tickle and hold off writing the actual script until I can bear it no longer and I just want to get stuck in. Normally, when that happens, jokes fly, it runs okay and all is well. If the jokes don't come, you might have a problem. It might be you're just tired, or you need a break. It may be it'll all feel much funnier after lunch (unlikely) or tomorrow morning (possible). But the jokes might not still come, in which case, it might be worth stopping mid-draft and re-drafting the story, ideally with someone else in the room. You'll spend ages trying to salvage bits you're sure are funny. Once you've failed to do that, ditch those funny bits, because clearly they're ruining everything else. It's not original advice but Kill Your Darlings.

Pull Back! Pull Back!
Sometimes, it still doesn't work. Your story isn't flying, or is dull, predictable and preventing the show from being funny. The characters are just in rooms talking to each other. Nothing is happening. Or the 'saving moment' seems like a huge coincidence. Or we just don't care (this often happens when our characters interact with non-regulars too much). In short, the story is broken. In fact, the story was never sound in the first place. It just escaped detection. It was holed below the waterline. Time to bale out.

Now What?
What you do next depends on how much time you have. If you're some weeks away from shooting and they haven't built an expensive set, you're probably fine to start all over again. Is there a deciding factor for ditching a story? There are two - one is the producer/exec producer. They may well be saying out loud what you're thinking, that things aren't quite working. And they may not know why. Or they may.

The other deciding factor is your gut. A while ago, I co-wrote a script that was basically fine, but when it came to rewriting it, we found it impossible to improve because we realised we couldn't inject any real jeopardy into the episode. It was as funny as this story was going to get, which was funny-ish. We had successfully hidden the lack of jeopardy with funny set-pieces and jokes - but we were sure it was broken and, after a few days, unfixable, so we threw the episode out and started another. We salvaged a C Plot and some jokes from the episode we threw away and wrote the new episode very quickly which has turned out to be one of the better ones.

What Am I Doing Wrong?
Probably nothing. My experience is that it's quite normal for stories/plots to run aground. If you're writing a series of six episodes (as is our way in UK), you're normally fresh for the first two or three episodes and have lots of robust ideas. The last episode is normally written in a blur because there's no time, and usually turns out quite well, for some reason (like that last minute essay). Episode four and five can often be tricky - especially ep 5 which usually proves my nemesis.

But the hallmark of a good writer is not avoiding script calamities. They are unavoidable. It's responding to them - working hard to get the story right, being prepared to sacrifice every part or piece of the story and ultimately the episode itself to get the story right so the jokes will fly. It is hard work, but it's mostly indoors, done with a MacBook Pro, nearby copious amounts of coffee, so it's not all bad.