Friday, 28 March 2014

Theoretically Funny

They never liked David Frost. The cool kids, like Peter Cook and Willie Rushton, didn’t like the fact that David Frost used to try – and wasn’t afraid to be seen to try. For them, genius should at least appear effortless. For Peter Cook, one of the greatest comic brains in the English language, it really seems to have been something that came naturally to the point where it wasn’t even fun. For everyone else, genius is the product of years of work, experience and making mistakes. Even so, the cult of the amateur still prevails in Britain.

Now, there are jobs you can’t just rock up and do. You can’t use your ‘natural flair for open heart surgery’ to get you a job cutting people open in a hospital. You need years at medical school and you have to pass exams. And you can’t just use your skills of rhetoric to ‘be a barrister’. You have to learn stuff, like the law, pass exams and be accepted by some chambers.

But anyone can write a script, can’t they? After all, you don’t need to understand every cell of the human body, or every letter of the law. You don’t need money, training, qualifications or access to highly specialised or expensive equipment. You just need access to a computer while you’re typing it. And save it as pdf. That’s one of the upsides. Anyone can do it. (See also here)

This, combined with the British love of the amateur, might lead some to suggest that writing is either easy, or simply relies on natural genius. You’ve either got it or you haven’t, some would say.

Is Learning to Write A Waste of Time?
This would lead some to be naturally suspicious of ‘teaching’ writing as, at best, a waste of time – especially when it takes two years at university, costs a lot of money and doesn’t offer any guarantees of paid work or success (much like most other degrees). Besides, some would argue, you’re better off studying a 'proper subject' and living your life so you’ll have stuff to write about. And given the sheer number of people wanting to be writers, looking for advantages and prepared to spend money on getting a head start, some might see writing courses or books as a waste of money. Are they? Can this stuff be taught? And is there a formula anyway? Given one of the most famous phrases in modern screenwriting is William Goldman’s ‘Nobody knows anything’, there are grounds to say the ‘Theory of Writing’ industry is snake oil.

Truby, Madly, Deeply
I mention all this because I’ve just started reading John Truby’s 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, which is, granted, an infuriatingly hubristic title. I’m still reading but so far it seems to be very useful. It is undoubtedly quite dogmatic, and disparaging of other techniques, even calling out Aristotle for being overly simplistic in his Poetics. Ballsy. 

I don’t want to go into details of Truby’s system. That’s not the point. The point is whether money and, more crucially, time spent filling your head with all this stuff is worthwhile.

I think it is. Writing is hard. It can take weeks, months or years to wrestle an idea to the ground, tame it and make it do what you need it to do and turn it into a script. To rely on ‘natural talent’ or be intentionally amateurish about this is perverse.

I’ve been mulling this for a little while as the other day I was explaining sitcom plots and actually plotted a few graphs to represent them. It sounds crazy. Plots do not need to be plotted on an x- and y-axis, but it can be a helpful way of thinking of your mind works that way, especially in demonstrating that you have to end up where you started which is a crucial difference between sitcoms and most other forms of writing where characters go on journeys and are changed by the experience. In sitcoms, you have your ups and downs, but you ultimately stay the same.

Quest to Escape Thwarted
There were three basic sitcom plots that occurred to me. The first is what I call the ‘Quest to Escape Thwarted’. This is the plot where our hero has a great quest to change their life and circumstances in some way. Like Father Ted doing something to get off the Island (like enter the National Song Contest with his song My Lovely Horse). The graph goes up and down, heading mainly up, before it all comes crashing down, the truth is revealed, a character flaw is exposed, and our character is back to square one.

Challenge to Status Quo Averted
The second kind of story is the ‘Challenge to Status Quo Averted’. In this story, the hero has done something which jeopardises everything they have and hold dear. It could all be taken away. There’s a threat of arrest and jail, or banktrupcy or a fatal blow to reputation. The hero tries to stop it, has some success, but then makes it worse. And worse. And then somehow, through letting go of some treasured thing, or a realisation, or a moment of redemption, the crisis is averted, and the status quo is returned to normal.

Be Careful What You Wish For
A third kind of story is the story See-Saw which I call ‘Be Careful What you Wish for’ which I’ve written about before here. It’s quite handy if you feel your plot isn’t going anywhere. Let your hero achieve their goal unexpectedly early, and then deeply regret it, and spend the rest of the episode trying to undo things.

We did this in Episode 2 of Series 2 of Miranda called ‘Before I Die’. Miranda, offended not to be asked to be the godmother to a child of some friends she can't stand, goes about proving her worth. She does such a good job of looking responsible that half way through the episode, she achieves her goal. And then realises she's made an awful mistake and spends the rest of the episode trying to get out of being a godmother, which involves reading Mein Kampf to kids in a library and punching a vicar.

These aren’t formulae. They’re not rules. They're models. They’re just ways of picturing a plot as a diagram, which is handy if your brain works that way. No everyone’s does. Carla Lane (Bread, Liver Birds, Butterflies etc etc) just used to sit down and write, I’m told. Well, that’s great for her. She’s a genius. Maybe you are too and find all this theory is guff. Don’t mock us. Pity us. We find it difficult and have to grind it this stuff out.

Economics uses modelling. They describe human behaviour in certain ways and use models to demonstrate and reflect it. But they can’t really be used to predict the future – and if your models and formulae dominate and you rely solely on them, they crash. In economics, nobody knows anything. No-one. Anyone who says they do – and isn’t a billionaire based purely on their own acumen without being bailed our by the government or exploiting a monopoly – is a liar. But despite all this, economic models are still useful. And you can use them to get a degree in economics and know a bit more. And feel more comfortable with money, finance, budgets, markets and all that. But it’s very different to take that theory and run a business, be a financial advisor, city regulator or Chancellor of the Exchequer. The theory only gets you so far.

Nobody Knows Anything
There is no formula to screenwriting. We know in our hearts that Goldman is right. So stop looking for one. Who says Aristotle is right? And that Truby is wrong? It doesn’t matter. But obsessing over the theory if all you really want to do is be a writer can be a distracting. Are those courses a waste of money? Many say the value of them is time to explore things, write to deadlines, gain experience and get feedback. Either way, it takes time to learn to be a writer – and we all learn in different ways and we all end up being different types of writer. And there are different ways of learning to be different kinds of writer. You get the idea. Do what works.

If you’re a genius, like Peter Cook, and your brain is just wired funny, I look forward to seeing your show on TV. If you’re Sir David Frost, you’ll just have to put the work in. And let's face it, he did okay.
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  1. Brilliant! I take your point that you can't stick slavishly to a formula but for those of us starting out with the intention to write a sitcom, it is helpful of you to have summarised those three models. Thank you.

  2. There's a saying (search for the quotee on Wikipedia): "All models are wrong, but some models are useful -- some of the time." Somewhat akin to whether you use an outline or not; sometimes yes, sometimes no, depending on what I'm doing. Sometimes creating an outline is more useful after a first draft so you can sort of X-ray the skeleton of what you've written; I've seen reference to this as a "reverse outline" in academic writing.

    Sorry for the digression -- great post!