A short film: The Man with Snakes for Arms

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Rejection and why it’s good for you

By now I guess a standard joke about Fifty Shades of Grey must have emerged along the lines that none of the painful looking sexual practices shown in the film are half as painful as watching it.  Writing and submitting work is not quite the same as willingly being tied to a bedpost but in both cases you are deliberately exposing yourself to the possibility of future pain for the sake of pleasure.

Thursday evening, to those people submitting to Newsjack is “email day”. And no news is always bad news, at least once everyone else is getting their emails through. There are two levels of email: the “good email” – telling you that you have something in the show – and the “bad email”- telling you that you almost had something in the show, but it got cut.

There are maybe 20-30 credits available on each show and some of those will be taken up by staff writers and commissioned writers. So of the hundreds of people submitting, the vast majority will end up “rejected”.

But this is no different to the professionals. Most of the projects even pro writers work on, don’t get off the ground. They might not get picked up as a script, or they might get optioned but not made, or they might get piloted and then not picked up for a series. And even if they do, and even if they are great they might not get another series.

The same is true of prose fiction writers. We all love the stories of how many people passed on Harry Potter before it because an international megahit. But this is not the exception. It’s the rule.

For a working writer,  rejection – not getting a particular piece used – is part of the job.  But don’t worry. It’s good for you.

For a start getting used to rejection makes you better able to do the job. You are going to have to get used it sometime, just like plumbers have to get used to climbing under dirty sinks.

But it’s more than that. Getting your work knocked back, ripped apart and made better helps to knock the preciousness out of you. The insecurity that insists that the world loves you every word without alteration will only hold you back. Don’t be precious about the work as it is, be determined to make it better.

Rejection is also a great filter. Do you want the world to see your best work? Then be grateful for the filters standing between you and the world. They are the reason all your bad ideas don’t get made and that’s a good thing.

Look at what happens when people are considered geniuses whose work can’t be questioned. Most of the time their work gets flabby – and these are generally the most talented and knowledgeable writers. Not having a good filter, be that editor, director or producer makes even brilliant writer’s work weaker.

So next time you get a rejection, don’t be angry or despair. Be grateful. And go away and do something even better.

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Don’t lie to yourself

Fiction, according to Stephen King*, is the truth inside the lie. Fiction – even comedy – while not factual, tells the truth about the world as the author sees it.

So if you want to tell these lies well you have to be honest. Honest with your audience and honest with yourself.

You have to be honest about the raw emotional truth at the heart of what you’re writing. (And this goes double for comedy, which is often an exercise in managed cruelty.)

But you also have to be honest about the plain old words on the page, and whether they are doing what you want them to.

It’s all too easy when you’ve written something to know what you meant. After all, you wrote it. The problem is, what you meant might not be what you’ve actually written. That is why coming back to work after a gap is so useful when editing.

Coming back to your work after a break gives you distance – so you can groan at the terrible things you have written and edit them out, or enjoy a really good bit of writing with fresh eyes.  Or you can just write a blog post for the whole world to see/ignore  (probably ignore).

We also need to be honest when editing. All too often we know deep down which bits in a piece aren’t working. But we don’t want to admit it. We want to take the easy route: not fixing things and hoping they’re OK. But you have to be honest with yourself. If you feel like there is something wrong, there probably is.

And when a piece of writing doesn’t get used it does a lot of good to look for reasons why (although sometimes it will be because it didn’t happen to fit the need at the time).

Being honest doesn’t mean giving in to despair. Recognise the good bits of your writing too.  And remember that finding the bad bits is a good thing – if you find them you can fix them.

But you can’t fix them if you won’t admit they are there.

 

*Yes, Stephen King. Don’t be a snob. And do read “On Writing“.

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Why it’s important that boys watch Frozen

As I mentioned last week, my four year old son loves Frozen. Which, given it’s primarily a film about Disney princesses would seem odd, if it wasn’t such a great kids story. Not all boys see it that way. My son has been having a debate with his best friend on exactly this heavyweight question. Well I say debate, I expect in reality it went like this:

Frozen is for girls.
No it’s not
Yes it is.
No it’s not.
Let’s go play Fireman Sam!
Yeah!

Now learning the differences between boys and girls is a normal part of growing up and a certain amount of “that’s for girls” and “that’s for boys” is part of that. And I can see why people would think that a film staring two Disney princesses is “for girls”. But it shouldn’t be. And here’s why.

Stories are how we learn about other people. They are a window into other people’s experience. They might be people like us. They might be very different to us. They may be good. They may be bad. They may be young, old, male, female, human, animal, alien, robot, inaninimate object. Stories help us learn about what it’s like to be others so that we can learn better to be ourselves.

So if boys never watch female protagonist films, they are failing to learn to identify with women, to see them as human too. This matters.

That doesn’t mean boys and girls can’t have different tastes. And it doesn’t even mean that all boys need to watch Frozen. But they should be watching or reading something with a female lead character. Not all the time. But sometimes.

The problem is that the recieved wisdom is that they don’t. Men and boys avoid reading books by female authors. Women and girls don’t do the same. Boys decide that films with female lead characters are just for girls.

No one’s arguing that boys and girls should be forced into the same template. No two people should be forced into the same template. But if we are, as a culture, cutting men off from understanding and empathising with women, we are creating a future of failed relationships, bitterness and division.

I know I’m not the first person to say all of this. But it bears saying again. And now when you watch Frozen with your son, you’re doing just a tiny bit to make the world a better place. Not just being lazy. Honest.

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My not very original thoughts on Frozen

If, like me, you have a four year old child, then you will (unless you are some kind of survivalist living up a mountain powering your satellite internet connection by burning peat) have seen Frozen. Frozen (as the rest of us know) is the Disney hit that spawned that earworm “Let it go” and a few million kid’s parties’ worth of princess costumes.

And if, like me, you are interested in stories in whatever form they come, you’ll have watched Frozen and tried to figure out how it worked. And how it has made so much money (top grossing animated feature ever).

Sure it has catchy songs, pretty costumes and stunning landscapes. But so have plenty of flops. I think Frozen has become the mega-hit it has largely for two reasons:

  1. It is well written.
  2. It fills a very big void as a film for little girls that isn’t all about getting the prince.

I’m not an expert on princess films but I certainly have seen one before with a female protagonist (Ana) whose principal relationship is with another female character (her sister Elsa) and where her primary goal is related to her sister, not one of the men in her life. I don’t want to spoil the ending for the one person on the planet who hasn’t seen it yet, but that is all about the girls too.

The men in the film are (in the nicest possible way) secondary characters.

And there are some delightfully subversive touches along the way. Again, let’s not have any spoilers, but I’ll just say that the “love at first sight” scene (Love is an open door) that could have been straight out of an older Disney film, turns out in the end to have been a terrible mistake. And no wedding bells at the end, either. Like I said, all about the girls.

We have seen plenty of kids films that are the other way around – with leading male characters relating to other male characters but this is the first I’ve seen that does this for the girls. Frozen is not The Female Eunuch but the fact that this story can be told in this way by such a traditionally conservative studio should be seen as a victory for feminism. And for good storytelling.

There is more than one reason that Frozen is a success, but having a screenplay by a woman that tells a story that little girls can relate to (and boys as well, of course, like my four year old son) might have something to do with it.

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Characters aren’t bios

There is a lot of advice about writing out here on the internet and in books and magazines, or even passed about by word of mouth on the rare occaisions writers leave the house. And some of that advice is excellent. Some is, well…

One popular piece of advice is that you have to “know your characters inside out”. This is true. And also not true.  “Really?” I hear you ask, oh eager and largely imaginary reader. “I hope you are going to explain.” Yes. Yes I am.

Yes, you do need to know your characters. How else can you write about them? People love stories, books, films, sketch, whatever because of characters. Characters that become more real to us than our real friends.

And that means you have to know everything about your character from their shoe size to what school grades they got through to the number of black t-shirts they have in their drawer, doesn’t it. Except, no. It doesn’t.

Knowing your character means knowing what they will do. Character is action. Stories are characters doing things. Knowing the character means knowing what they will do in a situation. Not knowing all the facts in their life. If facts are relevant, great, include them. But don’t make up facts for the sake of facts that will never affect anything and will only waste your writing time.

Take the cast of Red Dwarf for example. We know some back story, but we don’t need much to know what each character would do when faced with something new: Lister would eat it (if it’s curry), drink it (if it’s lager), try and impress it (if it’s female) or nut it (none of the above). Rimmer would try and take charge (if it’s safe) or run away (if it isn’t). The Cat wouldn’t care so long as it didn’t crease his shirt sleeves. We know what the characters would do, but I can’t tell you where Lister lived on Earth, or Rimmer’s school grades.

If listing all of that helps you, fair enough. Do what works. But don’t kid yourself: it’s prep, it’s not writing.

If you want to read more about different writer’s approaches to character bios look at this thread on comedy.co.uk. The conclusion among writers more experienced and succesful than I was: character outlines, yes; character bios, no.

Think about it, they made three films about the “The Man with No Name”.  Technically he has a name, but it doesn’t matter. Because, as a character, he is defined by what he does. They didn’t have to know his name. They just had to know what he would do.

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Establish your stakes.

Why stakes are important even if you are not Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So let’s establish the stakes up front. For the writer it couldn’t be more important. Your audience is at stake. Unless they understand why the story matter to the characters, unless they understand the stakes, they will switch off the TV or e-reader (or put the paperback back on the shelf).

I am currently reading an excellent book on writing, Wired for Story, which looks to apply lessons learned from cognitive science about how we interact with stories to the creation of fiction. But  it’s nowhere near as difficult a read as that makes it sound. It is aimed at novelists but most of the ideas apply to anyone working with story from sketch writers to feature writers.

One of those lessons is this: Whether it’s a sketch or an epic novel, you audience will always want to know three things straight away: What’s happening? Who is it happening to? And why does it matter?

This means that for your main character, and most other characters we need to know as soon as they appear what they want and why. Otherwise it’s just people doing stuff we don’t understand for reasons we don’t know. We can get that for free by looking out of the window.

You can of course have false stakes which mislead us and the true reasons revealed later. If you do this the false motives we are shown at first have to believable, just as believable as the real ones, otherwise the danger is that no one sees your really clever reveal because we all switched off twenty minutes ago.

Think this doesn’t apply to sketches? I think it applies double – in such a short form you have to get everything clear even quicker. Pick your favourite sketch I would bet the stakes/motivation of the characters (or at least the main character) is clear from the start (or we think it is, even if it is eventually revealed otherwise).

For example:

  • Dead Parrot sketch – wanting to return a dead parrot vs wanting to not have to accept the return
  • Lou and Andy from Little Britain – Lou wants to look after Andy, who wants to establish his independance (althouth, also wants to keep on being looked after, this inner conflict brings some interesting depth to this relationship even in a silly sketch, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

And so on… (this is your chance to disprove me in the comments…)

So, the practical conclusion. Now when reviewing my own work I check: Have I explained the stakes right at the start? Can they be put in a sentence or two? And would almost any reasonable reader pick up on them?

Because (just like an episode of Buffy) no stakes, no story.

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And I’m back

It’s been a while. Sorry, faithful (and largely imaginary) reader who has been waiting with (entirely imaginary) bated breath. But I have been busy. Honest.

Plenty of writing related things happened in 2014. A successful series of Damn the Torpedoes as part of the writing team (since you’re asking, I wrote all the bits you liked). A less (personally) successful series or two of Newsjack, with just the odd credit. Oh and we have another little Salisbury baby to keep us awake/entertained. Probably should have put that one first… never mind.

But enough small talk, back to the blog. I have grand plans to make it more useful both to my imaginary readers and myself by regularly (even weekly) posting some of my notes and thoughts on the craft of writing, whether original, or (more likely) based on something I read somewhere else. Obviously there will also be some shameless self promotion mixed in along the way. But this is the internet. What did you expect? (Amusing kittens? Then you seem to be on the wrong site…)

You have been warned.

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Understanding joke structure

I’ve been thinking rather hard about why some formulations of the same joke are funnier than others.  Then having worked through the steps myself I then realised, “oh yes, that’s what so and so was on about”. (For example Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves’ The Naked Jape, and The Serious Guide to Joke Writing by Sally Holloway) I have obviously absorbed these ideas subconsciouly, which I am claiming is a good thing. What I don’t claim is that any of this is original. But some of it is useful. At least to me. (And if it’s not useful to you, um, sorry.)

I don’t want to get too theoretical. Funny is one of those things we know when we see it. A theory is only helpful (to a working writer) to the extent that it helps us fix things when they go wrong or improve things to make them better.

So this is just one theory, it’s not the theory of joke structure. But I think it’s a useful one. And it’s this: Jokes confound expectations in a way that makes sense. (Again not an original claim by me, you should be worried if it was.)
To put it another way, the joke is in the gap between what we expect and what we get. But what we get has to “fit”, otherwise it’s just confusing/disturbing and not funny.
So therefore the set up line create an expectation. And the punchline subverts, twists or otherwise plays with it.
So far, so good. But how is this useful in practice when trying to be funny. Well, say you have an idea about a joke but you’re not sure how to structure it. Then the set up line should be the “thing we expect” (in this context, which may be weird or surreal, so long as it follows directly from the current set up). And the punchline should do two things. First provide the twist or logical leap that gets you the funny. Second, do it in a way that makes sense given the set up.
For example, this structure for a joke doesn’t really work:
How did the chicken achieve his objective of getting to the other side of the road?
By crossing it!
It makes sense. But there is no surprise. You have already said too much in the setup and the punchline just follows directly from the set up with no surprise.
(OK some of you might actually find this funny, but only because it is subverting the nature of a well known joke in the form of a meta-joke. It wouldn’t work if you weren’t familiar with the original. And this is itself an example of surprise. The anti-joke works because we have expectations about jokes.)
Whereas in the original joke the punchline works because it is a surprise (usually when we ask a question like that about motive we expect a different sort of answer, e.g. he wanted to buy some birdseed from Tescos). And it makes sense. Yes, the chicken did cross the road to get to the other side. Not what we meant when we asked, but there you go.
Equally this (sort of)  joke doesn’t work either.
What does David Cameron have on his cornflakes?
The Blue Man Group.
Technically the punchline is a surprise. But it doesn’t make sense. It’s not funny. It’s just confusing.
Of course there are exceptions to this (please point them out, that is always helpful) but I think that thinking hard about:
1. What your joke’s leap should be
2. What information you need in the setup to create the false expectation and
3. Whether it still make sense once you see the punchline
can really help when trying to make stuff funny.
There is still plenty of room to disagree about what leap is the best surprise, whether it is a surprise and whether it makes sense, but it does at least give us more language to talk about how jokes work rather than just funny/not funny.

(And for an interesting read on how a comedy critic analyses jokes see this Guardian article.)