Thursday 2 December 2010

High Concept, Low Expectation

It has been a long time since a British TV drama stayed with me long after the credits have played out. It feels like an age since I watched something that pounced on me in the middle of the day and made me laugh or cry. I had almost forgotten how I that felt; what it was to have that almost teenage longing to be part of the emotional highs and lows of a character.

But that’s how Mick Ford’s Single Father made me feel.

Now, I can hear the lips curling and the eyebrows arching all the way from here. Single Father? That schmaltzy piece of girly nonsense starring Doctor Boo-Hoo David Tennant? Yeah, yeah. I read the reviews and saw the slightly negative reactions from the Twitteratti.

Some have called it ‘soapy’ whilst others have accused it of being ‘emotionally manipulative’. The most surprising reaction was from those that found it “too upsetting” to watch. It made them cry, it made them upset it made them actually FEEL something.

Well, guess what? That is what good drama is supposed to do.

When I worked for Kay Mellor she had a motto on her writing room wall – The writer’s job is to elicit emotion from the audience. It wasn’t a framed motto in beautiful calligraphy. It was scribbled on a sheet of scrap paper in blue highlighter pen and stuck to the wall with a drawing pin. I can still see it in my mind’s eye because it was so damn true.

However, I would suggest that in recent times we forgot about emotion. Or maybe the powers that be forgot. We got so excited about high concepts and CGI that we put other things on the back-burner. Little things like character development.

The natural consequence of this has been a slew of high-concept but emotionally-bankrupt dramas that have frustrated and confounded me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pulling a Jimmy McGod here. I love high concept especially when it is brilliantly-written (as much of it is). If it’s got a spaceship, wizard, vampire or time travelling killer robot in it – I’m there. But if you want me to stay then you have to give me characters I care about.

Give me a Buffy, a Doctor or a Starbuck and I’ll give you my undying loyalty and all my hard-earned cash for whatever box-set, action figure or sonic screwdriver you care to sell. However, give me an idiotic collection of mix ‘n’ match marine biologists on a submarine or a medieval boy wizard who does the same thing EVERY WEEK and you get nothing but my contempt and frustration.

At its worst (and we have seen the worst in the last few years), high concept drama gives us characters who are nothing but puppets. So, heroes become nothing but receptacles for super powers whilst the baddies are uncomplicated, unmotivated and inhuman. At its very worst we get a sense that writers sold the concept before they had worked on the stories and now they making this shit up as the go along. I’m looking at you Lost and The Event.

I want characters with battle scars and baggage. I don’t want a reset button that means they start every episode in the same untouched state. I hate “goldfish” characters who don’t seem to remember that last week they nearly died or that they saved the world. Characters like that are a sign of laziness in the writers and producers, in my opinion. Because incorporating experience and baggage into a character is harder work. You have to service the character arc, keep the mythology in your head as you write.

Of course, there is one dramatic form that does all that hard work day in, day out. It’s a form that can demand you produce up to 300 episodes a year and service a story arc that spans up to fifty years.

Soap writers in this country are amongst the most maligned and hardest working writers in television. You think sci-fi geeks are pedantic and hard to please? Try a stint on Emmerdale or Coronation Street and meet the people who have watched your show ALL their lives. Try not to feel the hand of history on your shoulder as you write for characters who have been on screen not for a few episodes, but for decades. And if you get it wrong, be prepared to hear about it. At length.

As I said earlier, one of the criticisms levelled at Single Father was that it was ‘soapy’. But perhaps that it isn’t quite the insult that some think it is. Perhaps when something is descriItalicbed as soapy we should expect the characters to be complicated and multi-faceted? Perhaps we should expect well-constructed stories with emotional impact?

But perhaps we should be expecting that from ALL drama?

And here it is, my actual point – I knew it was in here somewhere. As much as I love high-concept drama, I am concerned that bad, under-developed, lazy high-concept drama is damaging television drama as a whole. I’m worried that we don’t give characters and stories a chance to take root and grow in our hearts and minds. I think that now when audiences ask “what’s it about?” when you talk about a show, what they are unwittingly asking is “what’s the gimmick?”

It is far harder to pitch a low-concept drama to audiences (and indeed, commissioners) than a high concept one. It’s difficult to reduce a drama that is about love, grief, anger and all that messy stuff than to say “it’s about vampires”.

Firstly, if you pitch high-concept to an audience or commissioner that can instantly imagine what form the stories will take week on week. For example, boy wizard lives in castle. Each week castle is threatened by some sort of magical villain. Wizard defeats villain. Simples.

With character-driven drama, it’s much harder to impose a formula to the weekly episodes. It’s harder to guarantee an audience a satisfying end to each episode when stories are open-ended and emotionally complicated.

It’s also a lot harder to repeat those open-ended episodes for the casual viewer on Dave or UK Gold. But that would be a cynical way to look at it, wouldn’t it? Still, one of the most popular dramas of the last decade was Cold Feet. How many times has that been repeated in comparison to shows like Primeval or Doctor Who? Also, where are the repeat runs of This Life, Party Animals, Fat Friends, Making Out, Playing The Field, Cutting It, The Lakes and all the other great character-driven shows of the last few years? Oh well, never mind, let’s watch another episode of Waking The Dead. Italic

Also, high-concept characters are an easier sell too. Because you are, initially, selling what the characters are and not who they are. Character pitches become short and sharp: “immortal time-traveller” or “vampire with a soul”. Or even just the character’s name; Merlin, Robin Hood or Sherlock.

Low concept characters need history, context and lengthy explanations. How would you pitch Anna from This Life, for example? Yeah, she’s a solicitor. But she’s actually a self-destructive, promiscuous, soft-hearted, borderline alcoholic solicitor with a daddy complex. And that is a reductive view of her because you also have to factor in her relationships with her friends and lovers to really get to the heart of her.

It takes time and trust on the part of the audience to fall in love with relationship dramas. Time and trust that I believe has been whittled away by the instant gratification that high-concept drama offers. And when I say instant gratification, I don’t just mean on the audience’s part. I think that the commissioners have been seduced by the instant high that they can get from an easily marketable high concept dramas. After all, if it’s got vampires/spaceships/killer robots from the future in it, you know that at the very least your first episode is going to get good figures, press interest and plenty of reviews.

But what about episode 2 or 3 or 33? Look at most high concept dramas and the audience will drop away along with the initial “how the hell are they going to do this” curiosity. Then take a look at more traditional dramas. Dramas that aren’t cutting edge or new and trendy. Both Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey and Kay Mellor’s A Passionate Woman put viewers ON after their first episodes. It was word of mouth that turned viewers on to the entertaining characters and watchable stories. It’s been the same with the various series of New Tricks.

Bottom line? Audiences want to engage with compelling characters and human stories. Let’s try to never forget that.

Friday 3 September 2010

Shameless Plug #2

The new series of New Tricks will be starting on Friday 10th September on BBC1 at 9pm. The Friday night slot is a first for our little show, let's see how we do. All the episodes are brilliant. Well, how could they fail to be with writers like Julian Simpson, JC Wilsher, Matthew Thomas, Ollie Brown, Nicholas Hopkins and the mighty creator Roy Mitchell turning out?

However, if you wish to seek out my offerings tune in on the 24th of September for LEFT FIELD - a story of paedophiles and Palestinian freedom fighters.

And also on the 29th of October for COMING OUT BALL which explores the world of Irish Republican politics, arms-dealing and debutantes.

Yeah, I decided to keep it light this year.

Oh, and Dennis Waterman sings!

Friday 27 August 2010

Shameless Plug #1

The new series of Waterloo Road starts on Wednesday Night, BBC1 at 8pm. It's the only episode I've written for this series and I've not actually seen it yet (I assume the DVD is in the post - as per Writer's Guild guidelines... ahem).

Still, it's a great cast and an interesting, action-packed story. Enjoy!

Monday 23 August 2010

Where do you get your ideas from?

It's the question that most professional and aspiring-to-be professional writers will get asked at least once a month. The question is also the reason that I stopped telling cab drivers and hairdressers what I did for a living for a little while. However, I recently had to give the idea some serious consideration when I was asked the question by my cousin's son, Alex.

Now, Alex is not your average ten year-old. The kid's a freaking genius. And there is definitely an aspiring writer in there somewhere (in amongst the obsessions with sushi, Doctor Who and Apple Macs). So, it was down to me to give him a serious answer. Not the usual glib "Oh well, you know, sometimes things just come to me". This required some analysis.

Firstly, what constitutes an idea? Scripts and stories don't pop into your head fully formed.

But characters sometimes do and that's often my starting point. I meet, remember or read about someone who I think could have a great story to tell. I think about my family and friends and how they would react in certain situations. My brother is a good source of inspiration. He had the same upbringing as me, so I can often extrapolate how he would think and feel in certain predicaments. He also has really strong moral core. That makes him a good start for a hero, because I know if I send him on a journey, he'll end up doing the right thing. But he's enough of a cheeky bugger that it'll take us at least three acts to get there.

That's why it is so important that writers do actually live a little. You have to meet a wide range of folks and hear their stories to build up your internal library. A lot of the time when you're discussing stories with script editors, producers and in group writing situations, you'll find yourself saying "That actually happened to a friend of mine…" and you'll be telling anecdotes. That's not procrastination, that's sharing research. You just didn't know you were doing the research at the time. There's a lot of oversharing that goes on in those situations too! You find yourself talking about your deepest darkest sexual, emotional, family secrets to justify your story. And you hear some great gossip too! But then, gossip is just another story-telling form and must never be underestimated.

By the way, the moment you know that you've truly become a writer is when a non-writer friend is telling you their deepest, darkest secret. And as they cry on your shoulder and tell you about their gay husband, deviant children or cross-dressing father you're thinking "Hmmm, there's a film in this". When this happens to you, do not feel guilty. Remember what I said about writers being born not made? If you're already turning your best mate's trauma into three-acts you were born to write! I was a terrible trauma magpie when I was on the Emmerdale writing team. Soaps burn through stories; you gotta get 'em from somewhere.

Also, people never recognise the on-screen version of themselves. I had one person tell me that a character I had a created was "an absolute monster". Little did he know that the character was based on him – all l'd dome was change the name!

So, where else should you look for inspiration? A good source of ideas for New Tricks cases has been the 'fab factoid'. That's when some brilliant little titbit of historical, legal or scientific trivia comes my way and I can use it as starting point for cold case investigation. For the uninitiated, New Tricks is a story-of-the-week police procedural show about a Unsolved, Cold and Open Cases squad (UCOS). Each week the team re-open a seemingly unsolvable case, reinvestigate and bring the criminals to justice. And then Dennis Waterman sings. It's brilliant, you should totally watch it.

But cold cases are really hard to plot, especially as we don't use flashbacks. So, there's no crime scene, no pre-amble where we meet the victim and usually very little forensics. The biggest question we have to answer when the UCOS team reopen a case is why can they solve it now when no-one else has managed it for the last ten to twenty years? Fab factoids are usually a good start. For example, homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967. So, perhaps someone witnesses a crime whilst out with their gay lover and they didn't come forward at the time because they were scared of prosecution themselves? One episode written by the mighty Steve Coombs centred on the liver of old dogs having such a high-level of Vitamin A that it is toxic to humans if eaten. And there was a whole Artic explorers aspect to it AND it had Richard Briars in it. Sounds good doesn't it? See? You should totally watch this show (back for a new series in the Autumn).

This is why it's important to expose yourself to lots of different info sources as a writer. Read a newspaper, read books (factual and fiction), read OK magazine in the hairdressers. Also, watch the news, watch your local news – there are some crazy stories out there. Talk to strangers (advice does not apply if you are under 16). Talk to your grandparents if you're lucky enough to still have them. Talk to people about their jobs – taxi drivers, pest controllers, call centre operators – everyone has a story. Increase your stimuli and the stories and characters will follow.

I'll leave you, however, with a cautionary tale. Recently I read a brilliant book of about the Home Guard in World War Two and there was a chapter about how they would have protected the UK in the event of a German invasion. They would have become a guerrilla fighting force, sabotaging the Nazis and risking their lives. It gave me brilliant idea. What if the occupying force were aliens and the human race had to become the saboteurs and guerrillas? I was over the moon! It was brilliant idea!

It was also the basic premise of "V".

Ideas are fickle bitches.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

In Praise of Bad Telly

I watch a lot of telly. I mean, a lot.

I love television. I’ve always loved telly. One of my earliest memories is driving home from my Grandparent’s house and crying hysterically because I misheard my parents discussing getting rid of a sofa. I thought they were talking about selling our television. They had to pull over my dad’s blue Volvo to calm me down.

And then there was the time they caught me playing with matches and I was sent to bed early. That night I missed an episode of Fame. Now, remember – this was in the days before videos and BBC3 repeats. If you missed a show, it stayed missed. I sat at the top of our stairs sobbing as I heard Coco singing about how she was going to live forever.

I still feel that there is a hole in my soul where that lost episode of Fame should be, but I never played with matches again.

Etched on my heart is a list of the shows that should be filed under “Reasons Lisa Became A Writer”. That list includes Cracker, Cagney & Lacey, Press Gang, Party of Five, Band of Gold, Sharpe, Rockliffe’s Babies, Bread, The Cannon and Ball Show… I could go on. And on and on.

Etched on my spleen is another list. It’s a list of TV shows that made me feel betrayed, disappointed, heartsick and incandescent with rage. This is my shit list of shows that were so poorly written, ill-conceived, indifferently directed and populated with half-arsed actors that they came close to causing me rage-induced internal haemorrhaging.

The latter list is not only longer but also far more important than the former.

Let me explain.

There have been quite a few additions to the shit list of late. I won’t name names; that’s not fair to the talentless hacks and boss-eyed commissioners that had such contempt for their audience that they churned them out. In fact, there is rarely month when I don’t add something to the list. Barely a week goes by when I don’t find myself throwing my hands up in despair and shouting at the television.

The thing is, nobody sets out to write bad TV. No writer sits down and thinks “that’ll do”. There are a myriad of reasons why bad telly ends up on screen. Constraints of time and budget. Crappy, conflicting notes from production companies and broadcasters.

And… whisper it… some people are just not as talented as they should be. They’re doing the best writing they can and it’s just not very good. They might have had a great initial idea and a lack the skills to bring it to life. Or it might have been a terrible idea and nobody had the intelligence or experience to see that. And there it is; the reason why the shit list is so important. People make mistakes and we can learn from them.

TV writers should always watch shit TV. If its ratings are plunging and the reviews are scathing then you should have that show on series link. But don’t just sit there and rage. Analyse. Ask yourself questions. Why is it making you angry? Why is it boring? Why does it seem so implausible? Does it lack internal logic? Or is it too slow? Is the dialogue stilted and unreal? Are the characters unlikeable? And most importantly, what would you do to make it better?

Play imaginary show-runner with yourself. Visualise being called in by the production company to save the show. You can get rid of any character, axe any storyline, change the setting, introduce any story.

Can you stop the show from ending up on the shit list?

Play this game and maybe when you get your chance you won’t make the mistakes that other writers have. But play fair; don’t dismiss a show because you don’t like the genre or the lead actor. And remember that some shows are not for you. The BBC has a responsibility to provide drama that everyone can enjoy – just not all in the same programme. I’m sure there are some sick individuals out there who don’t like New Tricks. Not many, judging by our ratings. But some people just don’t like cop shows or Dennis Waterman singing. Fine, but you should still be able to analyse the components that make up the show; dialogue, structure, story, characters.

So, the next time you think a show is a dead loss – do an autopsy.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Welcome To Real Writing

So, here it is. The blog that I have been threatening to write for an age. Why have I decided to start it today? Well, I've got a deadline haven't I?

Okay, there is a more sensible reason. Maybe even a more noble reason, but that is not for me to say.

You see, it was only recently that I became aware of the online writing community. I discovered it partly through Ian Fenton's rather brilliant annual Story Engine Conference. And also because I started twittering... twatting... tweeting. Oh, whatever you call it.

And I love that this internet thingy is full of other writers. It's like the world wide web is our office and we're all tapping each other on the shoulder to say things like "Hey, did you see that episode last night? Wasn't it great/terrible?" or "How can you say that The Wire is the greatest show ever, what about Buffy?" or even "Look at this funny cat on Youtube!"

Yeah, the cat thing is usually universal procrastination but it's all part of the process.

Ahem, anyway...

Now, from what I have seen, most of the people writing about writing have good intentions. In fact, probably all of them do. And some of 'em, even know what they are talking about. And I intend to link to them for your viewing pleasure at a later date.

However, there is a significant minority who don't know what the fuck they are talking about. Sure, they've been to a McKee seminar (well, a fool and his money are soon parted). They've struggled through the first four chapters of Joseph Campbell and, as a result, think that Star Wars is the greatest film ever made.

More worryingly, they think that they can dictate to other writers on how to write, when to write, where to write... You get the picture. They have graphs and piecharts for characters and plot. Formulas on how to create a scene.

And it's all patronising bullshit - in my opinion.

I'm more of the opinion that writers are born. Not trained in lecture theatres or found amongst the pages of an overpriced book.

Real writers love words, they live their lives in a 3-act structure and they're always on the lookout for a good character. They do all that instinctively because they've been reading and writing stories since they first picked up a pen. As children, they embroidered fabulous fantasies that other people called lies. They extrapolate mundane situations into crazy adventures.

A real writer always makes a drama out of a crisis. Jeez, they make a drama out of a spilt pint of milk.

So, what if your addicted to charts and graphs and your best friend is Robert McKee? Just let it go, baby. Go cold turkey and then... write.

Write what you know. Write what you wish you knew. Write your worst nightmare and your best friends.

Still read the books and go to the odd lecture. Just don't feel bad that you're not writing in the way they say you should. If you're getting words on the page then you're doing something right. And once those words are on the page, then you can structure the hell out of them. You can whip 'em into whatever shape you want.

But real writing starts with passion, love, anger, a burning need to put fingers on keyboard and pen to paper. There are no right or wrong words when you're at that stage - only words.

Now, I'm not saying that writing is easy. That it should flow from you like water from the tap. More like blood from a stone. It should be painful, annoying and frustrating - just never boring, structured and mundane. If that's what you want, go and work for the council.

So, that's my messy idea of a mission statement. I'm not going to be giving you 20 top tips for compelling characters or inventing a new 15 and three quarter act structure. I would like to inspire, cajole and piss off. Let's see how that goes.