James Marson

Writer of Comedy Writings

Tag: Screenwriting

Welcome

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Welcome

I’m James Marson. I’m a writer based in south London and author of comic sci-fi novel “The Colour of Robots”, which you can read more about here.

 

You might also be interested in the Little Apps for Writers which are little handy app tools for storytellers.

Please get in touch if you’re interested in hearing more about any of my current projects.

And now on to my latest batch of silliness: The Lazy Planet Guides….

Some Thoughts on Writing

Don’t know how much use this’ll be, but I thought I’d start putting down (up?) my thoughts on the writing process.

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This is where ideas go. Before they go wrong.

Everyone has their own process. Mine changes all the time. This won’t be a “how to” but rather an amble through the various things I do to get from blank page to polished script.  Yes there are “rules” I follow. Rules get me over hurdles. Once I’m over the hurdle, I’m free to break them. But they’re also like the teacher that stands over you and says, “You’re doing it wrong”. Annoying, but the sooner you realise they’re right, the easier your life becomes.

As David Ogilvy famously said: “Give me the freedom of a tight brief”

So here we go, in no particular order, this is how I work…

Or at least how I’m working now…

How to Beat the Blank Page…

…Well, don’t have one in the first place.

No, not a trite answer, despite how it sounds. The trick is to always have ideas. Always let the ideas flow. They’re like butterflies and you have to catch them. And then you have to squeeze them into little boxes to make them look pretty to other people so they’ll go “Hey that’s pretty neat” and not recoil in horror at the half-crumpled dead insect you have in your hand.

Butterflies

It’s not cruel if they’re just in your head.

Okay, maybe I took that analogy too far.

Let me explain.

An idea for a show or a movie usually comes in two forms – an image or a “what if…” It comes out the blue, WHAM, and suddenly you feel like you have A GREAT IDEA FOR A MOVIE/TV SERIES. You SEE it in your head, or you imagine a situation – and your brain quickly extrapolates it out – you think “I want to see that movie!”.

That’s your butterfly. Catch it.

Because that is EXACTLY how you want people to feel when they read about your show in the paper or online. You want them to feel the way you did AT THAT MOMENT. Because at that moment it IS a great idea for a movie.

Basically in writing you start with a brilliant, perfect idea then stretch it into 30, 60 or 110 minutes without fucking it up.

But a great movie or TV show needs to do lots more than just be one great scene or image. A great script has to do lots, lots more. But, you need to catch your butterfly and WRITE it down.

Yes. Have a notepad with you. Or something like Evernote. Or iOS Notes. Capture what you thought.

Have a notebook. Yes it's an order.

Have a notebook. Yes it’s an order.

Now you need to fit in the presentation case, or if the dead butterfly with the pin in it analogy is upsetting you, you need to create a lepidopterarium, or butterfly house, and yes I did have to look that up.

I’ll talk more about that in the next post… but in the meantime, here are the key takeaways.

  • Carry a notebook with you
  • Learn to recognise story ideas
  • Learn to catch them in as few words as possible…

Back soon
photo credit: Pencil, books, and notepad via photopin (license)

photo credit: Specimen via photopin (license)

How Do I Know I’ve Got A Great Idea For a Show?

You don’t.

Here’s the truth: No-one does.

As brilliant screenwriter and guru William Goldman once said – “No-one in Hollywood knows anything”.

People think they do otherwise they wouldn’t spend millions of dollars/pounds/bitcoins making what they’re convinced is a hit movie or TV show. They just wouldn’t. Every penny invested in making a movie or TV show is done so because someone thinks it’s going to make them lots of money.

You’ll have realised that “making lots of money” isn’t the same as “being a great TV show”.  And there’s the problem. Unless you have an idea that someone thinks is going to make money, it isn’t going to get made. This is true of publishing, theatre or any other form of writing.

So if no-one knows anything, how do you give your brilliant idea the best chance of getting made?

Well, here is the curious dichotomy of the creative world. And it all comes down to the following:

Originality vs Forecast

I’ll unpack that statement.

One one side, audiences (and producers and commissioners) love originality. Who doesn’t? A new character we haven’t seen a million times before, a new setting, a glimpse into a world that we have no idea about, a new moral lesson about the world we live in now, a fresh perspective. We yearn for new experiences. The novel (as in new) is exciting! If you are going to write – YOU have to write. You have to write AS YOU. You have to write ABOUT THINGS YOU CARE ABOUT, about places YOU KNOW ABOUT. Your job is to come up with brilliant new ideas and stories from your imagination. NEVER FORGET THAT. This is yours.

On the other side, if someone is going to lay several million pounds on the table to make a TV Show or a movie then they better have some idea it’s going to work.

How can they possibly know that?

Well, this is where formula and forecasting come in. And here are the main rules:

  1. Things that were well received before, stand a good chance of being well received again. (hence Sequels and Franchises)
  2. Movies and TV Shows that follow certain formulas and tick certain boxes tend to result in higher audience satisfaction and therefore viewing figures/sales (more on this in later posts)
  3. Movies and TV shows that can be summed up in a single line that makes the listener or reader SEE that movie/show (and like it) are more likely to get eyeballs in front of it. (just as you felt when you had your idea).

And the rest is marketing. Stars are marketing. Big posters are marketing. Don’t worry about that now.

So suddenly your best chance of success is to be both amazingly ORIGINAL and DEEPLY PREDICTABLE. Or, if you prefer, RELIABLE…

How?

It starts with the idea. The idea needs to tick a few boxes to even get of the starting block. Here is what it needs to do:

  • Post itself in a GENRE
  • Have a great TITLE
  • Give a sense of CONFLICT
  • Have a sense of IRONY
  • Hint at the AUDIENCE

In one line.

How?

For this one, I’m going to turn to the experts…. You can read about it here.

The Enneagram – Part 1

Part 1 is an explanation of how the Enneagram works. Part 2 will explain how to use it in your writing.

Quite simply, the Enneagram is a neat little way of categorising your characters by their psychology.

According to Enneagram theory, everybody falls into one of nine character types and each character type exhibits certain behaviours, based on what drives them. For some it’s the need to put things in order, for others it’s the need to be in control, or be original, or be helpful.

As a writer, I use the Enneagram a lot.

Here are the character types, along with a brief description:

  1. reformer The Reformer or Perfectionist – who likes to see things in order.
  2. Helper The Helper or Giver – who likes to assist others and receive love.
  3. Achiever The Achiever or Performer – who likes to win.
  4. individualist The Individualist or Romantic –  who dreams and likes to be original.
  5. investigator The Investigator or Observer  – who likes to know everything going on.
  6. loyalist The Loyalist or Skeptic – who needs to trust and be trusted.
  7. Enthusiast The Enthusiast or Epicure – who loves to indulge in everything life has to offer.
  8. challenger The Challenger or Protector – who craves security and control.
  9. peacemaker The Peacemaker or Mediator – who brings harmony to situations.

It’s easy to see how having a relatively short list of potential character types immediately creates a range of characters who all have different goals and desires – which opens the door to a wide variety of conflicts, much more subtle than simply good guys versus bad.

More of this in part 2…

Additionally the Enneagram describes some key traits of each type:

  1. holyidea HOLY IDEA – what the character truly believes in. Where their moral compass firmly points.
  2. egofix EGO FIXATION – when they’re at their most selfish, they’re here.
  3. desire BASIC DESIRE – what they really want on a psychological level
  4. fear BASIC FEAR – what this type of person hates and takes great pains to avoid.
  5. temptation TEMPTATION – what is the characters compulsive behaviour.  What they revert to under pressure.
  6. virtue VIRTUE – what redeeming behaviour this character has learnt. What they’re capable of at their best.
  7. vice VICE – what they’re up to at their worst. What foul habits they have.

Again it can really help to build a character from being mostly driven by one particular aspect of their personality. It comes to define them and drive.

The traits a character displays are all related and form a consistency that makes it easy to build up an image of a particular type that is easily accessible.

Perhaps you’d like to try to work out which type you, or some of your  (favourite) characters are!

To summarise the various traits of the types I’ve grabbed this little table. All of this, and descriptions are available in the App.

Type Ego Fixation Holy Idea Basic Fear Basic Desire Temptation Vice Virtue
Reformer Resentment Perfection Evilness Goodness Hypocrisy Anger Right Thing
Helper Flattery Freedom Being Unloved Unconditional Love Manipulativeness Vainglory Altruism
Achiever Vanity Hope Worthlessness Value Pleasing Everybody Deceit Truthfulness
Individualist Melancholy Origin Commonness Originality Self-blame Envy Equanimity
Investigator Stinginess Omniscience Uselessness Competency Overthinking Greed Detachment
Loyalist Cowardice Faith Vulnerability Safety Suspicion Fear Courage
Enthusiast Planning Work Boredom Experience Rashness Gluttony Sobriety
Challenger Vengeance Truth Loss of Control Self-Protection Rejecting Help Lust Magnanimity
Peacemaker Indolence Love Loss Peace of Mind Submission Indifference Serenity

 

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Click to go through to the App store

If you’d like to have a pocket guide to carry around with you, then please check out the App

And, in case I haven’t laboured the point enough already… more on how to use the Enneagram in part 2! (which is coming soon)

Thanks for reading. I always love to hear your comments! – James

The Enneagram – Part 2

So.. how to make the Enneagram work for your writing?

Enneagram Image

The Enneagram for Writers

The Enneagram, to my mind, serves two main functions.

  1. It helps avoid some common problems by creating a consistent set of diverse characters.
  2. It helps fuel the imagination about character-specific plot points.

What more could you need from such a simple tool! Let’s look at these in turn.

Avoiding Problems

The first and most obvious way, is to make sure that you’ve got the bases covered – that all your characters are different types.

Designing the Cast

When designing your cast – make sure you have Reformers, Achievers, Helpers, Individualists… Having a diversity of Enneagram types creates a diversity of characters – who all see the world in different ways, want different things and react differently.

Write Distinct Characters

One of the biggest traps writers fall into is to write all the characters the same. By having different types the chance of this happening is greatly reduced.

Don’t Write Yourself

Another problem is writing every character as yourself.  And that means characters sound like you, and act like you. They do what you’d do (because, you know, you’re a hero too).

By getting a handle on a particular Enneagram type you can make sure you don’t make this mistake – (be the hero of your own story, not the one you’re writing!)

Fuelling the Imagination

But more importantly, the traits of the Enneagram can really help bring rounded characters to life. How? Let’s have a look.

Acting to Type

Start by giving a particular character a type, then get to know that type

Reformer

Reformers like things to be neat and perfect

Look at the various traits and drivers that a Reformer has – they’re perfectionists and they like everything to be in order. This means different things are going to bother them (messiness for example) and they’re going to have a distinct reaction to being under pressure (they get angry). With seven different traits for each character there’s plenty of scope for creating well-rounded variations of Reformers.

It can help to build extreme characters (i.e comedy or small characters) around one particular trait – a Reformer who gets REALLY ANGRY about things (Basil Fawlty, anyone???)

Stoke Conflict

Having a range of different characters also creates that all important conflict.

individualist

Individualists are dreamy and creative

An Individualist (who is dreamy, touchy and obsessed with their output) and an Achiever (who is driven, competitive and sometimes deceptive) are going to create a unique dynamic. There’s a sitcom right there…

You could put them on an oil rig, in space, or in a chip shop. Or in a chip shop on an oil rig in space – but the core conflict is going to be there.  And it’s those human conflicts we crave – when two people want different things – and go about getting it in different ways…

Unity

We’ve talked about differences here. But there’s also something unifying in recognising your character as a certain type.  Examining the traits of a Challenger, for example, it becomes clear that they’re driven by a need for security… They challenge as a way of protecting themselves. They want to know the truth. They risk pushing others away… And this adds a completeness to the character… As an audience member we GET this character. Immediately a back-story begins to emerge… what hurt them? Why do they want to be protected?

Audiences are not particularly forgiving of inconsistent characters either. Would your Challenging protector trust someone they had only just met because it helps your plot? Not for a second. They might appear to trust them but would certainly take steps to hedge their bets, or find more about their new friend. This is rewarding to the audience. of course they’d do that… they say. How do they know? They recognise the type…

Character-specific plot points

As you can see from the above, simply by assigning characters an Enneagram type puts a spin on their interactions with everything – in a justifiable and satisfying way… How each character reacts to the same situation is a very telling route into the character – think about how each of the characters in The Usual Suspects reacts to being interviewed by the police. We know instantly that these are very different individuals.

Themes for Enneagram Types

I will touch on various story themes in another post – but for the time being it’s worth understanding that there are certain themes that suit certain Enneagram characters better.

Story Themes

The various story themes. To be covered in another post…

For example a moral crusade tale suits a Reformer at its helm, a detective tale might suit a driven investigator type – and a lone hero action movie would almost certainly want a Challenger taking the action to the bad guys.

The Enneagram Journey

Enneagram Journey

The Enneagram Journey relates character traits to major stages of the character story

Relating specifically to storytelling I have also created something called the Enneagram Journey. This particularly applies to the hero, but can apply to any character.

The idea behind the journey is that a character must grow and change throughout the story. And each of the traits that a character displays can be indicative of a certain stage of that journey.

 

 

Journey of a Hero

Act One egofix holyidea Ego Fixation and Holy Idea

When we first meet a character they are often self-obsessed and unreformed. Here their dominant trait is their Ego Fixation – that dark little part of themselves. For an example, an investigator type, who is Stingy and ungenerous when we first meet them.

But they also hold, or are aware of, a noble concept – their Holy Idea  – for the Investigator this is Omniscience – they long to know everything – to uncover the truth. In our detective story this might be to uncover the murderer –  and more importantly HOW it happened. Their Holy idea is a chance at redemption.

Act Two feardesire  Basic Fear and Basic Desire

Pushed into the second act, into new circumstances they have to face their Fears and Desires. They are tested  Our detective has a strong desire to appear competent and capable, and face situations where they feel useless – back and forth proving themselves, failing and trying again…

Crisis  temptationTemptation

Normally they reach a crisis point towards the end of the second act where they face their Temptation – that behaviour they resort to when they’re under intense pressure. For the Investigator this can be Overthinking – paralysis through analysis – being stopped in their tracks – unable to see the way forward. To proceed, they must overcome that temptation…

Act Three vicevirtue  Vice and Virtue

Finally in the showdown finale there are two possible endings – They face their all-consuming and damning Vice to achieve their redeeming Virtue.

For the Investigator, this is a choice between being overcome by greed – being corrupted as the killer revealed tries to bargain them out of it, or having an opportunity to profit immensely by keeping the truth hidden. Or maintaining that cool analysis and delivering the truth while those around around them lose their heads.  Either can be the result keeping the audience guessing to the end. A positive ending or a negative ending – just make sure you’ve given the audience enough reasons for them to reach that end (if they fall victim of their vice, we like to see it coming, if they’re rewarded for their great virtue it’s because they’ve earned it)

 

So I hope you’ve got a sense of how the Enneagram can help keep track of your characters and inspire your imagination.

As always take as much or as little as you like from this – it is not prescriptive merely intended to help fuel your imagination as a writer.

To get a handy pocket guide for the iPhone to keep with you, study and store your own character types head over to the App Store!

Enneagram for Writers

Click to head over to the App Store!

Thanks for reading and as always all comments welcome!

James

 

 

 

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