Wednesday 19 October 2011

Scripts are Like a Flowing River

The other day, without thinking, I described the script of a show to a producer as being like a flowing river. I’m not ensure what – or who – possessed me to say such a pompous thing, but I’ve been thinking about what I meant ever since. (That’s pretty much my modus operandi – speak first, ask questions later). But I think I meant that a script is a moving, flowing thing.

The Block of Ice
A script is not a big impenetrable block of ice, or glacier, that cannot be altered or change. This is an easy trap to fall into . When you lock yourself away to finally write that darned script, you can emerge some days or weeks later, squinting in the natural light, clutching something that is, in your considered, unbiased opinion ‘perfect’.

It isn’t.

Even Hemingway said ‘the first draft of anything is shit’. Hemingway said that. Not a hack writer who cranked out prose by the yard. Hemingway. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 1954. First drafts are shit.

This is a really important lesson to learn. Your first draft isn’t very good. Yours and mine. With experience, your first drafts tend to get incrementally better. I like to think my first draft now, having been writing professionally for twelve-ish years, is equivalent to a second draft ten years ago. No great achievement as my second drafts ten years were also atrocious.

But one can be seduced by this improvement. Writers do tend to get better and better as they get older (especially novelists). The trick is to do just as many drafts as you did when you were starting out, but this way, you end up with better drafts all the way along the long – and the quality of your work improves.

Sometimes you read or watch the work of a highly successful pro and you wonder whether they felt their first draft was already pretty good and therefore the script didn’t get the love and attention it needed. This can easily happen when writers become executive producers of their own show, or become very powerful. Lines are left unedited. Gaps that need jokes go unfilled. Sequels are very very long and baggy. The quality declines, even though the writer is better and more experienced than they were twenty years earlier.

So, a script is not a block of ice. It has to be pulled around, to ebb and flow at its own pace and find its way from the source to the ocean.

The immaculate script you produced in dimly lit isolation often doesn't seem so clever in the cold light of day. After a little while, plot inconsistencies come to the surface, motives seem muddle, and the set-pieces aren’t as funny as you remember – and turn out to have been done by David Croft thirty years ago, better.

Recently, I’ve just burned through four drafts of a script in less than a month. I thought draft 1 was very clever. But it wasn’t really. It was a perfectably respectable start to the process – like an undercoat on the wall before the proper paint goes on – but it only got good on Draft 3. But if the script is produced (it's just a pilot script for now), I’m sure the script will change significantly several times – once after its been cast and we work out where the jokes really are, then again during rehearsal, followed by tweaks, nips and tucks all the way through shooting, one or two of which might quite big difference to the story, plot or tone.

The Splurging Spray

Given that the script never seems to be finished, the writer can make a different mistake, in which they have no real confidence in any draft at all, starting with the first. Maybe they lock themselves away and produce that draft, but rather than clutching it with ill-advised certainty, they toss it to the producer with a shrug, saying ‘the show should be this sort of thing’. If the script is written with this approach, the temptation is to see the first draft as a splurging spray, some of which may hit the target, but most of which will not. This is a bad way of writing.

Given that most writers are highly strung and care passionately about every single word on the page, this is a less common problem, but it can happen. The first draft is written quickly, or in fits and starts, and then offered around with excuses like ‘I can’t make the ending work, but the beginning’s not right either, so when that’s fixed, I’ll do a new ending’. The obvious – and correct – response to this is ‘So fix the beginning, then the ending and show that to me when you’re done’.

I have mentioned this before – here. It can come about in those starting out because of lack of confidence, when ultimately the writer needs to just ‘man up’ and write what they think is funny to the best of their ability. But it can happen in more seasoned professionals too. All the lines are essentially placeholders, because the real lines, real jokes, real script will emerge in further drafts – and rehearsal. This approach is a high risk strategy, and is either cowardly, hubristic or lazy. The draft you are writing now is the most important draft. And if has to be perfect. And then you'll have to do it again.

Herein lies the dilemma of the writer – to write as if the first draft is the final one, firm in the knowledge that it will probably change beyond recognition, except, in my experience, it is surprising how much of the first draft survives. The first formation or phrasing of a joke you think of is often the best. Little routines sometimes tumble out right first time. Some set-pieces and exchanges can sail through untouched. But then other parts of the script (usually the beginning and the end) are sweated over and endless rewritten. It can be hard, gruelling, exhausting work. But it’s not done down a coal-mine or slum. It’s usually done with a Macbook, Spotify and some hot coffee, so it’s really not that bad.

The script is, ultimately, a flowing river. It can change course with some effort if need be. Changes cause ripples and waves, but it can cope with them. The script is not a babbling brook that easily changes course, or a spray that mostly misses the target. Nor a block of ice that can only be chipped at. Or cracked and broken.

By the way, Jason Arnopp has written a lovely blog post here about the freedom of Draft Zero. I've often done Drafts Zeros and can testify that they are a Good Thing.

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