Thursday 28 February 2013

The Origins of Bluestone 42

Plenty of things about Bluestone 42 seem unlikely. The fact it’s a comedy drama exclusively set in an active warzone is one. The fact the writers of this show met whilst writing for Miranda is another. It's all rather incongruous. And yet this is how the show came about.

It might seem that writing a comedy about bomb disposal in Afghanistan was just an attempt to be controversial and generate some press. After all, writers are attracted to extreme situations and troublespots like moths to flames. But this is not how the show came about at all.

Why Write about Soldiers?
My co-writer Richard Hurst and I had been talking about a number ideas for new TV comedies and the starting point for Bluestone 42 was simply soldiers. Between us we knew some people who had served in the military but their experiences and general feeling about fighting on the frontline didn’t fit with how it was being portrayed in the vast majority of media. There had been many fine documentaries and dramas telling stories from Iraq and Afghanistan about the trauma of war, the pointlessness of the conflict, the price paid by families and the treatment of wounded soldiers or widows. This was all understandable. There are lots of stories to be told. But each story gave yet another reason to stay away from a conflict against an invisible but lethal enemy in part of Helmand riddled with IEDs.

And yet soldiers want to go. This was brought home to me when I saw a journalist interview some troops from a regiment that was about to deploy to Afghanistan. The journalist asked them whether they wanted to go, and was almost struck dumb on hearing that they couldn’t wait to get out there. They had trained for this for years, they explained. They wanted to put it their hard-won expertise to good use in a place where it would count. We wanted to write about these people.

After plenty of research and talking to troops some things were clear: British soldiers are indeed remarkable. They get on with the job in hand with whatever resources they’re given, normally with a wry smile and a dry joke. Their training is superb, lengthy and intense. One of their expressions is ‘train hard, fight easy’. We’ve not put this expression in the show since it could easily be misunderstood. Of course combat is not easy for them. But the idea is that if you train as hard as you can, you can deal with most things when the pressure’s on and the bullets are flying.

Why Write about Bomb Disposal?
We also discovered that the teams that go out and defuse IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) might be a good place to focus our attention. Roadside bombs are not generally removed by Engineers, as we first thought – although some Engineers have now been trained to do that job. And it’s engineers who do the mind-meltingly dangerous task of checking for IEDs in the first place with their vallons (those metal detector things). But the guy that does the famous ‘long walk’ is called an Ammunition Technical Officer who is, in fact, part of the Royal Logistics Corps.

The RLC is not a glamorous part of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. As the name suggests, there’s a lot of fetching and carrying involved. But one of the things they fetch and carry is live ammunition, including ordnance left behind, and possibly booby-trapped. by the enemy. Ammunition Technical Officers got good at dealing with this sort of thing over decades of experience in Northern Ireland, rendering safe all kinds of improvised bombs. Which is why ‘the bomb guy’ is from the Royal Logistics Corps and why 11 EOD, the jewel in RLC’s crown, leads the world in bomb disposal.

Who are Bluestone 42?
Corporal Bird. The Bleep.
In our show, our ATO is the emotionally stunted wise-guy, Captain Nick Medhurst. He leads the counter IED team with the call sign of Bluestone 42. He is aided in his take by his diligent number two, Corporal Mills and his ‘bleep’, Corporal Bird. Her job is to jam the airwaves to stop the IEDs from being set off remotely and ensure there’s a safe cordon around the area. Then there’s the three man military to escort, Privates Mac and Rocket, led by Lance Corporal Simon Lansley.  In reality, that might be a separate unit of four soldiers, or they can be smaller. And they could have had their own driver too.

Is it Accurate? 
We wanted the make up of the team to be as realistic possible, partly out of respect for our soldiers, but also because things stop being funny once they feel phony. Comedy is about truth. But getting the truth about how the army operates is an awful lot harder than it sounds. It’s a baffling and byzantine array of battlegroups, brigades and battalions, even more complex that the BBC management structure. Counter IED teams are even harder to grasp because they’re made up of soldiers form different regiments.

Moreover, read books, speak to soldiers and members of previous counter IED teams and you get different stories. Many swear blind something is always done one way before they either think of an exception, or someone else swears blind the opposite is true. Plus a bomb disposal team in Iraq in 2005 looked different from one in Afghanistan in 2007 which looked different again two years after that.

We also had to balance this with what is achievable in half an hour of screen time and what is comprehensible to an audience who may or may not have seen The Hurt Locker (an exciting but profoundly problematic film).

In the end, the six man team (if we count Corporal Bird as a man, which I’m sure she would like us to do) seemed about right. It is quite hard to introduce that many characters in episodes – alongside a padre, Mary, who is another key character in the series. Plus the enigmatic and slightly insane Lieutenant Colonel, Smith. In episode two we also meet another regular character, their interpreter, the irrepressible Faruq.

Nine regular characters is a lot but focusing on fewer felt unrealistic. Hopefully eight episodes gives us a chance to get to know them, peeling back layers and finding out more about Bluestone 42 as we go. We hope the audience enjoy doing that.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Jealousy and Envy are Two-Sides of the Same Bad Coin

That title makes no sense, but you get the idea. A coincidence happened today that I thought I'd mention. As I was having a brief, unhelpful Twitter exchange with someone who was angry about the supposed Oxbridge mafia, I was listening to another excellent Scriptnotes podcast by John August and Craig Mazin about jealousy. Whether you're an aspiring writer or a successful one, it's easy to be consumed by envy, jealousy and resentment (which are all different but related things). It's even possible to feel good, superior or vindicated while experiencing these emotions. But it gets you nowhere. Nowhere.

The success of others rarely has any bearing on your career. Writing is not a zero-sum game. You have no control over anyone else's career. And you don't have all that much control over your own. What you do control is the scripts you write. You control your characters, yours worlds, your jokes, your stories.  There are no special tools, secret weapons or side-doors to success. It's graft, gathering experience, and getting on with it. Fretting about what everyone else is doing consumes calories and time that are better spent making your own scripts better.

No-one is saying it's easy to avoid being irritated by the success of someone that you personally do not rate, or the frustration that others seem to be enjoying some kind of advantage. Use every moment you can to write, rewrite, edit, listen, replot, replan, rewrite and make your scripts the best they can be.

Friday 22 February 2013

Storylining & Plotting Part 6 – The Pitfalls of Plotting

So, following on from Part 5, we’re merrily plotting our sitcom episode. We have characters doing things in character that make their own lives more difficult. What are some of the pitfalls of this process?

Impatience: Get used to the idea this process takes time. If you manage to plot your way to a funny scene, that’s great. But just spend another half an hour seeing if that plot can be improved, be more natural, more in character and get you to an even funnier scene. Turn of the internet and do it again.

Lack of Confidence: You might have thought of some key jokes in that funny scene and aren’t all that confident you’ll think of new jokes if you change things too much. Jokes are just jokes. Don’t get trapped with the ‘No Joke Left Behind’ policy. The plot has to be right or the jokes won’t matter. The stories have to be faithful to the characters. Jokes are the icing on the cake. You need lots of brilliant icing. But you need cake. Don’t worry. If you’re characters and plots are firing on all cylinders, the jokes will come – if you take the time to work at them. (Again, you may need to turn off the internet)

Meandering stories: Does your story escalate, or just meander? Your hero has a quest. They try and do it, but they refuse to do one particular thing for some reason something goes wrong. They try to fix it – and don’t just fail. They make it worse. And so to fix it, they have to do that thing they didn’t want to do. Except now it’s too late to do that thing. And doing that thing has just landed them in more trouble. And so on, until your character is completely screwed. How are they going to get out of this? You manage to do so with a lovely twist that, in hindsight, we could have spotted, but didn’t.

Third Act Magic Wands: Your plot solution at the end of the show to your character’s problem should not involve new characters, new themes, new elements, even new object that we haven’t encountered before. The ingredients to your plot resolution should have been there almost all along. Your character needs to climb down, change their mind and/or do that thing they didn’t want to do which, surprise surprise, turns out to be not as bad as they expected. Or worse, but with a positive side-effect, etc.

No Clear Moment of Success/Failure: How does the audience know our character has succeeded or failed? What is the physical manifestation of this? Your character wants something – what is it and how do we know they’ve achieved it. There has to be a critical moment, a swift reveal of something tangible. It could be an object of significance that is handed over, or destroyed. A form of words said to someone. We, the audience, need to know in advance what that is. For some reason, the example that springs to mind of is that Hank Kingsley in The Larry Sanders Show. Hank holding out on his contract (series 1, ep 7) because wants to be taken seriously by the studio – and demands a golf cart to drive him around the set as part of his new deal. ‘I want a golf cart’ is the key. When we see him in one, we know he’s won (except there's a nice twist. He gets the cart, but we discover he's paid for it himself to save face). When you’re plotting the show, ask yourself, what’s your golf cart? And can we all see it at the end please.

Too slow: Comedy is fast. And your plot can be escalating and have a golf cart ready to go, but can you get there faster – and go one better, one bigger after that. When plotting Miranda, we would try and think what the huge set-piece scene for the ending was, and then how to get there half way through the show rather than spin it out to the end. So we deal with the fall-out from that big scene which leads to an even bigger one. Going back to the funeral example, Miranda gives the eulogy for an unknown person and falls into a grave at the end of the first act. The show also has her reading Mein Kampf to children in a public library and ends with her punching the vicar from the funeral in the face. Say what you like about Miranda, and people do, it’s not slow.

So, phew, are we there yet? Any questions about Storylining and Plotting Part 6? Or Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5? You could leave them as comments – or you could come to a workshop with me and the highly experienced and delightful Dave Cohen in London in April/May. Details here.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Storylining & Plotting Part 5 – The Principle of Plotting

One of the things that is often said of sitcoms is that you should ‘chase your character up a tree and throw sticks at them’. It’s good general advice. But I’d argue for a slightly more nuanced version, which I will come to in a moment. If we’re being literal, we could have our character suddenly chased by an angry dog. And now our character is trapped. That’s fine. By where did this dog come from? How did our character enrage the dog? Does he think its a dog and it isn't really? Why is today the worst day to be stuck up a tree? How could our character have avoided this situation? Why did they chose to climb a tree when it’s obviously going to be difficult to get down?

Let’s be less literal for a moment. You, as the author of your show and the Lord of your universe, can send all kinds of calamity on your characters. You can set their house on fire, take away their life savings, kill their pets or humiliate them in anyway you chose. But these stories are not as pleasing as the stories where they set their on house on fire, ruin their own finances and kill their own pets (tip: Don’t kill animals in a sitcom. Viewers hate that. In movies, rules are different).

But you need to give them a reason. Especially when they're doing something really stupid. It’s annoying when you watch a show when characters do things that are obviously convenient for the story rather than truthful and honest. So here’s my version of that general advice. ‘Give your character a really good reason to do something as stupid as climb a tree. And give your other a characters reasons to throw sticks at them.’

It may be your characters are not helping you here. You’ve got a great long list of ideas but your characters feel passive in these stories. They’re giving you nothing. In which case, you might got a duff character and you need to go back to the drawing board. You need to know what they want. And how that differs from what they actually need. All is not lost, but ‘making extreme stuff happen’ is not going to help at this stage.

Small Steps
The trick is to lead your character through a story step by step, stage by stage so that the high point is ridiculous – and yet not one step on that journey has been unbelievable or out of character. The most obvious example I can think of in this is the episode of Miranda in which she ends up having to give a euology at a funeral – and she doesn’t know who’s actually in the coffin, and ends up playing some kind of twenty questions with the congregation.

How did Miranda in this ridiculous situation? A new phone, missing voicemail messages that are discovered late, turning up and being called upon to say a few words – each individual beat is believable, not least because you can’t turn up to a funeral and say ‘Sorry, who are we actually burying today?’ And then falling into an open grave is just a bonus.

And again, this just takes time and graft. It means you plot and plan the story moment by moment, making sure there are no cracks, creases or joins. No comedy equivalents of the daft horror film staple of deciding to stay the night in a house that is obviously haunted, escaping the monster/zombie/ghost, and then going back in to face it.

If you write alone, this is where a producer or script editor can be a big help. They can spot these moments where things are a bit too convenient, or a character doesn’t something that doesn’t add up. Fix these problems in the outline, because they are much harder to unpick when you have a forty page script full of jokes you really don’t want to cut.

That's all for now. There’ll be more specifics hints and tips on the next post.

Getting Your Story Straight

If you'd like me to talk you through all this, why not try my sitcom video course, Writing Your SitcomSpec scripts are almost always deficient in the storytelling, and if you can get that right, your script really will stand out from the huge pile of other scripts. Why not find out more about the course here?

Thursday 14 February 2013

Bluestone 42

So, it's here. And I can finally talk about it. The idea about a counter-IED unit, called Bluestone 42, in Afghanistan that Richard Hurst and I first pitched in June 2011, which is now going to be 8 episodes on BBC3 starting next month.  Directed by Iain B MacDonald. Produced by Michelle Farr. Exec produced by Stephen McCrum. See pic. Oh, you have. (Click on it and it gets bigger. Left to right it's Stephen Wight, Kelly Adams, Gary Carr, Oliver Chris, Keeno Lee Hector, Scott Hoatson, Jamie Quinn, Tony Gardner and Katie Lyons.) Anyway, more information will appear on this blog over the next few weeks. Feel free to ask any questions as comments and I'll try to get to them soon.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Storylining & Plotting Part 4 – Choosing Your Ideas

In Part 3, we looked at compiling a very long list of one line ideas (I say ‘we looked at’. This is a lie. ‘We’ didn’t do anything. I wrote some stuff and you might have skimmed it). Getting that big long list of ideas for your sitcom together is really important because it will throw up some ideas that seem so fresh, ripe and juicy, you’ll want to start plotting them out – and it’ll be easier to do because you’ll be excited about it, rather than flogging an idea about a surprise birthday party because frankly, that’s been done and who cares? (see below)

Take some of these ideas that are irresistible and exciting and think about them a bit more. Pick 20 or 30 ideas and turn them into more than one line. A few lines. A few options or ways to go with that story. It may be a story you’ve thought of for one character as a main plot would be much funnier if it’s a subplot for another character. Let me show you, based on something that actually happened to me.

Eg. Geoff is woken in the middle of the night by a car alarm. Looks out the window and can’t see a car flashing. Goes outside and discovers the noise is coming from a neighbour’s bin. Goes through bin and finds discarded smoke detector. Can’t turn it off without a screwdriver. Caught by neighbours going through their bins? Doubly embarrassing because of some argument they’ve had before or chance remark? Mistaken for gutter press journo? Does he actually see something embarrassing in their rubbish?

That’s it. You don’t need to write much more than that at this stage but keep going if the ideas are flowing.  Do that with as many of the ideas as you can. Ideally 20-30 so you’ve got a long list of expandable ideas that are full of funny set-piece scenes and situations – and things we haven’t seen before on television.

When you’re picking stories off your list of story ideas, here are a few do’s and don’t’s partly based on good practice, bitter experience – and, okay, personal preference.

Focus on stories that bring your main characters into conflict.
This is where the ‘com’ lies in sitcom. Eg. Geoff wants to fix the plumbing himself because he’s too proud or mean to get a man in. (Decide whether it’s pride or parsimony. Not both. Ideally he says it's about the money, but it's actually male pride. Or vice versa). Sally wants to get a man in because he’ll do a better job and she likes things done properly. (But maybe we discover she just knows a hot plumber she’s like to look at for a while). Geoff and Sally are in conflict. Great. The conflict isn’t all that funny in itself but will make them do and say funny things.

Focus on stories that don’t rely on outside characters.
If you have lots of stories early on with lots of outside characters, it shows you have no confidence in your regular characters. And if they’re not producing enough comedy situations and stories between them, your show isn’t set up right. Start again. Or go back to your mix of characters. Ideally in that banal plumbing episode, the plumber never actually arrives. Maybe we get a picture of him – and Geoff realizes what’s going on. Or thinks he does. Even ‘Sister/brother/mother comes to stay’ is dubious, especially in the first series in my opinion. Focus on the central characters. You have a big long list of ideas. Choose a different one.

Avoid stories that means our characters act ‘out of character’ for some plotty reason.
Maybe a very angry character is hypnotized and becomes eerily serene. I tend to dislike ‘magic’ stories like that anyway (which is why I can’t stand Midsummer Night’s Dream with its tedious love potions – although having said all this, there’s some hypnosis in Office Space, a movie that I love). These character reversals are only funny when we all know the characters really well. A peaceful Basil Fawlty might be funny in Series 3 – but even then, I'd say not very.

Avoid stories based around birthdays.
A couple of reasons for this. Firstly, birthday stories means you have to be precise about your characters age, which is usually best kept vague for a whole bunch of reasons. Someone might do the maths and discover your female lead must have had a child at 14, or something. But secondly, come on, birthdays? Really? And surprise birthdays/everyone’s forgotten storylines should be banned by the Writers Guild. Special occasions and formal things are fine, but why can’t it be something else, or a festival or ‘holy day’ that really means something to your character? For me, one of the ‘sacred days’ of the year is the first day of the first home test Match of the summer. Goes back to childhood when I didn’t have anything else to do. What’s your ‘sacred day’? What’s character’s unique ‘annual special day’ and why? And who’s interrupting it?

Focus on stories that begin and end in your regular locations.
This is especially the case with sitcoms filmed in front of an audience. Filming scenes on location and playing them into and audience is an extra expense, and usually producers don’t want more than a few minutes of it per episode – but this is a blessing. Where possible, we want our regular characters in their natural habitat, especially for the big reveal or denouement. With Miranda, we always tried to get the climax of the show in front of the audience and used the big set-piece stunts as cut-away jokes. I’ve blogged in other posts that sitcoms, especially audience ones, are more like plays.  Avoid your characters going out for dinner, unless you set most of the episode there (eg Seinfeld and friends waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant). Ideally, have your characters cook, or admit defeat and get take away. Avoid your characters playing golf. Have your characters spend ages cleaning, fixing, obsessing over their golf clubs.

Avoid stories that rely on an artistic endeavour
This includes art, music, or any kind of public performance like a speech. These often sound promising and exciting but they are extremely hard to make work. I think the reason is that the climax of the story feels like it should be that performance, or the unveiling of that piece of art. And then how the audience at home feel about that art is impossible to control. What is a good painting? What is a good performance? Is it good? Bad? So bad it’s good? Mediocre? It’s not clear or crisp. (see Clear Toss). There are ways round this, but they are very hard work. Leave it for series 5. By which time you'll have a team of writers and you can make them think of something else.

I guess there’s a degree of subjectivity to these do’s and don’t (or ‘focus on’s and ‘avoid’s). And I regularly ignore my own advice – but almost certainly end up regretting it.

So, you’re turning your big long list of 50-100 one-line ideas into 20-30 one-para ideas. And we’ll look at what to do next in Part 5.