Monday 25 November 2013

Working Patterns

People are oddly curious about how a writer actually goes about writing, so I wasn't all that surprised when @NinaCamero asked “when do you find is the best time of day to write. Do you have any rituals? Music? Specific place?”

Because writing is my job – and has been for quite a few years – I try to make sure that I spend the working day writing, and the rest of my time being a husband and dad, not hiding away in my office, using work as an excuse to avoid parenting and domestic chores (easily done). My office is on the side of my house and does not connect to it directly, so that my kids don’t bimble in when they feel like it. Also this way, I can’t hear when they’re upset, angry or annoying their mother, which is the biggest distraction because I want to get involved or intervene.

Before I had an office (which is a very recent addition), I’d work the whole morning in Starbucks or similar, wearing headphones, listening to music – either music I know very well or stuff without words eg. Bach/Beethoven/Brahms, Scott Joplin or Jazz Quintets, or Steve Reich.  Or music to get me in the mood for Bluestone 42 – I have a playlist on Spotify that helps me with that. I use a MacBook Pro, like virtually everyone else in this business, and switched to using Final Draft last year for Bluestone 42 having used only Word for over a decade.

I tend to work better in the mornings than the afternoons, especially when it comes to writing new scenes and new dialogue. Often in the afternoon, I go for a swim or workout at the gym, since otherwise I’m just hunched over a laptop all day, which isn’t a good idea. I’m normally quite productive from 5pm ‘til 7pm. Then I’m useless ‘til 10pm.  I do stay up late when things are really busy and I have deadlines – and can usually keep going ‘til 2am, especially if I’m rewriting rather than writing. But I try not to work late two nights in a row. And I try not work at weekends. If things are really busy, I might work a couple of hours on Saturday, but rarely. And, being a Christian, I will do anything to avoid working on Sundays which I try to take as a day of rest, church and family - unless obliged to since that’s the day of shooting/recording. (I could point you to Bible references if you’d like to know how that works, but I suspect you’re not that curious. Which is fair enough).

That's Not The Half of It
But this is only really how I spend less than half my time. The other half is spent in meetings, often with Richard Hurst, storylining, re-storyling, going through notes, talking, talking, talking about Bluestone 42 and other projects… And then meetings for other things. Plus doing my accounts and VAT returns.

That’s it really. That's how I write. Not that interesting or surprising, but some people like to know. You should do what works for you - and enables you to keep up obligations to family, society and the world in general, since that's where the stories are all coming from.

If anyone has any questions about writing, comedy, sitcom or any of that stuff, tweet me at @sitcomgeek.

Friday 22 November 2013

The Most Expensive Words It Is Possible to Write

David Simpkin (@simplerDave) asks: If story leads to a big set piece (from Some Mothers to Miranda etc), do you write it & then budget it, or write knowing limits?

No. Stop it. Don’t. Seriously.

It’s very tempting to temper your writing because you know it’s a British TV show and that budgets aren’t huge. But it’s a serious mistake to limit your imagination and writing in this way. How to produce what’s on the page is the producer’s problem.

You’re the writer. Write. Imagine. Dream. Create.

I probably sound a bit pretentious here, but I know that in the past, I’ve been guilty of trying to think up TV shows that seem easily achievable and filmable – and in so doing have thought up ideas that were bland, mundane or too similar to stuff already out there. Of course a show about six friends living in New York can work. Or a show set in a bar in Boston can work. But why not set a show in a bomb disposal unit stationed at a patrol base in Afghanistan? Or a show in a BBC 1950s newsroom? Or a Manchester police station in 1973?

These ideas are much more interesting to write and, although they are hard work to research, the research throws up loads of brilliant stories, characters and moments. That’s what I’ve found on Bluestone 42. Plus, these shows are more interesting to TV Commissioners, Channel Controllers and the TV viewing audience who’ve already seen a thousand cop shows, medical dramas and flat-share sitcoms.

Unless you have a background as producer, you, as a writer, have no idea how much things cost. So don’t worry about it. Stuff that you might think is expensive often turns out to be achievable, while other things you might think are straight forward are a nightmare. So don’t prejudge it. Write something awesome.

Making it Work
A Foxhound
Good producers find a way of making it work. (And even some bad producers.) Plus an Art Department or Costume Designer might be desperate to do something different or interesting. They’ll find a way of making it work. Maybe they’ve just spend four years finding and dressing cottages for Midsomer Murders. Sure, professionals want a quiet life, but they also love a challenge. And the chance to do something brilliant. Harry Banks, our Production designer on Bluestone 42, has pulled together a team to construct these vehicles (see pics: A Mastiff, a Jackal and a Foxhound) which look amazing, but are essentially flat-bed trucks, wood and welded metal. And he’s made stuff even more awesome than this that I can’t show you yet.
A Jackal

So. Free your mind. Write the scene. Write the show. And leave the rest to someone else. And then, when the Channel controller has been wowed by your creative vision, and sufficiently enthused to buy the show, you can have that chat with the producer about how you actually film the darned show.

The Most Expensive Words It Is Possible to Write
Maybe your script contains three of the most expensive words you can write: ‘The fleets engage’. But there’s probably a way of shooting even clashing fleets on a budget – especially if the story is about two admirals, or cabin boys or whatever. After all, big ships firing cannon balls at each other isn't all that interesting.

A Mastiff
So as you go through your brilliantly imaginative script, you need to think about what is actually necessary to make the scene work? You’re writing a comedy, or a drama. Not an action movie. (If you’re writing an action movie, disregard this entire post, obviously). So do you need to see a thousand extras? Will that make the action more dramatic or funnier? Or do you just need to give the impression of a thousand people being there? Or a crowd?

Think about what Alfred Hitchcock said about drama and suspense. Do you want a bomb to go off – which can be expensive – or is it more dramatic to have a briefcase under a table that we know has a bomb in it? Special effects, stunts and motion graphics are often achievable but they’re not inherently dramatic. Seeing a human being jump off the Empire State Building isn’t all that interesting – unless you know who it is or why they’re jumping. But the most interest bit is the bit before they jump. That’s where the drama is. And where there’s drama, there’s comedy. Shoot that.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.

It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so: 

"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Call the Police! Just Call the Police.

On Twitter, @benjaminpmoore asked me about plots. Should they be serious or funny? Well, if you’re writing a comedy show you want your plots to be funny, right? Sorry to be facetious. Not helpful. Let’s think about this.

Sometimes you’re working on storylines and think wouldn’t it be funny if x, y or z happened? Probably. This seems to be how Graham Linehan constructs his stories, by thinking of funny set-piece scenes or images that seem comic. It’s quite an unusual way of doing it, but who am I tell Graham Linehan he's doing it wrong? Mainly because he's not. What you need when plotting is a starting point – even if that starting point is at the end.

When thinking about plots, if funny stories, moments and scenes present themselves, write them down and work with them. It could be moments in your life or stories you’ve heard. Or stuff that nearly happened. On Miranda, we thought it might be funny if Miranda ended up having to do a eulogy at a funeral while not knowing who was actual casket. It was just a case of making a series of events take place that we believable, involving a new mobile phone and a late message, partly based on a true story that had happened to Miranda. And then falling into the open grave afterwards was just a bonus. And that all happened in the first ten minutes.

Whether it’s a funny story – or a serious story with funny moments and consequences (which often turn out funnier) – what you’re always after in storylining is logic and truth. You need logic in the story and truth in the character. You need one step to follow on from another one – and for the character to make those steps because they’re obvious or believable for that character in that moment.

Truth and Logic
One obvious is example is ‘Call the Police!’ When characters on TV end up in some kind of illegal scrape or confronted with criminals, there are times when you’re just screaming at the television ‘Call the Police! Right now, your character would just dial 999 and that would be that.’ But the writers have decided it would be funnier if they didn’t call the police and tried to cover things or up or dealt with it themselves. If they can’t the police, you need a really good reason for it. Either there's some personal threat so they don't – although for me these threats often ring hollow or seem generic - or the old flat mobile/no signal trick, which normally feels like cheating. Why is their phone not working? Is it because said they didn’t need to charge it up and refuse to admit they did because they’re proud? Or maybe they’re a stickler and in a long-running battle with their phone provider and have been cut off? It needs a reason.

To service your funny story, or get to your funny set-piece finish, you don’t want any beat or moment, when any normal human being, watching the screen would say ‘You would never do that’ or ‘That character would never do that.’ If you’re lucky, you won’t get that far because in rehearsal an actor worth their salt will ask the director – and then you – ‘Why is my character doing this?’ (This is the non-pretentious version of 'Love, what's my motivation?') As the writer, you will need an answer. And that answer should not be ‘because it’s funny’ or ‘because we need you to set up the story for later.’

More Pain

What this means is more work in the storylining stage. But it’s worth putting the time and energy in then – because once you’ve written a script, cutting funny jokes and brilliant routines that have no logical justification is really hard and painful. On Series 2 of Bluestone 42, Richard and I spent months thinking up. researching and sifting stories, finding funny moments, beats and lines, and then making sure each story, beat and moment was underpinned with truth and logic. We started this process in January for all seven episodes. Quite often they end up on the drawing board, or in the folder for another day, rather than in a script. We didn’t start writing any scripts ‘til the end of May and have been writing and rewriting the scripts from then until now (mid-November). There’s no special secret or inside track. Just truth and logic. Truth and logic. And time.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.

It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so: 

"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

Tuesday 19 November 2013

How many characters should you have?

On Twitter, I opened this blog up for questions and Richie (@McQ72)  asks “How many main characters should there be...??...Or really...what's the maximum...??...”

In the past, I wrote six episodes of a show called My Hero. I started writing episodes in the fourth series, when it had ten regular characters. The focus was always on the ‘hero’, played by Ardal O’Hanlon, who drove the main plot every week. His story would often involve his wife, Janet (Emily Joyce) and/or his venal friend, Arnie and/or his insane neighbour, Tyler. There was a B-plot, usually based around the slimy doctor (Hugh Dennis) and the psychopathic receptionist Mrs Raven (Geraldine McNulty), and a C-plot, often based around Janet’s snobby mum and long-suffering dad. It was a large cast to handle and the rule was that every character was in every episode. The upside was that you had ten different attitudes to any given situation – and therefore ten types of joke. There were lots of possible stories – which is why there are dozens of episodes. And it meant that you didn’t need as many guests parts, since lots of roles could be filled by regulars (ie. Janet’s mum could turn her had to being a florist, or Mrs Raven could turn out to be very good at butchery etc). And the audience would always rather see the regular characters than guests stars. Those are the upsides. The downside was making sure enough people had lines and jokes. This was hard work – but you always new it was possible, because every week, we just about managed it.

The set up of My Hero was not of my choosing. The show was conceived by a delightful man called Paul Mendleson. The show I’m writing at the moment, Bluestone 42, was of my choosing, although the characters we have felt like they had to reflect military reality. When Richard Hurst and I chose a bomb disposal expert as a lead character in a sitcom, we discovered that his team would be a minimum of four people (ATO, Number 2, Bleep and Military Escort). We ended up with six in the team (ATO, Number 2, Bleep and a three man military escort – to give us an array of perspectives and rivalries), plus an interpreter, a padre, a Lieutenant Colonel. That’s nine characters – which, again, is very tricky. We love all the characters dearly and giving them good jokes and a satisfying story in 28 minutes is really hard work. Somehow, the stories seems to follow the same pattern as My Hero. Captain Nick Medhurst is ‘the hero’ and leads a story every week, which normally involves one of the other characters. Mac and Rocket, the squaddies, tend to have a B or C plot, and the other characters are normally involved in the other plot.

So, maybe Nick has a problem with his new number two, Towerblock – and turns to the Lt Col for advice – that’s the A Plot. Meanwhile Bird has a running battle with Mary the padre over something – that’s the B Plot. And Simon’s being pestered by Mac and Rocket over something. That’s the C Plot, which may end up being the same size as the B Plot.

Making a Large Cast Work
Sitcoms can support a large casts. Some recent gems that jump to mind would be Parks and Recreation and Arrested Development. Much older shows would be Dad’s Army and The Phil Silvers Show (aka Bilko). In each case, the show has a clear lead, eg. Leslie Nope in Parks and Rec, Michael Bluth in Arrested Development, or Bilko in The Phil Silvers Show – or central relationship in Dad’s Army, between Mainwairing and Wilson.

It’s worth looking at those David Croft sitcoms which all had large casts, but a fairly clear central hub. Hi-De-Hi seemed to focus around a few central characters and draw in peripheral ones when needed. Allo Allo was very much focussed on Rene Artois who was the ringmaster in a circus of lunatics.

Keeping Focus
Based on all of the above, then, I would suggest, then, that you ultimately know who your show is about. It should be about one key character (eg. Miranda, David Brent, Mrs Brown, Basil Fawlty, Victor Meldrew, Wolfy Smith, Leslie Nope) or a central relationship (eg. Edina & Saffy, Rodney & Del Boy, Hacker & Sir Humphrey, Sharon & Tracey, Terry & June, Fletcher & Godber). If you know this, you’ll know where your main A plots are coming from. If you don’t, you’ll have split focus, you’ll not know what you’re writing and the audience, should it make it that far, won’t know what/who they’re watching. And ultimately, that character, or relationship, should encapsulate what the show is about.

There are always exceptions, of course. One would be Modern Family, which has a large cast and seems to split its focus equally between the three family units with no clear ‘star’ or ‘hero’. Each episode is normally three plots that run along side each other. But then again, we should not be surprised that this. Modern Family is always exceptional.

Avoiding Overlap
Whatever you decide, however many characters you end up with, central or peripheral, you need to make sure that all your characters have clear, contrasting voices and unique perspectives. If they are all given the same task (eg taking part in a Secret Santa or running a pub quiz), they should all instinctively go about it in completely different ways. When some news breaks (eg. There’s no hot water or there’s a hurricane coming), they all react in different ways, and then end up in conflict.

Quite often, I find, when you’re storylining a new show, some characters generate stories and seem to end up in the thick of the action, and other characters you thought were going to be funny or useful fall by the wayside. It’s all part of the process, which is one of the reasons why developing new sitcoms takes ages.

So, thanks, Richie. If anyone else has a question, tweet @sitcomgeek.

Friday 8 November 2013

The Big Comedy Conference

Writing is a lonely business. There's an awful lot of staring at a screen, deleting what it took ages to write and getting notes on what you finally produced. So gathering with other writers and people who feel your pain is well worth the effort. So any day-long comedy conference is usually worth a look for that reason alone.

But I've just seen the line-up for the Big Comedy Conference on Saturday 30th November 2013 and it looks brilliant. They've got a really great mix of writers who actually know what they're talking about, producers who make stuff happen, and executives who decide on what the producers make happen. It's going to address TV, Radio, Live Performance, Edinburgh and YouTube. I'd definitely be there if I weren't tied up with Bluestone 42. It may look a little expensive, but it's a packed day and given the London Screenwriters Festival is £330 for a weekend, it's in the same ballpark - and probably a lot more use if you consider yourself a comedy writer, rather than a screen writer. And it's run by some good eggs. So if you're a floating voter, stop drifting. Hook yourself up to that conference.