Sunday, 7 December 2008

Televisual Autopsy - Part 1

There's a book by Douglas Hofstadter called Le Ton beau de Marot. It covers verse and verse translation, amongst other topics, and uses examples of poems written by Hofstadter himself (an academic, but hardly a poet) to illustrate the creative process. I remember the Poetry Review being very sniffy about this at the time of its publication: the level of detail gone into was, the reviewer felt, unseemly for poems which were previously unpublished and produced by not much more than a hobbyist. I suppose it was a fair enough point, as Hofstadter was probably more surprised at some of the mysteries of the writing process he uncovered than his readership were likely to be, given that they were inevitably poets and writers themselves, and would be engaging in that process every day, for their jobs and everything. It's still a good read though.

I preface today's post with the above tale, because I am aware that it might seem odd to go into detail about a work of mine that has proved a bit of a failure. But I am going to go ahead anyway, and explain what I felt went wrong with my Red Planet script, Life Support. I hope this is useful as an example of things it's probably best not to do. If I'm teaching you all to suck eggs, please forgive me: mine is a cautionary tale, that - no matter how many times one's been told the pitfalls - it's still easy to come a cropper. To put in context exactly how this came to be, I need to talk about the genesis of the idea.

And just in case this seems like me self-administering a public whipping, let me reiterate: I'm not giving up writing. Danny's latest post in his wonderful sequence on professionalism says it all: you have to deal with rejection, and learn from it. Read on for what I've learned this time...

The Red Planet competition was launched at this year's Screenwriters' Festival, and I started working immediately. In a rare quiet moment later that day, I sat on my own and started a mental inventory of possible ideas, but I didn't like any of them. I knew I wanted to do something naturalistic and straight. There were many reasons for this: partially it was inspired by The Wire's brilliant wonderfulness, but mainly it was because most of the longer example scripts in my portfolio have some fantasy elements, or voice overs, or tricksy structures. I was getting a bit tired of that kind of stuff and wanted to do something purer. Plus, all those things can put off a reader unless they're done really, really well.

I also knew I wanted to do a series in a character anthology style (i.e. the genre with no name). I like those kind of shows, and - as this was the first TV drama series I was to write - I thought it might be a more gentle learning curve to start with a structure that allowed me to write six mini-movies, one for each of my characters. I also thought it was a good thing to concentrate most of my time on creating the ensemble and let the plots arise from their characters. After watching all the BBC continuing dramas for so long, I'd firmly decided that characters, and in particular regular characters, are all. A good guest plot is a bonus, but people tune in to watch people, people they know and love.

I needed a linking device to bring my characters together. The idea finally came from one of the speakers at the Festival. There had been an infamous session with a life coach (she of the 'Baby steps, baby steps...' comment). I was musing on this afterwards, and it tickled me to think of what happens to you if you're going through life coaching, and your coach dies. Bing! Light bulb moment.

I still had problems to solve, though: was this a realistic precinct to get my characters together? This was important, as I was going to explode the precinct in episode one, by killing off the mentor character, and then explore whether the group dynamic could come back together and function again. So, it needed it to be a solid and realistic group to begin with; but, life coaching is usually a 1-on-1 activity. Though I did check, and you can get evening classes where groups go through something like life coaching, I didn't know if an audience would buy that.

Did it have to be life coaching? Surely any evening class would become some kind of support group after everyone's been going there for a while. How about a writing group? Write what you know, and all that. It gave me wonderful opportunities for conflict - in life coaching each person's goals would be different, so there would be no real room for jealousy at that level; it would be hard to dramatise 'you're getting yourself together faster than I am' but 'you've got published and I haven't' - everyone can understand that.

This was something I was wary of, though: some readers and script consultants will advise against anything that involves writers or writing: too in-jokey and incestuous. But, as I was avoiding screenwriting and concentrating on wannabe novelists (most of the general public don't think they have a screenplay in them, in fact they probably think the actors and director make it up as they're going along), and as I was working hard to make a distinct group of characters (different ages, different goals, inner and outer, i.e. it wasn't just going to be a bunch of arty twenty something media types), I thought I could get it to work.

In fact, this is the one thing that I'm not attempting to change in my rewrites - I like the novel writing class idea. It may well prove that it's a hard sell, and might not have been the best choice for a competition entry, but I'm sticking with it. Besides, the script had greater problems than that. I'd already sown the seeds of my own destruction (okay, okay, really I'd only sown the seeds for not getting into one competition and having to do a major rewrite - but that doesn't sound so good).

Next: how really really not to deal with peer review feedback...


David Lemon said...

Hi Stuart
interesting post. I take your point about a series about writers being 'too incestuous' but from your other comments it's very clear your project isn't some sort of 'in-joke' (I've heard a few horrible radio plays like that, crammed with in jokes and self-congratulatory literary references). It sounds to me that your idea isn't any more exclusive than any series in which a disparate group of people try to attain some sort of creative fulfillment and leave a mark.
Admittedly it's not sexy 'high concept' stuff but nor is it trying to be - and some of the best TV ever's been about relatable characters rather than far out situations. After all, neither The Royle Family nor The Office are 'new' situations; they were just done in a fresh way.
-AND, with TV drama budgets being cut all over the place, a series with compelling characters that only takes place in a few locations suddenly looks a lot more exciting than the globetrotting alien invasion series...

TonyB said...

Hi Stuart, I think your idea of some sort of literary group to bring characters together is a good one.

It was used to excellent effect a few years ago in a comedy drama series called The Book Group. It only ran for two series (C4) but it was a little gem of a programme and could certainly have lasted longer.

If you haven't seen the programme it's available on DVD (Love Film have it). Well worth watching.

Stuart Perry said...

David - thanks, and yeah: I'd never considered high concept or not high concept as a choice, really - I just wrote what tickled me. As you'll see in Part 2, I started to graft stuff on to the orignial idea to make it more high concept. With... erm... hilarious results.

Tony - cheers! I think the phrase is "stay tuned". The Book Group rears its head in Part 2.