Saturday, February 28, 2009

Some more book reviews

Here are some more book reviews from the Screentalk days on books which are worth looking into.

The Screenwriter Within : How To Turn The Movie In Your Head Into A Saleable Screenplay (213 pages, Three Rivers Press) is by D. B. Gilles, a teacher at New York University, and it reflects his teaching experiences. It is primarily aimed at newcomers to screenwriting.

Gilles is a three-act-stucture thinker, and as such does not offer a radically new way of looking at screenplay structure. He does offer an interesting insight in the content of each act (the punctuation theory of screenwriting, as he calls it) : the first act ends in a question mark (how is this going to end), the second in an exclamation mark (my god! Things just got so much worse!), and the third act ends in a period (the answer to the dramatic question). It is a simple way of defining the main parts of a script; however, I feel it could potentially lead to inexperienced writers mistakenly thinking there should only be one big reversal of fortune near the end of the second act. Still, it’s a potentially useful tool.

Gilles writes in a very informal and breezy style (references to frat boys abound), and reveals quite a lot about himself. He correctly claims that our own psyches and lives offer a wealth of potential story material, and urges writers to delve into the darkest sides of their mind to come up with creative material. In fact, this was the first screenwriting book I’ve read in which this topic is treated so exhaustively (there have been others since). I feel that this is where its greatest value lies, as it causes the reader to re-evaluate his or her own experiences and discover new wellsprings of creativity there.

Where Gilles does not convince me is in his very, very offhand treatment of dialogue. He claims that no one can be taught what words to write, and this is obviously correct. However, there are many, many do’s and don’t of dialogue writing which can at least help new writers avoid mistakes, and these aren’t even mentioned. There’s also a very, very short chapter on different genres which doesn’t really contain any practical information.

Despite these criticisms, The Screenwriter Within is still a valuable addition to the writer’s bookshelf. It contains some interesting notions and fresh perspectives which can benefit any screenwriter. However, I would not recommend it as the SOLE source of screenwriting information for novices. In my opinion it works best as a supplement to the basic screenwriting texts which cover the essentials more thoroughly.

PLOTS AND CHARACTERS : A Screenwriter On Screenwriting by Millard Kaufman (Really Great Books, Los Angeles, 1999, 265 pp.)

Here at last is a book which provides today’s screenwriter with a living link to the Golden Age of Hollywood. For Millard Kaufman is a veteran of those mythical times, and a succesful one too : his best-known film is Bad Day At Black Rock and he’s also the co-creator of the cartoon character Mr. Magoo.

This book is not just another how-to manual : it is also partly a memoir of the screenwriter’s life during the Fifties. As such it is packed with anecdotes about stars, directors and the legendary producers of yesteryear, all of which are amusing, enlightening or horrifying - and somehow more glamorous than contemporary gossip. But there is a lot of serious writing material to be found here as well, of course.

In fact, what is most obvious about Kaufman is his love of language. This is undoubtedly the most beautifully written screenwriting manual on the market. In fact, at times the stylistic flourishes almost threaten to get in the way of the information on offer. But this is a very minor quibble, and all of Kaufman’s points –both practical as well as more philosophical, with considered discussion of Aristotle and other drama theorists – are well worth making.

While there is nothing stunningly new here, they help the new writer focus on the truly important elements of the script. One cannot but hope that books like this might finally help recover some of the magic which screenwriting is so sorely missing of late.

SCRIPT PARTNERS: WHAT MAKES FILM AND TV WRITING TEAMS WORK by Claudia Johnson and Matt Stevens (Michael Wiese productions, Studio City, 2003, 298 p.)

Many screenwriters are constantly looking for Mr. or Ms. Right – the writing partner who will make their professional life heaven on earth. Sharing the money and fame are a small price to pay for the friendship, support and extra creativity which a good partnership brings. But finding the right writing partner is almost as difficult as finding the right spouse. While Script Partners doesn’t provide any magic formulas to help you find your dream collaborator, it examines the entire process in great detail.

Claudia Johnson and Matt Stevens are themselves a screenwriting duo and have interviewed some twenty teams of co-writers for this book. They’ve included all the biggies (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Harold Ramis and Peter Tolan, Woody Allen’s collaborator Marshall Brickman) and quite a few lesser-known writing teams. Chapters include finding the right partner, solving time and place issues, and all aspects of the actual writing (although the theoretical information mentioned here doesn’t differ from the usual advice given to solo writers). Johnson and Stevens also use a lot of examples from their own experience, which proves you cannot always depend on first impressions – as they started out hating each other.

The most valuable chapters in this book are the ones dealing with the personal difficulties inherent in the creative process, and the business side of things. Here, we get some valuable advice on how to handle the many problems which will crop up in almost every writing partnership. For anyone considering a partnership, this book will be a great help.

What Makes Basil Run? Extra material

Remember how I said at the end of part 2 that I didn't have the space to give a detailed breakdown of the fire drill sequence in The Germans?

Well, that was when I had to fit the article into a magazine (e-zine at the time). On this blog, however, I have all the space and time in the world. So here it is, the detailed analysis of the fire drill!

Looking at the entire sequence, we see it is basically one huge scene, only interrupted twice for a short cutaway to the kitchen (where Manuel sets everything on fire), and an exterior shot of Fawlty asking the guests to come back inside again. The entire sequence lasts for nearly ten minutes.

The sequence consists of three parts: first the preparation for the drill, then the drill itself during which the kitchen catches fire, and then Fawlty's discovery of the fire and his disastrous attempts to get the situation under control. There are three 'acts', yet they flow seamlessly into one another.

The sequence is probably most remarkable for its expert use of comedic build-up. Things start off quietly with another attempt at hanging up the moose head (a running gag in the episode), then Basil chides a couple of guests who haven't read the notice about the fire drill. This nicely sets up his feeling of superiority and gives the impression that he is control of things. An impression immediately countered to his response to a potential problem Polly brings up(who's going to do her part in checking the hotel when she's not at work), which he simply waves away.

Then we get a phone call from Sybill at the hospital to remind Fawlty about the fire drill (another running gag), and this sets in motion the events of the rest of the sequence when it becomes clear that Sybill has locked the key to the fire alarm in the safe. It's a perfect example of combining comedy with the advancement of the plot.

As Basil goes to open the safe, the burglar alarm goes off - and the guests naturally interpret this as the signal that the fire drill has started. Fawlty tries to explain but gets into a heated discussion with his assembled guests about how they are unable to tell the difference between the alarms as they don't know what they sound like. At this point Fawlty turns on both alarms consecutively - and the guests walk out, as the fire alarm is now ringing. This drives Basil even more crazy (he hasn't started the drill officially yet) to the point where he insults Mrs. Tibbs ('you old fool'), and things get even more hectic when Manuel and Polly barge in to do their part. The continuing ringing of the fire alarm and Basil's shouting add to the nervous energy of the sequence.

There's a marvelous capper when Fawlty finally switches off the alarm, and immediately afterwards Sybill phones again, causing Basil to explode and smash the phone down. The running gag works to perfection, and its inclusion here is totally unexpected yet profoundly logical.

At this point we get a breather. Fawlty officially starts the fire drill in 30 seconds. But the quiet (which is necessary fot the audience to catch its breath) doesn't last long, as Basil quickly gets irritated by the way in which his guests just stand about in the hall, waiting for the alarm to start. (we should let you all burn)

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Manuel manages to start a real fire...

From now on, superior awareness of the audience is at play, and the stakes have been raised (the drill has now become 'real'). As Basil escorts the guests outside, a quiet moment, we know that the moment where he discovers what's really going on cannot be long in coming. However, the moment of discovery is delayed as long as possible. When the smoke-damaged Manuel barrels out of the kitchen (fire, fire), he is pushed back into the kitchen by Fawlty who locks the door (and who doesn't notice his besmudged state, focussing too much on the way he expects things to be).

As Manuel keeps banging and shouting on the door, Basil goes to ask the guests to come back inside (the drill is over) in the second, very short cutaway during the sequence. Manuel keeps up the ruckus, and finally the complaints of a guest force Basil to let Manuel out of the kitchen. And now he finally realizes that there is a real fire in progress.

And once more, we get a delayed reaction (which again creates a small breathing pause for the audience). Fawlty closes the door to the kitchen, calls the guests back and tries to explain in a roundabout fashion that there's a real fire - while Manuel clings to his knees and moans loudly. When Basil pronounces the word 'fire', he finally flips - stalking through the reception area and spitting out the word 'fire' like an insane stork with Tourette's syndrome.

It falls to Polly to call Basil to order and get him to ring the alarm (his first reaction was to call Sybill - like a little boy running to his mother). Which he tries to do - but 'someone' has lost the key! Basil rants and rave and finally ends up shaking his fist at God (Thank you so bloddy much!), blaming everyone but himself for the crisis. Once again, the comedy remains 100% true to the character. Basil cannot admit to anyone that he might be at fault in any way - not even to himself.

Polly admonishes Basil to break the glass, which he tries twice ineffectually. Then, however, Sybill rings again - and Basil uses the phone to smash the glass and start the alarm. Brilliant use of the recurring gag, and also a wonderful demonstration of the Rule of 3 within the sequence.

With the fire alarm ringing merrily, Basil now tries to extinguish the fire, but the fire extinguisher blows up in his face, and after that he hits his head on the pan Manuel is holding (in a slightly contrived bit of business) as the sequence finally climaxes. He wants to punch Manuel in revenge - but falls over in a faint.

John Cleese isn't as big a fan of The Germans as the audience because the structure of the episode isn't as elegant as some of the others. This is true - the fire drill is a story element which is resolved two thirds of the way through the episode, and it mainly provides the reason for Basil's lunatic behaviour with regards to his German guests. The two storylines never intertwine as they do in (say) The Psychiatrists or Communication Problems. But the comic genius and the structural brilliance of the fire drill sequence more than make up for this minor flaw (as does Cleese's Hitler impression, of course).

Friday, February 27, 2009

What Makes Basil Run? Part 4


Finally, I would like to mention the specific voice of the series. The humour of Fawlty Towers is quite specific. It almost always comes from within the characters, rather than from the obviously fertile mind of the writers.

While there are many funny one-liners, these are never mechanical. When Basil launches a quip, it is always to vent his frustrations or revel in a temporary triumph. The same thing applies to the physical comedy. It can go very far (the final scenes of The Germans, for example) but it is always properly motivated. Basil doesn’t just begin insulting his German guests accidentally - he has to have a concussion to do so.

The physical comedy in the series is often slapstick - in fact, some scenes are almost cartoonish. There’s a lot of black humour here, from messing with a corpse to Basil bullying his whipping boy, Manuel. Whatever the style of comedy though, situational, verbal or physical, every comedic opportunity is always exploited to the fullest. One never comes away from a Fawlty Towers episode feeling that the creators missed out on some opportunities.

Finally, taboos. Quite often, Cleese and Booth will break the barriers of good taste, not by grossing the audience out but by transgressing the socially accepted ways of behaviour. Dragging corpses around, insulting guests, screaming into hearing aids and groping Australian tourists are all types of behaviour rarely seen in comedies - at least, before the eighties and the rise of the Young Ones-generation. While shattering taboos isn’t the main thing on the agenda, it does give Fawlty Towers an edginess which many comedies lack, even today.

We hope this look under the hood of Fawlty Towers has proven to be enlightening and inspiring. If there is ONE lesson to be learned from this series, it is this : there is no substitute for a comedy series developed by talented writers who feel truly passionate about their creation. And it is this passion which makes Fawlty Towers a delight to this very day.

What Makes Basil Run part 3


As we noted earlier, Fawlty Towers plotting is definitely influenced by farce. Yet whereas farce uses its characters as pawns to further the plot, Cleese and Booth have created one of the richest comical characters of all times in Basil. The psychological depth invested in him lifts the entire series above the mechanically brilliant and infuses it with humanity. Not always the most attractive face of humanity, true, but humanity nevertheless.

Basil is the only character in the series which is this deep, though. The others are more stereotypical and single-minded. Manuel is a loveable oaf. One gets the idea that he’d be pretty far the intellectual food chain even in his native Spain (in order to believe a rat is a Siberian Hamster, one has to be a real ‘witnit’).

Sybil is the moderately shrewish mother-surrogate, Polly the clever maid who tries to get her foolish master out of trouble. The Major is a senile military man whose lapses of reason are either used to further the plot or to get laughs (not always successfully). Terry the Cook, the most recent addition to the cast, is also the least successful. He doesn’t have a comedic archetype, and the potential clash Basil’s snobbery with his Cockney cleverness is never fully realised. But these minor flaws pale into insignificance when we examine how Basil is really put together and how his personality totally drives the entire series.

Basil is someone who sees the world in one particular way, and doesn’t possess the flexibility of mind to accurately react to events which challenge his ideal vision. When he holds a fire drill, the guests have to leave the building when they hear the fire alarm, not the burglar alarm, which, as everyone knows, is at least a semitone lower. Basil does possess an incredible flexibility when it comes to forcing the world to fit his predetermined ideas, though. Unfortunately, the world always proves to resist even his best efforts.

This rigidity of thinking comes from fear and immaturity. Basil is actually still a child inside, though he pretends to be an adult. He is terrified of being found out and humiliated, and will go to any lengths to avoid this. He is pathologically incapable of accepting blame for things that go wrong.

When he has to tell some guests he misunderstood their familial affection for public lewdness in The Wedding Party, he turns the situation around at the last minute and says that Sybil made a mistake. When his car acts up, he prefers to tinker with it rather than take it to a garage and admit that he cannot fix it. His behaviour is like that of a child which doesn’t want to be scolded. So he will cover up the evidence of his mistakes - and in doing so, only makes things worse for himself.

Deep, deep down inside, Basil knows he isn’t as competent as he wants to be - and wants to be seen. And from the gap between his expectations and his worst fears coming true over and over again is born his anger at the world, his fellow men and his truly competent but shallow wife. Basil’s extreme verbal (and occasionally physical) violence is the direct expression of his soul-searing unhappiness.

Though he is insufferable in real life, the audience does take Basil to heart. This is mainly because he is an underdog, who loses control in anger (screaming ‘bastard’ at Lord Melbury while dealing with real aristocratic guests, cursing God) and in grief (he breaks down howling in histrionic displays of despair). He voices the emotions all of us keep bottled inside - we recognise this, laugh at it - but there is some discomfort too. At other times, Basil takes revenge on his tormentors (an obnoxious kid, the spoon salesman, Mrs. Richards) and thus becomes a transgressor himself. Generally, he acts out impulses - mainly negative ones - which we keep under wraps. Once again, this is an example of childlike behaviour in an adult - the main element of Basil’s mental make-up.

The excellence in which characterisation and plotting interact in Fawlty Towers is made very clear by the fact that if Basil truly behaved like an adult and admitted his mistakes, he would have no problems (and there would be no plot). He would not have become the victim of Lord Melbury, he would not have ruined the gourmet night, he would not have been faced with an American-led rebellion of his guests. If he hadn’t gambled on a horse - like a rebellious child going behind mommy Sybil’s back - he wouldn’t have lost all his money to Mrs. Richards. The synergy between main character and plot is complete.

As noted above, none of the other characters has nearly this kind of complexity, but because every episode focuses on Basil, this doesn’t matter. This might have become a problem if many more episodes had been made, but - alas? - this was not the case. The cast serves the needs of the series perfectly.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

What Makes Basil Run? Part 2


One specific peculiarity of the way John Cleese and Connie Booth use the midpoint is that it often serves to introduce a new complication.

In Communication Problems the midpoint is the ‘theft’ of Mrs. Richards’ money. In the very first episode, A Touch Of Class, the midpoint is the moment where Basil realises his new guest is a (fake) Lord and starts to fawn over him shamelessly. In Gourmet Night, it’s the moment where the new gourmet chef is discovered dead drunk just when Basil’s select guests have arrived.

Unlike in American sitcoms where the midpoint has to be a cliff-hanger (how are they going to get out of THAT!?), though, the complications do not arise immediately. The perfect pacing and ever increasing tempo of the best Fawlty Towers episodes are due to the fact that the story structure could be developed without having to make room for commercial breaks.

As for the plotting, there is a recurrent formula in most of the episodes (certainly in all of the best ones). There are almost always two plotlines, which start out having very little to do with each other (e.g. Mrs. Richards arriving at the hotel and Basil gambling on the horses, German tourists coming to stay and a fire drill, a psychiatrist staying at the hotel and a lusty Romeo sneaking a girlfriend into his room, a stalling car and a gourmet night), yet which become completely intertwined and totally influence each other’s development so that in the third act it is usually impossible to separate them. The beauty of the system is that all of these interactions are logical and (largely) credible, yet totally impossible to predict.

It is telling that two of the weakest episodes, The Builders and The Anniversary, sin against these principles. In The Builders there is no second plotline to speak of. In The Anniversary there ARE two plotlines, Basil hiding the fact from his friends that Sybil has stormed out before he could spring his surprise party on her, and Manuel wanting to make a paella for said party; yet they hardly interact with each other. Worse, the plot development is forced along by two moments of illogical behaviour : Polly deciding to invent the lie that Sybil is ill in her room for no real reason, and Basil later challenging his disbelieving friends to go see Sybil if they don’t believe him, and keeping this up so long past their embarrassed refusal that they do take him up on the offer.

Another aspect of structure in which Fawlty Towers reigns supreme is in its use of comic build-up. Every episode starts off slowly and keeps building to an expertly managed crescendo. There is an incredible amount of comic material in each of these scripts : in Communication Problems I count approximately 250 jokes, ranging from mild smiles to out-and-out guffaws. That’s almost ten jokes per minute.

The downside to this abundance of riches is that sometimes intended gags are not registered by the audience because of the great speed at which they follow one another. Once the plot takes off, the audience is taken on a rollercoaster of laughter, with a number of carefully conceived setpieces of increasing intensity serving as the comedic highlights of the episodes.

Between these setpieces, Cleese and Booth make sure to insert breathing space for the audience. These ‘lows’ in the rollercoaster do not stop the momentum, however : they are used to set up the next big gag scene. In fact, it is in these ‘low-energy’ moments that the plot develops most, so the interest of the audience never wanes.

The setpieces, invariably the most memorable parts of the episode, get the necessary time for them to work. There is no Seinfeldian ‘one-minute time limit’ to individual scenes in these scripts. This allows the scenes to build as necessary so they achieve a very organic quality.

An extreme example is the fire drill sequence from The Germans : apart from one cutaway to Manuel in the kitchen, this 10 minute sequence plays uninterruptedly in the same set without ever outstaying its welcome. Space does not permit us to analyse this sequence in detail, but it will repay careful study a hundredfold.

What Makes Basil Run? Part 1

The following article (split into parts because it's just too darn long to post it in one go) was originally presented in the electronic version of Screentalk. It actually got me onto BBC Television as an 'expert witness' in the Fawtly Towers episode of the Britain's Greatest Sitcom series. Quite the honour!

Being made fun of and humiliated by ever-grumpy host of the episode Jack Dee, not so much. Ah, the joys of showbusiness.

But anyway... Here's the first part. Enjoy!

John Cleese’s masterpiece, Fawlty Towers, has been elected as the all-time number one British television programme by the BFI. Not bad for a series of only twelve episodes, which was a ratings failure on its initial run...

In the present article, we will examine the writing of this marvellous show. How did John Cleese and Connie Booth weave their magic? Do they have particular tricks of the trade? And are there lessons to be learned here for us lesser mortals?


Fawlty Towers has its antecedents in farce, a theatrical genre in which structure is extremely important. In a typical farce, characters find themselves in a complex web of misunderstandings and confusion. However, the audience must always remain completely clear about what is going on, or they will lose interest. That’s why a good farce is constructed very carefully like an intricate piece of clockwork. It is no surprise that John Cleese, a known structure fanatic, would work within this genre.

When we consider the script as a whole, it is immediately apparent that Fawlty Towers is far more densely plotted than most other comedy series (and certainly all American sitcoms).

This does not mean that the intrigue is hard to follow, but rather that the plot is full of logical yet unexpected twists and complications. I tend to call Fawlty Towers a ‘plotcom’ rather than a ‘sitcom proper’ (where the characters find themselves in less complex situations e.g. learning to drive, going on a diet...).

One element of the artistic success of Fawlty Towers is this in-depth plot development. In fact, when we analyse the episodes for structure, we find the traditional 10-point screenplay structure in its entirety. This means that within the scope of thirty minutes the plot hits as many main story beats as a full-length film. We will illustrate this dramatic structure by analysing two of the most beloved episodes, Communication Problems and Basil the Rat :


1) Opening : Mrs. Richards, the deaf woman from Hell, arrives at the hotel.
2) Start Plot : Basil gets a horseracing tip from a guest.
3) Plot Point One : Basil sends Manuel off to bet on the horses for him.
4) Focus Point One : Manuel returns with Fawlty’s winnings.
5) Midpoint : Mrs. Richards has some money stolen - the same amount as Basil just won!
6) Focus Point Two : Basil gives his winnings to the Major for safekeeping.
7) Plot Point Two : The money is discovered and handed to Mrs. Richards, to Basil’s dismay.
8) Crisis : Basil is crying hysterically when the man from the shop walks in with Mrs. Richards vase and money.
9) Climax : Basil hands Mrs. Richards her vase when his secret is discovered - the vase drops and is shattered.
10) Resolution : Sybil pays Mrs. Richards for her vase with Basil’s winnings.


1) Opening : Basil discovers a health inspector in his kitchen and gets a stern warning .
2) Start Plot : Manuel has a pet rat called Basil in his room.
3) Plot Point One : Manuel is forced to remove the rat from the hotel.
4) Focus Point One : Manuel’s rat has escaped from the shed.
5) Midpoint : Basil discovers that the rat is loose in the hotel.
6) Focus Point Two : The staff manages to keep the rat’s presence secret from the health inspector.
7) Plot Point Two : The health inspector wants to have dinner in the hotel.
8) Crisis : The rat is discovered by Manuel and Basil in the dining room.
9) Climax : The rat is offered to the health inspector in the cheese biscuits tin; Polly manages to convince him he imagined it.
10) Resolution : Manuel drags a fainted Basil out of the dining room.

Coming soon: part 2!

If for some incomprehensible reason you do not yet have Fawlty Towers in your possession, you can get it here:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A surefire way to fix your scene

Sometimes a scene doesn't work, but you can't put your finger on why. There's conflict, there's a goal, a protagonist and an antagonist, a climax... And still it won't come to life.

The best way I know to tackle this problem is the following, which was taught in my postgraduate screenwriting course by a British script-editor/writer/teacher (and now also drama therapist) called Charlie Moritz. You do need at least one partner for this technique, which makes it perfect for classroom/workshop situations, or when you're working with a regular writing partner.

Basically, the technique is this: you act out the scene, but you let go of the written dialogue - and you take care to notice your natural reactions/impulses in the situation. Do you turn away at a certain point? Does it feel unnatural to skip to a different subject? Do you want to get closer to the other character in the scene, or conversely try to escape their presence? Body language is extremely important here. Often you will physically realize that a certain gesture or action described in the script just isn't right. In this way, you will instinctively be able to determine where the scene starts to go off the rails.

Once you've done this, you can now try to integrate your natural reaction to the events within the scene into the rewrite. Sometimes this will be very easy - a simple refocussing, adding or deleting a scene beat, or taking more time to register a certain (re)action may be enough.

But in other cases, you may be faced with the fact that your natural impulsive reaction totally contradicts what the scene is supposed to convey. And if you're really unlucky, this may have serious repercussions for the script in its entirety.

Nevertheless, the natural reaction is always truthful, and that is extremely important in screenwriting. So paying attention to this truth is highly recommended.

Now, some people may object that this is all well and good, but all you've done is discover your own impulsive reactions. And the character in the scene is a totally different and separate character from the writer!

That's why it's important to translate what you've discovered about your own truth to the character and their situation. Combining your natural reaction with the psychological make-up of your character can lead to discovering a different, perhaps surprising way to get the same story point across.

In any case, you will now be able to rewrite your scene starting from truthful human behaviour, rather than from 'unreal' imaginings which have no discernible basis in psychological reality.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Writing Mistakes I've Made 1

As I'm going to be posting script and film/TV show reviews here, and this will obviously involve occassionally (or often) stepping on other people's toes, I might as well try to even up the scales of karma by pointing out some of the weaknesses in my own writings. Who knows, I may even save some innocent screenwriting souls from making the same mistakes I've made!

Right, let's get underway with the first instalment of what will hopefully not turn out to be a long-running series, an instalment I like to call:

What Did You Do That For?!
Writing for a long-running TV show has the advantage that you know the characters really well. Yet on the other hand, there's the danger of falling into a rut, knowing exactly how the character should react in any given circumstance. And, by extension, no longer either surprising yourself, the actor or the audience with the material you create for them.

So every so often, I have the urge to have a character break out of his/her mold. React differently for once. Shake things up. Have them do something which causes the other characters in the scene to wake up and take notice.

And hey, why not? Isn't that just like real life? Don't we all sometimes react in a manner the people around us aren't accustomed to? Or aren't we shocked by the way they sometimes do or say exactly the opposite of what we were expecting? Of course we are. So it stands to reason this works in scripts as well, right?

Ummm... not so much. Every single time I've tried to introduce this in a script, it got taken out. And every single time, the scene had energy, the dialogue flowed... In short, I liked what I'd come up with. So why did it get cut out every single time?

Because it didn't fit. When people react in a surprising manner in real life, there's always a reason for them to do so. No one else may know what this reason is - but it's there. And in a novel, you'd have no problem letting the reader in on what was going on inside the character to provoke the unexpected reaction. In a script, and especially in a TV script for a series which doesn't use devices like voice-overs or flashbacks, it's impossible to provide the necessary information to make the sudden and short-lived change in behaviour work. Especially if it happens with a secondary character who isn't the focus of one of the storylines.

For instance, in the crime series Witse (for my non-local readers: think Morse in Belgium), I had one of commissioner Witse's assistants, inspector Dams, suddenly get very cranky during a briefing and blurt out a line of reasoning which would lead the investigation in a new (and correct) direction. The problem was that this character is always introverted, shy, self-conscious and not very bright. To have him suddenly act out of character in the blink of an eye, and then revert back to type immediately afterwards, was basically cheating. Even though I added a line of stage direction specifying the character was as surprised about his outburst as everyone else, that part of the scene didn't make the cut. And though I didn't like it at the time, I have since come to realize the simple truth: you must stay true to the characters at all times. Even when this means killing another one of your darlings. Even when you're a little bit tired of it.

Of course, if you have a show like Dexter, where the lead character constantly lets the audience access his thoughts, you can get away with this type of uncharacteristic behaviour. Because, just like a novelist, you'll be able to use narrative devices which place the character's action in context - or which can easily explain it after the fact. And even there, you'll basically only be able to pull it off with the protagonist.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Just in case you run out of reasons to procrastinate...

Here's a little gimmicky site which can lead to hours if not days of amusement. Thanks to Paul Ruven for drawing my attention to it!

And if you're lucky - it'll come up with a really useful idea! Though you may have to wait a long time for that to happen.

Try it out:

Random logline generator

The best I got up to now was this:

A restaurant owner proposes to a hysterical starship captain.

It's just crazy enough to work...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Getting To Know You

Make sure you know who your characters are before you unleash them on the audience.

A couple of years ago, I was involved as script-editor in the creation of a new Flemish comedy series called Urbain. Starring Flanders’ best-known comedian, Urbanus, the series’ premise was a fictitious look at the home life of the comedian. When his wife decides to go back to work, he agrees to look after the kids, helped and hindered by his mother, brother-in-law/manager and his young female chauffeur. Though Urbanus had made a few films and several TV series, he’d never been involved with a sitcom before. As we developed the scripts, one major problem quickly arose which never got solved satisfactorily. The secondary characters never gelled. Urbain’s mother was borderline demented in one episode, sharp-witted and romantically hyperactive in the next. His brother-in-law fancied the chauffeur one moment, and ignored her the next; his relationship with Urbain was never clearly defined, and his central comedic archetype remained maddeningly vague. Despite my best efforts, it proved impossible to get a consensus on these matters. Though ratings weren’t a disaster, the series never found its audience, and a second series never materialized. The reasons for its lack of success were many, but the lack of strongly defined characters certainly didn’t help matters.

It’s not just fairly obscure Belgian sitcoms which suffer from this problem, though. Not Going Out, the new BBC comedy series starring stand-up comedians Lee Mack and Tim Vine, is in exactly the same boat. Now, this show has been successful (series three has been ordered), and it’s a great vehicle for Mack’s stand-up persona. But in series one, Lee’s flatmate and potential love interest Kate (Megan Dodds) was funny, level-headed, and self-assured one moment, humour-impaired, insecure and frankly insane the next (she sincerely tries to turn a dog into a vegetarian, for instance). In season two, Kate was replaced by career-girl Lucy (Sally Bretton), Tim’s younger sister, who moves in with Lee but quickly falls in love with the much older Guy (Simon Dutton). Once again, both characters are ill-defined. Guy is the worst offender : in his introductory episode he’s thought to be gay (he isn’t, but does hang around in a gay club in the afternoon), later he’s discovered to be the owner of a lapdance club (as well as being a successful ‘ordinary’ businessman), and finally he’s sinister enough to be thought a gangster. Simon Dutton struggles manfully with the part, but it’s a relief all around when Lucy (arbitrarily) dumps him in the final episode of season 2. Lucy’s love for Guy is equally unfounded – at no time during the series do we get the feeling that her emotions are based on anything but the dramatic need for there to be an obstacle between her and Lee.

So what are the underlying causes for this phenomenon? I think there are two main offenders:

1) Placing plot before character. The writer(s) come up with a really funny situation for the lead character, and the secondary character is then forced into a role which allows that situation to occur. Two good examples from Not Going Out, season two: in the aforementioned episode which introduces Guy, Lucy and Lee have to think he’s gay. This is so that Lee can pretend to be gay as well in order to go to football matches with Guy as his ‘date’. Guy spends much of the episode ‘testing’ Lee to see whether he’s faking his sexual orientation or not. But since Guy isn’t gay, what does he care if Lee is ‘honestly’ homosexual? What’s really going on is that Lee having to pretend to be gay is a powerful comedic situation. Unfortunately, Guy’s integrity as a character is sacrificed in order to get to the funny stuff. In a later episode Lucy suddenly decides to open an art gallery – just so that Lee can pretend to be an expert and give her disastrous buying advice, which she then foolishly takes. Just for the record, I like Not Going Out, which is one of the only good mainstream UK sitcoms of recent years. It’s just that these weaknesses in characterization keep it from becoming an all-time classic.

2) ‘Fear of commitment’. Once you decide how your characters act and think, a lot of avenues are closed off. And yes, there will be ideas which can no longer be implemented, and yes, sometimes that will be regrettable. But the benefits of clearly defining your characters far outweigh these minor annoyances. Not only are you able to create better plots, which flow from the nature of your characters and therefore are more truthful and affecting, but you will also allow the actor playing the role to really bring the character fully to life. Otherwise, they will have to interpret the role and make some personal choices which might not be good for the script – or for the series as a whole.

How do you remedy this situation, once it occurs? Put the character first. Forget about plots and situations, make sure that you arrive at a psychological profile that makes sense and is multi-layered. In certain cases, you will be able to use what’s written already to help you out. Maybe it’s disjointed, but try to find a psychological model which makes sense out of what you already have. Then it’s a question of filling in the blanks, or finding a basic motivation or contradiction within the character which creates the necessary guiding framework. You may even find that what seems an incoherent mess actually already holds the seeds of the solution within it.

As an example from my own experience: when I rejoined FC De Kampioenen as script-editor after having been away for several years, I was faced with a new character, Maurice, whom I didn't understand at all. The actor playing the character, Tuur De Weerdt, an excellent thespian with a very broad range, managed to make the character work on screen, but nevertheless Maurice was not defined well enough for me to know how he should be used in the storylines. He was polite, lived with a very domineering mother, belonged to the nobility but kept this hidden, and knew everything about anything (sort of a Cliff Clavin who actually got his facts right). He was also deliberatly designed to be mysterious, but the core of his mystery was not known. And this was the main problem: at the heart of the character was an empty space, waiting to be filled.

So we did a brainstorm about Maurice, talking through the several options and trying to find a framework which made all the disparate elements fall into place. The most recent script in which Maurice was featured had him participate in a beer-tasting competition: he knew everything there was to know about the different types of beer but refused to drink any. Once he was forced to, he immediately lost all inhibitions and became roaring drunk.

Using this incident as a springboard, we decided that Maurice used to be a hell-raising playboy when he was young, who managed to lose the family fortune at the roulette table. Feeling guilty, he consciously suppressed his wild side, let his mother dominate him to keep hem in check, and became the opposite of the bad boy he had been before. However, the darkness was still inside him, and in order to satisfy his hunger for intoxicating experiences, he started to read and study voraciously. His encyclopedic knowledge about every topic known to man stemmed from his attempts to experience the fullness of life at one remove.

Once we knew this, it opened up a lot of possibilities. We gave Maurice a dormant gambling addiction, it was revealed he was a frequent visitor of a brothel - where he did nothing but talk to the girls, and he also showed traces of obsessive-compulsive behaviour, an externalization of his need to keep his 'dark side' under control. As a character, Maurice was brought into focus, and every writer now knew what made him tick exactly. And best of all, the new character description still allowed us enormous leeway. We didn't really close off any options, the character was far richer than before and the comedic options increased exponentially.

And in case you're wondering: the audience doesn't know about this backstory at all (though at some point it may be revealed if an episode asks for it). They don't need it to enjoy the character. But for writers, directors and actors, this type of clarity is absolutely essential.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Blast From The Past 1 reviews of The Comic Toolbos and Which Lie Did I Tell?

In this feature I'll be posting articles and reviews I've written for Screentalk, the now-defunct magazine for screenwriters which began as an ezine and now has become the very excellent Moviescope magazine. Where necessary, they will be expanded and/or updated from the original version.

Today, a few book reviews to get us going:

Anyone who intends to pursue a career in writing comedy would do very well to check out John Vorhaus’ The Comic Toolbox : How To Be Funny Even If You’re Not ( 191 p., Silman-James Press, ). Within this tome the aspiring humourist will find tips and pointers on everything from thinking up silly names to developing a sitcom script.

Vorhaus adopts a very hands-on approach : no other manual I know has captured the flavour of being in a real-world workshop as well as this one. The exercises (of which there are MANY) are part of the text, and the author encourages his readers to do each and every one of them (even pretending to wait around while they’re working on the assignments). As such, anyone can be sure that after having worked through this book, their humour skills will have increased significantly.

The book starts off with a definition of what humour is (see the previous post), and then goes on to explore such topics as developing comic characters, developing comic premises and storylines, and explaining comedy tools which are a part of every pro’s repertoire. The wealth of information is astounding. Moreover, Vorhaus is really concerned about increasing the creativity of his audience, and to get everything off to a good start he offers some very effective ways of silencing the inner critic which so many writers struggle with.

Though it dates from 1994, this book has stood the test of time admirably. And Vorhaus is actually funny throughout the book, making it a delight to read and proving beyond any doubt he knows what he’s talking about. Highly recommended!

Which Lie Did I Tell, William Goldman's semi-sequel to Adventures In The Screen Trade, is a fairly unique hybrid of autobiography and screenwriting manual.
The book is divided in four parts : an overview of Goldman's career from 1980 onwards (when the phone stopped ringing for years), a detailed look at some of his favourite scenes ranging from Bergman to the Farrelly brothers, a section on what makes good cinematic stories and an original screenplay which he developed for the book and then sent out to his peers to critique.

Some of the material in the first section has been available before in the introduction of some of Goldman’s published screenplays for Applause Books, but it is still an interesting read. One does sense that he is more angered and embittered by the Hollywood game now than twenty years ago. In the second part Goldman presents his favourite scenes (excerpted in full) and then explains his reasons for liking them and giving some tips and pointers along the way on why these scenes work. However, the approach is not clinically analytical, but highly personal. The emphasis is not so much on the actual writing as on the emotional links Goldman has with the presented examples.

The third part of the book becomes more hands-on. Goldman offers four story ideas, mostly based on real events, and shares his thoughts on whether they would make good movies and what challenges an adaptation of this material would pose. Here the book becomes more inspiring and actively stimulates the imagination of the reader.

Finally, Goldman lets us peek over his shoulder as he writes a new script. Actually, he only develops it half-way through, but this is still a unique opportunity for the reader to experience the creative process of a world-famous professional.

Now, for some bizarre reason screenplays or treatments developed for screenwriting manuals are generally execrably bad. Amazingly, Goldman’s offering, The Big A (for adventure), is equally dismal. The story of a divorced private eye who trains his two horribly precocious kids (who just happen to be the world’s greatest sketch artist and actress, respectively) in surveillance techniques, is wildly implausible, uninvolving and weak in characterization. Don’t take my word for it - this is the conclusion that all of Goldman’s peers come to as well, and they include the Farrelly brothers, Scott Frank and Callie Khouri, among others. It has to be said that it’s quite brave and honest of Goldman to include these negative reviews of his work. In a way, this part of the book is very reassuring to novice writers : even the biggest names in the business can produce sub-standard work, and wrestle with the same problems as we lesser mortals. I would have preferred to witness the birth of a new masterpiece, though.

Which Lie Did I Tell is somewhat schizophrenic : it doesn’t seem to know whether it’s pitched primarily at a general audience or at screenwriting students and pros. This means that there is less meat to it than one could wish for, while a general reader might want the focus to be exclusively on Hollywood horror stories. Still, it does contain a fair amount of worthwhile information and illustrates how Hollywood changed in the last three decades. It is also very readable, although I must confess that near the end I began to tire of Goldman’s overly manipulative style. While I doubt it will achieve the legendary status of its predecessor, it is certainly interesting and entertaining.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Just a small topic for starters - the secret of comedy REVEALED!!!

Well, maybe not quite.

But close...

Comedy guru John Vorhaus, writer of The Comic Toolbox and Creativity Rules! (both highly recommended), defines comedy as Truth and Pain.

Steve Kaplan, on the other hand, provides the following definition in his Comedy Intensive seminar: comedy is the lie that tells the truth.

Obviously, truthfulness is an essential element of comedy, then. And by truth, we mean the truth about the human condition. The characters have to behave in a way which makes them relatable to us. Comedy (nearly) always fails when it is imposed on the characters by the writer/performer/director, as an external element, or when characters get 'twisted around' so they'll be able to make a certain joke, even when this is in blatant contradiction to their established nature.

But this truth is also a part of every good drama. So this element alone is definitely not enough to create comedy.

Vorhaus adds pain to the mix. All comedy, all humour, is aggressive in a certain way. Slapstick comedy involves physical abuse, comedy of manners puts the characters in awkward or embarassing relationships, farce piles on the complications and humiliations, and so on. The pain can be inflicted on the character, or the character can inflict pain on others, deliberatly or accidentally. The point is, all comedy creates stress in the audience, which is relieved by laughter. It's a release of tension, sometimes in order to protect the spectator from the possible emotional trauma of what they are witnessing (the main reason why gore films provoke laughter rather than fear among their fans). There's biological evidence for this: when chimpanzees laugh, they express fear, not joy.

However, it's perfectly possible to have pain and truth at work in a story, without it being remotely comedic. A story about a family of illegal immigrants who are at the mercy of a criminal organization and suffer terribly at their hands is not funny. It's touching, sad, inflammatory, but it doesn't provoke laughter.

So there's at least one more element missing.

Surprise, perhaps? Most comedy surprises the audience. The unexpected gag often results in the biggest laughs. And even when the audience knows what is coming, the way their expectations are met should generally be totally unpredictable.

However, surprise can work just as well in drama. And the combination of pain, truth and surprise can regularly be found in horror films. And on the other hand, in a number of cases the audience DOES know what's coming, gets exactly what it expects and still laughs at the joke. Partly to relieve the tension, sure, but there must be something else at play as well.

So let me humbly propose a possible solution to the conundrum: incongruity. The inappropriate.

When something happens which does not conform to the 'norm', to usual practices, social mores, or even the laws of physics, coupled with the elements of pain and truth, laughter is usually the result.

As an example, consider the scene in Fight Club (a very black comedy) in which Edward Norton takes revenge on his insufferable boss at the office by beating himself up in front of the man and then blaming him for the inflicted violence. Is it painful? Absolutely, both physically and emotionally. Is it truthful? Well, it's an extreme behaviour, but Norton's decision to strike back at his tormentor is emotionally true. And is it inappropriate? Wildly so. Using extreme violence in the office is not done, beating yourself to a pulp is completely out of the ordinary, and blaming your supervisor for the wounds you've inflicted on yourself is morally inappropriate.

So there you have it. My recipe for comedy: pain, truth, and the inappriopriate. Served with a large helping of surprise whenever possible.

Welcome, bienvenu, welkom...

Hi everyone & hallo iedereen,

First post of my first blog! Wow, talk about a momentous occasion...

Introductions are in order. I'm Wout Thielemans, script-editor, writer and educator, and I've been doing nothing but working on screenplays and scriptwriting since 1991. I've worked on some of the most succesful fiction series on Belgian television of the last 20 years (to wit FC De Kampioenen, the most succesful sitcom ever made in Belgium and now in its 20th year, Thuis, the most popular daily soap and Witse, the number one crime series over here). I've also taught many succesful screenwriters over the years, and have written over 50 TV-scripts .

In this blog, I'll be talking about anything and everything script-related which I find to be of interest. There might be script, book, film and television reviews, there will be insights, reposts of articles, information about projects, possibly even some scripts which for whatever reason didn't get produced (though these will usually be in Dutch).

I hope to be able to provide an interesting, transatlantic point of view on scriptwriting and audiovisual storytelling, and I look forward to reading your comments! And of course, please don't hesitate to ask any questions. Let the screenwriting madness begin!