Saturday, March 21, 2009

How I Do It part 1

As it's writing season again for FC De Kampioenen, and I'm in the process of writing (hopefully) a couple of scripts, I thought it might be interesting to let you, gentle reader, follow the steps in my creative process.

Of course everyone works in a different way, but it's always revealing to see how writers deal with all the theoretical concepts and 'rules' in the real world, i.e. the actual creative process. International readers may get an impression of how the scriptwriting development process works in Flemish television.

So, first up, is the IDEA for the episode.

This is the germ of everything that follows. So it's important that the idea has sufficient potential to power an entire episode, and that it fits with the series you're writing for (if you're writing for television, that is).

Many of the writers I work with seem to be very resistant towards providing nutshells. They immediately go into one- or two-page treatments as the first step of their process. Personally, I prefer the shorter version, no longer than a paragraph: if you immediately start seeing the possibilities inherent in the idea, without knowing any of the details, that's a clear indication that the idea has legs. On the other hand, if the idea fails to stimulate the imagination of the intended audience (producer, director, script-editor, fellow writers), then it's best to either drop it or revise it considerably. And it's much easier to do this when you haven't yet spent days or weeks designing the entire plot.

Incidentally, in some manuals on sitcom writing you will find the advice to come up with a story first, and add the comedy later.

WRONG!!!

The idea for a comedy episode MUST have the humourous element embedded in it. That's not to say the same basic topic couldn't be treated dramatically, but the comedic possibilities must leap out at whoever you pitch the idea to.

It's my experience (and I've been doing this since 1991) that an idea for an episode which doesn't strike me as funny, will never become really funny in its further development.
Basically, a comedy series idea which isn't (potentially) funny is like an idea for a whodunit without a murder...

What else should your idea have? Well, it must be clear who the main character is going to be (in an ensemble comedy series like FCDK that's truly essential), what the source of the problem or conflict is going to be, and - usually - who the main opponent is going to be. You can add a bit of story development if it's important to get the essence of the episode across as well, but if the above ingredients are well-chosen, that will often not even be necessary.

How do I find my ideas? It depends - it can be because a specific episode needs to be written (introducing a new character, for example), or because of specific productional limitations (we need an episode with no exterior scenes). It often comes from juxtaposing characters, and looking for character elements which are present in the write-up but which haven't been used sufficiently or at all; from looking for ways in which the characters can be put in a new and unfamiliar situation; and from trying to create a relationship or conflict between two characters who don't usually have a lot to do with each other.

Plus, of course, the usual inspiration from life, newspaper articles, trends in society, and occasionally even other series or movies. Inspiration can strike at any time - but it can also stay absent for far too long, at times.

To finish, here's the idea for the last FCDK episode I wrote, 'Vraag Het Aan Vertongen' (Ask Vertongen). For the readers who don't know the series, Marc is our resident Jerry Lewis-type character (a bumbling fool), and Boma is the owner of the team and of a sausage factory. Despite his status, he's definitely not the brightest bulb of the lot.

'Marc decides to become a business consultant, despite having no experience in the field. When Boma's main business rival hires him and declares him a genius, all the Champions start to take him seriously and ask him for business advice - with predictably disastrous results all round, especially for Boma's company...'

We have the main character (Marc), the main problem of the episode (everyone asks him for advice and follows it with disastrous results). The main thrust of the episode (Boma's company is almost brought to its knees by Marc's creative ideas) is mentioned explicitly, the other storylines are implied. Inspiration for the episode came from my lack of respect for consultants, who generally make tons of money for providing advice which is either impractical or self-evident. And putting Marc in the role of a business consultant was the most effective way of making fun (and satirising) the whole trend.

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