Thursday, January 11, 2007

Strange moments of inspiration

This week I have mostly been writing Danny's Toys, the screenplay for a 25-minute film. It's the final piece of assessed for the Script Development 2a module on my MA screenwriting course, but the story's origins stretch back three years to January 2004. I find deadlines are the most effective method for motivating me to write. I get antsy when I'm not writing, but seem to need the threat of a ticking clock to drive me into starting [and, indeed, finishing] a story. As a consequence, I don't tend to do much free writing - the idea of writing an entire novel for fun never occurs to me. But free writing can be amazingly productive and useful.

Sometimes, inspiration strikes and I feel obliged to what down whatever's just popped into my head. Danny's Toys was such an idea. These two sentence came to me one day: Once upon a time there was an inventor. He wasn’t born an inventor, he was just born like everybody else. From there I wrote 500 words, as fresh ideas and directions for the story tumbled from my fingers. I wasn't thinking or ordering my thoughts, it was more like taking dictation. I didn't question where the story was going, I let it find a path of its own. The results were shambolic, unstructured and charming, a grim fairytale unlike anything else I'd ever conceived.

Most of my writing to date has been done to a specific brief, with preset word counts, sometimes a restriction on the number of characters or voices allowed, sometimes working with prefabricated plot elements. To get most commissions you need to present a detailed, structured synopsis and character breakdowns, showing how a story will progress and the journey of its protagonist(s). That's a good discipline, but it encourages order over chaos, perspiration over inspiration. It's all too easy to forget the spark that first made you want to tell stories, before it became your livelihood.

Back to Danny's Toys: having written these 500 words, I wasn't sure how I could use them. The nature of the story defied easy categorisation. It had elements of a fable and an anti-war message, it was a love story and a tale about childhood and the loss of innocence. It seemed to be a lot of things, but crossed so many genres and boundaries that Danny's Toys defied simple pigeonholing. Who would be the audience for it? I wasn't sure. What medium best suited the story? It felt like a lushly illustrated graphic novel for both children and adults. In the unlikely event Danny's Toys ever became a film [of whatever length], the Gothic sensibilities and magical imagery screamed the name of one director: Tim Burton. Somehow, Danny's Toys felt like it could best be brought to life by the same vision that had given the world Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. [I know, I know, in my dreams - but a writer can dream, can't he?]

Three years ago the idea of doing an MA in screenwriting or seriously committing myself to become a broadcast drama scribe hadn't really occurred to me. Danny's Toys didn't fit in with the sort of work I was doing at the time, so I put it to one side, the quirky orphan of my imagination. Fast forward eighteen months and I read about Edinburgh's Napier University launching an MA course in screenwriting. Among the prerequisites for applying was supplying a piece of original writing, ideally the synopsis for a film or TV project you wanted to write. My bread and butter work did not easily adapt itself to that purpose, I needed something else, something that might stand out from the crowd and suggest I had imagination.

I dug out Danny's Toys and was delighted to find how much I still liked the story. Yes, it was odd and quirky and beyond easy categorisation, but it showed potential. I gave the synopsis a spit and polish, and submitted it with my application. That got me an interview and the interview got me on the MA course. When we got to the current script development module, I tried and failed to successfully developed another idea I'd been nurturing. The deadline for the first piece of assessed work was approaching and I needed a story suitable for telling in 25 minutes, something cinematic and striking. Who else could I turn to, but Danny's Toys?

I've had lots of positive feedback on the story as its developed and turning my original, rambling 500 words into a cohesive treatment was challenging - but the results got me a good grade, with distinction. Now I'm writing the first draft of the script. Two days ago I was struggling. There was something missing, some final element the story that hadn't occurred to me. In such circumstances I find a bath does wonders. There's no guarantee you'll solve whatever storytelling problem is plaguing you, but that bath's a wonderfully restful place and - if nothing else - you'll be cleaner afterwards.

Wonder of wonders, inspiration arrived as I was rinsing my hair [not a task that takes long these days]. An image popped into my head, the last piece of the jigsaw, an element that added a resonance and extra layer to the tale I was telling. I turned the idea over and over in my head. Did it fit? Was it great, or simply crass? Would it overwhelm the rest of the story? No, it seemed to work, it seemed to fit. So yesterday I wrote that element into the story and, yes, I think it works. Now I can't wait to write the rest of the script.

So, if you're lacking in inspiration, I recommend trying a nice, hot bath. If nothing else, you'lll be cleaner afterwards.

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