Wednesday, July 18, 2007

MA Screenwriting Final Project progress report

It's six and a bit weeks [44 days to be precise] before I'm due to hand in the final project for my screenwriting MA. Screen Academy Scotland's got 24 other students all doing the same thing and the vast majority are writing film screenplays. Me? Not so much. I decided not long into the course that writing TV drama was my ambition. Despite that, I fought my natural inclination and tried to convince myself writing a feature was a good choice for my final project. Screen Academy Scotland tries to cater for film, TV and interactive, but there's an underlying film school ethos that's hard to avoid. Nevertheless, I came out and admitted my passion is TV.

So for my final project I'm devising a returning drama series, scripting the 60-minute pilot episode and storylining seven subsequent episodes. FAMILIES AT WAR is a soapy series set in Glasgow during WWII, with a cast of nineteen characters. Designing my characters was the first step: who are they? What do they want and need? What are their attitudes? How does their backstory affect their actions? What will they do at the moment of greatest stress or danger? Characters came and characters went. Nobody will ever get to read of firstborn son Angus Douglas or neighbourhood busybody Morag, they both got dumped from the final mix. Cora's sister Lara was invented, deleted and recreated twice. Gabriella wasn't so fortunate.

Next came the sets. Returning drama series will sometimes go on location, but most of the sets need to appear again and again for budgetary reasons. Much of the filming needs to be indoors, on studio sets, where conditions can be controlled and endless hours are not wasted lighting scenes. Yes, I know the script I'm writing and the series I'm creating will almost certainly never be made, but I'm trying to apply the same rigour needed for a real returning TV drama series. If you want to be a professional, it helps to try and think like a professional. Fake it till you make it, as John Spencer's character once said on The West Wing.

Then I had to plot the pilot. I needed dramatic storylines that filled not just this episode, but also spilled onwards through the rest of the episodes. My tendency toward serialised storyline definitely won out here. Most returning drama series will try to have their main A story completed in a single episode. Subsidiary stories will have serial elements that run over multiple episodes, but the goal is creating an episode that can be enjoyed on its own merits by a random viewer who's never seen the show before. FAMILIES AT WAR is closer to soap, with a profusion of serial elements. The pilot is definitely the most complete episode, with a clearly apparent A story.

Having nailed down much of my first episode's storylines, I developed these over seven further episodes. That needed new characters and new sets to plug the gaps, some of which got retro-fitted back into the pilot and accompanying documents. Lots and lots and lots of decisions should be made. When does Tam discover one of his sons isn't his own, and how will be react? What would happen if family outcast Siena came back to the Fioravanti fold, clutching a fateful telegram and about to give birth? How many murders can you usefully squeeze into an eight-part series?

When all eight episodes were storylined, I rewrote my character breakdowns to reflect what I'd learnt about my characters. FAMILIES AT WAR features two patriarchal characters, one of whom starts as a pillar of the community but faces a tragic, downwards trajectory. Why not mirror his fall by seeing his rival rise above expectations and emerge as a hero in the final episode? One character was going to be an adulterous, selfish woman who hen-pecked her husband. She transmogrified into a caring, loving mother frustrated by the limited opportunities for women in the show's historical setting. Violetta became the glue holding her family together, a much more complex and interesting character to explore.

These evolutions meant I had to rewrite the story document for my pilot, to best reflect the way my cast was growing and changing, taking on lives of their own. Finally, after weeks of inner debate, index cards, and endless rubbings out on a whiteboard, I've nailed down my pilot storyline, plus my character and episode breakdowns. Now I need to create a scene-by-scene for my pilot, trying storylines into 60+ scenes, and I'll be ready to start writing a first draft.

Some wise person described the process of creative writing as 60% preparation, 10% for the first draft and 30% for rewriting. I've definitely given myself as much time as possible for preparation, trying to ape the processes used to create a new continuing or returning drama series. Soon I'll be ready to dive into the first draft, eager to finally give my characters individual voices. Can't wait.

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