Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Finger on the pulse, or just a dead script?

There's no such thing as an original story, but give a dozen writers the same story and they'll create twelve different scripts. Some will go comedic, others tragic. Some opt for an upbeat, positive ending while others [we're-all-going-to-die merchants like me] will reach for a slice of bleak. The idea for a new script can appear fully formed in your imagination, and the same story appear in a film, novel or TV show not long after. It's no conspiracy, it's just coincidence.

For example, I wrote a TV drama pilot script called Taking Liberties when I was part of the Scottish Book Trust's mentoring scheme last year. It was a conspiracy thriller set in a near future, surveillance society Britain where ID cards are compulsory. My initial concept was a school teacher came back from a year working in the Third World to discover the UK's transformation in her absence. Members of her family get unjustly imprisoned and she becomes politicised.

This evolved during the mentoring process, so the protagonist remained in Britain while the changes took place, living out her own life and not noticing the slow, inexorable erosion of civil liberties. But she's forced to face reality after her husband dies in suspicious circumstances while in police custody. I think I've written five drafts of that script and it's a taut, pacy little piece. I've been using it as a writing sample, but not for much longer.

Today's Radio Times features a new conspiracy thriller starting on BBC1 next week, called The Last Enemy. It tells the story of a Brit who returns home after five years abroad. He discovers a changed country where ID cards are compulsory, and tackles key issues like the balance between national security and civil liberties. The protagonist is drawn into a world of secrecy and subterfuge, and... Well, you can guess the rest.

In a way, it's nice to know that Taking Liberties addresses many of the same issues. It shows I was on the right track with my pilot script last year, had my finger on the pulse. Unfortunately, it also means my script is history. The Last Enemy has covered that ground, my effort becomes an irrelevancy, a dead script. It's kind of frustrating, but also useful - now I need to create a new pilot to replace Taking Liberties in my script portfolio.

There's one more thing worth remembering: no script is wasted. As a writer you will learn something from every script you write, discover some crafty shortcut or improve your grasp of storytelling essentials. Don't believe me? Go back and read something you wrote a year ago. Feel your hand twitch for the editing pencil or the delete button. Now go read something you wrote three years ago. Back then it was the best you could do. Now it reads like baby poo. Keep writing and you'll keep learning, especially if you seek out and absorb constructive criticism. Onwards.


Matt Badham said...

I never fail to be amazed (and impressed) by your the-glass-is-half-full attitude to the pitfalls of writing. Good luck with your new script.

English Dave said...