Friday, August 01, 2008

Learning to trust your instincts

I tend to believe most storytellers have a natural instinct for what they do. Call it a little voice in the back of your head, a nagging sensation that tells you when things are going off-track. The more stories you tell, the more attuned you become to that voice. You learn what works for you and what doesn't, what accepted wisdom to ignore when if doesn't suit your story, when to keep going with a story even if it ain't working yet - and when to fold.

Funny thing is, you go along to a storytelling course or workshop and a lot of the things you'll hear reinforce what you've already discovered by trial and error. When I did Robert McKee's story structure seminar [back near the dawn of time, if memory serves], much of what he said chimed with what I already did. There were some things I didn't agree with, and some concepts I simply couldn't grasp at the time. [I still grapple with Controlling Idea.]

None of this exempts you from learning and hone the craft skills required to tell stories in a particular medium. Writing for radio is hugely different from writing a novel, and both are much removed from screenplays or scripting comic strips or writing for computer games. It's pure arrogance to assume success in one medium gives you any advantage in another medium in terms of craft skills. Talent is one thing, craft is something else entirely.

For example, I've had 18 novels published [with number 19 due out in December and talks underway for number 20]. Does that make me a natural TV writer? Nope. It shows I can be professional, I'm able to write for different genres, I've got more than one story to tell, and that I have stamina as a writer. After close to 20 novels, I've learned how streamline my writing processes. And I've learned to listen to that nagging voice inside my head.

For the past month, I've been trying and failing to make any headway on developing a new TV drama pilot for the Red Planet Prize. I wanted to write a action adventure comedy thriller called The Revengers. I came up with my cast, gave them loads of quirks and tweaks - but couldn't come up with a plot for the first ten minutes. Let alone the whole first episode. Let alone a whole series.

Going to the Doctors mini-academy last week forced me to listen to my instincts again, remember why I write. I want to tell stories - and I didn't have any stories for The Revengers. So I'm pulling the plug on it. Maybe I'll come back to the concept one day, maybe not. Bad news? I've wasted the first month of three before the deadline for entries. Good news? I wised up and know what I need to do with the other two months. I listened to my instincts.

Ask yourself this question: are you writing the right story? Do you care about the characters, or are they merely contrivances cut off a big block of cliches? Can you imagine what the fifth episode of your original TV drama will be about? What about the Christmas episode, what happens then? What about the end of the second series? Is your core concept exciting, fresh and original? Or does it feel like a carbon copy of a hit show with a few, minor tweaks?

What are your instincts trying to tell you?

3 comments:

laurence timms said...

Weird coincidence here: I was inspired by the Red Planet Prize to try my hand at scriptwriting and quickly discovered it's nothing at all like writing a novel. Hence my blog post: http://laurencetimms.wordpress.com/2008/07/31/a-scene-from-a-drama-red-planet-prize/

But hell, I wish I was able to shrug my shoulders about scriptwriting from the position of having 20 novels published, rather than, um, zero. I'm trying, dammit.

Rach said...

Hi David. It's not really a wasted month because you are now going to use the remaining two with a better idea of what you want to achieve. Two months at high efficiency rather than three at low.

Much better than perservering for three months with something you don't believe in.

My first idea looked good but I could not see beyond the first series. It took me a while to realise this.

I was lucky in that one of the threads had more legs so I ripped that out and ran with it instead.

Hope the next two months go well.

Janice Okoh said...

I think that ideas have to ripen. If they're unripe then you end up forcing things and the idea doesn't work and it could be an excellent idea. I had an idea in 2003 that I really wanted to write but the characters were all cliches. So I forgot about it. 5 years later, I am finding my characters for this story and it feels really good. I'm sure you'll be working on your idea in that beautiful place called your subconscious and it will bubble up to the surface when it's ripe like a juicy (insert fruit of choice).