Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Screenwriting eurekas can be a long time coming

Entry deadline for the Frank Deasy Award looms [Feb 1st]. Run by BBC Scotland Drama, Creative Scotland and the BBC writersroom, the contest honours the acclaimed TV dramatist who wrote Looking After Jojo, Real Men and the last Prime Suspect.

Whoever wins will be offered a residency at BBC Scotland for six months, developing original ideas for BBC1 with prospects for a script commission. Entrants must be Scottish or live in Scotland, with a professional credit in TV, theatre, radio or film.

I'm using the Feb 1st deadline as motivation for a much-delayed project. Years ago I write the pilot for a hour-long new weekly continuing drama, Families At War. It was the major project for my screenwriting MA, and helped get me a trial at Doctors on BBC1.

The script shrank to 28 pages, then expanded back to 48 pages. That version was a Red Planet Prize finalist in 2009 and still serves as a calling card sometimes, but it's deeply flawed. For a start, there are eight competing storylines, instead of two or three.

As a consequence none of the characters get enough room to reveal who they really are. [It's a bad habit I sometimes have - clogging plot with complications, instead of exploring the complexities of a few core characters, their wants, needs and flaws.]

Even my A story is problematic, with incident after incident happening to the central character, rather than focusing on his actions, reactions and decisions to those incidents. Thinking about that last week, I had a belated realisation after my script's structure.

Every version of the script to date ends on a double-whammy - when rioters attack the protagonist's livelihood, he chooses to stand and fight [a rare case of him being active]. But next day police arrest the protagonist instead of the rioters - the end.

Last weekend I finally realised the next day coda doesn't belong in the pilot. Why? Each ep has a different family member as protagonist. Episode two will now open with the husband being arrested and focus on how the family matriarch responds.

Having changed my structure, I'm replotting the pilot to ensure each beat of the A story is driven by my protagonist's action, reactions and decisions. Because it's a factually-inspired historical drama, there are events that must happen at fixed moments.

The underlying problem with all my previous versions was that I let historical fact dictate structure. I fell in love with the events I'd found through research, rather than keeping my focus on how those events challenged my characters' inherent flaws.

The next day coda felt like a fabulous ending for my pilot. But it belongs at the start of episode two, propelling the drama in a fresh direction, providing an engine that will help drive the plot. Good to finally have that eureka. Shame it took so long. Onwards!

No comments: