By JJ Marsh
How does a writer know if their work is better suited to film or TV?
It is not easy, as TV is now as ambitious as film in its storytelling and subject matter.
Apart from the massive best sellers most other film adaptations often come from short stories, graphic novels, articles and true stories that have what is referred to as a “High Concept” idea. This means you could explain the story in a couple of sentences, it has mass appeal and some unique quality or twist. For example in the film Ransom, a wealthy businessman’s son is kidnapped. Not particularly original? The smart twist is that instead of paying the ransom, the father pays for a contract hit on the kidnappers. That twist makes the idea original and therefore High Concept. If your short story or graphic novel has a highly original concept at its heart you are already ahead of the game.
The toughest part of adapting material is being able to hold on to what made the original appealing whilst making it work for a new medium. It is often why huge, beloved novels fail as films - too much has to be changed in order to fit into a reasonable running time.
If your novel is particularly long, has multiple plots and a complex structure it is more likely to suit a TV series. However, TV doesn’t like doing single dramas as they are expensive to make and market. In fact most production companies and broadcasters want any new idea to have potential for 5 series each consisting of 12 episodes. This is why cop and medic shows always clog up the schedule, they never run out of stories of the week and they are worlds filled with conflict and drama. Come up with a brilliant new take on either and you will be very popular.
In your book, you suggest plenty of places where writers can pitch ideas, but my question is when. How do you know if you’re ready?
Ideas really are ten a penny, unless of course you have come up with a brilliant high concept as discussed earlier and already have examples of your work that show you will be able to turn that into a fantastic script or book.
Production companies will want to see a finished manuscript and a slick and exciting pitch doc. Unfortunately most writers send their work out before it has been polished to perfection. To get to this stage requires lots of rewrites. It is almost impossible to see some of the mistakes you have made when you have been working for months on an idea. Even the best screenwriters and authors work with an editor. You need feedback.
“Many receive advice, only the wise profit from it.” – Publilius SyrusGood feedback helps you to fully realise the potential of your story and communicate it clearly. Most importantly you need to get used to the process, as screenwriting is highly collaborative. If you don’t want to change a word go write Haikus.
Remember, industry professionals will not read rewrites so you get one chance to convince them of your talent… or get labelled as an amateur. Rewrites are much easier when you have useful feedback.
Finding people you can trust to give you feedback is important but you must teach them how to do it effectively. I came up with a system I called The Power Of 3 that has become very popular, especially with writers who need feedback via an online community or contacts. Here it is.
WHY YOU NEED FEEDBACK
Ask any industry professional for the number one mistake writers make and they will almost always agree it’s this –
SENDING OUT WORK BEFORE IT’S READY.
So how the hell are you supposed to know when your script is ready? The following is an excellent way of making certain you are giving your script the best chance of achieving its full potential.
WHO TO ASK
You need to be very careful when seeking people to give you feedback on your work. Most people start with their loved ones and family. However, there are a number of crucially important factors to getting the most benefit out of asking non-professionals to critique your work.
DO NOT ask the bitter, twisted and failed wannabe writer that you met at a party, even if they are the closest thing you have to someone with writing experience. Why? Because they hate you!
You have had the audacity to actually write something! You are now their competitor in an already evil and unjust world. They will subtly (or not so subtly) do everything in their power to kill your enthusiasm and your project. Learn to recognise them. They are like urine soaked alleyways at two in the morning, a shortcut that can kill you. The longer route may seem hard work but you will actually reach your goal.
Do not underestimate the power and savvy of the punter. You were one before you became a screenwriting genius! The average TV and film watching public is now pretty sophisticated in their ability to say what they like and what they don’t. Find someone with a positive attitude to life and who likes TV and Film. This could be friends, family or other writers you’ve met through a writers group or forum (but watch out for the negative types). Next you need to do EXACTLY the following in order to make this work to your best advantage.
THE POWER OF 3
This is a great tool and used properly can make a huge difference to the quality of your work. It may seem like I’m asking you to do a lot but by now you should have started to realise how competitive this industry is. If this is too much you shouldn’t even be considering a career as a screenwriter.
Remember, every time you start wanting to protest repeat the mantra – “if I keep on doing what I’m doing, I’ll keep on getting what I’m getting.” If you haven’t got your big break yet it’s most likely because you are sending out work before it is ready. Use this technique. It works!
1) Find three positive people. Ask if they would be willing to help you develop your career and give feedback on your script. It doesn’t matter who they are but it is important that you treat them like PROFESSIONALS.
2) Teach them how to give feedback. Ask them to immediately scribble down any questions that jump out after they have read the script. Ask that they always couch their comments as QUESTIONS.
Explain that this is the normal way professionals work and that it really helps you to develop the work. Tell them that they don’t have to worry about coming up with comments or critique. All you want is for them to ask any questions that arise from reading it. Even if it is only one question.
3) If possible arrange to meet each of them (separately) somewhere quiet once they have read your script. Offer coffee/beer/food as your treat.
If the other person is also a writer and you are unable to meet, offer to be a Power of 3 reader for them and make sure you give a prompt response to the work they send.
4) When you meet up ask again that they always couch their comments as QUESTIONS instead of telling you what they think is wrong. Be attentive and take notes. During your meeting they will inevitably slip back into wanting to tell you what would work better (especially if they are another aspiring writer.) Each time gently stop them and politely ask that they keep to couching everything as questions. DON’T try and answer the questions or justify what you have written. Just take a note of their question.
Why questions instead of advice? Well, how do you react to the following type of feedback on your script – “I just thought that it was horrible, the way the hero just walked out on his wife and kids.”
There’s a very good chance that one of your readers is your beloved. We tend to be much less patient with our loved ones and the last thing you need is a domestic argument because you start becoming irritated. Or, remember what I said earlier about “Write what you know.” Perhaps you have drawn on some personal stuff for your script (the break up of your marriage?) It is likely that you are now snarling at your script editor…
Okay, how do you react to this example? – “What was it that made the hero just suddenly walk out on his wife and kids?” Different? Being asked a question feels less critical and forces you to consider whether or not you have explained your characters motivation clearly enough.
This is also why you need 3 feedback readers. If all three ask the same question you clearly have a problem you need to address. If only one comments it may just be that the reader dislikes the character or subject based on their own experience or prejudice. You don’t want to end up rewriting for the wrong reasons.
Look out for Part Three tomorrow!
Adrian formerly worked as a nightclub bouncer and a hairdresser before stumbling upon the world of film and television. His writing credits include ITV’s “The Last Detective” “Blue Dove” “Where The Heart Is”, BBC’s “Paradise Heights”, “The Eustace Brothers”, “Waking The Dead” and “River City”.
He’s also written for animation for the legendary “Dennis & Gnasher” for Nine Network Australia and CBBC in the UK and Iconicles for CBBC and ABC (Australia). He has directed episodes of MI High (Series 7) and Eve (series 1 and 2) for CBBC.
“Night People” was Adrian’s feature debut as writer director and went on to win the BAFTA Scotland and Cineworld Audience Award and was also nominated for Best Screenplay at the same awards.
His book Making It As A Screenwriter launched in September 2008 and was hailed by leading industry professionals as the definitive career guide for aspiring screenwriters.
For more useful, comprehensive and targeted information on selling to screen, Making It As A Screenwriter is available at www.meadkerr.com
All proceeds go to ChildLine – the UK's free, 24-hour helpline for children in distress or danger. Trained volunteer counsellors comfort, advise and protect children and young people who may feel they have nowhere else to turn. www.childline.org.uk
Images courtesy of Benjamin Balázs (Creative Commons)