story, science, technology and creativity

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3-step CPR for your feature film script (or my over-edited novel)

How my over-edited novel looks: I know it's in there somewhere.

How my over-edited novel looks: I know the original is in there somewhere.

Is your script missing something? Does your story meander? Or maybe you can’t seem to find your rhythm? Join the club!

CPR for your script: form and structure

I’ve been working on the same *insert-swearword-here* manuscript for nearly three years.

My draft has been through a zillion carnations and reincarnations. It’s been called The Cockroach Book, The Half-witch Wars, Exploits, Ranger and now Short-changed. It’s been edited to within an inch of its pathetic over-edited life: in fact, there are no longer any cockroaches — or indeed half-witches — anywhere to be seen in the manuscript.

The result is a lot like an Egyptian mummy: so much band-aid, you can’t see what’s underneath.

Help! Where’s my novel?

Enter the Australian Writer’s Guild, with another of their super-useful workshops. This seminar is on structuring a feature film, and it’s run by UCLA graduate Barbara Connell, now pursuing a PhD at Murdoch’s School of Media, Communication and Culture. I know a feature film isn’t a novel, but writing for kids is a whole lot of action, dialogue and fast-paced fun. Feature film, anyone?

I sign up for Barbara’s seminar because deep down I am hoping she might have a secret potion or magic word or infallible technique that can unwrap my mummy and reveal the novel inside. She does.

And the secret is…

“Writing is not about manuals. It’s about manual labour. The only thing that’s going to get you there is sitting down and doing it.”

Argh! I know this. But ouch, it hurts to hear.

Barbara admits craft and technique have their place alongside hard work. Over the morning she runs through the script structures used by a dozen different screenwriting textbooks, and there’s something useful in each one.

But, says Barbara, there’s no need to go overboard.

“For me it can sometimes be too much,” says Barbara. “It can do your head in.”

I quite like the science of all that theory, but if your story is drowning in formulae, Barbara says go back to basics: watch and analyse movies like the one you want to make, and ask yourself the big questions:

Three-step CPR: Grab, maintain, reward

A great film is basically “a good story, well-told, with heart and substance,” says Barbara. It’s that simple. So, if your story needs urgent medical attention, start with its three vital signs:

Grab: Is it a good story? Is it worth telling? Is it a story someone wants to hear?

Maintain: Do you have the craft and technique to keep the audience in their seats?

Reward: Does your story have heart? Does it have substance? Does it satisfy the audience?

Barbara says nailing the reward is often the hardest. “How do you want your audience to feel at the end of the film?” she asks. “Form and structure is about architecting the story so the audience has an emotional experience.”

And that’s my problem!

I’ve dissected the heart right out of my story. I’ve created a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, and it’s wandering the page — functioning quite nicely, thank-you-very-much — but it’s missing a few essential organs.

Perhaps it would be more sensible to bury this thing deep in a pyramid somewhere, and begin on a new creation. I say no!

Breathe, damn you! Breathe!

I’ve had enough of half-finished projects. I’m going to bandage and sew and cut and glue until this thing works.

Watch out world: this story lives!


Photo credit to scrappy annie

10 questions your TV pitch should answer…with producer Amanda Higgs

Amanda HiggsAfter graduating film school, Amanda Higgs followed her own advice: she worked hard, and she stuck to her passion. “It took ten years to get my first production credit,” she says. “If I’d known it would take that long, I probably would’ve quit.”

But Amanda doesn’t strike me as a quitter.

Her number-one message is work hard: “Keep writing, all the time. Even if you have nothing to do. Just do something. Do whatever you can.”

I’m at Amanda’s screenwriting workshop thanks to ScreenWest and the Australian Writer’s Guild. The room is full of writers and producers, it’s scattered with lolly bowls and coffee cups. This could be intimidating, but Amanda makes it feel like we’re chatting over a cuppa. She’s candid and natural, the very opposite of unapproachable.

Now the independent producer of loads of great Aussie TV, including The Secret Life of Us and The Time of Our Lives, Amanda has been executive producer and head of drama at the ABC, script editor for The Slap, and chief-tea-maker-coffee-fetcher for many years in between.

Getting your start in the TV industry**

Breaking into TV is highly competitive. “It’s about building relationships, developing ideas and getting industry experience,” Amanda says. “You need experience and creativity.”

Getting that experience can be a challenge, she admits. “Script editing is a great way to get a foot in the door. All that experience makes you better at your own show, honing it, simplifying it, making it clear.”

Another great step, she says, is to find your way into a writer’s room, that legendary spot where a team of writers hide away to nut out new plot arcs, characters and storylines.

Pitching for TV

As part of the workshop, Amanda gives everyone a chance to pitch their TV idea, giving us professional feedback on the spot. What an opportunity!

I learn from watching and listening: a successful pitch needs to be absorbing, succinct, and informative. It needs to answer lots of questions without sacrificing passion, spirit and tone.


Does your pitch answer these 10 questions?

  1. What’s the story? Story should be the jewel in your pitch’s crown. Present the story up front, and make it catchy: “As concise as possible,” says Amanda. “As clear as possible.”
  2. What is your show is about? “Make sure you have something to say,” says Amanda. Why make this story? Why now?
  3. What’ll be happening? Who are the characters? Be specific. The more specific your concept is, the clearer your idea will be.
  4. Why should I care what happens? The stakes in your story must be high. How will you keep upping the ante?
  5. What is your show’s tone? “Tone is one of my favourite words,” says Amanda. “What will I feel when I watch?” This tone should shine through in your pitch, she says, especially for a comedy.
  6. Where is your show’s home? Home is where the heart of your show is. It might be a workplace, an apartment block, a café, a family home…
  7. What is your show’s audience? “You absolutely have to think about the audience,” says Amanda. She suggests checking out the ratings of similar shows (using websites like to work out what audiences are responding to what shows, and whether you can see similar audiences responding to your show.
  8. What similar shows are out there? Feel free to compare your show to other shows, but not to hugely expensive blockbuster shows that your free-to-air network will never be able to make.
  9. Who is your team? Having an experienced and respected writer or producer on your team can help to open doors. “Every project needs just one champion,” says Amanda. No experienced member on your team? It’s time to get out there and meet people.
  10. What’s the logline? Develop a one-sentence logline that summarises your concept. “Every scene should be about that logline. That’s very hard to do.” (Amanda’s favourite logline? “His fame was their fortune,” from Entourage.)

I’d love to see Takeshita Demons on the screen, or to work on an entirely new franchise (anyone need a screenwriter on their team?), so all this advice is incredibly useful.

Struggles, mistakes, disappointments

Just two years before The Secret Life of Us found its feet (and went on to become the Aussie drama most watched by 16-39 year olds), Amanda was fired from her position as script editor at Water Rats. “That was great,” she says, deadly serious. “It was a really well-paying job, it was really comfortable.”

I would have crawled under a stone and cried myself to sleep; Amanda grabbed the opportunity.

How refreshing is that!

Comfort doesn’t always go well with creativity. The struggles, mistakes and disappointments are all part of the learning journey (a fact I wrestle with every day).

“You have to be smart and you have to be strategic,” says Amanda. “You have to play the long game.

“The greatest gift as a writer is that you get your show made, and you get to see what doesn’t work. You need feedback, you need criticism. The business is about practising your craft.”

How brave!

I walk away from the day invigorated and full of ideas.

And ready to fail to the best of my ability. It’s one more step on the road to success, right?


**Do you live in Western Australia? Check out ScreenWest’s amazing Tele-navigator program, offered again this year. There’s no info on the web just yet, but subscribe to their newsletter to find out how to apply.