Today has been an unusual writing day. It been more like developing a photo, than building with a random box of Lego. And it feels great.
In February, an idea grabbed hold of me so hard, it made me get out of the bath to write it. Then it forced me to carry a note pad with me everywhere. It shook me awake in the middle of the night until I whispered its additions, deepenings and what-ifs into my ‘phone’s voice recorder for the morning.
I created new files to keep it all, verbatim, safe, unlosable, and it felt like I had a new boss, who I had to run to keep up with. The kind who’s not keen on telling you really where the pitch is – let alone the goalposts. But unlike other bosses like this (the ones who pose as gripping stories then pack up overnight), through the months, this one’s grown stronger, kinder and much more fun.
As the weeks went on, I moved my everything into their world, and I set up camp. Some weeks, I was in the office, taking dictation to discover new insights every single day. Their world is like this; the feelings, like that. Here’s the map – the peaks, troughs, and bangs. Here’s heartbreak. The funny’s hiding underneath.
Are you waiting for the sad bit? Not yet, not yet – this is a gleeful note from the front! Like a slowly developing (pre-digital) photograph, I think a beautiful story’s coming into view. So why am I writing this? Because I wonder if the method’s got something to do with it. Yes, this is one for you writer technique nerds out there. And if it interests or helps you, I would love your thoughts.
I make more money from narratives I shape in the professional communications world than I do as a scriptwriter – for now. I’ve been doing that for 30 years, and it gives me a great set of skills. Whether it’s important leadership speeches, inspirational 30-second movies, behaviour change programmes, training for cynics, or a new brand, project or team’s “messaging bible”, I’ve realised that when we put it at its simplest, fifty per cent of communication is structure- and audience emotion is the rest. This is the magic combination of where, what and how. Watch any children’s storyteller, listen to any world-changing speech, see any award-winning movie: it’s the same every time.
So what am I doing differently that this story feels so much stronger this time? Normally, I move too quickly to script. I love dialogue, beats, tension, subtext – they’re so much fun. But maybe I cared a lot more about the story and audience this time – because I realised it was much more important to me to know this story inside out than to get it down on paper.
It took ten weeks before I opened Final Draft (that screenwriting software we writers know and love).
And when I did, I could put the story beats (story pulses of excitement) straight on the page and then start filling in-between them. Each beat, you see, had grown from structuring those scenes that had dragged me out the bath or woken me at three. And these beats are like the nails we hammer into a trellis wall – pin-pointing direction for the story, as it climbs higher and higher to bloom.
And when I did, the characters had been put through intense and repeated personality testing (enneagrams repeatedly come out top for this job) so I knew each would be strong enough to climb this wall and fulfil my wicked writerly demands. I knew they’d soon criss-crossing each others’ lives with confidence – and be frisky enough to throw me some brilliant surprises.
And again – before opening First Draft – there was already a full series bible (the map for six episodes of the first series), so that Episode One could sing loudly about what it was there for (“A show! A show! We welcome you to our show!”)
And yes, finally, before writing “EXT – FRANKENSTEIN’S LABORATORY – NIGHT” I had read so many scripts around my genre and my market, to check audience boundaries and know where their expectations will meet my offer when I’m ready to make it.
Today has been an unusual writing day. And it feels great.