So the vendors didn’t accept our offer. I thought I would be disappointed, but the vendors were such 24 carat WANKERS that I’m just mad as hell. The price they wanted for a house that needed that much work was totally unrealistic; I went off it in seconds. I don’t watch Kirsty and Phil and Sarah Beeny for nowt you know, you can’t pull the wool over my eyes punks! They’re the ones that lost out, not us: we can find something a hell of a lot better than that with more potential and less work. It had salt and pepper mill pictures on the tiles in the Kitchen for Christ’s sake, plus there was anaglypta – 80s alert! – throughout, the garden was rubble and the bathroom was a VOID – ie. NOT THERE. Hah. Get. LOST.
Still, the whole experience gave me the idea for this post, so that’s something. No one may be able to answer the question “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”, but I can answer the question, “Why is your script like a house?” (Stay with me, don’t go towards the light Carol Ann!!!). Here’s the rundown in making your script like a (good) house.
1. Making it stand up. We all know scripts are *supposed* to have structures, many don’t, but then so don’t many houses. I’m always reminded of a house my parents bought when I was about eleven. They had a survey done, but the surveyor couldn’t be arsed to look in the roof and it started to fall off. Really. It was most upsetting, obviously. My parents sued the surveyor, won and got their roof stuck back on. However, structure seems to be completely neglected in all the “How To Write” classes I’ve been on. It’s often referred to as just “the three acts”, as if somehow even novices just know what it is – just like that. And what about the alternative versions? Blake Snyder. Chris Soth. John Truby and many more. Doesn’t it all warrant particular attention? A script hinges on this! One lecturer of mine many moons ago used to go on about “page 22” as if it was some magical fix: when someone finally asked what significance “page 22” actually had, he spluttered something about “turning points”; when someone asked what THEY were, he said, “Haven’t you READ about it?” No. Just paid a £1000+ a term for HIM to teach it to us. Which he didn’t, a bit like that surveyor who didn’t go into my parents’ roof.
So, many scripts out there doing the rounds don’t have a discernible structure and those writers in question haven’t got a clue what it is exactly or how to go about correcting the problem. And if your script comes back unread because of it, there’s no one to sue like my parents did (I can just imagine THAT thread of dialogue on Shooting People, can’t you??). And as it’s always said, you only have one chance. Though you *may* find an agent, prodco or initiative that takes multiple submissions from the same writer as a result of liking their “style”, often they won’t take a redraft of the script they’ve seen already.
2. Knowing it’s a Buyer’s Market. I could walk away from the house I made an offer on yesterday without so much as a backward glance: why? Because I know there are plenty out there that are cheaper, require less work and their vendors aren’t snotty bastards. Now this is not a call on writers to work for less than their industry rate; far from it. Rather what I’m saying is: how much work does your script need? How precious are you about your work, or are you open to ideas for further development? It can make all the difference. No one wants a rigid writer. It can be fun, too. I was invited for a meeting at one prodco, they didn’t take my script in the end, but one of the questions they asked me was: “Have you thought about introducing a supernatural element to this narrative?” I replied no, I hadn’t, but actually – that’s a great idea. So I didn’t get an option – but I got an idea for a new draft and that’s almost as good, plus hopefully a reputation as one of those writers who are not defensive about their work.
3. Being minimalist. When selling a house, one is encouraged to be as “minimalist” as possible, so the buyer can see a blank canvas to envisage their own stuff in your space. And it works. I did this and sold my flat in three days. Nothing was out: not a single toy, not even the draining board next to the sink or any shampoo bottles in the bathroom. It was weird, felt unlived in – and my cupboards bulged with all the crap I’d hidden. Yet the viewer came in, was barely across the threshold and she was saying, “This is perfect. Exactly what I want.”
We all hear about Readers “knowing” a good script from the first page. First impressions count. Think of your scene description in particular – that infamous “black on the page” – as being like all the random crap you have round your house. Looking at my desk right now, there’s a ton of jewellery on it, a mobile phone, a stapler, a stack of DVDs, keys, a can of Vanish carpet foam for some reason, a pen, some DVD-Rs, a picture of the children, my glasses (hah, didn’t know that, did you?) and a Peg person with disco hair my son made for me whom is called Clare Dinsdale. None of this was on here last week when I sold the flat. The trappings of my life – hidden away, as if I have a tidy home every day (yeah right).
A spec then should be similar: minimalist on the scene description. Leave the bulging stuff in your brain to tell the producer/director/script editor etc when it gets optioned. Until then, make them imagine how THEY could make your script without too much input from the pesky writer. Everyone knows we’re crazy, most likely have criminal records and drink problems and issues with our father/mother/siblings/neighbours/satan* (delete as appropriate). So try not to put them off with massive chunks of scene description, otherwise it’s a bit like opening the front door of a house you’re about to view and finding the hall is bright orange and the dog’s been sick on the carpet. Niiiiice. Not. Next!
4. Don’t give yourself away. When showing a viewer roud your home when you want to sell it, you may not lie, but you won’t give yourself away. Now there’s nothing wrong with my current flat, it’s lovely, but I lived in a flat about eighteen months ago that was rented and the landlords were selling it. I had had a row with these particular landlords (they were the DEVIL INCARNATE!), so every viewer that came round, I gave them the full spiel: there was nowhere to park, the woman selling the flat lied to us when we moved in and we’d got four parking tickets; the pub over the road was NOT quiet, it was open seven days a week until 1am and full to the brim with loud chavs; the weird-looking patch in the second bedroom was NOT a “spill”, it was damp. You get the picture (all of it was true by the way). Had I been selling the flat myself however, it would have been a different story: I would have been far more economical with the truth. In a similar fashion, your spec’s dialogue should be more economical. Don’t tell the story through it. Don’t have conversations that go on for three, four, five pages as your characters sit stock still. Have a little subtext, allude to stuff. Use irony. Don’t hand it all to the Reader on the plate, make them work for it in the same way a house buyer has to work for the truth, employing surveyors; a Reader then should have to employ his or her analytical skills in reading your spec.
5. A house is a home because of the people who live in it. A viewer will feel predisposed to a house if the family or people inside seem happy. People trying to sell houses because they’re splitting up for example will fare less well on the market than those people who’ve loved their house, yet have to move on for whatever reason. Conversely, vacant houses sell better than houses where the occupants are getting divorced, psychologists have apparently found. It’s as if viewers can pick up on the distress and it taints the fabric of the house.
That doesn’t mean a writer should write only HAPPY characters though. Dramas in particular can take depressing subject matter, yet still get optioned. But give your characters a HOME and don’t taint it. I read a lot of scripts with what I call “soap box moments”: in other words, characters rant about something which is clearly the writer’s view, not the character – they’ve become a mere mouthpiece. Similarly, I’ve had scripts through where characters seem to do particular things because another, usually successful film, has done it. Copying in effect, in the hope this will make the spec “salesworthy”. Make the world they inhabit original and plausible. Notice I didn’t say “believable” there. Believability, if that is a word (don’t think so), has no place in an unreal world in my view. A piece has to be plausible in that it has narrative logic: events don’t just come out of nowhere, they are coherent, hanging together in a logical chain – regardless of whether your story is set on a far away planet or the next street.
Equally, those characters have to have colour and dimension; they have to light up the page, be recalled easily, if not by name then by what they do. I don’t remember Timothy Spall’s character’s name in SECRETS AND LIES or exactly what he says, but I remember his frustrations, his empathy, his understanding and his magnificent speech at the end – in the same way I recall a house I liked by its garden or kitchen more than any other room.
So: your script is a house. Make it as shiny and “viewable” as possible. It’s a buyers’ market, some luck is involved, but there are things you can do to turn people’s heads your way. So do it! What are you waiting for…?