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Knowing It And Doing It

About five times a year I get emails from writers who hire me for no other reason it seems than to get me to tell them their script is FANTASTIC. When I [mistakenly] point out they may want to consider various things for the script’s development, they get the hump – hence my writing this post, Dear Writer, many moons ago.

But that’s life. It’s something that has always happened – and will always happen. Besides which, one reader is one reader; no one knows anything; blah-de-blah-blah. No one agrees with that more than I do, having had enough conflicting feedback on my scripts to sink a small ship.

But it’s this response which winds me up above all others:

But I KNOW about structure and character…!

I venture that 90% of the spec scripts I see – particularly MOVIE specs – have a problem with structure and/or characterisation. That’s not too unusual, since many scripts I see are in their early stages. And it’s not that I doubt those writers’ assertions, I believe absolutely they believe they KNOW about structure and character. God knows there’s enough on the ‘net about both elements, they may well have read scores of articles, never mind read books on them, spoken to colleagues, etc etc etc.

But there’s KNOWING it – and then there’s DOING it. Two very different things… And none of us are immune if we take our eye off the ball. Here are some of my thoughts on structure and character – and why even the experienced writer needs to consider them in EVERY SINGLE DRAFT:

Accessibility. Structure is by its very nature formulaic and you’re not going to catch me saying to clients they HAVE to have their turning point on page 22 or whatever for their script to be *good*. Structure is NOT a miracle cure and anyone who thinks it is, IS an actual nutter. Besides which, some of the most dull films of the last ten years have been predictable in the extreme, simply because they stick to it too rigidly.

However, looking at versions of structure (note I don’t automatically say, “The Three Acts”: it doesn’t work for all writers) can be helpful in accessing problems with your draft, especially those moments where your narrative ends up “running on the spot”, which is notoriously hard to pin down on its own. Similarly, a BRILLIANT character can sometimes outshine even the biggest problems – including a completely rubbish plot, because characters can invite emotional responses in readers in a way the more clinical structure doesn’t seem to be able to in my experience. Two heads are always better than one, even if you ultimately reject what the second says, at least consider alternative interpretations. (The only caveat I would offer to that is remember what you wanted out of the story, there is such a thing as being *too accessible* as a writer).

Simplicity. Movies by their very nature are simplistic. They have to be; they only have roughly 1.5 – 2 hours to get across a wealth of information across, including those characters’ motivations, arena, dialogue, etc etc. Yet writers struggle to keep their stories simple as a general rule; many fight an inner demon that cajoles them into making events as CONVOLUTED AS POSSIBLE in their feature specs, especially the “newer” writers – and yes, I did too when I first started.

Breaking movie stories down then into two areas – structure and character – can be a godsend; it literally shines a light on where the plot gets crowded, either with different multiple story strands or a mer de noms character-wise (sometimes early drafts have both). No one is saying you can’t be clever with ANY story, but these things need building up from the bottom, one layer on top of another, draft on draft. Shove all your ideas in the melting pot from the start – well, it can be a recipe for disaster.

Characters Need Role functions. Lots of writers get hot under the collar when a reader says their characterisation needs work, even nicely. Instead said writer will insist they tried hard to differentiate each of their characters, gave them different ways of speaking, made them different colours, genders, races… And so it goes on.

Whilst all that is a good starting point, characterisation doesn’t stop with differentiation on a surface level, whether it’s skin colour or accent. You could have a plethora of people ALL THE “SAME” on a surface level, yet pull off wildly differentiated characters. Role function is something writers seem to consistently forget about – how other characters HELP or HINDER the protagonist in achieving their goal (or not). Similarly, those same characters need to GIVE something to the narrative, keep it running, else why are they there? They need to earn their keep and if they don’t, you need to shove their sorry arses out on the street.

Reader Proofing. If your reader does not understand your story or your characters’ motivations, of course there is a chance s/he might be a nutter and you’ve been wildly misunderstood. There may even be the point s/he may be some kid on work experience or is just hung up on some screenwriting mantra which doesn’t help anyone: I will never forget the time one reader blithely asked me, “Have you thought about using The Three Acts?” Um, just a bit!!!

But generally speaking, what is the complete nutter ratio on script readers do you think? Having orbited the script reading circuit for approximately 7 years, I would hazard in my completely non-scientific way (which is basically just looking at my rejection letters and emails in prep for this post!), it’s about 6: 1. So for every nutter you get, I reckon there’s about 6 that are *okay* or above.

But hey: don’t take MY word for it – GET LOTS AND LOTS of feedback yourself and see what kind of suggestions you get and form your own ratio. It’s not an exact science and depends wholly not only on WHOM you approach, but sometimes WHEN, too. I have two letters on the same script from the same reader at the same company, four years apart. Very interesting what she says… And how she changes her mind, even though the script didn’t change at all, bar the title.

No Humility. This seems to happen with dramas the most and has actually happened to me in the past when writing myself. Sometimes, you get so *obsessed* with a character and/or story, you tie yourself up in knots to the point you don’t communicate anything much at all. Structure will meander, there might be some nice character “moments”, but that will be it. Instead the script willl seem dreamy, maybe even a bit weird and your reader will end up wondering what in the name of bloody hell you’re going on about.

However, go back to basics, FORCE yourself to re-examine the story and more importantly WHAT YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE AND /OR COMMUNICATE and voila: the waters will become less muddy. But because a writer says they *already know* about structure and character and have supposedly surpassed the basics, they close off this avenue to themselves.


We’re always learning, no matter how many articles and books we’ve read or even scripts we’ve written. In a business of collaboration, where there are no “rules”, if you start believing you know what you’re doing *no matter what* anyone else in the universe says, THAT’S the moment you stop.

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1 thought on “Knowing It And Doing It”

  1. I found that all very helpful! I haven't had a chance to read scores of articals on the internet as, being at school, writing is a hobby and I am very busy most of the time, but I will definatly take into account what you've said ad hopefully it will make my writing a little better! Thanks!

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