So, we’re now about half-a-dozen scripts in to the Script Surgeon project and the response so far from authors whose work we’ve dissected has been very positive. Good. It’s a hard thing to hear your work taken to pieces, and while we try to be practical, positive and constructive, the fact remains that if we aren’t identifying problems, we aren’t doing these writers any good.

What’s striking is that out of the two sit-coms, one radio play, three feature screenplays and one short film screenplay, the same two pieces of advice would have been appropriate, to a greater or lesser degree in almost every case. So, to save you some cash, before you submit a script to the script surgeons, why not check your work against these two questions?

  • Does your story depict characters who suffer in pursuit of their goals?
  • Have you researched the subject matter?

The second one is easier than the first one. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean that if you happen to be a British middle-class white man, all you can write about is the lives of British middle-class white men. It means that you have to know what you’re writing about, and that can be accomplished either by having lived it, or through researching it. Research is the enemy of cliché and can in itself be inspiring and stimulating.

Want to write a story about a psychiatrist? Ring up the local NHS hospital, or do a Google search, and find one who will let you buy them lunch in exchange for asking them questions. Not only will you get the details of psychiatry right, but you will glean ideas for stories from the process. Want to write a story about rivalry between bishops? Go to the library, get on Wikipedia and find out the details of the hierarchies of the church of England.

Having absorbed all this detail, do you have to respect it all word-for-word? Of course not. If you can make your world convincing, then it doesn’t necessarily have to be accurate. You will sometimes want to pick a more dramatic, funny, provocative, or resonant version of reality to make your story work, but by absorbing yourself in the details, you stand a chance of making those choices smartly and not flagging up to the reader “I don’t know what I’m talking about”. As a non-Doctor, I find every medical line in House to be completely convincing, but I’m well aware that large swathes of it are totally inaccurate.

The other piece of advice is a little trickier, partly because it sounds like a rule and my feeling is that rules are treacherous because there will always be writers who slavishly follow any rule presented to them, regardless of whether it actually applies to their story or not; and writers who instantly break any rule presented to them, because “there are no rules, man, it’s art.” Okay, true, there are no rules, but there are certainly stories and non-stories and stories have certain identifiable features. One, as early posts have discussed, is cause-and-effect.

So… if your story is about a person (or animal or robot) then to preserve cause-and-effect, that person needs to do things. But that means that they need to do those things for a reason which the audience can understand, and then they need to be affected – those actions need consequences. And since stories are about suffering, we have our rule: characters need to suffer in pursuit of their goals.

Some screenplays feature leading characters who do nothing, but just stand and watch the story march past them. Some screenplays feature leading characters who take all sorts of actions, but have no clear motives for these actions. Some screenplays feature leading characters who take actions for clearly understandable reasons, but don’t seem to care whether they succeed in their goals or not. And so on. And none of these is likely to make for a good piece of storytelling.

Maybe you can think of counter-examples – in fact, let me know in the comments if you can, as I’d love to know what these screenplays put in place of this – but locking these three elements together: goal, action, consequences, is likely to bring your central plot much more sharply in to focus.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

False Reincorporation
The real value in a “High Concept”