Two-Hour Masterclasses.

Part of me thinks a real writer should sell their television set and denounce anything audio-visual. Yet another part thinks that screenplays are a great way to learn and improve our writing techniques, and I’ve seen many this past week.

The first on my list was Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. There is not a wasted word or action over the whole two hours, and the number of back references is staggering. From the bell at the very beginning to, “I wish I had a million dollars,” to where Mr Welsh punches George Bailey, each one of these is a set-up to a later plot point. A tight script is the accepted Hollywood convention, but Quentin Tarantino is one of the few writers who allows his characters to speak about matters unrelated to the plot.

Dog Day Afternoon runs to a similar length but takes place almost exclusively in one location. Yet there are so many characters interacting that it lends the film a rapid pace and never feels as though the director is padding out the action. It’s also worth a look at the more recent Phone Booth.

2001: A Space Odyssey — Three of the Discovery...
2001: A Space Odyssey — Three of the Discovery One crew are in a state of hibernation, ostensibly to conserve resources for the voyage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I went to a special limited-run screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Saturday. I’m still trying to work out fully what happened at the end, but the journey there was a masterclass in show-don’t-tell. There must have been about 600 pages of stage directions and two of dialogue. It would do little justice to describe it on the page, so try watching even just ten minutes to gain a sense of Stanley Kubrick’s style.

Incidentally, it’s only one of two films I’ve ever seen where the cinema has provided an intermission. I don’t know why these fell out of favour, as it’s quite handy for nipping to the bathroom, and also for the house to make money from bar sales.

As well as the above-mentioned films, I also had an opportunity to see new short films made by 16- to 19-year-olds. The screening was at Dundee Contemporary Arts and made with the assistance of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. Each one was inspired by an archive of experimental films from the 1970s to the 1990s, and the one that appealed to the individual the most was played before their piece. Almost all of them, old and new, explored ideas beyond the conventions of ordinary filmmaking, from a lonely girl in a room full of friends and balloons to two musicians swinging guitars by the neck while playing them.

I managed to chat with Scott Funai, the director, producer and star of Road to Nowhere. This short piece is about a schoolboy who doodles on his exam paper, effectively ruining the chances of him finding a job, with the title repeated in voice-over by him and the other characters. He told me he takes the Mike Leigh approach to scripting, preferring improvisation over dictation. Scripts are supposed to be a bare outline and the director fills in the rest, but Leigh doesn’t even begin writing one until he’s confident the actors fully inhabit their characters.

Although the approaches from the above writers may be different from each other, the end result is the same in the sense that the approach works for that particular screenplay. And that principle can be applied to any type of writing, from a 50-word poem where each phrase must have significance to a novel written purely in stream of consciousness. The approach will have a great influence over the result.

Have you considered changing your approach? I said before that I tend to think about my pieces for a long time, then write them very quickly. But when I was about 15, I wrote a fragment of a song lyric. I revisited it over the years and tried to compose the rest of the song, but it wasn’t coming together. It was only when I was twice that age that I decided to treat it as a poem and it slowly came together into six verses. I now consider it a finished work but it was written over a much longer period than I would normally devote to a piece.

Albert Einstein is attributed with saying, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” As far as I know, he never wrote a screenplay, but he makes a good point.


Drop the Dead Entry.

When I talked about short-form writing last week, I failed to mention the My Two Sentences blog, where Edward Roads writes a complete story in that number of sentences. Most recently, it’s a timely argument around the Christmas dinner table.

Speaking of few words, it’s been another busy week and I haven’t had much time to think of an entry built around one theme, so let me give you a few.

On Friday, it was my office party. I always think it’s a good idea for a writer to have a ‘day job’. It started me thinking of a particularly brilliant piece of writing on this theme: the last episode in series two of Drop the Dead Donkey. The first half focuses on the party itself while the second deals with the aftermath the next morning. The episode is available on 4OD, and it quite rightly won Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin a BAFTA award.

Yesterday evening, I was listening to playwright Alan Bissett on Pulse 98.4, a community station broadcasting from East Renfrewshire. I’ve seen him live a couple of times, and he likes to put issues and controversies on the stage, so I half-expected the conversation to turn to politics straight away. It did, particularly regarding the question of Scottish independence.

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna...
Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight, I’m seeing the classic It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen for the fourth time. This will be the black and white version, which satisfies my inner purist, although the artificially coloured version I saw is incredibly well done. You might not be aware how many films are based on short stories, as filmmakers can still extract almost as much as they can from a novel. Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are two such examples, and the source for Frank Capra’s masterpiece is a story of 4400 words.

Later in December, I’m off to see a stage adaptation of James and the Giant Peach. I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s book since I was a child, so I’ve forgotten much of the plot and I’m looking forward to being surprised.

Someone asked me recently which authors I liked to read when I was younger, and I could only name him and Enid Blyton. With a little thought, I added Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series. I did used to read quite a bit, but from all over the place. My grandad used to take me to the library: I would pick books I liked the look of, and I can’t remember any of the authors’ names. I’ll report back if that changes.