Writing a weekly Tv quiz show has become for me a new way to write humour. And if writing humour is always a harrowing task, being in charge of all the writing plus the research and choosing the right questions with the right level of difficulty is trickier than it seems. In my case, doing it in English makes it no easier either, as it involves constantly checking the vocabulary. But, on the flip side, it’s one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever done.
Finding rather than creating
It’s not easy to get a laugh from the contestants, let alone the audience. And my jokes miss the target more often than I care to admit. Now, quiz shows or panel games have a fantastic aspect, which it’s pretty evident. For all the mentioned difficulties, as a writer you are not the only responsible for the content. It is already done for you. Other than the participants and the presenter, the core of it is the information in terms of questions and answers in a variety of rounds. So you don’t have to come up with this information, only to find it, choose it and present it. That research takes time indeedand you certainly need some criteria to select the questions and the stories that match the tone of the show, but not so much creative talent as common sense.
That’s why getting interesting, funny and surprising content is a very important part of it. So I’ve imposed on myself the duty of always looking for content that I find fascinating. The result? Well, of course when you’re churning out scripts on a weekly basis and you dare to watch the result you see sometimes bits you like, typically, when the presenters improve one of your lines, or they simply improvise. It may make you sad you that you didn’t write with that line, but if you see it from a broader perspective, you created the situation.
Then you see things that you think could have been better and well, a few things you wrote that you wished you had never written, but that is part of the job. The overall impression, though, is what counts. That, and the possibility to improve on the next script. Yes. That is one of the marvellous things of weekly or daily shows. You get to learn because you have the opportunity to make mistakes.
Not too many, I hope.
In case you want to see an example. Here’s one of the quiz shows I’ve written, as part of my duties as the scriptwriter of the programme ‘The Weekly Mag’ (La Xarxa de Comunicació Local). It’s a panel game called Guess What, inside the magazine show. Have fun.
Every time I’m left without a job I make the few calls or send the customary messages to let people know that yours truly is available for screenwriting comissions, staff writing or, actually, any other related task involving pecuniary return. I can’t say it is a heavy enterprise, particularly to those who, like me, possess the social agenda of a Moai. As a matter of fact,the fact that it is a short task explains its being sounrewarding. Indeed, those who know you and wants to hire you will call you no matter if you’re available or not. However, one tends to apply the player’s logic for buying a lottery ticket: “What if it’s the winning number?”
When this is done, there is only one thing left to do, and it is no other than starting to write. Write what? A personal project or a project that might attract producer’s attention? Beep! Trick question. They always end up being the same.
The thing is, periodically, our media culture praises entrepeneurship in an unconditional manner. It is a side effect to capitalism, which in meager periods finds an example to follow in that selfmade businessperson who achieves success because he takes risks and invests in his revolutionary idea. Now, in a country like Spain, where that spirit has always been embodied by your typical opportunist that makes a fortune in a real state scam, or the relative who sets up a café or restaurant, I can’t deny that a young person who creates their own startup and makes it to Sillicon Valley deserves admiration. That we also grasp that there is no place in the market for everyone, and for a few to have success many have to slam their heads against the wall of failure -and sometimes even mockery-, doesn’t mean that this isn’t a recurrent deed.
But when it comes to talk about entrepreneurs there is something that is never or very rarely mentioned. There are already some professions made up almost entirely by entrepreneurs. Screenwriters belong to this group. All of us who write for the media have to recreate and sell ourselves without any guarantees. Evidence of this are the thousands of projects in drawers that are never going to see the light, and the invested hours that are never going to get payback.
This is why I have decided to pay hommage to myself and declare the Entrepreneurial Screenwriter’s Day. That’s me and the all the other screenwriters who whenever, willing or unwillingly, come across some time, they write away, one eye on the screen and the other on the phone.
So happy Entrepreneurial Screenwriter’s Day! Tomorrow I’m celebrating it again.
It is no secret that one key aspect for any fiction writer –novelist, screenwriter, playwright or any other related species– is coming up with good characters. Actually, the majority would arguably agree that it is the most important.
The problem is that it is a particularly difficult task, or at least it is to me. So from now on –even if it is only for the selfish purpose of getting better at it– I will endeavor to analise in a series of posts some successful characters, trying to find out what it is what makes them good.
And because I am an absolute comedy fan, I will begin with a character from this genre.
Yes, Ricky Gervais nailed it: superbly written and performed, David Brent is the stereotype of the boss that pretends being cool, despite of being laughed at behind the back (too risky to do it in his face). He is an egotist who lacks any of the assets any boss is supposed to be in possession of, intelligence, responsibility and social abilities, to start off with. He is actually useless about everything except praising his own virtues, and he is only expert in embarrassing himself to the highest degree and yet not losing any of his self-esteem.
A writer’s lucubration
Not only will everyone agree that this is a brilliant character in his conception as much as in his acting, but also that he is the core of the entire series. Without him there would not exist “The Office”, however good the rest of the characters are. And they are. Absolutely.
But is there enough such an extreme character to succeed? Let’s ask ourselves: would this character be so funny in another place? That is, if he didn’t have any subordinate, if everybody could laugh at him, if he had a post according his actual skills? Sure, in any situation a useless guy who believes himself to be the best has its deal of pathethism all right. But is there enough conflict, if nobody suffers the consequences of his actions?
Or to put it in other words: would General Melchett in “Blackadder the Forth” be as fun if Blackadder and his men didn’t suffer his deeply stupid commands? I believe not.
Conclusion: pathetic character, superior position.
This subtitle expresses my humble opition. A good character is only good when they are in the most suitable environement (or maybe the least), or/and if he has the right purpose in the plot.
Too obvious? I warned you I wasn’t discovering anything new.
But then this makes me bring into question some theories about fiction writing, like the importance of profiling a character to the tiniest detail. The never ending question lists about characters come to mind. Are they really useful? What is the use of it if what really counts dramatically are only the characteristics that create an inner conflict and clash with the setting he is in?
Maybe sketching a few features suffice to start heading into the plot after all, and the rest can more conveniently be added along the way?
It would be interesting to know how these and other successful characters are created.
It looks like the Earth must go another quater of its orbit around the sun before I get down to writing on my blog (actually, more than that if it’s in English). It comforts me that -due to the humble number of readers, I haven’t done any harm. Well, no. That’s no comfort at all.
Let’s get started
For years Final Draft has been the standard software for writing screenplays. It is a few MBytes at the intimidating price of around 250 dollars. Surprisingly, it contains a Catalan spell-checker. And I am grateful for that.
But even if it contained the largest dicionary on Earth, it would not be worth -in my opinion- that price. Not for writing screenplays.
The layout of a screenplay is no big deal
The standard format of a -say cinema- screenplay is not quantum physics. As long as the script matches the layout (font, size, line spacing, indention and margins) usually expected by readers from the industry, anyone can write a script with MS Word, LibreOffice or a typing machine -as long as they can find one that works.
True, software like Final Draft goes beyond what an ordinary text processor can offer. Everything is simpler: you don’t have to mess with buttons to apply the right format, it generally includes a card system to create the outline of your film (or TV episode, or radio drama…), and there are production tools too (which, honestly, a writer will probably never use).
But the core of that kind of software is always the same: a text processor with some pre-defined styles for the scriptwriter to decide, by changing it or leaving it as it is, which kind of text is being typed at every moment: (a character’s name, an action or description, a scene header, a transition…) That way the computer applies the right style to that line (mainly indentation, and previous and subsequent line spacing). This is nonsense. And if you don’t think like this now, you will when you finish reading this post.
My point is: although these programmes do a bit more than this (spell-checker, page numbering, adding MORE’s and CONTINUED’s…) most of them are still MS Word-based.
Final Final Draft
I always thought that Final Draft would rule for ever, at least until not long ago, when thanks to an article at the blog guió.cat (in Catalan, sorry) posted by Eduard Sola I found about the fantastic Fade In, another programme for writing scripts which does essenciallythe same as Final Draft at a fifth of its price. Some people even think it is better… So I seriously considered purchasing it.
But hey, not so fast, put your money back in your pockets! At least I considered it until browsing the internet (with the never too valued objective of wasting my time), I came across something called Fountain which was created a few years ago. At least, that’s what it looks like. I haven’t spend much time doing research.
What the heck, let the computer do the hard work
So what is it about? Well it’s not software, but a “language” we can use to type our screenplay. If you take a walk around Fountain’s website you will find everything properly explained. But no, no, no. Don’t click away from me. Let me summarize it for you.
It turns out that someone wondered: why do we have to spend loads of money on a computer with the latest processor, if we still have to decide what style we are going to use. What the… With four core processors and more memory than an elephant with an unfinished bussiness, a today’s computer should do our taxes, go shopping, walk the dog and, obviously, make a clean copy of our screenplay. And that is what Fountain is all about: being able to type our script on any software, platform or device, without having to worry about the layout. When we’re done, the computer will take care of it.
And how does the computer know if we are introducing the name of a character (to indent it at four and a half inches from the left n) or we are typing an action (which is supposed to be neartly page-wide)?
The idea is simple:
Stop fiddling around and use any programme
It’s all about writing in ANY WORD PROCESSOR. And when I say ANY processor I include Window’s notepad and even any programme you may have on your smartphone, if inspiration comes when you are in a difficult situation, for instance. If we do it correctly, we won’t have to type those words again.
You only need to keep some very basic standards: capitalize the character’s names, begin every scene header with INT. or EXT, don’t forget to press return to start a new paragraph, and little else. Nothing that any screenwriter doesn’t normally do. In a few words: we forget about styes, margins, indentations, etc… And when we finally finish our work (easier said than done, ha ha), we save it as a .txt text file.
Then, for the computer to take the text and turn it into a perfectly formatted, numbered script is a piece of cake.
The main quality about Fountain is being a “language” (and not precisely complicated). As far as I know, it is open source and doesn’t have its own software. If you already have any of these 30 programmes (including Final Draft, Fade IN or CELTX), chances are you can import the text you have saved (you might have to specify import as Fountain) and see it transformed on your screen straight away. You can even skip that step by using this web which converts it for free. Upload your .txt file and you will get a PDF with your script nicely arranged.
What about outlines?
I expect you didn’t think the screenwriters behind this project haven’t thought about outlines or synopses. We know that screenwriting work is problably more about writing synopses, treatments, character profiles and outlines than actions or dialogues. This article tells us how to do it. Surely, Fountain contains special characters or instructions to force “styles” in case you have to go out of the standards and type something differently, but the thing is you won’t probably need it.