Writing a Screenplay – getting the idea

by Victoria Madden

Real people and events can provide the starting point for your screenplay, generating a rich source of material for your fictional ideas.

 

One of the main things that musicians get asked about in interviews is the process of song writing, particularly ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ And their answers are, pretty much the same place I get my screen writing ideas from: little incidents or quirks noticed in the people or world around them that, to them, say song (or in my case, story).

I outlined an idea I’d had based on existing material, in a previous post, where a couple of scenes from the BBC Jeeves and Wooster television series and a Sweeran (welcome to the world of online shippers) YouTube clip had provided a modern take on the stories of P. G. Wodehouse. What you also might find interesting is how an idea gets worked out from scratch, where there’s no existing structure underlying it and everything has to be created by the writer.

I mentioned an idea I’d had over the summer, for a rom-com set in the music industry, in an earlier post. The starting point for this came from two YouTube clips, of contestants auditioning for a television show called The Voice. (For those of you who live in a country where this hasn’t been franchised or, more likely, just don’t watch Saturday night television, this is a musical talent contest similar to The X Factor but more grounded, and humane, in its approach: singers are coached towards a career by successful musicians, rather than groomed for instant stardom by industry professionals.)

In a pleasing inversion of The X Factor format, it’s the coaches who have to pitch the benefits they can offer to the contestants and the contestants who make the decision as to which coach they feel can best help them. In the first of the YouTube clips Ricky Wilson, frontman of The Kaiser Chiefs, is so poleaxed by the ethereal beauty of a girl’s voice that his usual slick but sincere pitch deserts him, leaving him floundering incoherently while a rival coach presents a well judged case.

 

It’s clear that McLuckie has no idea of the stunning quality of her voice or her power of expression in delivering the song; she is modestly pleased with the praise and interested in finding out which coach can most help her with her career. She is youthfully oblivious, both to Wilson’s passionate vulnerability and the undercurrents of a rivalry with Will.i.am.

a film that would be a love story with a twist, about a misunderstood man and the power and importance of music to move people

It was this innocent incomprehension that was the starting point for the script; it really intrigued me that she couldn’t see what effect she’d had, while my sympathy was strongly engaged for the man with his guts so publically on the floor.

The second YouTube clip also featured Wilson and formed the basis for the script: Wilson is trying to explain what it feels like to connect to a singer in his pitch and is being ribbed by both the contestant and the other coaches about chatting her up. He makes an impatient gesture towards the coaches as he tries, and fails, to get his point across that said ‘it’s not about that; you don’t get it’ and this became one of the main themes that underpinned the hero’s journey – that it was the heroine as singer/musician that he was connecting to so strongly, not her as a woman.

These two short clips gave me a lot of material:

I had a hero who was a successful musician, who cared passionately about music but was misunderstood.

I had a young heroine who was a very talented musician, focused on what was best for her career and blind to undercurrents.

Running off this idea the hero could also be blind in different ways, as could additional characters; but the hero’s ‘journey’, which drives the course of the film, would be that he would eventually come to realise this. The ‘universal truth’ needed to hook people into the story would be that everyone wants to be understood; to be seen as they really are, not as others perceive them to be. This gave me an answer to the question: ‘what’s your script about?’ – the main plot drivers would be blindness and misunderstanding.

I also had the necessary conflict whose ups and downs would drive the hero’s journey: conflict that was actual: he really wanted to coach the girl and someone else got to do this; and conflict between perceptions of a situation and its reality that would provide an interesting story line.

I could additionally build in conflict for the hero with a girlfriend as a man, conflict with bandmates as a musician and, as someone famous, conflict with the media, both about the usual invasion of privacy but also about their perception of the situation. There was also scope to explore different types of love and the way people connect with each other, which would ensure the film would speak to today’s audiences.

So I began writing a script for a film that would be a love story with a twist, about a misunderstood man and the power and importance of music to move people.

The first draft came very easily – I woke up at four o’clock one morning thinking about a work problem, recalled the whole thing as if I’d been to the cinema the night before, then got up around six and typed up the full outline in two and a half hours. (It is this sort of oft-repeated ability that convinces me I am definitely a script writer rather than a novelist but, like those rock stars who want to be actors, I can’t seem to be happy with the thing I do well and cling illogically to my desire to be a prose writer, a form I struggle with.)

When I read it through it felt as though I’d found something important to say and had said it. The whole thing was there, apart from a small area of uncertainty in Act Three where I needed the heroine to get the hero’s journey going towards the conclusion. I started work on fleshing the outline into a script draft that same afternoon, the dialogue and scenes pouring out relentlessly whenever I sat down at the computer, remembering something that already existed rather than creating something new. For a couple of weeks anyway. After a while I found myself stumbling over my lack of solid craft and, more importantly for my script to read true, lack of detailed technical knowledge of the music industry.

This all happened in August last year and I’ve been enmeshed in background research ever since, working at shifting my perspective from that of music fan to industry insider. I still haven’t resolved the problem with Act Three, which all the advice says indicates a weakness in Act One. (I’ve looked but I can’t find it.) In an attempt to move things forward I’ll be putting the draft script online soon and ‘thinking aloud’ by analysing it over a series of posts in a way I hope you’ll find useful if you’re trying to write a script yourself.

One thing I must remind you of when reading it – all fictional characters have a basis or starting point in a trait or characteristic in a real person, however small, but this is only a starting point. Although I took the starting point for my script from real events and real people, it’s important to note that everything outside the audition scene is fictional. And my presentation of the audition is fictionalised for my own purposes. Reading/watching interviews about Wilson’s time on The Voice and in The Kaiser Chiefs enabled me to flesh out about three quarters of my hero’s backstory as a musician very rapidly; and meant that when I came to start to write, his journey almost wrote itself, with all the plot points falling into place without needing to be worked out at all. None of this means that the hero of my script is based on any other part of Wilson’s personality. I cross-referenced his experiences with, and drew upon, literally hundreds of interviews with other musicians and other bands when building up the character.

The heroine was slightly harder, although she is the catalyst and heart of the story, the story itself is about the hero’s journey and the viewer engages more with him. As a writer I’ve found myself doing this too and I’m still looking for a way to make her subplot more interesting.  I’ve taken very little from McLuckie herself, apart from her body language and interactions in the audition.

More on this soon.

The Craft of Screenplays – notes from a script-writing workshop

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