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First, read this…

Let’s call it Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution. I wrote it in January 2011, and, I think we can all agree, it’s a fine example of the ‘mediocre sketch with vaguely interesting premise’ genre.

Now watch this:

You see? You see? And that, my friends, was put up on the Internet back in 2009.

Conclusive evidence, if any were needed, that the writing staff of That Mitchell And Webb Look are compulsive thieves who have developed time travel. The only feasibly explanation for this is that they roam the timestreams like multidimensional magpies, purloining comedic gems wherever they go.

Or, alternatively, it was a pretty obvious idea. And one that shows exactly why a lot of new writers spend far too long worrying about people stealing their ideas.

When two people have the same idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone stole it. And, in this case, it’s not just the idea, the execution is fairly similar: the setup is the same, both have a gag about crystals, and the patient ends up dead. Mine doesn’t have the second-scene coda which gives some nice context, but they’re similar enough that I felt an irrational pang of anger when I saw the Mitchell & Webb clip.

But I knew that was all it was, an irrational response. It took about four seconds for me to realise and fully accept that writers sometimes have the same ideas, especially comedy writers addressing the same topic.

I often think when I see the efforts people go to to send themselves scripts by registered post, register things with the Library of Congress, and only conditionally let producers see some of what they have written after they’ve signed an NDA, that this energy could have been better used, well, writing.

No one wants to steal your scripts.

No one reputable wants to steal your scripts. For the amount of hassle and legal trouble that will be caused if they do, it’s cheaper just to buy your script. That way, you’ll also be likely to offer them your next script. If someone thinks your writing is good, they will want to make it, and they will want to make other things you write (or at least be offered them, which is unlikely if you are embroiled in a legal dispute over ownership of a previous script).

Many people won’t read unsolicited scripts now because they worry about being accused of plagiarism in the future. Rather than protecting themselves, new writers are reducing the number of people who are willing to read what they’ve written.

Are there unscrupulous people focused on short-term gain in the movie and TV businesses? Almost certainly. Moreso in films, where anyone with a mobile phone and a table at a decent restaurant can call themselves a producer. But these people are very few and far between, and they are usually too busy ‘setting up deals’ to actually make a film in which they rip off someone’s idea. There are easier ways of getting someone to work for nothing than theft. Usually you can just ask them: “Will you work for nothing, giving up all rights to your work?”

However, most people are hard-working, creative, and desperate to turn good scripts into good programmes or movies. Without exception, the people I have worked with have had one goal: making the best things they can make with the resources they have.

And, besides…

Your ideas are not all that important.

Ideas are ten a penny. Everyone has an idea for a film. Everyone can have ideas. You don’t need a writer to come up with ideas.

You need a writer to write a film.

The idea has very little relevance to how good a film is going to be. Just look at all the straight-to-DVD ripoffs that come out every time there is a huge hit at the cinema. The ones with a business model that depends on the confusion of the buying public. “Avatard? Didn’t that get pretty good reviews?”

Look at Deep Impact and Armageddon; Volcano and Dante’s Peak; Antz and A Bug’s Life. (What? I watched a lot of films in the 90s. What?) The fact that the premise is similar doesn’t make these films equally successful, either commercially or as films.

It’s all in the execution.

And sometimes even that comes out quite similarly. See above.

Time spent worrying about who is stealing your work is time you’re not spending working. If, contrary to all logic, there is someone out there desperate to steal the work of new writers and to pass it off as their own, paying money to ‘register’ your script won’t stop them doing it (In the UK, you hold the copyright on something you have written as soon as it is written. You do not need to register it).

In order to succeed you need to leave your house, meet people, and, most importantly, let them read your work. To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, obscurity is a greater threat than being ripped off. You can’t protect yourself against everything. Especially not time-travelling thieves in the pay of two of Britain’s best-loved contemporary sketch performers. More’s the pity…

Over at Go Into The Story, they have – like Jesus in the desert, if I recall the story correctly – recently finished reading 40 screenplays in 40 days. It’s an impressive list of scripts, and it’s almost inconceivable that anyone could read them all and not learn something. Almost.

However, there’s an odd trend which you can see if you look at many of the readers’ comments. In looking at some of the greatest examples of the art of screenwriting, crafted long before the Vogler Memo or Syd Field ever started telling people the one perfect way to write a screenplay, many of the readers feel justified in taking the scripts to task for not fitting their idea of what a screenplay should be.

Here’s commenter John S, talking about the screenplay for Some Like It Hot:

Also the first coincidence points to the other problem I had: the set up was needlessly long. The characters and story could have been sufficiently introduced all in one action set-piece (either the funeral shoot out or the garage shoot out). You’d save pages and eliminate the need for the first coincidence.

He goes on:

But Billy Wilder wouldn’t listen to me then and I doubt he cares now.

That’s right, John, and nor should he. He and I.A.L. Diamond wrote one of the funniest movies of all time, in which there’s never a dull moment, and that has come to be regarded as one of the finest examples of the feature-length comedy. You’ll forgive me if I applaud his decision not to take advice on his screenplay from comments left on a blog post.

And that’s not an isolated comment. On Witness, Network, and Psycho there are comments about the protagonist not being introduced early enough, the scene description being too dense, and it being unclear who the protagonist is. In every case, no matter how successful the screenplay or the film, there were frenzied attempts to explain why it wasn’t a good example of the one, true screenplay format that we’ve all been taught you have to strive for.

Too many old screenplays just seemed to break the rules.

A couple of months ago I was working in a writers’ room. During a brainstorming session, someone came up with a really nice moment. Someone else’s response was “That’s great. That can be our Act II turn.”

We didn’t have any characters yet. We didn’t have a plot or genre yet. We hadn’t even yet nailed the premise, but somehow we were confident enough to start flinging around where the act breaks were, where the story beats were. Before we even had a story.

I’m starting to think that screenplay theory is simply there to give people without any creativity some sense that they can contribute to a creative process. As long as a producer can say that “the inciting incident doesn’t raise the stakes enough” they feel that they are, no matter how vague, numinous, and unhelpful the jargon, helping to ‘break the story’. Getting their hands dirty in the muddy trenches of narrative. Kicking some story ass. Breaking that tale’s spine open and feasting on the jellied marrow of structure. Hell, yeah.

This is not to say that I think that these rules don’t have their uses, but I do think that if a great film doesn’t fit your paradigm then perhaps it’s your paradigm that’s broken. Not the film.

I first read Syd Field almost a decade ago, and decided that his analyses of screenplays were almost useless. He ignored scenes that didn’t fit what he was trying to say, and made his rules so general that the only consistent thing you could take a way was: In a film, something happens to somebody; they struggle with it; it gets resolved one way or the other.

As far as it goes, that’s generally true. However, as soon as you start talking about anything more specific: about ‘midpoints’, a ‘save the cat moment’, and what should happen at the bottom of page ten, then you are clearly spouting arrant nonsense. These are not rules. These are things that can be seen usually in some genres of screenplay. And they have become a self-fulfilling prophecy as more screenwriters and readers know the paradigms and assess the value of scripts with them in mind.

These ‘rules’ do have uses. They can help you see where an aspect of your script that you’re not happy with is falling down, by trotting out the standard answer to problems at around page so-and-so. They are helpful when getting notes from producers and readers because they provide a common language and analytical tool with which to look at a script.

My fear is that because it is such a simple tool to use, everyone feels like they can use it. Story is no longer the purview of those who try to create stories. Any development exec can see what’s wrong with your script: you’ve failed to state the theme on page 5.

In Tales From The Script, Larry Cohen says:

Used to be two people would come into a meeting and work on a script with you. Now eight people come into a meeting, and they’ve all got yellow pads, and they’ve all got their opinions, and most of their opinions are bad, and most of them took Robert McKee’s writing class.

I worry that these paradigms have become self-reinforcing. Because they are easy to understand, and you can check ‘quantifiably’ if someone has written to them, they have become a standard way of assessing how good a screenplay is. Not how well-told it is, whether or not the story touches someone’s heart or mind, or if it is something that has never before been seen on screen, but how well it fits the model.

A startlingly original script may get people’s attention, but it would be hard to be optimistic about it making its way through development unscathed. Are we simply not telling wonderful stories because they don’t fit our ideas of what stories should look like?

I’ve used the paradigms myself. They are a great way of breaking down 120 blank pages into smaller, do-able tasks, all the while ensuring that you will not stray too far from what people expect.

However, I’ve found that the real moments of life, the ones that really lift a script, have come from being surprised by the characters or by my just going with a vague sense of the sequences that will happen. These chance moments, the exciting moments of discovery often lead down blind paths, or to having to massively rewrite the opening to accommodate them, but they are the moments of which I am most proud. At which something different or surprising has happened.

My scripts, when written strictly to formulas are like a pub roast. They may be well-prepared; the meat may be well-sourced and nicely rare; all of the trimmings may be there, but there’s something missing. They don’t come blasting in from the kitchen on a wave of steam and sweat with the love of a home-cooked roast. You don’t get the sense that someone (maybe you) has spent the best part of a day peeling, basting, chopping and Yorkshire-pudding-makinging because they love the company of those around them.

To change metaphors, my paradigm-dominated scripts are beautiful children, but fragile. They’re geishas. They will move around within the cloistered walls of my low ambition for them, but they will never learn to run because I’ve bound their feet too tightly.

Well no more. From now on, I’ll let my scripts run and yell and run sticks along the railings when I’m out with them. They’ll paddle barefoot. There’s time enough for shoes later…

I’m not really sure why it’s taken me this long to hear about The Bechdel Rule. Maybe it’s because I spend most of my time in a shed, thinking up knob gags, or maybe it’s something to do with the patriarchy. Either way, I suck.

The Bechdel Rule is pretty simple, and is explained in the video below:

This was a test mentioned by a character in one of Alison Bechdel‘s comics in Dykes To Watch Out For about how they assess whether or not to see a film. To pass, a film has to:

1) Have two or more named female characters…
2) …Who have a conversation with each other…
3) …About something other than a man.

Sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? And, to tell the truth, I was feeling pretty confident that my scripts would sail through.

After all, Class, the sitcom I wrote for CBBC, would pass easily (although all of the female characters were played by Sam & Mark – still, technically a pass). The Meeting passes, and every episode of In The Gloaming has a woman as a central character, and one is set within a women’s football team. I do night-feeds, I buy my daughter toy cars instead of princess dresses, I’ve read Germaine Greer’s books for fun. This was going to be easy…

I pulled out the spec I finished last month, smugly flicked through it, and… oh. Apart from this one it was going to be easy. It had two women in, but they didn’t meet until the end when they fought over a man.

I pulled out one I wrote years ago that I still use occasionally as a calling card script. Surely, this one would… have no women in at all. Well, one dead one in a flashback montage (In your face, Robert McKee!), but none who were, you know, alive…

What about the short I wrote that won the Nisi Masa Screenwriting Award. That must… not even mention any women. At all.

Out of five feature scripts, one would pass the Bechdel test, and that one was an adaptation of someone else’s story. Of all the shorts I’ve written only one passed because of a brief bit of expository dialogue at the beginning.

Here’s what I find odd. For any other medium – radio, podcast, stage, web series, television – I have no problems on the whole in unconsciously passing the Bechdel Test. But as soon as I start thinking in terms of film, I appear to assume that male characters are more interesting, or more suited to the medium, or something… And I find that a little worrying.

Of the projects I’ve got lined up, only one feature script passes the Test, and that’s a horror film. I have a feeling that horror films probably don’t really count, as they might be filled with women, all of whom are liable to be horribly murdered at any second.

So, I’m going to be doing a little rethinking, a little cross-casting in my head, because no matter what the political considerations, ostensibly ignoring half of the population of the world must necessarily close off a lot of dramatic options. If nothing else, this will help me find more ways into and out of a scene, and more possible interactions between my characters.

I realise some people will think that this is ‘political correctness gone mad’. Those people are dunces, and should be pitied. This is a way for me to add necessary depth and thought and interest to my writing. This might help me write in a way that will produce better things, things that will be less-inclined to the already-seen, the cliche. This might get me through that rough bit of rewriting where I can’t see how you can change anything, but am unhappy with the way it is. This will help me write better scripts.

It’s also only right to do what I can to make sure that a medium I love doesn’t ignore most of the population of the world. The most that includes my daughter.

Thank you, Alison Bechdel. This is going to be fun.

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