I'm trying to insert a little video clip that Chris Jones of the London Screenwriters' Festival created of me talking at the Festival, but I'm having trouble. Hmm. Don't you love technology. Watch this space. If you really want to see the video, just check it out here. Meanwhile, to the left is a pic of me chatting to writers after one of my sessions at LSF. Back soon.
Hello everyone. I hope you've all recovered from this year's fantastic London Screenwriters Festival. And I hope you like my new streamlined website and blog!
I've just been running some videolectures from London to students at the Netherlands Film and TV Academy in Amsterdam on how to structure ensemble films, and thinking as I planned my lectures just how very complex the planning and plotting issues are in these films. So it was an interesting coincidence when a very pertinent question and lots of answers appeared on the Linked In Screenwriting forum about how many characters you can use in these sorts of films. If you follow this blog, you'll know that I responded. The most recent question asked about TV, so I replied to that too. I've put my response in here, below this post, and you can see the other responses on Linked in.
What is all boils down to really is that you can't approach ensemble films as if they are rather unruly 'one hero on a single journey' films. They are structured in a completely different fashion, as a series of separate stories, with all kinds of particular problems, particuarly with backstory and interweaving (you must interweave in such a way as not to be repetitive, and you have so many story strands, often about unfinished emotional business that your head sometimes spins) So the apparently odd question of 'how many characters...etc' is not odd at all. It's absolutely pertinent. What's scary about the flim industry at the moment is that so many people across all fields believe that you absolutely MUST have only one protagonist. Which wrecks lots of ensemblefilms (in which all of the characters' have stories).
Anyhow, I'm delighted that we're all talking about this stuff now, difficult as it is.
Here's what I wrote in Linked in when someone asked how many characters in TV series
Usually TV series use about six, because there is only sufficient time to handle that number of characters taking the limelinght in your max 50 minute time slot, and people devising TV series agonise about how many and who. For more info on TV writing see my ebook TV Writing The Ground Rules of Series, Serials and Sitcom http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Television_Writing.html?id=8j1AYBJKWvQC Regarding Ensemble films, they use different structural plans from one-hero films because they are running multiple stories. It's a different set of rules and a different mind set.
The question about 'how many characters are too many' goes to the heart of ensemble screenwriting in both film and TV because of the time restrictions on you as you try to tell but control all those stories/story strands. You don't have time for unlimited character numbers unless you use special forms and some of those forms permit more characters than others.
Why the time problem? Well, for example if the characters in your film know each other you can have huge amounts of backstory to sneak in about their past interactions and unfinished emotional business as you also try to tell the main group 'adventure'. You can have 17-20 story strands to run. Yes, there are ensemble forms in which you can use more characters (40 I think in Magnolia - although this is a film that has problems with its meaning and closure) but you have to quarantine them in stories or you'll get characters in search of a plot.This is a fascinating but huge topic! Anyhow, if you're interested there's a little video interview I did in Sweden on this sort of stuff on the home page of my site www.lindaaronson.com
Hi, sorry for the silence. I've been lecturing at the Warsaw Film School and being a tourist in Poland! Very enjoyable.
A question that has come up in talking to writers in Poland and also elsewhere recently is the issue of the Series Arc. So what, exactly, is a series arc?. A series arc is an overarching serial plotline that runs for the whole series and which in every episode shows the characters in the series changing in some radical way in response to events. This plotline is resolved and/or turned in a radical new direction in the final episode of the series.
Not all series have a series arc. The Simpsons made its mark by NOT having a series arc and keeping the characters perpetually the same age and in the same situation.
Sometimes series that start out without a series arc and insert one in later seasons.
A very interesting series arc is the one in Life on Mars. Here, the series arc is also the premise - namely, that a detective has an accident and is simultaneously in a coma AND working as a detective decades in the past. Every episode, we see a police crime story set in the past, and we also see serial element consisting of his changing relationships in the past with the people we meet. In addition to these, we see material about his comatose state in the present. He hears voices through the TV set, these voices apparently belonging to people who, decades hence, are standing around his comatose body talking about him and to him. Additionally, he sometimes sees his childhood self.
The advantage of a series arc is that it pulls in audiences and holds them. Its disadvantage is that the end of the season sees the characters significantly changed, so the season that follows has to take on these new changed characters. Sometimes a series arc can seriously damage a series. For example, when Fran in The Nanny finally got her man the comic sexual tension that was so important to the series was lost. A massive change like this can kill a series because it changes it beyond recognition. So think seriously about the impact a series might have before you consider one.
A good coffee break exercise would be to take a genre (like a hospital show) and brainstorm a striking series arc/premise. That way, as in Life in Mars, you get all of the attraction of a genre show PLUS a unique and fascinating premise. You could do this for a genre novel, too.
If you're a new writer your big break will inevitably come at the worst possible time and you will have to create plots at speed, a difficult skill. These 'coffee break exercises' are to give you some practice in this vital trick of the trade.
The exercise below will probably take a few coffee breaks, but have a go. Don't panic if you're finding it hard. It is hard! It's all about practice and keeping calm as you brainstorm every decision.
Take your favourite TV series, current or defunct. Choose one character. You are going to create a ‘C’ story for this character.
Create 6 step linear story (with a beginning middle and end) for this character. Make it fit with the show (light-hearted, hard- hitting whatever) and, crucially, use a storyline that fits with the character and shows that person reacting to the situation in the way typical of them. Hence, in The Simpsons, Homer will react to a situation in a way that's typically Homer; Marge will react in a way that's typically Marge. This skill - creating a storyline to illustrate a character, exploiting all the possibilities of the show - is what producers look for, so don't forget it. It might help to list the personality traits of your chosen character so you can focus on what specific storyline would best suit them.
Remember too, each story step needs to progress the story (harder than it sounds). Make sure you brainstorm before making any decision using the motto 'it has to be "real but unusual"'. And don't forget to give yourself permission to come up with cliches and dud ideas at first. Just list them to get them out of your system and keep thinking of more. Good ideas will come.
( So what is a ‘C’ story? A ‘C ‘ story is a a short storyline that is interwoven between the A story (eg in a doctor’s show ‘disease of the week’, in a lawyers’ show ‘case of the week’ ) and the B story (usually serial content) C stories are usually short and they might thematically connected with the A and B stories or completely unconnected. In shows that have a lot of serial content, the C story is serial material.)
I loved 'Six Feet Under'. Brilliant TV. So here's a practical plotting exercise with a TV slant that will strengthen your 'story muscle' across all forms of scriptwriting. One of the hardest skills to master as a scriptwriter is practical plotting at speed. It takes plain old practice. Keep your answers in a portfolio that you can show to a producer to illustrate how good a writer you are.
Brainstorm ten ideas for interesting moral dilemmas that a doctor in a TV medical series might face (just a sentence each). Remember, give yourself permission to write down weak ideas (you will filter them later) Go for quantity not quality because this way you’ll flush out all of the clichés first.
If you are thinking: ‘how cheesy is that!’, well, fair comment – in a way. Your answers could well be cheesy and clichéd – that’s what happens in bad TV writing. However, the test for you –what will show that you are a good writer – is to create brilliant, thought- provoking dilemmas out of a task that seems inherently doomed to cheesiness. The task in TV writing is usually to escape the cliches. It's hard. Push yourself.
I'm now starting to work with people who are writing games, which is extremely interesting. I find that many of the problems faced by games writers and people writing web-based episodic drama in terms of creating and controlling multiple storylines are very like the problems faced by people writing TV series. So, here's some help for anyone creating multiple storylines (including serial content).
It will help always to think of your storylines as a team of unruly horses that you have to drive. Each will always be trying to pull you off course, which, if it happens, will mean the whole project will go off course - and you the writer may be so distracted and so interested in that one horse that you won’t even notice the whole project heading straight for a ditch.
This happens to the best of writers because this stuff is just so difficult, so be prepared for it to happen and keep double checking.
Writers creating multiple storyline projects on their own (films,TV pieces or games) are articularly prone to going off course because they are one writer running a whole massive project on their own, with nobody to give an objective second view (this is one major reason why TV shows have so many people monitoring scripts as they progress).
White boards for each storyline will help you to differentiate and control. Create stories separately, then interweave, pruning back storylines to fit Think in terms of ‘story beats’ and use the old fashioned tried but true TV story-beat estimate for each ‘episode’ to give you somewhere to start in planning how much story you need. The storybeat principle is that one creates A, B, and C stories. You will instantly recognise this from the TV series you have seen. A is the main story (in your case the gang warfare story, linking the gangs) B is the serial element (in your case ongoing fights/love etc within families) C is a short story complete in that episode. For fifty minutes of TV we used to calculate 36 beats: 18 A plot, 12 B plot, 6 C plot.
Just stick to that ratio 3:2:1. Index cards are very good idea here, one card per beat. This is just a start. Depending on your material, may want to give more to the B story, or split the B story up into a number of smaller stories. Important point. Plot A will present itself with a timeline. Peg the other stories to that.
Remember, a beat is a step in the story, not a scene, and you can combine two or beats in one scene. You may have several scenes to a beat. For more on all of this, see my TV ebook Television Writing: The Ground Rules of Series, Serial and Sitcom and my book on screenwriting, The 21st Century Screenplay pp 127-164 on practical plotting and the chapters on Multiple Protagonist structuree pp. 207-245 (by the way, for people outside of N. America, Google Play books is currently running a specialbargain deal on the ebook of The 21st Century Screenplay).
I'm a great fan of David Mamet. Brilliant writer and excellent on the practicalities. In my view his Wag the Dog is probably the best political satire in English. Check out these comments:
David Mamet Memo to Writers of THE UNIT
I finally saw The Help last night. Structurally, it's using three kinds of parallel narrative technique. The most important of these is that it's created using a double journey structure.
By that I mean the story follows two protagonists, Skeeter and Aibileen on their parallel journeys. However , it's also using preview flashback, opening on the the first act turning point (Skeeter's first interview with Aibileen when Aibileen has agreed to help with the book). We then flashback to the start of the story.
There are also brief flashbacks of the simple kind that I call 'flashback as illustration' - brief memories depicted on screen, for example, Skeeter remembering the maid, Constantine, who brought her up and was her mother figure.
What's particularly interesting is that the opening - which is actually the first act turning point, and after it we'll flashback to the start of the story - actually works very well. A common problem with using the first act turning point as your opening scene is that when the film returns to it (to the first act turning point) there is a kind of 'okay, so what?' sensation, and we feel as if we're starting a new film.
I'm not entirely sure why some films work and some don't when they open on the first act turning point . The Help certainly does. I think the answer is that opening on first act turning point and flashing back to the start will work if there are three elements in place.
The first is that the first act turning point scene that we witness is immediately very striking and unusual (in The Help, a wealthy white 1960s era girl from Jackson is interviewing her maid in the maid's home, which is instantly intriguing) The second vital element is that this scene is really the start of the film's main plot (what I call the 'action line') so when we return to it the film really surges forward.
The third - and probably the most important - is that the first act itself is actually useful plotwise. If you really don't need to know all of the information in the first act - for example, if you have a meandering normality or if your first act isn't really on the point of your story - then your best course of action is probably to ditch the first act as you have it and open the story just before the scene you you currently have as the first act turning point.
Linda is a screenwriter, novelist and playwright. As well as teaching and mentoring writers around the world, she regularly consults on screenplays at the highest level in the US, UK and Australia.