Creative Scriptwriting and Copywriting

Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

Rushes

In copywriting, scriptwriting, writing on December 18, 2009 at 2:22 am

Peep Show - funnier than the last two seconds of my corporate video about a publishing company

Of course, even though writers think Directors Are Trouble, a good director can make you look terrific.

I’ve just been sent through the rushes from a shoot for a promotional video I’ve written. It’s a monologue – a guy delivering a lecture – and they’ve shot it and edited it really close to how I imagined it. The actor they chose is a lot older than my original suggestion, but he’s got the feel for how the speech should be delivered, so he acts younger than his years. There’s a green screen behind him, so some of the visual moments haven’t been added, but you can see how it’s all going to work.

So far, so good. It’s actually pretty rare as a freelance to be kept in the loop at this stage (The Rushes! How very Fellini). In fact, it’s not that common that you get kept in the loop at all. I’ve written on about ten video projects this year. This is the second where I’ve laid eyes on anything close to the finished product. Yes, it’s slightly easier these days when a client can post you a link online, rather than have to go to the trouble of running you off a tape, or burning a DVD, but it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s priority. (Oh, one is so much more valued in the theatre…)

Anyway, I have to tell you, the last two or three seconds are terrific. I Laughed Out Loud, as they say on the internet. And I may well be the only person who ever laughs out loud at it. It’s probably not Peep Show-funny for someone who didn’t spend a day and a half struggling a bit with the tone of voice and brand requirements and all that dull stuff. But we may raise a smile.

And it’s also the one moment of the script I didn’t write. I’d had a couple of conversations about whether my ending didn’t just tail off weakly, and I’d tried to convince them (and myself) that a more downbeat ending was altogether more powerful and memorable. But they obviously had a good director. Because they ignored me and came up with something better – two small children clapping in a hall. (I did warn you it’s not that hilarious out of context).

At the beginning of my career this would have troubled me. It’s easy to focus on all the notes and changes that you’re given, and forget that there can be no notes or changes without your first draft script. But if you are scared of collaboration, you should be writing poetry. So these days, I take a vain and inaccurate pride in just about everything, even the bits the director came up with it. But history will record that I wrote the video, so it’s mine.

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Action!

In scriptwriting, writing on December 14, 2009 at 8:25 pm

chair

It’s a commonly-held belief amongst screenwriters that Directors Are Trouble. Writers go to great lengths to create the perfect script on pristine clean, white paper. Directors insist on introducing actors and locations and cameras and stuff with the sole intention of muddying the whole thing up.

My first experience of a film director was not good. I was adapting my debut stage play for television, and met an intense young man for afternoon tea at The Langham to discuss an early draft script.

Maybe he thought the five-star surroundings and the tinkling of the cocktail pianist would soften the blow of what he was about to say. But he wasn’t counting on my bourgeois discomfort and class-envy: I was like a minor character in an Alan Bennett monologue, dreading his judgement on what I’d written. Not only was I intimidated by the poshest hotel I’d ever been in, I was completely done over by the massive slew of notes, changes and alterations he brought to my attention. There was so much red ink over the crisp white pages, that it didn’t appear that he’d edited my script, so much as stabbed it. The word “unfilmable” passed his lips, and I wept silently over my caramel éclair.

(Still, I had the last laugh. The producer became increasingly concerned that Mr Earnest maybe wasn’t the directorial genius he thought he was, and he was persuaded to leave the project a couple of days before filming started.

And where is he now, eh..*?)

CUT TO:

A decade and more later, and “unfilmable” is no longer the damning indictment I thought it was.

OK, it’s not exactly a compliment for a screenwriter, but I’ve learned that it has a far more specific meaning that I’d imagined all those years before. “Unfilmable” is simply a reminder never to put something in a script that you can’t point a camera at. “The room fills with an air of quiet disappointment” is unfilmable. “Kenneth bashes his head repeatedly against the desk” is not. It’s pretty basic screenplay advice.

But this week, for the first time, I’ve really understood why it matters so much. Because this week , I’ve not simply been working on a short video project in suburban Nottingham. No, for the first time in a long career, I have been directing.

And admittedly, “directing” may be a pretty grand way of explaining my involvement in this ninety second segment of a four minute educational video, but I am still, quite literally, calling the shots. I have before me two experienced camera operators, a team of child actors, and one requisite carefully crafted script, which I about to muddy.

Because what I discovered from first-hand experience, and what all screenwriters need to internalise completely, is that the moment a director sets foot on set, the number one and only question he or she is programmed to answer is “where exactly do I point the camera?”

At this moment, the script is no longer a structural academic chalkboard of turning points, reversals and third act reveals. Time is tight. For a director on the set, this film is no more or less than a series of discrete shots, that may, at some magical point in the editing process, be strung together again to tell a coherent story. The job in hand is no longer to craft a brilliant story to amuse, move and entertain. It’s now quite specifically to point the cameras, herd the actors, record the action, move on. Everything in your script must indicate a precise shot – some visual, some action, some specific event, moment-by-moment, through the film – and, if it’s not there, the director will leave it out or, worse, make something up to fill the gap.

Luckily, this script is OK. Cos I wrote it. And I’m experienced enough to make sure it’s right. Stuff keeps happening. Characters act. Visible change occurs. Stick a camera at it, and in the mid-December sunshine it even starts to look a bit like a movie. 100% filmable

Directing? With the right script, it’s a piece of piss.

(* Where is he now? Hollywood, actually. Directing primetime network drama. And winning Emmys. Turns out he was a directorial genius, after all…)

Bah! Humbug!

In copywriting, search engine optimization (SEO), writing on December 14, 2009 at 12:42 am

Jim Carey - kind of - in A Christmas Carol

I’m lucky. My job lets me play with words and language in all kinds of situations and all kinds of voices. I write scripts and I write copy. I write comedy and drama. I even wrote a BBC TV series for teenagers learning German. In German. And I don’t speak German.

But even for a freelance writer who prides himself on being flexible and practical, there’s nothing that deadens the heart more than being asked in a meeting what I know about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). It’s not the writer’s distaste for an unfriendly acronym, or the American “z” spelling. After all, any decent copywriter could come up with a better phrase that describes the search optimisation process in more human terms. (Search-flirting. Google Tease. Something like that.)

No, what grates is the fact that SEO copy is writing that’s designed to be read not by humans, but by computer algorithms. (Or, as we used to call them, robots.) Search Engine Optimization involves writing words that will appeal to search engines like Google and Bing, which makes it invaluable when you’re trying to appear as high as possible in a Google result, but makes it unreadable when you finally click through to the page.

Good writing engages you.

It might be simple and practical, stripped clean of fancy and redundancy to give you precisely what you want to know. It might be poetic and emotional, designed to connect with a memory or a dream. Either way, it communicates with you as a living breathing individual human person, with your own likes and tastes and haircut.

The text that Google likes best is clunky, repetitive and dead. If you run a business, having your homepage Search Engine Optimized can be like having your reception staffed by a CGI motion-captured 3D animation (that’s Jim Carey up there, apparently). Creepy.

Click on an SEO expert like Bruce Clay to see what I mean. As I say, I love reading, and I love words but even I can’t be arsed to plough through all that lot. Can you?

OK, I guess “Bruce” is really good at his job because his is, by all accounts, the No 1 most effective Search Engine Optimized Search Engine Optimization site.

But, come on. AAA111 Taxis might be first in the phone book, but if they turn up with a rusty Vauxhall Vectra and a serial killer smile, you’re better off walking.

So yes, to answer the question, I can write copy that‘s Search Engine Optimized. But no, I am not an expert in it, because I’m not a robot, I’m a writer.

(And, by the way, have I told you how much I like your hair like that?)

WARNING: These Men Are Liars!

In copywriting, scriptwriting, writing on December 10, 2009 at 4:49 pm

It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away, ” trilled the Bee Gees in their 1968 hit, Words.

As a professional freelance writer of nearly twenty years standing, I like to claim a little expertise on the subject of words, and my considered judgement is, Liars!

The cold hard truth is that the Brothers Gibb select from a whole arsenal of weapons in the war of stolen hearts. As composers, they’re armed with melody, rhythm, and the mesmerising power of disco. As singers, their trademark falsetto can register heights of soul and emotion. And what’s all that coiffured hair and designer dentistry for, if not taking hearts away? In fact, it’s likely the squillionaire pop superstars could be talking any old crap, and still be a fair hit with the ladies.

The uncomfortable reality for writers, who pride ourselves on our command of language, is that words are not as always powerful as we think.

For further proof, drive out of Birmingham on the M42, but keep your wits about you. Junction 9 is a real-life version of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training, but the price of failure is not a disappointingly low brain age on your Nintendo, but a bloody pile-up strewn across the carriageway.

The northbound approach offers two possibilities: the NORTH EAST (M1) and the NORTH WEST (M6 Toll). But, confusingly, the sign for the North East points to the left (or more or less due North West), and the sign for the North West points right (almost directly North East). What’s more, you’re sure you were travelling towards Nottingham, which is in neither the North West or the North East, so where the hell are you supposed to go? Your eyes tell you one thing. Your gut tells you another. The words themselves couldn’t be clearer, but the message is still confused. And please, brain, decide quickly because there’s no time to re-read that first sentence when you’re hurtling towards the point of no return at way over the speed limit with some Brummie trucker right up your arse…

BAARRRRPPP!!!

(THE ANSWER, if you’ve arrived here via Google, searching for directions : Follow signs to NORTH EAST (M1), then the A453 to Nottingham.) Simple.

So how does this feed into creative scriptwriting or copywriting? Like this: it’s easy as a writer, to think you can “word” your way around a problem. But words, despite what the Bee Gees tell us, are not all we have.

In screenwriting, there’s the basic truth that image and behaviour always triumph over words. You are writing stories, not speeches. (It was Hitchcock who said first he writes the script, then he writes the dialogue.) So, if a character behaves like a nice guy, the spoken revelation that he once kicked a puppy won’t have much of an impact. If the guy kicks puppies, let’s see the guy kick the puppy.

More specifically, within the context of a script, it pays to check that you’re not asking the reader to change mental lanes at more than 70 miles an hour. If I am introducing a character with a mean disposition, I won’t choose to describe his generous mop of hair, his deep understanding of forensic accountancy, or how he draws himself up to his full height when he enters the room. Meanness isn’t associated with generosity, fullness or depth, so I don’t want to casually use words that subconsciously suggest that.

It’s the same in copywriting. If my client has “low, low prices” I’ll try to avoid words or phrases – up to, above, over – that make some part of your brain think about height. Or, if I’m writing about a company’s real, human personal service, I’ll try not to do so on a homepage that’s a deluge of small-print copy deliberately search-engine-optimised to draw the attention of Google and not real human persons.

Of course, like all “rules” in writing, this one begs to be broken. If the place with Low, Low Prices has a shop on the High Street, maybe I’ll play with that, and use the linguistic contrast to my advantage. Perhaps a mean guy with a generous build makes for an interesting image. What’s important, though, is that professional writers should be awake to secondary meanings, ambiguities and potential confusion.

As should motorway planners. And Bee Gees.

Soundcheck

In Uncategorized on December 10, 2009 at 11:17 am

Cough, cough.

Ahem.

SQUEEAAAL!

One, two. One two. Testing, testing.

Blog is go.