Creative Scriptwriting and Copywriting

Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

Of Mice and Mulan

In copywriting, scriptwriting, writing on January 31, 2010 at 1:46 am

Disney crafts stories like the Egyptians crafted the pyramids – simple, solid and built to last.

Pixar, on the other hand, builds stories more like the Mesopotamians built ziggurats – fancier, quirkier, more mysterious and interesting – though that’s probably another Re:Writing post…

If you’re an instinctive writer, your modern Disney movie can sometimes feel like storytelling by rote. The beats and the twists come just where they should. The characters are feisty archetypes you feel you’ve seen before. There’s not a lot of room for surprise, unless it’s the sort of surprise you kind of knew was going to happen – which, let’s face it, is a pretty low form of surprise. Disney movies chug along like a super-efficient story-machine.

(Christopher Vogler, who worked on the story-structure for The Lion King, provides an insight into the nuts and bolts of it all here in his book The Writer’s Journey.)

But there’s an uncomfortable truth for anyone who finds the process a little textbook: they may be built to a formula, but Disney’s stories still kick arse.

I saw Disney’s Mulan for the very first time this week. The story kept me hooked from start to finish.

And here’s how I know it was the story that reeled me in: what I watched wasn’t Disney’s Mulan, the 1999 animated feature film, but Disney’s Mulan, the stage spin-off of the 1999 animated feature film as performed by a local amateur youth theatre group.

Of course, the phrase “local amateur youth theatre group” is normally a triple-strength reason to stay at home. In fact, any one of the phrases “local theatre group”, “amateur theatre group” and “youth theatre group” is usually toxic enough on its own.

But my daughter (10) was in it. And one of the unspoken ordeals of parenthood is to sit through your offspring’s school concerts, nativity plays or violin recitals with a look of benign indulgence on your face, even when your inner critic is noting every bum note, bolshie angel or bow-squeak.

So what I saw was stripped away of all the gloss and the glitz that the House of Mouse drapes over its storytelling: no slick animation, no pitch-perfect singing, no Eddie Murphy riffing over his script as a wise-cracking dragon-spirit. (Was this before or after he did exactly the same act in Shrek? I forget.)

And even through the slightly shaky accents (suburban Nottingham kids doing ancient China via Hollywood Boulevard) and the minimalist stagecraft (the climactic avalanche courtesy of a white bedsheet), I was still pretty desperate to see if Mulan would win the battle (she does!), save the nation (she does!) or marry the man she loves (she does!).

It’s easy to see how a compelling story is important if you’re writing a screenplay.

But it also relates to creative scriptwriting and copywriting in the commercial or corporate world.

A copywriter shouldn’t just be the person you go to who drapes fancy glitzy words over your idea, product or service.

A good creative scriptwriter or copywriter will see past the language to the bones of your idea. They’ll question what you want to say and why you want to say it. They’ll create a strong structure to your message and only then will they fit the right words in place on top.

Never settle for a Mickey Mouse writer. Mickey Mouse wouldn’t.

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The best £1.22 you’ll spend today

In copywriting, scriptwriting, writing on January 17, 2010 at 2:33 pm

I really wish I’d thought of this.

It’s the SarcMark™ – the hot new punctuation mark. You can download it for just $1.99 and then, when you want to say something sarcastic, you slap it on the end of your sentence. It’s simple, elegant, and solves a real problem we face every day.

There are plenty of signs that this is going to be the @ of the 21st century:

There is no way that you can be clearly sarcastic in written English without it. It just can’t happen.

A trademarked punctuation mark that you have to buy is definitely going to catch on. Most people are going to be more than happy to invest a couple of dollars in this.

People can’t get enough punctuation marks. They love them. If the SarcMark™ people can get the public to use their symbol as well as they’re currently using the apostrophe, they’re onto a winner.

Never hire a freelance copywriter or professional scriptwriter who is not 110% committed to the SarcMark™. I know I am.

There is no Plan B

In scriptwriting, The A Team, writing on January 15, 2010 at 3:21 pm

One of the benefits of a classical education is the ability to call to mind the finest writing at any time. Memorise the works of the greatest poets and playwrights in the English language as a child, and you carry your own internal anthology with you for always. Shakespeare quotations, Bible passages, 18th century verse: a rich resource for everyone, but especially for a writer.

No?

Me neither…

My own mental Kindle is stuffed full with more couch potato poetry:   New Romantic B-sides, comic book dialogue, toothpaste commercials and local radio station jingles. Plus the sort of spoken word introductions to TV programmes that you just don’t hear any more. Get one of these right and it lodges deep inside. I can’t recall much too much Hamlet, but I will have a bash for you now at the title sequence from Hannah Barbera’s early 70s cartoon series Valley of the Dinosaurs.

“Deep at the heart of the Amazon, the Butler family were exploring an undiscovered river canyon.. Suddenly, something something [can’t remember that bit] in a violent whirlpool, they were propelled through an underground cave and flung into a horrible world of giant prehistoric monsters – a land that time forgot…  Befriended by a family of cavemen, each day is a battle for survival in… the Valley of the Dinosaurs”.

(Hmm. 8/10.  Always wondered about “horrible”, actually….)

I loved those verbal blurbs. They were everywhere: Star Trek,(of course), The Six Million Dollar Man, Knight Rider, Battle of the Planets, even Porridge. I guess they fell out of favour for reasons of fashion, and because high-concept TV itself died a death. There was really no need to explain the back-story of Friends every week: “Deep in the heart of New York, six self-obsessed cocks drink coffee and wise-crack for all eternity.”

There’s something satisfying about summing up a concept in as few words as possible. It forces you to focus on what your story is all about. It’s something I always try to put at the top of a TV series or comic book proposal anyway – two or three lines that could fit in the Radio Times description or DVD cover. And thinking about it as a spoken word introduction over your imaginary title sequence is a great way of making sure the language stays taut and vibrant and alive.

Today, high concept TV is back, but the spoken intro, not so much. Maybe it’s just too difficult. Good luck in summing up Lost in seventy-five words or less. (Although there was the self-consciously retro intro of Life on Mars “My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad? In a  coma? Or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet. Now maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home.”)

And another classic that’s brought the subject to mind for me. The A Team. At last – the movie trailer you can quote back at itself as it plays. Not sure about the addition at the end, though. “There is no Plan B”? I thought that was Marks and Spencer.

Once you can fake that…

In copywriting, scriptwriting, writing on January 11, 2010 at 8:40 pm

In a sassy, sceptical, cynical world, sincerity can be hard to write.

Scriptwriting manuals will advise you to steer clear of characters who mean what they say. “On the nose” dialogue supposedly denotes shallow amateurism, and of course it’s true – most of us stumble our way through life via a conversational cocktail of shiftiness, hesitancy and outright deceit.

For businesses, overdoing the sincerity can make you seem po-faced, pretentious or cloying. Horribly insincere.

But there are times when only speaking from the heart will do.

Terry Wogan’s on-air farewell after a twenty-eight year span on (and off then on again) the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show was one of the most controlled and effective pieces of writing I heard last year and strikes me as getting the sincere thing absolutely right. [Note to self: calling it “the sincere thing” does not sound very sincere]. I think this is masterful. (If you’re outside the UK and don’t know the voice, you have to imagine it spoken in warm soft Irish baritone, with a crackle that’s one part dodgy FM reception to ten parts pent-up emotion…) –

“This is it then – this is the day I have been dreading, the morning when you and I come to the parting of the ways, the last Wake Up To Wogan. It wasn’t always thus. For the first 12 years it was the plain old Terry Wogan Show and you were all Twits, the Terry Wogan is Tops Society.

“When I returned to the bosom of the family you all became Togs, Terry’s Old Geezers and Gals. It’s always been a source of enormous pride to me that you have come together in my name, that you are proud to call yourself my listeners, that you think of me as a friend, someone that you are close enough to laugh with, to poke fun at and just occasionally when the world seemed just a little too cruel, to shed a tear with.

“The years together with you have not only been a pleasure but a privilege. You have allowed me to share your lives with you. When you tell me how important I have been in your lives it’s very moving, you have been every bit as important in mine.

“We have been though at least a couple of generations together, for many of you your children like mine have children of their own.

“Your support for Children In Need has been consistent and magnificent… If anybody embodies the generous, warm spirit of this country it’s you, my listeners.

“I am not going to pretend that this is not a sad day – you can probably hear it in my voice – I am going to miss the laughter and the fun of our mornings together.

“I am going to miss you, until we are together again in February have a happy Christmas. Thank you, thank you for being my friend.”

There’s a lot to admire there. It’s emotional, but not quite mawkish.  It’s absolutely in the Terry tone of voice (“It wasn’t always thus.”), but it establishes its sincerity by steering clear of what’s maybe the most typically Wogan verbal tic of all:

Normally, with Wogan, there’s an undercurrent of self-deprecation and banter – a glint in the eye: sincere, sincere, sincere, undercut. But note that he doesn’t even  attempt the smallest half- joke (Not “I’m going to miss the laughter and the fun of our mornings together – even if I won’t miss the sight of Deadly [newsreader Alan Dedicoat ].” Not even “I’m going to miss the laughter and the fun of our mornings together – even if I won’t miss getting up so early.”) This is too important even for jokes.

It also wins points for me as a copywriter by including what seems like “a Message from the Management” (Try The New Guy) but written in a language and a point-of-view that sounds totally genuine.

“I know you are going to welcome Chris Evans with the same generosity of spirit that you have shown me”

That’s really good. He doesn’t ask his listeners to give Evans a chance, he knows his listeners are generous characters who will give him a chance. You’d have to be a hard-hearted TOG not to tune in this morning to hear Evans’ first day on air.

And I mean that most sincerely, folks…