The Anatomy of Story - Episode 3

Development Executive Angeli asks some tough questions in this episode, including how to find a unique and different voice as a writer and how do you know if your script is any good?

23 June 2016


Matimba: Welcome to episode three and our final episode of our Story Day talk from Development Exec. Angeli MacFarlane - I’m Matimba Kabalika from the BFI Network. 
This is the last 22 minutes of Angeli’s talk where she shares her experiences of finding and developing plot. If you’ve missed the other two episodes - I’d highly recommend going back to hear about script structure in episode 1 and then character development in episode 2.
So here is the final one from our first Story Day. Enjoy it - and hold out to the end where Angeli takes some tough questions, including how to find a unique and different voice as a writer and how do you know if your script is any good?
Angeli: We got plotting. So we're now 10 in and we finally got there, you see? This is a 19 minute lecture and we're now 10 in, and we've only now got to plotting. So, were you to have the, perhaps sometimes pleasant and sometimes really quite kind of nose grinding experience of sitting at a desk with me, the plotting element, as I said, comes. It needs to come when you're ready for it, because when you're ready for it, it feels so much easier if you've done all that groundwork than if you go at it when you're not ready, because as I said, then what you're doing is you're shunting the project uphill, and it's got the writer's hand all over it and the characters are doing what you want them to do, so you're forgetting to let them act and react. You're forgetting the interconnectivity between the characters, which is natural, the natural way that we interrelate, and that if you bring a character into a landscape, how you change the dynamic. So the natural way of human interaction has not fit in because you are driving it so much that there's something unnatural about the way your story feels. It's just not organic.  
So when we're ready for plotting, we're ready for plotting, okay? Plotting is overanalyzed, yet its function is often misunderstood. I've sort of said that. The main thing that I want to say here is that key turning points in scripts are emotional, and that's something... You know, often I see that turning points, you know, when someone nails the turning points to the floor, what they're always talking about is action points. And I think what we have to remember is that the turning point, because the story belongs to the character, then the turning points belong to the character. Therefore the turning points are focused around the event and how the character reacts to it.  
So what is the aftermath in a sense of the plot point is really where the true turning point lies because if the character decides this having happened, that they're gonna go and kill someone, that's the true turning point because that's an emotional decision, clearly, a strategic decision in plot terms, but it's an emotional choice, it's a moral choice, because surely the script will be saying...will be asking, "Is it possible for him or her not to go murder that person," because if there's no tension there, then the script's...there's something wrong with the script anyway, but you see what I'm saying? So the conflict and the dilemma that is created by what gets the characters to the place where they need to commit a murder is where the juice is at. So don't separate them out. You need them both, okay? You need the emotional reaction to the plot point, which is what creates the turning point. They are together, they need to exist together.  
And every action point needs a build up, an execution and an aftermath, because that's the truth of action, right? If I want to move my leg, okay, I mean it's a stupid example, but if I want to move my right leg now, I have to put my weight onto my left leg, because otherwise I can't move my right [inaudible 00:02:44], you know, and I move it, okay? The aftermath of that is now that my weight's on my right leg. I mean, that's a silly example, but do you see what I mean? Every action requires a setup, an execution and an aftermath.  
Now, one of the problems with screen storytelling, quite often, is what kickstarts a story is something that happened in the past. So what you have to decide for yourself, what is in the film. Is it the aftermath? Are you gonna have the execution in the story? And when you're gonna show flashback, if you do, what are you going to show? Are you gonna show the execution, or are you going to show the build up to the point where it actually happened? Or you gonna show the aftermath, the immediate aftermath and then the movie is sort of the elongated aftermath. Do you see what I mean? Stories are all about connecting to where on the line of the journey of an event the story is, and each event in the story is created by something.  
You know, there's that thing, isn't there, that you can't create energy, can you, in the world, isn't that right? Yeah. Well, so, you can't create an event. The event existed in a different form and it's turned into this and then it turns into that. So everything... And importantly, is that they don't need to be in the script. So you don't have to have everything on the page, but they need to exist and you need to know. So for example, with that, I go back to my character example, the aftermath of the discovery of what the girl is doing is not on the page. Okay, we don't see her react immediately, but her subsequent action is a consequence of that aftermath, and so her behavior needs to change. Otherwise she has not reacted, and therefore, there is no cause and effect, and therefore you have broken this rule. And if you've broken this rule, there is something wrong with your script because it is a rule. It's just the connecting nature of events. They come from somewhere and they occur, and then they go somewhere. So that, I think, is a very useful plotting tool. Yeah? Does that make sense?  
Some of these things are really hard to get your head round in abstract. I write this stuff down because I talk about it so often. I just kinda write it down and then I read it and I go, "Really?" And then I stop my self-loathing and I say, "You know what? When I'm working on something, when I'm with the material, I know that this will make sense." And I think that's the thing, is use these things with the material, because that's why screenwriting books are: A, I think it's impossible to read them cover to cover because they kinda make your head blow off, but also because what you need to do is access them when you need them.  
And this becomes important when you're looking at the journey of a character and every event that happens to the character. Where did it start? Where does it happen? What are the consequences of it? And then you say, "My rule, my rule, my rule," and you become really good at it and then you naturally go, "Oh my gosh, I'm not milking that. Of course, that scene doesn't work because she's behaving like nothing happened. But it's not deliberate, she's not deliberately behaving like nothing happened, she's accidentally behaving like nothing happened because I am manipulating the material to my own end and I've forgotten what a character would organically do in that situation, given that I, I, me, the writer, gave her a set of characteristics, which means that she would behave in that way. So I'm not being true to my own writing. I'm not respecting my own creation. I made this woman. I made her behave in a certain way, and then she's behaving in another way, because I'm not paying attention to the rule of plotting." So character building and plotting, inevitably, therefore, start to come hand in hand, which is what we need them to because I don't want to just talk about character because you'll go, "Well, that ain't helping when I've got 100 pages to write."  
Okay. And then back to the point where the story kicks off and the crisis point and the point of resolution. And so, as I said, when you go to treatment, it's a very good point to do it before you get to the 100 pages and it becomes unwieldy. Or do it on your cards. So you've got all your moments mapped out and then have the card that says, "Everything changes," or "This changes," "He changes, but she doesn't realize," "He'll never come back again, but she hasn't yet understood that." "She'll never get, she'll never...," you know, like Juno for example, "She'll never..." We know she'll never get the perfect family. When do we know that? Really early because do we all have perfect families? No. So we know that right from the beginning. She doesn't know that, even though her life is screaming at her going, "There is no such thing as a perfect family. Your mother sends you cacti, for God's sake." Do you see what I'm saying?  
So there are points at which it becomes apparent to the audience, and then there are points at which things become apparent to the character. It's really good to map them. I like cards for that reason because they allow you to just write stuff down that's not in the film, but it's in your head. But know where those points are and be tough on yourself. And you see, I'm not talking about act breaks. I'm not interested in act breaks. Act breaks fall naturally. And you know what, people like me are really good at coming in and saying, "You're act two turning point's in the wrong place." We can spot it, but what you need to be good at is knowing where your turning points are for your character and what the consequences are, so that you will never make the mistake of not gathering moss around your stone as you move forward and having characters do things that are out of character or inconsistent in terms of the story journey, or that do not exploit the aftermath and need for an aftermath of an event, okay? If you imagine that every event has a ripple effect in terms of aftermath, you suddenly realize the interconnectivity between characters is not necessarily about sticking them in scenes together, it's about having them react to what's going on, and that unites them, and that unites your thinking.  
Story type or the outer layers. Okay. Genre, I kind of have to mention it. Vital tool or blunt instrument? Genre's important. We're starting to turn outwards now. We've been spending the last hour and 10 talking inwards, but if we turn our story outwards and we look at our reader, we look at our audience, we expect a reaction from them which is in tune with what our intentions are, okay? Our intentions are vital. As a development person, I want to know what you intend to do. That's the most important question I will ask you, but that question is loaded, because it's about what are you trying to say? Where's your voice in all this? Have you obeyed all the rules that I've just been talking about? And what's the tone? What does it feel like to the audience? Is it funny? Is it satirical? Is it dark? If it's dark, how does that dark manifest? Does it manifest through humor, or through sort of painful reality? How and what are you doing? Is there consistency in that, and if it's hybridized, how is that gonna work? What is your predominant tone? I believe very much that, even if there is...the tone isn't singular, there will be a predominant tone because the allows you to shape it, okay, and to decide where you're dipping out of the tone. It's very hard if it's either or. It's very, very difficult.  
So it is necessary to define. If you say to me, "It's a thriller," then I have expectations, right? It's normal. And quite often I will say to a writer, "Actually it's not a thriller. You think you're writing a thriller, but you're not." And that's cool because either you are writing a thriller and I can help you because I know the tropes of thriller writing and we can work through them, or you're not writing a thriller and you need to know that. And so stop because what you're doing if you're writing a thriller is you'll compact action in the last 20, 30 minutes. You have lots of short scenes. And the story will be driven very much by the jeopardy of the loss of life and the character having finally realized what they have to do is morally compromise themselves to save themselves or whoever they need to save. That is the lure of thriller writing right there. So if it's not a thriller, that suddenly changes the potential dynamic of the whole of the last act of your film. So it does matter, it really matters. 
My relationship with genre is not the same as [inaudible 00:10:39] or protagonist,'s a different relationship. That's an important relationship, and mine's different. Mine is about the tools of screenwriting, and that if you are gonna work within a genre, then you need to understand how that genre is perceived in terms of what it's supposed to do and therefore how you're working with that as much as you want to, but where you're not, to be aware of the consequences of you might be producing a misdirect, and you need to own that. So when you go in the room, you need to say, "You know what, guys? I know it feels like that, but this is what I'm doing and I know I can make it work." And I'm sitting and I'm listening to you going, "Go on then, convince me." I wanna be convinced. I love it when people tell me, "I'm a rule bender," so long as you know that you are and you know when you've done it, and you know how you're gonna convince me that you can get away with it. But if you just say, "These things don't matter," then I'm like, "I think you slightly misunderstood the rules of the world, the rules of the filmmaking world." So it does matter.  
And also, as a filmmaker, you know, you're gonna go through the layers, and layers, and layers of tissue, and out into the bone, and the skin, and the hair. And you're gonna come out the other end, and every single layer makes demands on you. And when you get out there and all your HODs [SP] are gonna look at it, and your financers are gonna look at it, and your actors are gonna look at it, and your editor's gonna look at it, and then everyone's gonna have a view, and everyone's gonna have something to say, and, you know, guess what your producer does? Your producer sells it as a thriller because it's much easier. That's what they do, right? And so you have the conversation with the producer where you say, "That's cool, you do that, but I am gonna do this, and we do have to understand that's what I'm doing, and it will look this way, and you need to sit in the room with me, with my editor and my director of photography and my production designer and hear what we're saying because we're all singing from the same hymn sheet, and we're all saying it's gonna look and feel like this, and the audience experience is going to be, therefore, that. Are you cool with that? Yes or no? That's the film I'm making."  
You can't have that conversation if you're not honest with yourself as a writer and director. So it does matter. It matters that you own a very sophisticated understanding of how audience perceives genre, that you have a very sophisticated understanding of how marketing, sales and distribution people perceive genre, and that you understand the technical rules of screenwriting that apply to different genre. That's a big ask. Yes?  
Man: If you're writing, say a you're writing a thriller, but you've never written a thriller, how would you know the necessary beat sort of things that must happen in the way that you described it, self-sacrifice at the end, in order to write it? Would you analyze previous scripts and analyze how they approached the narrative or?  
Woman: I'm always shocked by how often writers don't read scripts, and I'm like, "Surely you should be reading scripts all the time." Yes, so for... What I do very often is I read the script. You know, often I see things from films, so I'll see the film and I'll Collateral for example, which I use a lot in my teaching because it's such's kind of a [inaudible 00:13:43] perfect thriller. So you watch Collateral and you go back and read the script, and you go, "Oh my goodness me, the two, you know, the two key turning point scenes between Max and Vincent, which are all about world view, which is all about, 'I care about people, and therefore I will do what is required to save people,' and 'I don't care about people, therefore I can kill them at random,' occur on page 25 and on page 75." It's perfectly structured, it's a really good lesson to learn. So you do that and then you read others. You know, and then you go and watch loads and you just steal from the best, absolutely, totally that's what you do.  
And then also, you trust your own instincts because we, again, have absorbed, you know, from when we're tiny, we're told stories, and then we grow up and we decide which kinds of stories we're going to watch and we become really good at certain things. And I think we're much more attracted to write something that we feel we want to see, which probably means that you've watched lots of films like that, and I think there is a perversity sometimes of writers saying, "I'm gonna write something about which I know nothing and about which I don't care." And I'm like, "Okay, but challenge yourself, why not?" But mostly I think we are drawn to things that we're interested in already, and therefore you have a huge lake of understanding about how, for example, thrillers work. So tap into it and say, "Well, what do I know?"  
You know, when Angie was talking about the moral compromise of the main character, what does that actually mean? Let me have a look at films. And you know, you look at something like Drive for example, or Collateral, or...and you think, "Okay, well how does the main character's journey take them through a moral landscape that shifts them," particularly when they start off in an immoral place, which is really interesting, like the great British film, The Long Good Friday. You know, the Bob Hoskins film is really, really rich and interesting in terms of the thriller world being about the moral landscape, for example. I mean, I'm being specific here, but yeah, you just do your homework. Do your homework.  
Okay, but I think basically these are a bunch of questions that I sometimes think we ask ourselves. We maybe don't articulate them necessarily openly, but I think they're always there. So how do I know if my script is any good? That's a toughie, isn't it, because I think we veer between, "Oh my god, it's amazing," and "Oh my god, it's absolutely terrible." And neither of those polarities are useful to us, of course because it's going to be somewhere in the middle. But we do have to ask ourselves some really quite simple basic...these are kind of bigger, out of body questions now. We're out of the bulk of the writing thing. So have you put an extraordinary amount of work into the things I've talked about, unified the tone and employed causality, those are the two things that again, I've talked about. Have you tried to write like someone else and have you tried hard to be unique?  
Okay, I wanna go back to that unique thing just for a second, quickly, before I start, which is, do you truly need to try to be different or unique because I think that's what being different means. It means doing something that no one else has done before. I honestly believe you're in a hiding [SP] to nowhere if you try and do that, because as hard as it is, if I would say to you now, to each one of you in the room, "Can you define your voice as a writer," you would go, "No," and "That's really embarrassing and why would I? And that sounds really immodest and also, it's not up to me to say." People say, "Well, that's an Almodovar film, or that's a so-and-so film," that's a voice, right? Or, "That's definitely written by Jonathan Franzen," or "That's so clearly Virginia Woolf." You know what I mean? We understand the concept of the voice.  
But you do have a voice and the uniqueness of your voice is a given. It's the quality of the voice that is interesting to me, and it's about working towards improving the quality is what you should be doing. So put your energy in the right place. Don't worry about being different, worry about what it is about you coming into your work. So ask yourself all the sorts of questions that I've suggested that you do. Have you imagined who would see your film and how they might react to it? I think that's really important. Have an audience in your head. Doesn't matter who it is, it doesn't matter how big it is, but if you come into a meeting with me and I say, "Who do you think will go and see your film," and you say, "Everybody." In an ideal world, sure, maybe, but maybe not, you know? Maybe the film isn't for everybody and that's cool. But who do you think would go and see it?  
And that's where you can compare to previous films and have a sense of a connection. And that's not worrying about being too like them or copying them, but it's about understanding we are a creative family and of course we connect to each other. These stories existed. You know, a film is an event. There is an aftermath to a film, and the aftermath is the impact it has on us. And as creative people, we take the battle and we run with it, okay? That's our job. We don't work in isolation of what has gone before. Just be careful. If you say, "Well, it's a mashup between, you know, Saturday Night Fever and Laura," well I'm like, "Okay, I can't see that. That's not happening in my head." So just be careful. But if you say, "You know that great scene in that film, well I want to transpose that tone into this kinda film," and I go, "Oh my god, that's really interesting and original. Never seen that, that's great and I love it. I love your take." Your take is about understanding your audience's relationship with the film, because your take is what you're communicating. And then you have to decide which of those questions you think has a yes, no answer. It's up to you. So see below is see below inside your own heads. Sorry.  
Okay, so we're gonna stop now. And this is where we finally get to the end, and I'm just gonna go back over the main points that I made. I'm 1 and 30 in, so I will be quick, but the emotion a story evokes must drive the writing. Feelings first, plot second. And that's as much about yourself as the author, as it is about your characters. How do things make your characters feel? When things happen to them, what does your character want to do? What must they do and what do they actually do? And that comes from a place of feeling. And even if the feeling is duty, it's still a feeling, right?  
Plotting is about realizing story, and story is about people and a place at a specific time with necessary change afoot. So what I've said is that plotting is technically tough and I'm not denying that for one second, but it comes from the person in the place at a specific moment in time with a specific problem and recognizing where the turning points are to do with the character and how they map onto the plot, the action point. They need to be wedded. They don't always happen at exactly the same time, but they will work around each other, so you need to recognize where they are and use that as your structure.  
My last point is to beef you up and say to you, no one should be able to denigrate your script or tear your script apart if you are strong about what it is that you're trying to say. And that's so important because if you don't know what you think you're trying to say, and you don't have to write it up and stick it over your computer and leave it there for evermore as this kind of this thick thing that nobody can change and nothing can...that's not the point, but the point is knowing roughly what it is that you think you wanna say and how you want your audience to feel, okay? And have an awareness of that, because then when someone questions what you're doing, and you say, "You know what? You've got a point, but that's not the problem. I hear what you're saying, I think there's something else I need to be doing, and we need to work until we find out what it is." Something's troubling you, and respect that from the advice you get.  
If someone says there's something wrong, listen, but it's not always what they say that is the problem. But the only way you can know that and not revise badly, is if you know your material and you know what it is that you're trying to say. And that is your power, and if you lose that power as a writer, you've lost because then people can walk all over your material. And if they're good at what they're doing, you're lucky, and that's great. But if they're not good at what they're doing, or it just so happens that yours is the kind of material they don't really understand, or are not familiar with, then your film's gonna be damaged. And I say that because it's what I do, so I'm being critical of my own kind. So I think your parents [SP] having something to say and understanding something about what it is that you're trying to do and knowing yourself and knowing your voice to an extent, enough that you recognize a comment in terms of its value for you and how you can move on. So listen, but listen in the right way and go forth. And let's have a break. Okay, thank you.
Matimba: So that was Angeli MacFarlane speaking to emerging writers and directors at Story Day in May. Sorry we couldn't mic up all the talks, but at least you got the meaty bit of the day! 
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