Tag Archives: ARTTS International

The ‘sh%t, click’ moment

WRITERS' ENEMY The remote control.
WRITERS’ ENEMY The remote control.

IF I don’t manage to write a brilliant novel, there is no telling what I might do.

Got your attention? Good, that was my aim. Have no fear, despite dwelling in my fair share of writer’s angst, I am not about to throw myself in front of a bus, I am only imparting more of what I am discovering about how to tell good stories, and, if you’re still reading, my first line seems to have snagged you.

Many years ago while at ARTTS International media college, television producer John Sichel sat and imparted some basics about writing, tips he’d picked-up working in the trenches of the BBC.

The one thing I recall vividly was John’s demonstration of what he called the ‘shit, click’ moment.

Leaning back in his chair, he mimed a remote control in one hand, turned on an imaginary television, and made us feel we were in the living room with him, about to sit down in front of the ‘next big thing’ on the box.

Only the opening scene of the program wasn’t that great, and John said “shit” as he “clicked” over to another channel.

His improvisation imagined a writer failing to engage their audience.

In storytelling parlance, the antidote to the ‘shit, click’ moment is called a narrative hook. Good use of the classic five-part dramatic structure is all very well, but whether writing a novel, a short story, a screenplay, a play, or telling a ghost story around a campfire, your story needs to avoid the ‘shit, click’ moment.

There are endless ways of writing hooks. One of the most often cited is Jane Austen’s opener for Pride and Prejudice – “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

PROUD OPENER Jane Austen's greatest work starts with one of the best narrative hooks.
PROUD OPENER Jane Austen’s greatest work starts with one of the best narrative hooks.

In only 23 words, Austen distills for her reader the energy behind every plot point of her best-known and best-loved novel, which continues to engage readers two centuries after its publication. Love her or hate her, Austen knew how to engage readers.

Austen does this by making an assertion which might be interpreted as both a joke and as deadly serious – she buries opposing forces deep within her hook. You might continue to read because you completely disagree with her, or because you’re nodding your head in assent.

In a screenplay, the narrative hook need not be dialogue, in fact in film and television they work far better as a purely visual moment, and can unfold across the entire opening scene.

Action movies and thrillers make great use of the narrative hook, indeed the example we were shown at college was the 1987 film Robocop (screenplay by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner), the opening scene of which shows a semi-futuristic board meeting at which a prototype robot designed to police the streets is shown to a group of unwitting execs in suits (warning: the scene contains graphic violence).

GOOD SHIT, CLICK The opening scene of Paul Verhoeven's Robocop.
GOOD SHIT, CLICK The opening scene of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop.

The unit is revealed as both aggressive and docile when it is ordered to be, but when the confident designer hands one of the execs a gun and asks him to wield it at the robot to demonstrate its police skills, things go horribly wrong and the exec is slain mercilessly by the prototype in moments of sheer terror.

I was instantly hooked, because I needed to know where that story went after such a scene of corporate horror.

Another excellent reason for having a great narrative hook is when submitting work for consideration. So often a publisher will want to see only the first few chapters, or an agent requests the first ten pages of a script for consideration.

If there is no narrative hook in those brief pages, the publisher or agent may not find what they are looking for, which is access to an entertained readership or audience. They need to make sales, not friends. Even if your novel or script has great material in part three of its narrative structure, they’ll probably only see your idea as a dud.

WRITE REGARDLESSSo, while “It was a dark and stormy night” might not cut it, and “once upon a time” has been done to death, writers need to seek great narrative hooks for our work.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

Running with the rats of Soho

A Writer’s next day job.

WITHOUT a short-cut into the BBC or an entrée into a production company, it was almost impossible to get a job in film or television production in London, but pushing a foot through the door of a post production (editing) facility with a resume in your hand was a viable way to enter the industry.

And so, within 24 hours of pounding the narrow thoroughfares of Soho, between Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Street, I was offered two jobs.

Having just signed a lease with a group of friends on a cottage on the Isle of Dogs in east London, I had rent to pay, so I said yes to both.

As it happened, that weekend I went back to ARTTS International in Yorkshire to complete the final edit on a drama-documentary, and I was greeted like a conquering hero on the Saturday morning by a mob of students, hungry for a taste of the world beyond the pig farm, and then confronted by a Feedback Session.

Only ARTTS alumni around the world will know exactly what I mean by the latter. How do I describe it and not make it sound like ARTTS was, on occasion, a little like a correctional centre?

In any case all the accolades looked kindly beyond the fact that the best position of the two on offer was that of a lowly Post Production Runner.

A Soho Runner in those days was not an enviable position. If you were serious about your career, you’d want to stay in the job for no longer than six months.

So I took the offer than a Dean Street post production facility made to me, and started that very week. By the end of summer, I hoped, I’d be up the next rung of the ladder.

The other runners showed me to my first task – to clean-up the soft drink supply room below street level in a dank passageway that looked (and smelt) like I’d imagine the very same street did in Dickens’ time. Five years of tertiary education had prepared me to recognise dramatic tension, at least.

The rats gave ground by retreating around a bend in the subterranean storeroom, while I re-arranged the pallets of lolly water, trying to ensure they were not sitting in the inch of water that flowed across my shoes.

This post-production company liked to keep its clients happy, so there was no set lunch menu. Instead, the gourmet delights of central London were ordered and fetched on foot.

FABULOUS FOOD For fabulous people, Berwick Street Markets, Soho.

But we runners were also required to make a selection of sandwiches for clients who just couldn’t wait, created from the fresh produce of the fruit and veg markets on Berwick Street, with slabs of fresh bread and the finest cold meats from local delis. Luckily I’d had some sandwich-hand training while studying at NIDA, so I knew my way around a slice of focaccia.

There were some pretty speccy people making their way through these doors, but also plenty of clients who just believed they were on the A-List, and the only way they could gauge their level on the ladder was by shouting at the runners.

I never got shouted-at, but when a music-video maven came through to the kitchen in a tube dress right to her tennis-shoed ankles, calling for a “toasted ciabatta with marmite”, I made the mistake of answering that we were fresh out of ciabatta, but we had plenty of focaccia.

Her perplexed look quite naturally led me to believe that she simply didn’t know what focaccia was, so I began to explain. Before I got through the basics, she said: “I know exactly what it is!”, before insisting her first choice was fetched.

LONDON’S MAZE Soho is a small district jammed in between four major thoroughfares.

Now, most people couldn’t pick ciabatta from focaccia in a blind test, and since I was a Soho Runner of some weeks’ experience, I knew at that hour there wouldn’t be a fresh piece of either available anywhere. So I just sliced some bread quite thickly and smothered it with the maven’s favourite spread.

And so the cry of “I know exactly what it is” went on to be summer’s catchphrase at that end of Dean Street.

Each week I religiously wrote my first screenplay (an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Other Kingdom), and duly typed it up for consideration. The potential to make movies flowed through my veins, even if I was really working in catering under a fancy name.

Running video tapes and reels between editing houses meant I soon got a great knowledge of Soho’s street network. Rarely did we have to travel beyond the zone bordered by Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue and Regent Street.

I also discovered the locations of all the production offices listed in the films I aspired to join-in-on – Merchant Ivory, Goldcrest, The Oil Factory – behind glossy doorways with polished buzzers at street level, with people rarely coming and going.

In this maze I realised that if you spend enough time in Soho, you’ll encounter famous people. I saw Sean Connery looking both ways as he turned into Dean Street in his rather boring looking car; Greta Scacchi looking like she’d locked herself out of her flat; and Germaine Greer leaning into the wind of a stormy night as she ambled next to me along Oxford Street.

Soho also brought me face-to-face with entertainment by a different name. One racy shopfront near the markets displayed hilarious posters of new porn films with names that referenced the mainstream movies of the day. There was A League of their Moans (a slightly different take on the all-girl baseball team flick), and Howard’s End (in which Howard’s end was about to be spanked by a rather domineering lady).

The really sad element to Soho was the homelessness. At the end of almost every day I packed-up the leftover sandwiches and took them to St Anne’s Court, where legions of homeless men spent their days in the sunlight. They accepted the fresh, nutritious food with a quiet gratitude … they knew exactly what it was, and they didn’t care if it was ciabatta or focaccia.

After a couple of months the boss found out and told me to stop, since the bags I carried the food in were the very same we used to run tapes and reels around Soho – a handy way of advertising, I guess – and he didn’t want our company associated with any feeding-of-the-poor.

But I didn’t stop. I didn’t even use different bags. I wasn’t going to leave perfectly edible food for the rats.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The real truth about drama school

BRIGHT LIGHTS Don’t get burnt at drama school, get noticed.

I RECEIVED plenty of interesting feedback on my post The truth about drama school, so I thought I’d dig a little deeper…

Drama school is a once-off networking opportunity

Make the most of the industry connections offered to you while you’re there, since they’ll be far more important to your career than any skills you pick up. Skills can be learnt on the job, but contacts are what gets you work.

The industry will rarely give you more than one moment to shine

Forget about cashing in on being a drama school graduate long after you went to it. Make a splash in your last year and you’ll be noticed. After that – this will sound harsh – people with think there must be something wrong with you if nobody employed you on graduation.

If you feel you’re not getting to make a big splash at drama school

Dive in, don’t wait for permission. Think of a way to get something happening.

Don’t give all your great ideas away

Keep some things back for yourself. It’s rare, but some drama schools like to claim intellectual property rights over student work.

Get used to having no social life

Theatre almost always happens at night – you’ll be working when your non-theatre friends are partying. Make friends in the hospitality scene.

Drama school is a great educational add-on

But if it’s your only qualification or skill-base, you’ll be unemployed (and cash poor) for most of your life. Get some other employable skills under your belt before, during or after drama school.

Drama school friendships need to be strong enough to endure competition

But they very often aren’t.

Drama school takes a while to get over

The last time I was at one was 20 years ago, and I’m still processing the experience on this blog!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.