Tag Archives: Submitting Manuscripts

Tea for three, with viagra

TEA FOR TWO Doris Day and Gordon MacRea in the 1950 film.
TEA FOR TWO Doris Day and Gordon MacRea in the 1950 film.

A Writer’s saviours.

IT TAKES a very bleak outlook for me to feel like giving up writing, but once I very nearly did.

Living by myself in a friend’s granny flat, my partner having died, my best friend having dropped me, my car having burst an engine gasket and been sold at bottom dollar for scrap, I was at a low ebb.

The idea of writing anything was the last thing on my mind.

Enter two dear friends – Yvonne and D’arcy – with a plan. Yvonne is a writer, having taken it up relatively late in life, and D’arcy knows the English language backwards, a natural editor like no other.

They wanted to enter a national TV screenwriting competition with an adaptation of one of Yvonne’s short stories. They knew I had experience in screenwriting. They were also wise enough to realise I needed something to keep my mind off the dreadful turn of events my life had produced.

I was a little dubious about how effective I’d be collaborating on a storyline, but after reading Yvonne’s story, Tea for Two, I could see immediately how this tale of revenge and bad behaviour amongst older people could be made into a riveting 30-minute drama.

So I said I was interested, as long as Yvonne and D’arcy agreed to tell me honestly if they thought it was no good. We’d only enter the competition, as a team, if we were all happy with the result.

Over cake and tea, we shook hands on it.

The competition had strict production criteria that submitted scripts needed to adhere to or get knocked out – limited numbers of characters, no scenes set at night (meaning no expensive night shoots), and a strong dramatic twist in the plot.

Yvonne’s story needed some adjustments to make it work as a screenplay – one location, and stronger character motivations to allow the story to take place in the 30-minute format – but it was fundamentally a brilliant tale about passion, poison, and older people, with a great ring of truth, because both Yvonne and D’arcy were well into their seventies when they wrote it.

I came up with a first draft in a few days and sent it off to them. This began a series of phone conversations and notes sessions, the likes of which I had not before (and have never since) been part of even with the most experienced collaborators.

All delivered, I hasten to add, with the kind of honesty, good manners and intelligence that all writers crave.

But these two went the extra mile. During one phone call, Yvonne’s voice sounded a little odd, like she’d been out jogging. When I suggested she sit down and let me call her back, she explained that she and D’arcy were entangled on their sofa reenacting the dramatic cliffhanging denouement of our script, with her dangling by a thread over the edge of the furniture, and D’arcy holding her.

CLIFFHANGER Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.
CLIFFHANGER Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

“It won’t work, luvvie,” Yvonne said, sure and to-the-point. “We’ve tried it and there’s no way that character could see anyone up above the cliff while they’re holding on by their fingertips. Can we change it?”

There was no refusing such commitment . I duly rewrote with her notes in mind.

The poisoning element of Yvonne’s storyline was pivotal, and I was keen on having an overdose of viagra as the means by which the murder was executed, something I assumed would be in good supply in an independent living nursing home, where we’d set our screenplay.

But I needed some facts on it, and thought to ask Yvonne.

“We don’t know luvvie, D’arcy doesn’t need it,” she said, completely without guile. “I could ask down at the Chemist’s, shall I do that?”

Priceless, unquestioning support.

Within a fortnight we’d researched all the facts we needed and collaborated on a series of drafts, and after a month had our script on the page in a state we were all very happy with.

Tea for Two was a very Australian, very timely exploration of older characters who were three-dimensional and hungry for their last-ditch, last-chance grabs at life.

We were extremely proud when we got through the first round, mainly because we knew we’d artfully worked within the production parameters requested; but ultimately our collaboration got rejected. The TV series was made that year, replete with stories focussed on younger people dealing with perhaps less realistic issues.

I’d dared D’arcy to place one single hair inside the 3rd page of the screenplay – an old writers’ technique for finding out if your screenplay had even been read before rejection. When it came back to us, yes, the strand of hair was still there.

But Tea for Two made one bereaved writer and two older collaborators feel very relevant for one Autumn. We still laugh about it. I will never forget Yvonne and D’arcy for the gift of their collaboration, and because they kept me writing despite the odds.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The call to action

UNCLE SAM WANTS you to get out of your comfort zone, for the sake of a good story (J.F. Flagg's 1917 poster).
UNCLE SAM WANTS you to get out of your comfort zone (J.F. Flagg’s 1917 poster).

THERE’S a nifty three-act dramatic structure, generally used by screenwriters (but drawn from the older five-act dramatic arc), which gets a plot moving a bit faster than a novel and contains a great plotting tool – the Call to Action.

One of the reasons we go to the movies, or distract ourselves by reading, is because we want to step outside our lives, temporarily, for entertainment.

It might sound incredibly obvious, but this distraction requires writers to create work so deliciously escapist that the reader/viewer is taken beyond the sphere of their own lives for a short time.

Writers don’t have to create an alternate universe (although some do, to great effect), we just need to suspend the reader’s disbelief. Even getting them a centimetre off the ground can be enough.

To achieve this disbelief, writers need to have their main character – the protagonist – step outside their world. The protagonist’s ‘call to action’ is the trigger for this step.

Situated at the heart of a plot’s exposition, the protagonist is going about the business of what seems like an average day, when something happens (an old friend calls with some unusual news; a car crashes into their front room; a stranger turns up at their door … it can be anything).

Those of us who live the average Western life, where most of our needs are taken care of, do not get wake-up calls like this, but we love to imagine what we would do if we did.

It’s this attractive energy that publishers, agents and eventually audiences crave, and it’s even become a marketing tool. It’s why we buy the book, or the movie ticket.

Now, I hear a bunch of literary fiction writers screaming: “Nooo, it’s all about the Art!”. Well, as a fan of literary fiction myself, I say let ’em scream: literary fiction writers need a call to action for their protagonist every bit as much as Agatha Christie did.

Would Nick Guest, the protagonist in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, have gone on such a compelling emotional journey had he simply moved out of the Fedden family’s house the minute their daughter Cat started cutting herself? (he wanted to).

Would Stevens, the Butler of Darlington Hall in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, have decided to take a car trip to visit Miss Kenton, the former Housemaid, had his new boss Mr Farraday not ordered him to take some time off ? (he didn’t want to).

Of course they wouldn’t. Had Nick moved out, and Stevens never gone away, both storylines would simply peter out. Neither piece of ‘Art’ would have garnered the critical and financial successes of their Booker Prize wins.

The protagonist’s call to action is linked to a plotting device covered in my posts on the dramatic structures of two films – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The Sum of Us. This is the compelling question needed in every plot’s exposition, in fact, they are almost one and the same: if you get the protagonist’s call to action right, a compelling question will naturally be posed.

CROSSING THE LINE Protagonist Nick Guest in the television adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty
CROSSING THE LINE Protagonist Nick Guest in the TV adaptation of The Line of Beauty (Photo: Nick Briggs).

By keeping Nick Guest in the Fedden’s home, exposing him to family secrets, and relying on his character’s already-established empathy, Hollinghurst poses the compelling question of his plot: When will the Feddens and their British upper class friends discover the reason for Nick’s empathy is his homosexuality?

By sending Stevens (who we already know is staid and a little unreliable in his recollections of his employment history) out into the world, Ishiguro poses his: Is Stevens so deluded he actually believes he can revive a stunted love affair that barely even began twenty years before?

Some authors, particularly crime writers, bury their protagonist’s call to action in mystery – a murder in the exposition is a particularly effective trigger for the most common of all plot questions – Whodunnit?

It’s for this reason that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are Christie’s great antagonists – they foil her murderers (read: protagonists) at each and every turn, showing how antagonists are also locked into the plot by the protagonist’s call to action.

WRITE REGARDLESSHead spinning? Just remember that plotting isn’t meant to be a formulaic set of rules. Stretching and manipulating these conventions, in interesting ways, is the real ‘Art’ of writing.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

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!