16 Dec 2014

Going Off-Piste and Getting Dramatic

When you’re pursuing a goal it’s important to focus and press on hard towards it.  But sometimes going slightly off-piste on the journey can also be valuable.

Unsurprisingly, my ADD tendencies are very happy with this approach, as is my contrary nature!  In order to improve my Young Adult writing, I could just pursue opportunities and courses related to YA.  However, that’s not always the best way to move forward.  

Earlier this year, I decided to study a short course in Writing Drama with Oxford Uni.  Some people feel that different areas of writing should stay separate.  I believe that there’s a lot of overlap and developing skills in one area can significantly improve the depth and vibrancy of your core writing ability.  Besides, all storytelling should involve drama, whatever form it takes!

There were three significant highlights on the course.  Reading “The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri, one of the core texts, taught me a huge amount, specifically about point of attack (where the drama begins), character and dialogue.  I’ve been aware for a long time that “showing not telling” is a weakness in my writing, mainly because I like to summarise things and therefore naturally “tell” rather than spend time “showing”.  This quote provides a constant provocation and challenge:

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

Visual images and dialogue are two non-negotiable features of drama.  A screenwriter has to communicate to a director/producer what the audience sees.  You could bore everyone and describe every last detail of a scene, but good writers focus just on what’s significant.  So, in WW (see below) when we go into the dining room of one of the characters, I mention various artefacts on the walls and shelves to indicate a serious amount of travelling and adventure.  We don’t need to know what colour the carpet is or what the fireplace looks like unless it communicates a specific and important point.

While I undoubtedly could have learnt more about dialogue through a YA course, its success is paramount in Drama and so there’s no better forum in which to learn about it.  Dialogue needs to be a selective condensed version of our more waffley everyday conversation.  It must have purpose: revealing character, backstory, setting and foreshadowing conflict and coming events.  Writing scripts taught me to intensify and condense what characters say, and I’ve worked hard to carry that skill over into my YA writing as well. 

The second key benefit from the course was the discovery of another book – “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler.  The Mythic Structure (based on “The Hero With 1,000 Faces” by Joseph Campbell) is a framework used in untold numbers of books and films, including all the Star Wars films and most of the Disney films!  Not only is this book a fascinating and informative read, but its impact on my writing has been gi-nor-mous.  It’s provided me with a strong structural framework and increased confidence in the rise and fall of the movement of my novel.  It’s so exciting and wonderful and amazing that it definitely deserves its own future post. 

"At heart, despite its infinite variety, the hero's story is always a journey." Christopher Vogler

As well as huge benefits for my YA writing, the Writing Drama course also had direct implications for my screenwriting.  It’s an area I’ve been particularly interested in since someone pointed out a few years ago that TV and film are society’s principal forms of storytelling nowadays.  As someone with stories to tell, it’s surely a bit of a no-brainer not to be involved with this medium in some way.

Thus the third exciting discovery on the course was the BBC Writers’ Room.  Not only is it a deep rich mine of information, help and advice, but nearly all the scripts from BBC dramas are available on it, so you can study hundreds of practical examples.  They also have regular submission windows for new writers to submit scripts for feedback. 

As part of the course, I had to write an outline and the first 1,000 words of a script.  I tried playing with a couple of “grown-up” ideas, but it didn’t take more than a few hours to realise that what I was really interested in writing was Children’s Drama.  Go figure!  I’ve definitely found my niche.  The tutor agreed that was okay and I was off, planning a CBBC style eight episode series (codename WW).

Because every available writing moment since finishing that assignment has been taken up with CAF, I haven’t had the opportunity to work on WW any further yet.  I definitely intend to though and would love to submit it to BBC Writers’ Room when they next open a window for Children’s Drama.  My idea is a fun adventure and fits with what a BBC Commissioner at the Children’s Media Conference in July said would probably be right on trend again in about 18 months’ time!

Going off-piste can be beneficial for many areas, especially creative ones.  If you’re a photographer and want to specialise in portraits, a course in landscape or macro photography may teach you a new skill that gives your portraits a slight twist or edge.  If you always knit or crochet, you could have a go at button making, felting or even branch right out to woodwork.  If you’re a gardener or interior designer, you could make a deliberate decision to experiment with a different style to normal.  There are always new and different ways to do things.  Even if you try something but find it’s not useful or you don’t like it, then you’ll have still learnt something from the process.

And if you discover that off-piste suits you more than your original path then you can always stay there!



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