As usual, I’m very late with this. Many apologies. I hope I can make up for it by giving you:
- two new videos (one on why sometimes flashback doesn’t work and how you can prevent it; the other on what’s going wrong when a film feels slow (and again, what you can do to prevent it);
- information about my upcoming classes in the US and UK
- a big article about how to make sure the write the film and TV scripts you write that involve groups of people work properly. Specifically, it’s about how to make your interwoven group stories hold together, and I discuss a Greek film entitled Boom, which does it very well. Understanding how to create interweave and hold together group stories is a vital skill these days – it’s essential to TV writing, so if you’re a TV writer or want to be one, I think you’ll find it useful.
This time, there seems to be a kind of theme about the newsletter. It’s about problems in multiplot scripts and story control generally. Of course, multiplot is what we're all wresting with so much these days, since TV is now so important and TV is all about multiple interwoven plotlines.
More videos! More stuff for you!
Well, greatly assisted by a range of very kind and patient people who are polite enough not to laugh at my ineptitude with social media, I’m taking the great leap forward into 2007.
I’m starting to create videos for Facebook and Youtube - after sniffing suspiciously around them for years, like an old dog faced with an action-operated toy. It just might bite...
So, please check out my Facebook Page (which is named The 21st Century Screenplay) and my You Tube channel. I’d love you to friend me and tell me what you think of the videos and give me suggestions for other videos. me etcetera and I’ll keep the videos coming.
Two new videos
They’re both about what's happening when films are slow. You could say, they're about what's happening when nothing seems to be happening.
The first one is entitled Flashbacks Irrelevant. II write a lot about flashbacks. They can be great. But sometimes they just don’t work. So what's going wrong? View it and see what you think
The second video is entitled Slow Script? Boring Script? Why and How to fix it My other title for this one is You control the story. Don’t let the story control you’. And my third title was Don't Forget the ToothBrush. It’s about checking that you’re using scenes that actually further the story you’re trying to tell. So where does the toothbrush come in? Watch it and you’ll see – and maybe it might make you chuckle.
Teaching in California and London
California 26-28 September
I’m delighted to say I’m briefly in California so I’m stopping in to teach nonlinear narrative in California at The Central Coast Writers Conference in San Luis Obispo which is being held at
London, NonLinear Masterclass 5-6 October at Ealing Studios,
TV Masterclasses already sold out
I'm running two one day TV Workshops on Practical TV Writing plus my big Two Day Nonlinear Masterclass in London. The TV Workshops, which had limited places, sold out in days. Sorry about that to the people who missed out.
But tickets are still available for my big two day Nonlinear Film and TV Masterclass. It's at Ealing Studios, (home of Downton Abbey!) and you can still get in because it's a masterclass not a workshop. And there's a lot about my latest thoughts on nonlinear and multiplot narrative in TV in that too
I haven't taught nonlinear in London for a few years now, so come along and her my latest thoughts. People don't normally think of nonlinear storylines being used in TV, but they're everywhere now (did you see the flashbacks in Chernobyl? Very clever). So if you're planning to write for TV at any point it's not only a necessity to fine up your skills in interweaving multiple storylines. You also need to get your head around fractured stories and flashbacks. I'm now talking to senior writers about structuring TV series using nonlinear structures (for example, like the structure of Pulp Fiction).
Tickets and further information
Tandem Narrative (essential to learn if you’re considering TV Writing) and the movie 'Boom'
For those of you who haven’t yet quite got your heads around my various categories of nonlinear multiplot story structures, the type of structure that I’ve isolated and named Tandem Narrative is a group story form that you’ll instantly recognize from many TV series and serials. Here's a quick cheat sheet on the six sorts of parallel narrative on my website (there's a lot more stuff on parallel narrative there)
It involves a group of people (who may or may not know each other) each having their own separate storyline on the same theme, all interwoven, with the action jumping between the stories as they all progress together (in tandem). You’ll have seen it in the police, legal and medical shows where some major characters all go off into a separate storyline each.
If you’ve got any intention of writing for TV you’ll need to learn about it. It also appears in films, particularly films with a sociopolitical message. It’s used in well-known English language films like Traffic and Lantana and, recently the Greek film Boom written and directed by Maria Lafi, which I’m going to talk about here.
Interestingly, over the last few there seems to be a lack of mainstream English language tandem structure feature films. I’m wondering this is because they’re being done as TV serials, with creators feeling that the serial format gives them more room for their sociopolitical content.
By the way, not all TV series use tandem narrative form. Series like The Bodyguard are one hero stories. Meanwhile, Killing Eve is in another multiplotstructure, it’s a double journey model (see my website for details). Other TV series have stories about groups together on a quest or reunion or trapped together in a social or physical siege. Chernobyl is like this. It’s Multiple Protagonist form, which I’ll discuss a bit below.
But mostly I’m talking here about Tandem.
How to recognize Tandem
A quick way to remember what tandem narrative is and looks like is: ‘equally important stories on the same theme running together in tandem’. Tandem is usually socio-political, making a comment about social problems. Theme is important. The central plot – the event that affects all the people will illustrate the theme. For example, if the theme is ‘unemployment’, the plots will all be different stories based on the topic of unemployment. The event will be something like: ‘ a factory closes down (or has closed down) and a group of different people are all affected, and we see how’.
Multiple Protagonist form
Tandem narrative is often confused with another sort of group structure that I’ve isolated and termed Multiple Protagonist form. You’ll often find in TV but even more often in film, so, again, you need to be able to recognize it. Multiple Protagonist structure involves a group of people each of whom is a different versions of a person in the same situation (for example, it’s ‘the bank robber’ in the ‘Ocean’s’ franchise or ‘The Journalist’ in Spotlight or, in The Full Monty, the financially desperate working class man who plans to be in a strip show’ ) and who are all together in a joint ‘adventure’. This can be either on a mission, a reunion or a siege-like situation (as in a prison or, metaphorically, in a family).
Why do I need to know this?
I’m mentioning the difference here because it’s not just a matter of giving descriptive names to different forms. It’s practical. It’s about plot. It affects what you, the writer have to think about, plot and interweave because the plotting decisions and problems are different for each form. If you try to use the wrong structure you’ll often tie yourself in knots.
It all depends on what sort of story you want to tell. Content dictates structure. It comes down to whether you want to tell a story about a group having an adventure together (multiple protagonists) or going off separately and having story separate from the group as a whole (tandem).
In a tandem narrative you have to create a number of different storylines that are connected thematically and by place or time or an event (or all of these). In a Multiple Protagonist structure you have to think of and plot that joint ‘adventure’ with their characters and relationships depicted via their response to the joint ‘adventure’.
All of that said, just to make life a bit harder, some of these forms are now merging and hybridizing. Alas, scriptwriting is not an exact science. Clever writers are seeing to it that the forms are evolving all the time. However, the same basic structural shapes apply in most cases.
Successful Tandem Narrative
The key to successful tandem narrative is connection. You make connections through the theme, geographical connection, time and overlapping plots and with characters often appearing in several plots. Connection is always a potential problem in parallel narrative. It’s inherent- because immediately you leave that one-hero-one-story model and use multiple storylines, your audience will be asking: ‘why these stories? What’s the point of all this? Where’s all this going?’ If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions then stopped watching a TV series or a film because of them, you’ll know how dangerous the problem is.
Connection provides meaning provides pace provides satisfactory closure. There have to be strong stories and strong connections or the script quickly gets boring.
Fewer connections mean lighter impact
I’ve noticed that the more connections the more hard-hitting the film is. Some films have fewer connections and that often makes them slower. The choice of a slow lyrical thoughtful film instead of a hard-hitting one is of course yours, but it’s important to know what creates ‘slow’ and what creates impact and speed. The successful one can be attractively subdued and lyrical. The unsuccessful ones are boring.
I suggest you watch Boom, not just because it’s a good film to watch, but because it’s interesting to us as writers trying to examine the mechanics of successful films and TV and learn from them. It’s a tandem narrative using several sorts of connections hence getting its message across with high impact.
The way I work out templates for writers to use to create successful multiplot parallel narrative structures is to study successful films and TV series closely, often watching them again and again, pinpointing what ingredients they have in common. I recommend you do this. That way you can create templates for yourself .
The writer director of Boom created the tandem narrative structure intuitively without a template she’d worked out from other films and without reading my structural theories. She was then taken aback to read The 21st Century Screenplay and see that she’d instinctively included all of the ingredients that work well in tandem narrative.
Well done Maria! So should we all rely on intuition? Now, intuition is indeed great. We all use it and indeed it will often get you there. Unfortunately, as you’ve probably experienced, not only can it take a lot of trial and error, it can also let you down badly, particularly when you’re very close to a script.
My pragmatic approach is that it’s always handy to have a bit of theory you can use as a double check.
Let’s lift the hood on Boom and look at the mechanics – why it actually works so well and what we can learn from it...
What it’s about
Boom is about a group of unconnected people who live in the same small working class area of the city and are all thrown into separate tragedies by a random event. This is, when a rebellious teenager drops fireworks into a public mailbox to impress his friends. The subsequent fire destroys vital mail and causes a passing pedestrian, a man on his way home to his wife and baby, to be run over. The explosion in the mailbox are the ‘boom’ of the title.
What follows the fire and the pedestrian’s death are a number of suspenseful interwoven stories about the people whose lives are dramatically changed, directly or indirectly, by the exploding mailbox. We are taken into the world of drug dealers because two young drug deals can’t pay the drug money they owe because it was burnt in the mail box. We’re taken into the world of the lonely old woman who helps them. We also go into the life of the boy who who caused the fire and is injured, seeing his relationship with his parents and his friends, who ultimately betray him.
Finally there are a series of interwoven stories about the illegal immigrant widow of the dead man. The documents that would have given her a legal right to stay in Greece were lost in the mailbox fire. Faced not only with an unsympathetic bureaucracy at the hospital morgue where her husband’s body has been taken, she also has to deal with the gangsters who’ve arranged her illegal job. And while she dealing with all this she’s forced to leave her baby alone all day because, with her husband gone, she has no-one to care for him. Eventually, the widow and the old woman will be connected in a separate story, one that would never have happened except for the mailbox fire.
What you can see working so well in Boom are many levels and types of connection and clever story interweaving of several stories. The characters are connected by the fire in the mailbox, by place, by time and, as the film progresses, by plotlines involving each other which would never have happened if the fire in the mailbox hadn’t occurred.
What can go wrong: Character-driven or characters in search of a plot.
If you want to write about a group of people you need to give them a story and you need to interconnect and interweave. It’s so for all sorts of group story structures.
This sounds obvious but it isn’t. People often want to write about a group of interesting people but assume that the characters alone are sufficient. They’re not. If you don’t have a central plot that illustrates a theme (for example, ‘Poverty’ illustrated by several different interconnected beat-by-beat stories about poverty – as opposed to just showing poor people simply experiencing poverty) you will have ‘characters in search of a plot’.
People will often describe scripts that features several characters but don’t have strong beat-by-beat stories as ‘character-driven’. Alarm bells always ring for me when I hear that term. Usually these people are recognizing but not really facing up to the fact that the film doesn’t have a story. Often this is because they are convinced that the one hero model is what narrative is - so group stories must not be narratives and can work without a through-line plot. Unfortunately, what they are describing as a strength is actually a serious flaw. In film, character is what character does. If your characters just hang about chatting and being themselves - or just being involved in a series of short episodes in which they respond in character, you will find your film stops in its tracks. You need to show your characters behaving characteristically in response to a chain of events – a story. If you don’t have a story your audience is very likely to start asking the point of your film.
This is why, in tandem narrative you need to think of a theme and narratives that illustrate the theme. In multiple protagonist you need to put your characters in a plot that is a quest, a reunion or a siege, social or actual.
Otherwise all they can do is be themselves being themselves.
I hope this was was useful!
Mentorships and courses
I am going to be offering more mentorship places in the new year. I’ll notify you soon. I’m also still pondering the pros and cons of various sorts of online courses- live, recorded, a mixture. Haven’t forgotten. I just want to create a model that will give you the best I can without a lot of expensive one on one. I'm on the case.
Thanks for your time, and I hope you enjoyed this. Do visit the Facebook page and YouTube videos. I love the feedback
Very best wishes