How do writers come up with character names for their scripts?

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"DISNEY'S A CHRISTMAS CAROL" Can you find character names for your script as good as Scrooge?

Don’t be a Scrooge when naming characters for your scripts

I came across a fascinating article in the Guardian last week about how writers come up with names for their characters in scripts, plays, novels, even for themselves.

It’s worth a careful read. Many scripts I see are far too lazy when it comes to character names. Top of my list of faults are names that are bland, cliché, too similar, or just plain wrong.

Lazy script charaCTer names

Don’t automaticaly go for characters named David, Jane, John, Susan… Last week’s TV drama 7:39 by David Nicholls wasn’t helped by the dull names, names I can hardly remember now.

Find surprising names to avoid the clichés. Not all pensioners are called Bill and Edith. Would Mary Poppins have worked so well as Mary Smith? Or Scrooge as George Jones?

Check that you haven’t given every character in your script a similar kind of name. Vary the types, lengths, categories. Instead of Sam, Steve, Samantha and Serena, what about Sam, Osman, Ginger and Bo?

Get your script names right

Lazy name writing also means names that simply don’t add anything to the character or sabotage it. A hard-nosed detective can’t really be called Detective Sergeant Small. Unless you really want to play for laughs.

It’s worth spending the time to find names that have resonance – that special spark. A good name can make a character come to life.

Have a look at the Guardian article – Nailed It! and then try some new names out for your script… or even yourself.

Can porn be art? How do you write sex and do it well?

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Went the other day to the British Museum to see the Shunga exhibition – high-class Japanese porn, to you – and you know what? I found it rather boring. Very stylish, beautifully drawn, but are all those enlarged private parts actually Blue is the warmest colourart?

It made me think. Because I’ve seen many sex scenes in my time, but few of them actually worked as cinema or TV. What is it that otherwise good writers do wrong?

Sex scenes grind to a halt

Most sex scenes are boring. As the actors grind together, the film grinds to a halt…

Then I went home to write the next section of the screenwriting book, on subtext. And it  hit me. I had the answer in front of me on the screen.

Subtext

All art is about something different. Hamlet isn’t really about a Danish prince. It’s about  a thousand more profound questions of human existence. Psycho isn’t, deep down, really just about a serial killer.

The problem with most porn on screen is that it’s only about sex. There is no subtext to a sex scene.

The most erotic scenes I’ve seen have always been about something else, often with very little overt flesh. A hint of leg. A flash of a skirt…

The hidden meanings of seduction

Some of the best seduction scenes are about what we don’t see. As in The Postman Always Rings Twice, when Cora seduces the man who will ultimately help her kill her husband. It’s about hidden meanings and things left unsaid. Even the sex was about something else: power, perhaps, or fear of intimacy.

The writer has to seduce the audience with subtext.

So the answer might be: write a scene that is sexy, but has subtext… a sex scene that is really about something else.

What do you think?

How to write a script report, and why it’s good for your writing

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Check out this excellent article by the always excellent Lucy V. Hay. Right on the money. I’d add three things, if you’re writing the report for your own benefit, to improve your writing.

http://www.londonscreenwritersfestival.com/how-to-write-a-script-report-and-why-its-good-for-your-writing/

1 – Genre – did the script do anything for you emotionally (which is what genre is all about)? Did it make you laugh, shudder, etc?

2 – How did the writer get away with it? All scripts have to get over crucial issues, whether it’s a potential plot hole or a challenging theme. How did he/she do it?

3. (And this is the big-headed one) How would you have done it differently? Might have been better, might have been worse. Maybe you’d have ducked a big challenge (and can learn from that) or maybe you’d have tried to stick out for a darker ending…

Oh, one last thing, don’t just read good scripts, read bad ones too!! Most producers read too many bad scripts and don’t realise how good a screenplay can be, but most writers (if they read scripts at all) read only the good ones.

They don’t realise just how bad most scripts are. If they did, they’d work much harder at getting their own work sold and made. Go do some reading.

How to express yourself without killing your screenwriting career

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There’s a phrase that’s popular among writing courses at the moment – we’re all expected to “express ourselves”. Self-expression is the thing. And it certainly is, if you want to kill your career stone dead. But you can beat the system.

Producers, agents, distributors, channel commissioners don’t give a damn about Juno posterwhether you’re expressing yourself. Nor, to be honest, do audiences. They care about entertainment, stimulating characters, exciting plots.

But wait – what if you actually do have something important to express? What if you didn’t just get into this business to write the next half-baked RomCom, or rip-offs of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? How do you say something without getting thrown off the set?

Here’s the trick

There is a trick, and Hollywood discovered it decades ago.

Hollywood writers knew that you didn’t get messages across by making Misery-Film and rubbing the audience’s noses in depression. However, they certainly did make films that had meaning.

1. Isolate the most important thing you want to talk about. Maybe it’s how inequality rules the world. Or the importance of gender politics. Be very specific and disciplined – you can’t deal with every issue in a single script.

2. Look at the flaws you feel underly the issue. Greed, say. Or prejudice.

3. Turn to your central character (or invent one) and give him or her that flaw, in spades. Or, alternatively, give her a flaw that means she has great difficulty in dealing with it. For example, you could make her greedy, or prejudiced. Or you could ensure that she is unable to deal with greedy people (maybe she’s low in self-esteem) or afraid of prejudiced colleagues.

4. Once you’ve created your flawed character, you need to put her in the worst possible situation for someone with that flaw – one that will bring up all her issues and force her to face them or fail.

5. Keep pushing her buttons to the end.

inner struggle

Lincoln’s issue, in Spielberg’s movie, is slavery, and the flaw which underlies it in the film might be expressed as heartlessness and bigotry. Screenwriter Tony Kushner focuses on Lincoln’s own inner struggle – to win he has to become as heartless, though not bigoted, as his opponents. He has to be prepared to prolong the war in order to win.

By contrast, Juno’s central issue is the masculinisation of women in our society, but treated with a light, indie touch by Diablo Cody. Juno’s flaw is that she has become more masculine than the father of her child, who is almost emasculated. Becoming pregnant forces her to be a woman, like it or not. Mind vs matter.

Juno has a happy ending, Lincoln tragic (Lincoln wins his battle, but is killed). Though totally different in tone, both films take tough issues and work through them with intelligence, avoiding easy answers, but not avoiding a strong storyline and entertaining drama.

Now can you go and find your issue and your character and beat the system?

If you found this useful, my next workshop is Exciting Treatments at Euroscript in London, Saturday November 23 2013. Personal teaching and feedback on how to express yourself honestly and powefully in treatment form – maximum group size: 12.

Booking is open now.