THREE FIRST PAGE WRITING CLICHES TO AVOID!

As a reader and script editor, there are a few story beginnings I see so often that each time, my heart sinks a little. Even if the rest of the narrative is brilliant, a cliché opening sends a negative signal to me.  In no particular order the most commonly used opening clichés are:-

1              Wake Up

Falling Asleep Reading [350/366]

Falling Asleep Reading [350/366] (Photo credit: timsackton)

It’s early morning, the camera pans around the room showing the character’s bedroom. We see characterful clues such as half-eaten pizza, dirty socks, empty beer bottles and so on. The character is asleep.

1.1  The Dream

This is a sub-cliche of the Wake Up. The opening is a fantasy sequence where the character dreams of how their life might be and then wakes up to find it isn’t.  Or a nightmare, where the characters dreams about what they most fear that foreshadows some aspect of the narrative and then wakes up to find it was all a dream.  Both of these are clichés that tell us about how the character lives and their aspirations or fears in a heavy-handed way.

2       The Funeral

Français : Enterrement à

Français : Enterrement à (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story begins with some evocative description of a funeral.  It’s the funeral of someone that all the characters that we have yet to meet know.  And the death is the inciting incident that kicks off the narrative.  Maybe a legacy and the relatives who loathe each other all have to live together in the same house.  Or the funeral is for someone who’s been murdered. Or the funeral will force the surviving character to build a new life.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the concepts. It’s the execution of using a funeral to start a narrative that is likely to bore a reader or script editor – such as myself.

3     The Breakfast

English:

English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this cliché we see the family in whatever particular configuration it is, at breakfast. Again, it’s a character set up sequence. Dad in his suit, eating half a slice of toast before rushing out the door; Mum cajoling the kids to eat breakfast – kids flicking food at each other, all telling the reader how these people live and how they relate to each other. In other words, a scene devoted entirely to character using the breakfast cliché.   Of course, sometimes these openings work and I hasten to add, I’ve made all these writing mistakes myself. But if you want to give your work the best chance, I humbly suggest that you try to think of something else, if only to prove that you can.

Is there a writing cliché you dislike?

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Writers!!! Save Money With This One Tip!!!

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Excuse the exclamation marks but this post is supposed to be like those ads that pop up, unbidden, about the secret of losing seven inches of belly fat or looking 20 years younger.

Incidentally, the secret of looking younger seems to be that all you have to do is take the cling film (Saran wrap) off your face. Obvious really.  But I digress. My revelation is as big as losing belly fat and getting youthful looking skin…  And guaranteed!

At the moment, I am script editing two talented writers. Both have strong ideas, have created an arresting central character and both write terrific dialogue. But both writers are making the same mistake that 85% of writers make.   Yes, 85%!

If you deal with this one problem, then your work will get to the top of the pile and you will save yourself a heap of money paying money-grabbing script editors, such as myself, to tell you the same thing.

Are you ready…?

All you have to do is give your central character a tangible goal. By tangible, I mean something that we can see.  Happiness, peace of mind, self-realisation, are not tangible goals.   They are a by-product of a tangible goal.  A tangible goal is: get to Mexico, rescue sister from kidnappers, win beauty pageant, uncover mole in intelligence service, win the iron throne, stop airport runway being built, etcetera.

It’s that simple. And that difficult.

Why this makes a story work is another issue. I believe it’s to do with fiction being a metaphor for learning to take action.

But enough of that. Save money. Give your central characters tangible goals. Your story’s belly fat will disappear and your central character will become twenty years younger. Or your money back!

 

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Rubbish in Art, Art in Rubbish

Last week I caught up with an old friend, Hagar Fletcher, who has created something wonderful. ‘Nature Preserved’ was installed in Zara the first week of April for Milan‘s Fashion Week. They are renting it for six months so it can be seen there until mid-October.  Before Milan, it was on exhibit in Venice at the Arte Laguna Contemporary Art exhibition.

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Hagar inherited 2,000 plastic bags from a pal whose business had collapsed. She didn’t want to throw them away as she’s passionate about the environment and of course, plastic is the big bad, so she offered the bags to shops. And they all said the same thing: We have too many plastic bags already.

So that made Haga think. If nobody knows what to do with all those bags, that will pollute the planet for a thousand years, why not make a work of art out of those plastic bags, and that will last a thousand years?

Working side by side with three Eritrean refugees, Hagar has made a truly exquisite garden out of the bags, recycled bottles, plastic bottles and tops, telephone cables, electric cables, all plastic and all plastic garden netting- all recycled.

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And the best bit is that it’s beautiful. It’s art, it’s true to Hagar and it reflects her soul and her passion.

It reminded me that if we’re not true to ourselves, then there can be no truth in our work – whatever the medium and whatever the genre.

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Worst of Times?

I had lunch this week with a wise business associate who has a mantra that I have decided to adopt. The mantra is: ‘Don’t get emotional,’

I’ve been really trying but each day, there’s been a new Thatcher moment to, ahem, challenge me.

ARA General Belgrano

ARA General Belgrano (Photo credit: Armada Argentina)

Today I hear that the funeral is going to have a Falklands theme.

Now I remember the Falklands. I remember a sunny Saturday morning, sitting on the grey-carpeted floor, listening to the radio. There was a broadcast from the House of Commons. The heated debate was about the sovereignty of the islands and was the lead-up to war being declared.

I remember thinking that the whole world had just gone insane.  Or was it just me?

I remember the riots and thinking how the Falklands seemed like a good way of distracting disaffected people. And I remember the blanket shut down on news coverage at the beginning of the war – until we were winning. And I remember the jingoism and the news headlines which really did say, ‘Gotcha, Our Lads Sink Gunboat’ – when 1200 people drowned.

And it wasn’t just the red-tops.  I remember the so-called quality press ranting about the humiliation of the invasion and how Argentina wouldn’t have dared to invade the islands 150 years ago – ignoring the inescapable logic of the 150 year gap.

This round of idolising Thatcher is making me think the world has just gone insane again.

Or is it just me?

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Pump Up The Violence?

The idea that fictional violence can affect behaviour is an uncomfortable one for writers.  The disclaimer is that if someone is of a violent disposition then they will seek out violent fiction.  However, in our heart of hearts we all know that’s not true.

Fiction affects emotions and emotions affect behaviour.  And more than that – we learn and imitate the behaviour that we see.

For the last week I have been revisiting my box set of The Wire. I wondered if it was as perfect a piece of work as I thought it was the first time round. It is. It’s even better the second time. There are moments and characters that are closer to Shakespeare than anything else I can think of.

The Barksdale crew; from left, Wee-Bey Brice, ...

The Barksdale crew; from left, Wee-Bey Brice, Stringer Bell, D’Angelo Barksdale, Poot Carr, and Bodie Broadus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But viewing it affected my behaviour. I’m not kidding.

I have a little domestic incident going about a faulty shower pump.  A plumber was marking up more than 35% on a product. Twenty per cent I’ll live with,

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35% is taking the piss.  However, instead of hiding behind my husband or saying a friend could get the product cheaper or some other feeble explanation, after thirty odd hours of McNulty, Bunk, Omar, Keema, Prez and all my other pals in the The Wire, my behaviour changed.

When the plumber claimed that he was giving me the product at cost I suggested if that was the case he wanted to get back with his supplier. And when he said that he had already bought it, I was pure Avon Barksdale when Stringer kvetches about being duped by Clay.

I said: ‘It’s on you, you understand what I’m saying? It’s on you.’

Now the thing is I am a middle class, middle-aged woman.  I’ve never been to Baltimore, my knowledge of the sharp end of policing and the drug world is entirely through what I’ve seen on TV.  And I am certainly not in the habit of beating down installers of domestic appliances.

You feel me?

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Lists

christmas 2007

christmas 2007 (Photo credit: paparutzi)

THE LIST

This is a peculiar time of year.

There was the Christmas deadline that everyone raced to at the same time. Followed by the moments of reflection about the year past; plans, hopes and indeed, fears for the year ahead.  It makes you think.  It makes a writer think.

Christmas Eve I was in my local supermarket, buying last minute items and enjoying the cheery buzz.  By the brussels sprouts, a couple of husband-types swapped a moment of badinage, bigging up the apocalyptic outcome if they didn’t get whatever was on their ‘List’.

This was the List that everyone carried, clipped to the trolley, clutched in hand, typed, scrawled, scribbled and ticked. The List was the moment we shared. The moment we were all sharing as we raced towards our communal Christmas deadlines.

So I’d ticked off the items on my List and it was all going terribly well until I got into the lift to the car park with a greying, slight, decent looking man. He was the type of man with whom I could share a seasonal comment.

‘It’s all rather exciting,’ I nodded at our respective, food-laden trolleys.

‘I hate Christmas,’ he said.

‘Oh surely not…Dickens wrote a novel about a bloke just like you,’ I said.

He smiled before he went on. ‘I have too many unhappy memories associated with Christmas.’

Needless to say, that shut me up and his comment haunted me throughout the holiday.

I’m no stranger to a fractured world during a time of celebration because some years ago, on Christmas Eve, my father suddenly died.

During the holiday, I read an article in the Telegraph’s weekend section.  It was another List:  ‘The Advice People Would Like to Pass On.

Each one of these 101 bits of advice is fascinating. Revealing. Showing deep character traits. Many of the quotes are a potential story hook and in fact, the article is now in my “ideas file.”  Quite a lot of the quotes that 101 people cited were relayed from mentors; fathers, teachers, wise words spoken by another and clutched and held on to just as tightly as ‘The List’.

Of course, it made me think about my father’s advice.

It was a summer’s day and we were standing in the garden before I went off on my first unsupervised overseas trip.  I was 17 and thought I was terrifically cool and knew everything that there was to know. As far as I was concerned, my father was an old bloke who would always be there and whose prime function was as chauffeur, banker and teller of the worst jokes in the world.

For once my father was earnest. ‘Remember this, it’s important,’ he said. ‘Whatever you do, wherever you go, try to empathise.  Put yourself in other people’s shoes and try to understand their feelings.’

Needless to say, at the time, it meant absolutely nothing. I didn’t even know what empathy meant.  It means more now.

Happy New Year. God Bless You Dad. And God Bless the bloke in the lift.

I hope you survived the Christmas season with a little less pain and that every day in your year, is as bright as it is today.

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Mean Media and the Mexico Brave

 

Years ago, I worked in a newsroom where we sold film footage internationally.  It was someone’s job to count the number of dead bodies in a frame. If there were enough stiffs, the foreign TV broadcaster would buy without us needing additional authorisation..

 

Newsroom

Newsroom (Photo credit: charlesdyer)

A few years later, I worked in PR where we arranged facility trips and interviews to sell our client’s products, There was first class travel, lunches in grand restaurants and events where we courted journalists who in return wrote favourable coverage on whatever widget we were promoting.

 

Forever, I’ve been fascinated by the media and how it functions. How we communicate ideas in fiction, fact and with each other. And when I finish the novel I’m currently writing I just may develop an idea along those lines.

 

What currently perplexes and exercises me is that the very same day I read about the dirty dealings as discussed in the Leveson Report, I also read about journalists in Mexico. These brave souls live in fear of their lives, striving to shine an investigative light on the drug barons and the corruption that lets the drug trade flourish.

 

Last week I saw the Hugh Grant documentary Hacked Off. The most chilling moment was when a former News of the World journalist described how he manipulated a drug addict into agreeing to have sex to enhance the story. And she later committed suicide.

 

The journalist admitted he didn’t feel good about what happened, but maintained the right to do so under the banner of freedom of the press.

 

For me this raises the question:  why are British journalists using their great skills to emotionally persecute bereaved parents, manipulate the vulnerable and out consenting adults while in Mexico, journalists are trying to save lives and risking their own.

 

In a moment of societal self-loathing, it occurred to me that we get the press that we deserve.

 

Since this was too depressing a thought, I tried to find a reason why it might not be our fault. However, this notion of it not being our fault, led to an even more appalling idea.

 

What if it’s the fault of the freedom we have? What if it’s simply because we’re lucky enough to live somewhere that’s stable and the news is piffling compared to disappearing people and murders in the thousands?

 

What if great journalism is the result of hardship and conflict, like the blues?

 

Maybe to rediscover the noble soul of British journalism we need to impose draconian laws. Or hope that some organised crime syndicate will destabilise the infrastructure.   How completely bonkers is that? Or is it a starting point for a novel?

 

 

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Wannabe Bee in My Bonnet

Bee Happy

Bee Happy (Photo credit: Treesha Duncan)

Not so long ago, a new writer I know dismissed a particular writing festival as being full of wannabes.  This writer had a single project commissioned and seemed to feel superior to the majority of people who attend these type of events.

This weekend I was a script doctor at the London Screenwriters Festival in  beautiful Regent’s Park.  Euroscript, an organisation set up to support new writers, held a surgery for writers to talk about their projects in one-to-one meetings.

I saw four writers and I was really impressed by them. It wasn’t just the freshness of their ideas, it was their understanding of craft issues and their professionalism.  Also their credits. awards, short films made, options, commissions and screenwriting education.

I thought that three of the four ideas had solid commercial potential and all the writers had a clearly defined sense of what they were trying to achieve with their work. I cannot believe that the writers I saw were the only hot talent at the London Screenwriters Festival.  It’s more likely that anyone who makes the commitment to attend what is an expensive event has done their homework.

Sadly, due to other commitments, I didn’t attend any of the many available sessions in the programme but I got the buzz that people were getting a lot out of it.

On the way home, driving through the autumn dusk, I thought that it can only be good for society that people are become more skilled at communicating their ideas.

I also thought, ‘we’re all wannabes’.  Whether it’s wanting to solve a knotty writing problem to wanting the time to write.  And that’s a good thing.  After all, isn’t defining the character’s ‘want’ one of the basic tenets of drama?

What are other people’s experiences of writer festivals?

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Good Soup

Beethoven is quoted as saying, ‘Only the pure in heart can make good soup.’  It strikes me that this quote resonates with the necessary conditions to create good writing.

Portrait Ludwig van Beethoven when composing t...

Portrait Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why?  Because the quote apparently arose when Beethoven fired ‘an otherwise good housekeeper because she had told a falsehood to spare his feelings.’

In other words the woman didn’t speak from the heart.  She was not genuine.

I recently edited someone whose characters weren’t genuine. I repeatedly scrawled in the margin ‘don’t believe it.’   The characters lacked emotional truth and as a result, the piece wasn’t engaging.

My notes to the writer suggested digging deep into the characters.  There is a theory that the characters we create are aspects of our own selves: I was telling the writer to dig deep into their own psyche.  This can be an extremely uncomfortable experience and for some hopeful writers, impossible.

In this week’s Broadcast, Tom Sherry writes fluently about the need to support writers in relation to BBC’s New Tricks cast members.   Sherry uses the expression: ‘we expect them (writers) to lay bare their soul.’

And laying bare her soul is exactly what the housekeeper didn’t do. And what writers must succeed in doing if they are going to engage with an audience.

Because an audience knows when soup is good and when it isn’t.

For a more frivolous view of soup see: http://youtu.be/ZiXFoLflVGg

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Writers are Noble, Writers are Brave…

…to paraphrase Nigel Molesworth

Reading about R J Ellory’s “sock puppeting” in other words, saying great things about himself and rubbishing his writer competitors I was struck not by the perfidy of what he’d been doing nor even wondering why he’d done it, but by the notion that the poor man may not have many friends. And he will certainly have even less now.

Ever since I started writing there has been one constant in this career. This has been the incredible kindness and generosity of other writers.  What’s more even though I’ve been agented on and off ever since I started writing, ninety-five per cent of the money-making work I’ve achieved has been from introductions by other writers who either didn’t want the gig, or thought I was better suited to do it, or mentioned my name in a meeting, or gave me a tip about who was looking for what type of project. This includes my six years at BBC – thank you John Brennan.

There are so many other writers who have read my work, taken the time to give me detailed notes, shared information not to mention the pep talks.  Even people I barely know have been kind.

Everyone does it.  Why? Because writing itself is hard enough, without trying to screw each other.   Also other people – non-writers – are sometimes not very nice to writers.  If this is news to you, read William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screentrade.

A few years ago I was working on a writing team. This involved sitting in a room with other writers trying to be funny; trying to come up with ideas.  The strict hierarchy in the room, meant that the two most junior writers – me and Rob MacGillivray –  recognised each other’s lowliness and secretly referred to ourselves as Scum 1 and Scum 2.

Pond Scum

Pond Scum (Photo credit: Max F. Williams)

Years pass, Scum 1 becomes a successful TV producer and director.  He still reads my work. I read his.

And because he’s at heart a writer, thus noble, brave and generous, he’s made a brilliant film for my website. It makes me look rather more charming, erudite and fun than I really am.  This man has great talent.

So by the sound of it, R J Ellory is going to miss out on this type of generosity.  And even if he has non-writing friends who are impressed with his alleged sharp-dealing, will they be as noble and brave as my writer friends?  I think not.

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