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BSS2015: how to write a winner

When Anthony McCarten started his session with the assertion that “How to Write” books would not harm writers but would definitely damage producers, we figured we were in for an entertaining time. The prolonged applause at the end of his address showed we were not wrong.

In the concluding session of the Symposium Jane Campion adamantly proclaimed, “There are no rules!” McCarten, by contrast, was only too happy to lay out a series of Golden Rules – admittedly with the caveat that they were not universally applicable. Nevertheless, he was not going to let a caveat get in the way of a clear prescription of what not only works for him, but what he highly recommends for everyone else.

McCarten began by outlining the conventional three-act structure, and asked “But is it any good?” Rather than answer the question directly, he told us that the only questions really worth asking were: Does a script say anything worthwhile? And is it interesting, in a novel way?

He continued by subverting a few of the common dicta of script writing, with assertions like:

  1. Write what you don’t know – so the script becomes an exploration. Write what you want to!
    This was echoed later by Jane Campion with her instruction to not start writing until one has a passion – perhaps for a character, or some other part (a scene perhaps) that you are in love with.
  2. Tell, don’t show. Sometimes telling is the most efficient way of getting necessary information across in a succinct and interesting way.
  3. Your characters are yours! Don’t allow them to lead you down time-wasting tangents – it is your task to shape them to fit your purpose – and your structure.

“These are ironcast principles, powerful truths – that sometimes work.”

Given that really great ideas only come – if you’re lucky – two or three times in a lifetime, and that most writers would be happy to receive just one, McCarten asked, “Where do great ideas come from?” The first part of his answer was an instruction to look inside and out, all the time. He also observed that a great idea never comes complete, whole. It needs craft to develop it.

So, what should one look for in an idea? Echoing William Goldman’s “No-one knows where great ideas come from”, McCarten suggested:

  • a story where the twists and turns are clear;
  • characters you would love to get control of;
  • a bitter-sweet ending;
  • an issue that you are burning to examine; and finally,
  • excitement.

To those he added humour – a script can’t be true to life if it has no humour. Humour is part of the ritual of life, of how we do business. This too was later echoed by Campion when she said that one way to survive in this world is to laugh at it.

McCarten defined the perfect character as their fate – he insisted that you should know your character’s fate, and then choose the traits necessary to fulfil that fate. This led into what appeared to be the most Golden of all the Rules for McCarten: know the ending of your story at the beginning of your writing.

Harold Pinter wrote great plays, McCarten said, but “The endings suck!” Being the genius that Pinter was, he could get away with it in stage plays. On film that lack of a satisfactory ending is death.

Once you have your ending, what then? Reverse engineer your way to the beginning of the story.

The writer’s job is both to earn the audience’s emotional involvement, and specifically, to create the preconditions for the obligatory but unexpected ending. The writer must make us ache for the ending, but in such a way we cannot see it coming.

Having asserted that while most writers don’t work this way, but the best ones do, McCarten then used Smash Palace as an example of a brilliant story ending that was not known until just before they actually shot it.

One of McCarten‘s audience later asked Campion about starting with your ending. Campion’s instant response was “There are no rules”, but posed the question: how do you know that your story has ended? For her, she told us, a story ends when it feels as if you have completed some sort of circle, and that you have answered some of your original questions. She then repeated, “There really are no rules.”

Moderator Philippa Campbell asked Campion, “If you knew what the ending was, would you still enjoy the adventure?” For Campion, this was a really good question. Top of the Lake changed a lot as they went along, especially the ending.

Campion had begun her session by telling us to forget the idea of “Am I good enough?” ”You’re doing it” she told us – just forget that worry and do the best you can. Later she added that after so many years of doing it, “I am much better at it now.” McCarten made a similar observation about his work, while also asking the question, “Why can I now handle pressures that I couldn’t handle 20 years ago?”

McCarten spent some time discussing his BAFTA-winning, Oscar-nominated script, The Theory of Everything, based on Jane Hawking’s autobiography about her life with her famous physicist husband Stephen Hawking. The first problem, a common one: how to condense 27 years of life into two hours of screen time – what to leave in, what to leave out?

McCarten decided to focus on the marriage, with the governing principle of the film being Time itself – and since so much of Stephen Hawking’s work involved research into the beginning of time, the theme of the film became time reversal, most obviously in the concluding sequence. This theme led to a motif of spirals being thread throughout the film – the stirring of a cup of coffee, spiral staircases, Hawking at one point spinning in his wheelchair.

McCarten showed us a clip of a favourite scene, in which only 75 words were used to go from the peak of joy in the marriage to its dissolution. In describing the performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in the scene, McCarten observed that one of the great privileges of working in this industry was the opportunity to watch extraordinary actors working on set.

Harking back to the notion of great ideas, McCarten concluded by describing the greatest satisfaction in a piece of work to be when the inner nature of something is revealed that no-one has ever seen before.

Campion, after noting that she did not want to disparage The Hobbit (especially in New Zealand!), observed, “There were rather a lot of endings!”

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