Outlines as a Creative Exercise

It’s not always easy to get your brain into a creative state.

Life during lockdown seems to have a lot of unpredictable side effects when it comes to creativity. Personally, I often fall victim to endless mental circling. My mind will get preoccupied with one idea and refuse to budge from it, just circling away rather than exploring other things to think about. These kinds of mental circles can be the enemy of positive creativity so I’m always looking for new ways to break my mind out of unhealthy habits.

This morning I opted for creating a short film outline (or pitch document) for a brand new movie idea. I gave myself a limit of 30 minutes to get it produced, just to make sure that I didn’t just end up spending my entire day doing it. I grabbed two blockbuster movies and took them as inspirational jumping-off points, mashing concepts together until I got something I kinda liked. In this case, I grabbed the biggest grossing movies of 1989 and 1990. Ghost and Terminator 2.

The result of my 30 minutes of labour is below.

Now, this obviously isn’t representative of my best work. It leans heavily on very obvious tropes and shows my inability to make a decision as to whether I prefer to spell it ‘grandad’ or ‘granddad’. For 30 minute exercise, though, it’s actually not too bad. It’s the sort of thing might be worth keeping in a back pocket, just in case I have another one of those meetings with a producer that includes the words “So, what else you got?”

In my experience, those meetings tend to crop up when the producer likes something about you but isn’t hugely interested in the project you’re touting at that point. If you walk into one of them without a scrap of a back-up idea, it can sometimes end up with you both looking a little bit blankly at each other and trying to remember exactly why you’re having a meeting in the first place.

In the grand scheme of things, 30 minutes of my time is nothing. When you consider how many hours I sacrifice to the great God of Twitter, frantically scrolling my endless pointless tribute, the idea of spending 30 minutes and actually getting something out of it seems like a massive bargain. After all, every screenplay on my hard drive (not to mention the ones that made it out into the real world and are now Blu-rays on my shelf) started out as a tiny scrap of an idea. So, I think I’m gonna do another one of these tomorrow morning. And maybe the morning after that. And the one after that.

Oh, I forgot to mention the London Screenwriters Festival 365, which I’m very proud to be a part of. Starting at the weekend, it’s an online festival of sessions for screenwriters. I’ll be bringing three online sessions to the programme over the next couple of weeks from the comfort of my front room, and I very much hope to see some of you there!*

* ‘there’ being online, not in my front room. That would be weird for all kinds of reasons, and would definitely break social distancing guidelines.

 

Prolific is Not Enough

I used to call myself a ‘prolific’ writer. I still do, sometimes, but I waver about how true it is nowadays.

See, I still produce a LOT of content. Thanks to the various methods I’ve honed and stuck to over the years, my words-on-page-per-day count is still pretty goddamn high (especially considering that there are an awful lot of other factors at play in my life). The thing that’s changed is the percentage of those words making it out into the public in one form or another.

For example, I started writing a book about screenwriting a couple of years ago. I genuinely intended to get the book written and out in a few months. I used to be pretty proficient at getting something produced, getting it ‘good enough’ and getting it out into the marketplace. Somehow, though, my screenwriting book still needs a good sort and a polish. Three years after I started writing it, it’s been seen by precisely nobody.

This would have destroyed the ‘me’ of 20 years ago. He’d seen too many promising careers lost to procrastination and perfectionism. People who’d let ‘perfect’ become the enemy of ‘good enough’ and had somehow gone from decade to decade without letting their projects grow up and leave home. People who’d lost the ability to finish something and move the hell on.

I don’t think that’s me, even now. I’m pretty sure that the screenwriting book will find its way out to the public sooner rather than later, and that its delay is just down to the fact that I’ve got so many other damn projects at varying stages of completion. That’s what I think. What I hope.

We’re going to lock The House on the Witchpit in the next few weeks, closing the lid on a movie that I’ve been shooting on and off for five years now, and which has already been publicly premiered twice despite the fact that the latest scenes for it were shot just last month. Maybe Witchpit has let a sickness into my bones: permission not to finish things.

If that’s the case, I’m revoking that permission. I’m reclaiming my ability to see things through to completion. Reclaiming the title of being the guy who actually finishes the damn things, gets them out to the public and moves on. Because being prolific is a good trick, but it’s not a good enough trick.

It’s not just the words you make, it’s making sure that they reach their destination.

Write a Movie in 30 Days

Oh my God, it’s another new live show already!

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New dates will be announced over the coming weeks, but the first announced date (Colchester, September 18th) is on sale NOW by clicking the image above.

SCREENWRITING TIPS: Embedding Your Theme

I spend a lot of my time teaching screenwriting in both classrooms and on one-day masterclasses (with webinars coming soon – see the note at the bottom). This means that I often end up studying concepts related to education that aren’t necessarily directly associated with screenwriting. One of these has been the concept of SOLO Taxonomy, which is a way of judging a student’s understanding of a subject. It begins with a very basic and uncertain level of comprehension of the subject, but gradually builds up to a far more nuanced and complicated understanding. One such model of SOLO taxonomy, as first developed by John Biggs and Kevin Collis, is used below. Although this exists, as I mentioned, primarily as a method of gauging levels of complex understanding, I have come to use it as instead a method of embedding theme in a meaningful way throughout a narrative.

As a bit of background information, I’ve been working on a screenplay about a masseuse trapped in a room with a mutating corpse. Yes, I use academic models to deepen the thematic content of splattery horror movies. That’s me. Let’s investigate my idea using a SOLO Taxonomy and see where it leads us.

Level 1 is prestructural. The concept in rawest, wooliest form with no further analysis attached. In my case: the concept of flesh.

Uni-structural is level 2. One single meaning of the concept. Flesh is the meaty stuff on top of the skeleton. We’re covered in it. I always was crap at biology.

Level 3: other uses and meanings start to come into play at this multi-structural level. At this juncture, we might well be thinking about not just our own flesh, but the other meanings and associations that we have with the concept. Sexualised flesh. Corrupted flesh and concepts of beauty. Eating the flesh of another to survive. Flesh as home to a parasite. Here is the level where I might be able to include different concepts within my own narrative. For example, if the central theme is going to revolve around flesh from the point of view of massage, we can start to mess around with these other concepts as parallel concerns.

Meat eating, for example.

My lead character is Lauren. Maybe I’ll make Lauren a carnivore, and another character (maybe my mutating corpse, before their unfortunate demise) a vegan. Maybe I’ll make Lauren sexually voracious on a superficial, physical level (seeing lovers as ‘meat’) which not only plays with some interesting textures, but also gets away from the virginal ‘final girl’ paradigm that we’ve seen on way too many occasions for it to be anything other than a bog-standard trope (albeit a useful one that’s often fun to play with). At this multi-structural level, however, we don’t need to join these different elements. The relationships between them is not what matters; at this point we’re just looking for different examples, and different ways to emphasize a central theme. We don’t need them to relate to one another yet. That comes next.

The next step is a relational level. Here’s where we start to feed these concepts into one another. Is it possible that we can use Lauren’s attitudes towards meat or sexuality to inform and deepen the central problem in which she is locked in a room with a mutating corpse? Might it be possible that the only way to dispose of the fleshy invaders in her room (which have erupted from the mutating corpse, as such horrible things often seem to) is to eat them? Questioning attitudes towards flesh in all of its aspects is where this relational idea comes in. If we can tie in ideas of flesh as food, flesh as sexual object and flesh as comfortable home both for the creature who wears that flesh and, indeed, for any invading parasite, our script is likely to become thematically richer. Every element starts to reflect back that central concern with flesh in a way that compliments and interrogates every other element.

It’s at this point that we might want to start thinking about how to state the theme of our movie in just one sentence. By progressing down the taxonomy and coming up with interlinked ideas of the different meanings of the central theme, we can perhaps produce a question that sums up the attitude of the film and the themes that will be interrogated. In this case, for lack of anything else at the moment, let’s go with giving an unsympathetic character the line “I don’t care whether it’s hanging on a human being, on my plate or torn up on a slaughterhouse floor, flesh is just flesh. Just a collection of atoms like anything else.”

By having a character verbalize this theme somewhere in the first act, we can proceed to pull that idea apart in whatever ways we can, whilst giving the audience confidence that, thematically, this is going somewhere.

Finally, we have the extended abstract level. This is where our different concepts are not only brought together, they are combined and used as a springboard for increasingly abstract thought or the different ways of looking at that central theme. For example, it may be that we can introduce the themes of flesh in ways other than just the ones that we have already discussed. How about visually? Could we introduce a colour grade onto the final film to make the movie itself look more like skin texture? OK, this kind of idea is likely to be out of the hands of the screenwriter, but it’s the sort of visual prompt that can work its way subtly into a script and find its way into the final movie. Perhaps themes of flesh as a canvas could be brought into play with ideas like tattoos? Perhaps the other career that Lauren is dreaming of following might be a tattoo artist rather than a masseuse, which would introduce the interesting idea that she is effectively trying to change her relationship with flesh itself?

Take the time to make your way through the SOLO Taxonomy from that initial blunt, unthinking statement through to a more complex, interconnected and abstract way of dealing with your central theme. You might end up looking at it in a whole new way. Even in writing up this exercise, I’ve grown rather fond of that tattoo idea (which certainly hadn’t occurred to me before I’d thoroughly examined the whole ‘flesh’ concept).

Have a good writing day. My name is Pat Higgins, and my conscience is clear.

Note from Pat:

LIKE THIS STUFF? Please follow me on Twitter (@zcarstheme) and share this article to people you think might enjoy it. After years of teaching screenwriting to people face to face, I’m setting up a series of webinars via jinx.co.uk which will range from simple Q&As to more complicated, focused classes on specific aspects of screenwriting and filmmaking. Hope you can attend. I’m still finishing up work on my first book, Write a Movie in 30 Days, so if you’re reading this in the future go and buy a copy. Thanks!

 

Horror Stories @ Horror-on-Sea

Pat’s first live show of 2017 takes place this Saturday at the amazing and brilliant Horror-on-Sea festival in Southend. This annual festival is a huge highlight of the year (every year!) for the crew at Jinx Media. There are countless premieres and special events, including the World Premiere of Slasher House II from our wonderful friends at Mycho Entertainment.

Pat’s show will feature a whole load of stuff about structuring horror movies, together with uncensored anecdotes and clips from his journey through horror cinema. Don’t miss it! Tickets are only a fiver and can be bought by clicking the logo below…

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Screenwriting Masterclass and Consultancy

Here at Jinx Media, we’d like to thank everyone who attended our masterclass at the weekend. The event was a massive success, and we’ll be announcing additional dates shortly.

We’d also like to formally announce Pat’s new script consultancy service. Over the last decade, Pat has been offering feedback and notes on scripts in both professional and academic settings, and he’s now offering this service to the public.

Screenwriting with Pat Higgins

If you’ve written a screenplay, Pat would be delighted to read through it and give a 30 minute session of feedback via Skype. As both a qualified academic lecturer and a seasoned industry professional, (who has both produced his own scripts and sold others to third parties), Pat will give honest feedback and suggestions regarding structure, character, tone and more.

Just click the link right here and book yourself an online Skype consultancy regarding your script!

 

New Interview with Pat over at Micro Budget Massacre

If you haven’t yet checked out the awesome blog Micro Budget Massacre, allow us to point you in that direction. The blog was set up by our good friend MJ Dixon, writer and director of a whole slew of terrific independent features such as Slasher House and Legacy of Thorn.

Pat’s interview is the latest in a terrific series of chats with low budget horror writers and directors. The series has also featured Liam Regan, who created the awesome Troma-influenced flick Banjo, and the prolific and unstoppable Jason Impey.

Check out the interview by clicking on the graphic below!

Interview with Pat Higgins

Get the Screenwriting Masterclass to Visit Your Town!

I love running workshops and masterclass sessions on screenwriting.

Over the years, I’ve built up a real arsenal of exercises and techniques which can help screenwriters tap into their full potential regardless of whether they’re just starting out or have been writing professionally for a while. I’ve been lucky enough to spend time lecturing in very different environments, (having taught elements of screenwriting to everyone from film festival audiences to BA undergraduates), which has not only been fun but has allowed me to get used to using different techniques with different classes.

There are still a few places available for our full-day workshop in Southend-on-Sea on 4th June, but they’re going fast. We haven’t announced further dates after that yet, but I’m open to suggestions. If you can’t make it to Southend but would be interested in a masterclass taking place in your home town in the UK, drop me a line via Twitter. If we can find a suitable venue in your town, (and round up at least a dozen delegates wanting to buy a ticket), we might well be able to make it happen.

In the meantime, don’t miss the chance to grab one of the last tickets for Southend. We’ll be covering everything from idea generation to character motivation and crafting the perfect ending.

Look forward to seeing you there!

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