Planting Trees

Ideally, I'd be really great at screenwriting and filmmaking right now. It'd be nice to watch something like Parasite or Knives Out or Little Women and not just wish that I could make something as good as that one day.1

Unfortunately, my archnemesis – Past Hari – was too impatient to do the grunt work required to get to that level. Every time I moved onto a new project, I just hoped that it would be magically better than the one that came before, even though I'd done nothing to get better at e.g. crafting distinct characters or writing compelling dialogue or directing comedy. I was chipping away at my 10,000 hours, but without any of the deliberate practice that actually moves the needle. That's like hoping my 10+ years experience of cooking the same spaghetti bolognese would somehow qualify me to work at a Michelin restaurant, even though I still haven't learned the difference between basil and thyme.2

But you know what they say: the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago. The second best time was nine years, 364 days ago. But the 3,652nd best time is now!

So I've geeked out and made a curriculum for myself – a structured set of reading and exercises to actually try to get better at this. I'm sharing it here in case you want to follow along, and I'll update it as I go. Even better: if you're already a pro and know of any useful resources that might help, please let me know.

1 If you didn't like these films, then please feel free to replace them with your own recent favourites. Also some joke about how you're objectively wrong, etc.

2 That said, I have watched the great 'Colette Shows Him Le Ropes' montage from Ratatouille dozens of times. I'm sure that must count for something.

House Rules

One: each module has to be practical as well as theoretical. I'm the kind of person who easily falls into the trap of just learning stuff instead of doing stuff, in order to feel productive while not actually accomplishing anything. (Being in motion vs taking action, as James Clear puts it.) So I have to make sure that I'm still making things, and that I spend only a small percentage of my time on pure theory.

Two: I should start small, and work my way up. I wrote about this approach in my last post, as a technique for getting over my fear of starting. But it'll also help with my tendency to focus on the big picture, while ignoring the finer details.

For example: when I was performing my second stand-up show at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, I found myself wishing that I had spent more time improving the jokes and honing the routines, instead of worrying about the overall structure.3 And when I was racing to finish a script for a competition last month, I realised that I should've spent way more time developing the characters and figuring out the beats of each scene, instead of just constantly reworking the series arc.

So I want to make sure that I spend an appropriate amount of time at the smaller levels, before working my way back up to a bigger project.

3 This has long been a problem. My very first stand-up gig was a one-hour show at the 2009 Warwick Students' Arts Festival – because I didn't know you were supposed to start with smaller sets before gradually increasing their length. In fairness, I did get a pretty tight five out of it in the end.


Module 1: Writing Characters

v1.1 - last updated 16th May 2020

So to start with, I'm focusing on characters – because all of my scripts currently sound like versions of me talking to myself, and there's definitely a limit to how many puns, sarcastic comments and pop-culture references someone can take.

Reading

This list is based on books I already have, but never got round to reading properly. If you have any other recommendations, let me know.

Watching

Stealing

  • What are the key traits for the cast of Community?4
  • Read a few pilot scripts. How are the different characters introduced? Are they distinct? If so, how does their distinctness shine through?
  • Watch some one-man character sketches (e.g. those by Alastair Green). How do they generate laughs without other characters to bounce off?

Making

  • Find or create a good template for crafting new characters.
  • Fill in this template for fictionalised versions of people I know.
  • Fill in this template for fictionalised versions of people from news stories.
  • Main practical project: produce and release three character-based sketches, featuring characters nothing like me, set during a video call 😬

4 I chose Community because: a. I recently re-watched the first season, so it's fresh in my mind; b. it's a particularly great example of character-based comedy.


Changelog

  • v1.1 - 16th May. The original practical project was to produce six one-man character sketches. But then I tried to film such a sketch, and realised how much I hated being on camera. So I've changed it to three sketches set during a video call – which will probably be more interesting, anyway.