Screenplay principles

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I mentioned some time ago that I’d signed up to a short course on Screenwriting, part of an ongoing series of Creative Writing classes. This was not necessarily because I wanted to complete a screenplay but because writing for film is part of that tradition of composing narratives that includes drama, oral tales and, of course, novels.

Here I only want to briefly outline a few definitions when it comes to the ideas from which a screenplay is born. In class we were introduced to Robert McKee’s 1999 text Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (Methuen Film), in particular the part in which he outlines the three basics which every good screenplay needs. These basics are Premise (what the story is about, in other words a general description of the story); Hook (what grabs the attention of the viewer, rather like a riff or chorus in a popular song); and finally Controlling Idea (in other words, the main themes of the movie).

To try and get under the skin of these basics we were asked to identify them in a mainstream film; I chose The Bourne Ultimatum. This thriller from 2007 (which seems to be showing on one digital channel or another most nights of the week) was directed by British filmmaker Paul Greengrass and starred Matt Damon. See what you think. Continue reading “Screenplay principles”

Three collections, three mini-reviews

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Life-size (?) dragon outside bedroom window, Miskin Manor, Cardiff

Here is a trio of mini-reviews of collections of short stories, novels and a novella. The idea is to whet your appetite for fuller reviews which I am planning over the months ahead of individual books in the two quartets focused on Earthsea and on Sally Lockheart, as well as the novella in Unexpected Magic.

Continue reading “Three collections, three mini-reviews”

Confounding expectations

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Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands:
a Record of Secret Service

Penguin Popular Classics 1995 (1903)

I don’t normally seek out thrillers, even classic ones such as The Riddle of the Sands, and though this has historic interest – set just before the Second Boer War and scant years before the death of Victoria – it’s not a period I’m particularly interested in. Add to this that it’s about sailing on the North Sea coast of Germany when dismal autumnal fogs abound and it sounds like a novel I would normally pass over. But after an initially slow but deliberately drab beginning the story picks up, starts to tease the imagination and, even for the recalcitrant landlubber, sparks admiration for the enthusiasm and bravery of the two protagonists. Continue reading “Confounding expectations”

An illusory Questing Beast

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Lev Grossman Codex Arrow 2005

In that this is a tale of a modern quest for a medieval book that purports to be about the Quest for the Holy Grail, Codex is undoubtedly an Arthurian novel. We are treated to circumstantial details about a medieval codex, A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians by Gervase of Langford, and much about encoded messages, bookbinding and medieval manuscripts. This reveals the author’s intention to impress us with the depth of his research, and I have to say that some of the detail is fascinating, and as an Arthurian I thought the conceit of a hitherto unknown manuscript about the Matter of Britain promising.

Less promising are the details of a virtual reality game that the hero simultaneously gets drawn into, which are meant to impress us with the breadth of Grossman’s online experience; the novel is set in the middle of the noughties and so it becomes less hard as time goes on to say how that this may not stand up as a plot device while real-life technology overtakes his scenario. Continue reading “An illusory Questing Beast”

Endlessly endearing

Historical map of Sicily by Piri Reis (Public Domain)
Historical map of Sicily by Piri Reis, oriented to show north at top (public domain, Wikipedia)

Andrea Camilleri The Snack Thief
Il ladro del merendine (1996)
translated by Stephen Sartarelli (2003)
Picador 2004

Every time I pick up this or another Inspector Montalbano mystery I can’t help myself: I always hear the wonderful strains of Franco Piersanti’s tango, the signature tune to RAI’s popular TV series.

As a musician I love the quirky nature of this piece, the insistent dance rhythm, the melodic fragments promising but rarely delivering development, the dark chocolate of the double bass — Piersanti’s own instrument — counterpointing wind and upper string fragments. In a way, the cornucopia offered by this short opening credits sequence matches both Montalbano’s dependable unpredictability and his self-evident delight in the range of Sicilian cuisine. And of course the various themes, short as they are, are the counterparts of the several distinctive plot lines that are woven together in this and every Montalbano novel. Naturally Sicily, at a geographic crossroads in the Mediterranean, is full of cultural strands too, from prehistoric peoples, ancient Greeks and Romans, Iberians, North Africans.

A Tunisian shot dead on a Sicilian fishing boat at sea, a retired businessman knifed in a lift, youngsters plagued by a child who steals their snacks; for Commissario Salvo Montalbano these all appear to be unrelated incidents along the south coast of the Sicilian triangle. But as investigations continue all is not as it seems. Continue reading “Endlessly endearing”

Freelancing

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Schloss Wewelsburg

Duncan Kyle Black Camelot
Book Club Associates 1979

I tried not to let the tawdry 70s jacket illustration put me off: Duncan Kyle, on the dust cover of the hardback, hints that a lot more of this World War II fiction is true than might be expected of a thriller. But that’s just what he might say, you might assume, in order to help sell the book. It’s a cunning device, isn’t it, designed to elicit the response, “It makes you think…” And yet the writing draws you in, so that from all the verbatim conversations, seemingly genuine documents and the detailed clandestine action you could almost believe it’s all true.

Almost, but not quite. Continue reading “Freelancing”

Suspending disbelief

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Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London Gollancz 2011

From the start I’d noted that Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London was mentioned in the same breath as China Miéville’s London-centred novels (such as Kraken) and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and so assumed that this was a fantasy about the belowground metropolis that involved magic. I now find it’s lumbered with the clunky sobriquet of ‘urban fantasy police procedural’, which has at least the virtue of describing what’s in the tin. Fantasy thriller is good enough for me, however.

Constable Peter Grant is coming to the end of his probationary period when he comes to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale who — coincidentally — is a wizard. Nightingale recognises that Peter has latent magical ability and recruits him as sorcerer’s apprentice. At the same time a disturbing series of murders is taking place which, despite a lot of hi-tech sleuthing, is proving hard to solve without resorting to the kind of magic to which Nightingale has access; and so young Grant is willy-nilly drawn in, below his depth. Throw into the mix the almost obligatory love-interest, fellow probationer WPC Lesley May, and Peter is in serious danger of drowning. And, bearing in mind that the title is a clue, he very nearly does.

I wanted to like this novel very much. Continue reading “Suspending disbelief”

Curious and convoluted

Pendragon design by Nick Bristow / Chris Bristow

Antal Szerb The Pendragon Legend
Pushkin Press 2006

Szerb’s novel is a curious hybrid, a mix of murder mystery and ghost story, romantic comedy and Gothic chiller, social commentary and humour. While the whole is never more than the sum of its parts (the resolution, for example, doesn’t convincingly meld these disparate genres) this is still an impressive first novel, self-assured and wittily expressed.

According to the helpful Afterword, Antal Szerb was a polyglot academic who diverted some of his scholarly interests, along with other more unorthodox delvings, into fiction. He was very well regarded as a scholar until his anti-fascist stance led to an untimely and brutal death in a labour camp in 1944. The Pendragon Legend resulted from a year he spent researching and people watching in Britain, and was published in Hungarian in 1934.

The reluctant hero, Janos Bátky, is a Hungarian Continue reading “Curious and convoluted”

More grit and wit

dogAndrea Camilleri The Terracotta Dog
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Picador 2004 (1996)

It’s hard, having relatively recently come to the Montalbano books after seeing a few of the TV series, not to people the pages with images of screen actors, but while there are some double-take moments (Salvo with hair, Salvo smoking!) it’s refreshing to have confirmed that the films have remained true to the letter as well as the spirit of the novels.

The Terracotta Dog has many attractive ingredients. Continue reading “More grit and wit”

Grit and wit

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Andrea Camilleri The Shape of Water
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Picador 2005 (1994)

Truth is like water poured into a vase or a glass, a cup or a bucket: just as water takes its shape from its container, truth can be just as malleable, depending on one’s point of view. Camilleri’s The Shape of Water presents just such a conundrum: a corpse is discovered and though it soon becomes clear the deceased died from natural causes all is not as it seems, with Commissario Montalbano suspecting foul play when circumstantial evidence suggests things don’t add up. Continue reading “Grit and wit”

Empathy for the rebel

Jason disgorged by the dragon of Colchis, with Athena and the Golden Fleece:  vase figure in Vatican Museum
Jason disgorged by the dragon of Colchis, with Athena and the Golden Fleece:
vase figure in Vatican Museum

Robert Ludlum The Bourne Identity
Orion Books 2004 (1980)

I’m not a violent person. I grew up watching American TV serials where the Lone Ranger shot revolvers out of baddies’ hands (who then merely had a sprained wrist to nurse) or comedies such as The Three Stooges which — like a Tom and Jerry cartoon — allowed the victims to recover with a shake of the head after a potentially life-threatening concussion to the brainbox department. Violence was depicted, the consequences papered over. I was uncomfortable with it, but that was all that was on offer.

These days, as it has been for several decades now, violence is more graphic in entertainment media, whether films, comics or video games. Not just villains are hurt but innocent bystanders and targeted victims. The alarm is raised every so often about how the consumption of this vicariously experienced violence without appreciation of the consequences stunts one’s capacity to exhibit empathy and how it can encourage sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies. I mention this not to stir up more argument and controversy but to contextualise my normal avoidance of thrillers in whatever form. Continue reading “Empathy for the rebel”

Run-of-the-mill supernatural romance

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19th-century Carcassonne

Kate Mosse, Labyrinth. Orion 2006

I read this before it was acclaimed The Viewers’ Choice (in a TV Book Club shortlist at the 2006 British Book Awards) but, frankly, remained unimpressed. I had high expectations for an out-of-the-ordinary modern take on the holy grail written by a successful reviewer and generous sponsor of new writing, but was deeply disappointed at the result.

Kate Mosse has mixed up a cocktail of familiar elements (Cathar heretics, reincarnation, grail, medieval history) and somehow turned it into an entirely run-of-the-mill romance-cum-fantasy-cum-thriller. I admire her research into life in the Middle Ages, her knowledge of the French Midi (she lives in the old walled city of Carcassonne, ‘restored’ to a Victorian vision of the High Middle Ages) and her attempt to make the grail a little different from the familiar holy bloodline thesis. The labyrinthine storyline seesaws between the past and the present, turning on the fulcrum of a scandalously disorganised archaeological investigation.

However, her use of Hollywood-influenced magic denouements and crude Disneyesque villains and villainesses, combined with a holier-than-thou heroine, ultimately left this reader cold and mystified. Still, back in 2006 I couldn’t argue with 70,000 presumably satisfied readers, and probably can’t even now; though its frequent appearances on charity shop bookshelves, along with The Da Vinci Code, suggests that those readers aren’t now fussed about keeping it on their bookshelves. I myself shan’t be seeking out the sequels.