Tackling narrative – interview with Ted Wilkes & Philip Hughes

Interview conducted by Grace Hennessy

Phil Hughes is the course leader for film and screen at Regents University. Ted Wilks is a lecturer at Regent University in screenwriting and film studies and has just finished a feature spec script called Fulfilment, which is a horror film set in an Amazon warehouse. Both are working on a book called ‘Character is Structure: Great Screenwriting Starts With Your Characters’ Choices’ which is being published by Bloomsbury. They have also collaboratively written a pilot script called ‘Shottingham, where a medical student up north gets embroiled in the criminal underworld as a doctor.

Your book is about narrative structure. Do you think narrative structure is a good starting point for writers?

The book begins with this idea: what is more important when you’re embarking on a story, character or structure? Because there are strong arguments in both of those areas. The conclusion that we came to, and that we argue through the book, is that both are the same thing. If you begin your story with a strong enough character, and that character is making the natural decisions that the character would make, if they were in the situations that you placed them in, then they create their own structure. The two things balance themselves out. That’s why our book is Character is structure.

In the Monomyth, although it is the grand narrative, sometimes you feel like you’re forcing your character into that situation where you’re pushing them through hoops that they potentially wouldn’t organically go through. We’ve found that actually, heroes have evolved since the Grecian stories. And we’ve decided these more modern interpretations of the chosen one, can be challenged in very specific ways to get the most out of them and to get the most out of your narrative. We would do away with using Greek mythology as the basis of our screenwriting law, and that we would use fairy tales instead.

When it comes to fairy tales, do you think that writers should be building their stories based off those archetypes?

No, don’t do that. We debated at length about a couple of fairy tales that we wanted to include in the book, but they just don’t work as stories, they’re only two acts. Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, are kind of false advertising, because they’re not the protagonist, it’s the hero and a white knight who comes in. Sleeping Beauty is literally asleep for the whole thing. So potentially, these aren’t good models, but we’ve picked some more universal arcs that we that we believe would work in a better way. My favourite is killed goose, which is our mistaken hero, the farmer’s wife could quite happily have golden eggs for the rest of their life, but they get greedy.

We’re looking at the way that fairy stories are set up because if you carry them through, a lot of fairy-tale stories are very, very brief. They’re certainly not anywhere near as sophisticated as the kind of storytelling that we would hope that our readers would be propagating.

But they’re very communicable. We can explain our systems very well through the use of fairy stories, because everybody knows them.

What’s the best advice you can give someone struggling with narrative and maybe incorporating their characters into it?

One of the things that we keep going back to is if the setup to the story is strong enough and if the character you are placing at the beginning of story is the correct character to respond to what we’re calling the invitation to the story. If they’re the correct character to respond in the correct way to that invitation, then you immediately have a quite a strong foundation upon which to build the story.

Very often, you’ll find that the central character is not a particularly strong character, or maybe not the right character for that narrative that you’re trying to tell. That’s often an issue. If your setup is strong enough, then your journey is going to be much, much easier.

When you get to a problem in your narrative, the problem is never at that bit. It’s way, way back in your narrative, and you haven’t addressed that problem. And you need to address that problem before you can get over the hurdle that you find yourself at now.

Think why? Why are you writing this thing? What do you want to make? Do you want to make a spec that’s going to sell for a million dollars? Do you want to make a little indie arthouse film? You’ve got to decide why you’re writing it and what you want to do it for.

What are some of your own writing processes Like?

Ted Wilkes speaking at LSWF

Ted: I’m quite a methodical planner. I like my Trello boards and my index cards and my beat sheets, and then there’s a lot of despair, when it doesn’t work when you try and put it on the page and then having to change it. I tend to have periods of  intense writing for 10 weeks, and then I won’t touch anything again. And I know that’s a really unhealthy habit. But that’s how I work. So I need to get out of that habit.

Phil: I don’t do any of those things. (It’s great working together) I’m always telling students to write treatments, and outlines and beat sheets and character descriptions. I don’t do any of that. I have a sort of road map in my head. And what I do is I leap from a fun scene to fun scene and try to keep myself interested. So if I write a scene that I want to write, and finish on that scene, then I think, what scene would I like to write next? Or if I was watching this film, what scene would I like to watch next? And that’s really the methodology that goes on in my head.

Ted: I always remember when we were writing Shottingham in the first draft I put this one character in and I was like, yeah, there’s a dramaturgical function for this and Phil just said to me, she’s not going to be in the final draft. And I’m like, why ever not? I feel like it’s brilliant, she serves this function. And then it was right to take her out because she was a crap character.

Phil Hughes speaking at LSWF

Phil: You can overthink writing so easily, and then you get buried in. So I always say to students before they start the undergraduate course, if they say to me, what books should I be reading over the summer holidays? I’d say, don’t read any ‘how to’ books, read some scripts if you want, but don’t read any books, because you can find yourself lost in other people’s theories.

In the book that Ted and I are writing, we’re not telling you what story to write, we’re giving you a kind of glimpse of the way that effective storytelling works. And you can use it to tell your stories.

How has the pandemic affected screenwriters like yourself and where do you see the industry going?

Rob savage made Host, which is the one screen horror film that’s as long as a zoom call. And, yeah, actually, I want to see people suffer in their houses, because that’s what I did. So I think there are people who are using the pandemic effectively to tell a horror story like Savage did. Once production happens again, we will return to the type of blockbuster films people want to see.

A writing conference or write a script conference is better in person than it is on zoom or collaborate. I’ve been involved with the business group that look at how we teach online and how we can improve the experience of teaching online. Whether it’s worked, that’s for the students to decide. But the intellectual challenge of how do you deliver a session online has been really engaging and really interesting. But I just can’t wait to get back to teach it in real life and seeing people in three dimensions. I think that’s the future we deserve.

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