May 02, 2016

Weeks 6 and 7: Creating Your Characters and Setting (Part 1)

AIB First Draft is a six-month writers' residency programme where a select group of aspiring writers from all over India are being trained in the craft of screenwriting. I feel thrilled to head this project and design and conduct the course. This post is a part of the series that chronicles all that happens at the course. Click here and read from bottom upwards for all posts related to this.



The ten students at our course are currently, among themselves, working on sixteen ideas - eight feature films and eight shows. In the second month of the course they are supposed to brainstorm over their ideas, research about the setting and the tone of their stories, and develop characters. This is the phase where there cannot be any right or wrong decision. You have to welcome all ideas and consider them to be used later. You have to understand your story and its world and know why you want to tell it. You have to familiarise yourself with this new world and characters you are creating. Trial and error. Considering one option and then having more. Thinking wild. Indulging in the vague and hoping that clarity will arrive, soon. This is what they are doing currently. 

Writing Tasks of these Two Weeks: The students started week six with writing a one-page account of their experience at First Draft so far. Excerpts from what they wrote were shared in this post. Over these fourteen days, they were supposed to write 200-word sketches of ten characters per story. They were also supposed to write 200-word descriptions each of the place, the time, and the socio-cultural milieu in which their stories are set. Apart from this, they expanded their story outline to a one-page document, worked on some short film ideas, and continued writing two pages of scenes every single day, thus taking the uninterrupted practice to 48 consecutive days! 

The activities during this period were designed to enable the students achieve these targets. We had a lecture on 'the Eight Character Archetypes', based on the writings of Christopher Vogler, followed by breaking down a character into his or her physiological, sociological and psychological traits. A few practical assignments followed this: 
  1. Each student was assigned one of the batch-mates, ideally someone he or she does not know very well. Then the student was asked to interview all remaining students, except the one assigned, to understand that one character. By the end of the week, they were supposed to submit one page of character sketch of the assigned batch-mate. 
  2. Each student was asked to go out and find a stranger who is willing to talk to them. Then, after a couple of hours of conversation with their "stranger", the students were asked to write one page about him or her. 
  3. They were asked to answer a questionnaire to discover the darkest secrets and the biggest ambitions, and so on, of all the ten characters they are developing. They were also given a list of about 600 character traits and asked to choose the best traits that define their characters. Six per character. 
The students studied and had long discussions on the screenplays of 'Short Term 12', 'Chinatown', 'Casablanca' and 'Sideways'. They studied five chapters from the book 'The Tools of Screenwriting' by Howard and Mabley. They also watched the latest releases: 'Fan', 'Nil Battey Sannata' and 'The Man Who Knew Infinity' and discussed the merits and weaknesses of their writing. They also watched shows and movies recommended to them individually as per the ideas they are working on. And all of them watched the entire Season 1 of 'Fargo'. All of this in two weeks. And more...

We had three more lectures, covering different aspects of writing and film-making: 
  • A feedback session on scene and dialogue writing where a scene written by each one of them was presented and we discussed ways of improving each one of them. 
  • A screening of Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' (1958), followed by a discussion on the film's narrative. We also had a lecture on 'The Basics of Sound Design in Cinema' followed by demonstrations from selected clips from different films. 
  • A screening of 'Singin' in the Rain' (1952), followed by a lecture on the first fifty years of American cinema, including the contribution of Griffith and the merits and limitations of the Hollywood Studio System. 
We had a wonderful guest lecture where Shakun Batra, writer-director of 'Kapoor and Sons', shed light on his writing and creative process and inspired them about the medium and its craft. The students also watched the play 'Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane' at Prithvi and a classical dance performance at NCPA. 

Seven weeks are over. Already! Time is flying away!!

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