Robin Mukherjee: The Art of Screenwriting

Report by Lisa Nightingale


Robin Mukherjee was pleased to speak to us on Tuesday night. Writers so often deal with their neuroticism’s alone, he says, Hampshire Writers’ Society provides a place to feel safely insane.

Robin is a modernist. He gave us a refreshing take on many of the issues that get writers down. Whatever your type and model.

For starters – structure. Look at it the way Robin showed us? Without structure, that chair you’re sitting on would collapse. Without structure (your skeleton) you would collapse.

Robin Mukherjee

Robin began in what is now the BBC Writers’ Room where he was given a mentor. A stereotypical screenwriter at the time (chain smoking and inflexible) he was afraid that by confining it in a ‘shape’ or ‘form’ his integrity and passion would be suffocated and he rebelled against structure. But much like your skeleton structure goes unnoticed. Until it doesn’t work properly. Your story needs its structure to work well or else it will not move forward naturally. It won’t be nimble.

So on to Dramatic Structure. Think of Drama as an Act (this is what the dictionary defines it as) An act (dictionary – a thing done) can be anything, from making a cup of tea to robbing a bank. It will have a beginning (get cup) a middle (make tea, drink tea) an end (wash up cup) return to start (put cup away)

To perform your act you need:

  1. Time and space. Your story’s environment/world including the when, where, context and theme.
  2. A protagonist (someone to do the act) They need a story of their own. Once they have this they become a character rather than a ‘device’. They have desire/assent.
  3. Effort – immediately there is conflict. No matter how simple their idea, there will be something overlooked and this leads to:
  4. Opposition –
  5. Crisis –
  6. Denouement – it’s over! The protagonist is free of all ‘acts’.

All this sounds like a lot of planning. Let your story have an organic life, Robin says, you have the gift for some bits. Others you will have to work at. There will always be a certain amount of planning. Find out what your project wants.

OK. You have done all this. What do you do with your manuscript then? Be there (there being the industry), have something. Think of the industry as a motorway – no one is going to stop to let you in. You have to get up to speed. Look like you belong there. It is all very well doing the postage thing, but you will stand a better chance if you can back this up with ‘Dear Joe, we met at ….’

Publishers exhibit a fear of change. It is a shame that the genre question now comes first. If you stay true (details remember) to your subject. In the film, Lore which Robin wrote for, some children are throwing stones at a group of Russian soldiers. The soldiers fire at them and they run away. A viewer might say that the soldiers would give chase. But the truth of the matter is that they probably wouldn’t (they are hungry, tired and if their commanding officer is not looking, then they will ignore the children) Portray your truth well and you might not have to follow the troupe. Settling on your genre might be helped by returning to your Time and Space. What happens in your environment? A crime? A meeting? Or perhaps the discovery of a portal to mystical lands.

Special Guest Glenn Fosbraey
 Programme Leader for the in Creative Writing Degree at University of Winchester.

When offered the spot of January special guest and adjudicator, Glenn jumped at it. The Creative Writing Degree at Winchester University includes a module in which the students use a Gothic novel (Dracula, Jeckyll and Hyde) and manipulate it as though it were elastic. Taking text and playing around with it is an excellent exercise in creative writing, he tells us.
Glenn is passionate about lyrics. For too long, song lyrics have been the poor relation to poetry. Writers like Paul Simon are regarded as Poets rather than song writers. A song, however contemporary can hold much more information than immediately meets the eye – a social system, the fight against oppression, the plight of a gender. Song and music are ‘absorbed through osmosis’ and whether we like it or not, a soundtrack to our lives is formed.
So, Glenn has designed a new degree, one which he hopes to incorporate into the Creative Writing department next year – Popular Music.

Megan Farr and Sarah Mussi PowerPoint Presentation January 2014

How to write a children’s book that editors know they can go for…

What do editors want?

  • This is a total mystery to most writers , so we have to be cunning sleuths…
  • What might they go for? … Pick up your magnifying glass – let’s start to see if we can find any clues…
  • Start by examining the crime scene…
  • Checklist
  • What do children like reading
  • What will parents buy/ librarians stock?
  • What has succeeded before?
  • Why has it succeeded before?
  • Others?

Red herrings…

  • Editors go for some books that include factors which are totally beyond your control.
  • So don’t be side tracked…

Things beyond your control

  • Being famous like David Beckham
  • Already being published by the editor
  • Having entered the canon like To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • others?

What does that leave?

  • YOU
  • So only look at books that:
  • Are written by a writer like you
  • Have no extraordinary advantages in terms of editor-go-for-ness.

So what DO editor’s think they can go for?

  • I’m an author –so I don’t really know – so I have to make an educated guess: a book that they can:
  • Sell rights to?
  • Get into festivals?
  • Interest bloggers?
  • Get into schools?
  • Create a buzz about?
  • Take to book fairs?
  • LIKE ? (that’s pretty vague!)

Hopefully Megan can tell us more!

Back to the crime scene…What did those successful books do?

  • Pleased librarians
  • Engaged       child readers
  • Were age appropriate
  • Educational ? Or dealt with interesting issues?
  • Page turning
  • High concepts
  • Original and unusual USPs
  • Well written
  • Saleable…

What do I (The Mussi) do?

Before I try to get that killer contract I…

  • Research books being currently published (by publication house if possible)
  • I try to create a data base of the interests of editors (don’t often get very far with that)
  • I read new books out
  • I interview children on their likes and dislikes

4 Key Ingredients – I always try to include in a proposal

  • Some depth in the story
  • Page turnability
  • Original and exciting concept or a new original exciting take on an old one
  • Interesting voice or narration

So how do I set about doing that?

  • I brainstorm ideas that suit
  • I eliminate any idea that are not original enough
  • I check the idea against the list /data base I’ve created
  • I write a story pitch for the idea
  • I repeat this until I have a portfolio of possible ideas
  • I send them out to other trusted readers for feedback (I am only interested in negative feedback)
  • I redraft the ideas

What then?

  • I can go straight to my agent…
  • but if you don’t have one…
  • You will need to write up the first few thousand words. (If an editor is interested in one of my ideas I have to do that too.)
  • And send it out or pitch it – at a one to one.

And what if nothing happens?

  • I do it all over again.
  • My philosophy is very simple
  • If at first you don’t succeed – give up (with that idea)
  • Where there’s a will there’s a way (and if there’s no way there’re always excuses)
  • if they aren’t interested in an idea, and don’t think it’ll sell – then why the heck should I be?