Everyone’s got an amazing idea for a film, a book or a video game, right? Mine involves a golden submarine, an army of Narwhals and an evil Octopus overlord. It’s a winner for sure, and Spielberg will be in touch any day now. Right? The truth is, becoming a professional scriptwriter involves some seriously hard graft and unwavering dedication. But don’t just take my word for it…
In the second entry in our series of interviews with editorial professionals, we speak to a man who started out as a journalist before turning his pen to film and video game scripts. He now runs a company that offers scriptwriting, narrative design and editing services. Martin has some excellent advice to offer any budding scriptwriters (and writers generally), so get stuck in.
Hello Martin. Who are you and what do you do?
I’m a scriptwriter, video game consultant and journalist. I’ve written scripts for numerous video games including Fable: The Journey, The Movies and Black & White 2. I’m also the managing director of the company VideoGameConsulting.com and have consulted on over 100 video games for some of the world’s leading development and publishing outfits including Electronic Arts, Sega and Ubisoft. My journalism credits include The Guardian, The Guinness Book of Records: Gamer’s Edition, IGN.com, computerandvideogames.com, GamesIndustry.biz, PC Zone and SFX.
What made you want to become a professional writer? And when did you decide that’s what you wanted to do?
I wanted to be a writer from the age of six. I remember sitting in class and the teacher telling us to write a one page story. I wrote five pages. That was the moment I fell in love with writing and knew it was the only thing I truly wanted to do. Well, apart from being a Jedi of course. As I grew older I decided I wanted to either write scripts or be a journalist, preferably in the field of video games. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to do both.
How did you start out as writer?
I started out by writing for and editing the school creative writing magazine when I was seventeen. When I was at university I approached the editor of the student magazine and ended up writing several articles before being put in charge of album reviews. Even though I didn’t get paid (and didn’t get to keep the albums due to our skinflint sponsors demanding them back) it was great experience and I also got to write about music, which at the time was my main interest as I was into the whole long hair be-in-a-band-thing. By the time I left university I’d accrued a large portfolio of work that I could show potential employers.
When did you get your big break?
I’ve been very fortunate to have had two big breaks.
The first one came in 1999, shortly after I left university. Terrified by the prospect of leaving the education bubble and entering the real world, I rang my eldest sister Zuzana to discuss my prospects and what I should do next. At that time she worked for Dennis Publishing, and when I told her about my dream to one day write for a video game magazine, she offered to approach the editor of PC Zone – which was one of the company’s publications – and ask if I could do a week of work experience. (Find out more about how to get writing-based work experience.)
I knew that if I was going to fulfil my dream of writing for a video game magazine, I had to make the most of my opportunity. My sister had told me that there were always people doing work experience at Dennis, so I decided I was going to try and stand out.
Before I started I researched the magazine extensively – its style, point of view, writers etc – to ensure I was completely familiar with its tone. During my first week I did everything I could to impress, arriving early, leaving late and doing each task enthusiastically… even the filing.
After a couple of days I showed the editor the work I’d done for the university student magazine and he was suitably impressed to allow me to review a game. I couldn’t believe it. I had been given an opportunity to get my name in print and I was determined to make the most of it. From the few days I’d been at the magazine I’d deduced that speed was as paramount as quality when it came to writing reviews, so I threw myself into the task and delivered the completed review in less than forty eight hours. The editor liked the review enough to not only print it in the magazine but to pay me for it too. He also gave me a second game to review.
After that week, I knew I needed to keep going if I was going to make the most of this big break. This was my chance to fulfil one of my dreams and nothing was going to prevent me from doing so. I asked the editor if I could stay for another week and he agreed. One week turned into two, then two into three and three into four. Basically I kept coming back until he agreed to let me become an official freelance writer for the magazine, which I did for six months before becoming a full time member of staff in January 2000.
In February 2004 I left the magazine to become a freelance journalist. I wanted to test myself as a writer and to be published in a wide range of magazines, newspapers and websites, but I also wanted to write scripts, either for movies or video games. Video games particularly interested me as I believed they had the potential to be the richest storytelling medium on the planet, and I was passionate about the idea of one day writing video game stories and characters that players could make a real emotional connection with.
I approached several video game developers about the possibility to writing for them, and within a year an incredible opportunity emerged to write on the game The Movies for world renowned developer Lionhead Studios.
In order to get the job I had to write a 500 word story or script about the Devil. I knew that Lionhead games were renowned for their quirky British sense of humour, so I wrote a comedy courtroom scene about a man who’d been sent to Hell who turned the tables on the Devil. On the strength of that and some other pieces that I’d written in my own time, I got the job and my career in game scriptwriting began.
What do you think is the best way for aspiring writers to deal with rejections? How can you turn them to your advantage?
Every writer receives rejections. It’s part of the job and something you need to prepare yourself for if you want to write professionally. When you get rejected you have two options: feel sorry for yourself and give up or use the disappointment as motivation to improve so that you succeed next time. If you’ve had a pitch rejected or you’ve failed to land a job, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback, as this information can be invaluable both in terms of improving your craft and strengthening your character.
How did you get involved with script-writing?
Fifty percent of my English degree was centred on creative writing. However, very little of that involved any type of scriptwriting. Towards the end of my tenure at PC Zone, I started to have a burning desire to write a movie script, so I began reading every book I could find about the craft in order to learn everything I could.
When I left PC Zone, I started writing an action adventure movie called TX, a screenplay about an elite team of counter terrorist soldiers. One year and four drafts later, it was ready. I’d heard that there were numerous Hollywood screenwriting contests which offered feedback to every entry, so in a bid to receive constructive criticisms, I entered the script into several of these.
To my delight the script made it to numerous finals and semi-finals in some of Hollywood’s biggest and most prestigious screenwriting contests and the feedback I received not only gave me confidence about what I could achieve but also provided me with superb pointers about where I could improve. Shortly after this the opportunity to write on The Movies arose, and it was partly due to these Hollywood screenwriting successes that I was given the job.
Tell us a bit about the script-writing process?
There are two essential elements to this that can be easily overlooked or underestimated: planning and rewriting. The first of these allows you to flesh out your ideas without committing to a 20,000 word script, while also allowing you to see where your characters need further development and any structural story and plot problems.
Proper planning in the form of a story and plot treatment and in-depth character bios make the writing process so much easier, as you already know where you’re going with your story and you’re already familiar with who your characters are, what they stand for, their outlooks, needs, desires etc. This is also when you can work out what your script is really about e.g. the plot may be about aliens coming to earth but the script’s theme may be about mankind resolving its own differences by accepting other cultures. By preparing properly, writing a first draft becomes a lot easier (and more fun) than attempting to make everything up as you go and basing your writing on a few vague concepts that are floating around in your head.
Once the first draft has been written, the real work begins. Scenes can be trimmed and refined – the more economically you can convey something the better – structural problems ironed out, dialogue made snappier and more unique for each character, greater subtext added, themes can be fleshed out, character motivations improved. There are literally dozens of areas that must be worked at if an initial draft is to be transformed into a compelling, believable and entertaining script, and it can take many months of hard work before this is achieved.
While there are many similarities between writing a video game script and writing a movie screenplay, there are also some key differences. Whereas in films the screenplay is the foundation from which everything else is built, this is rarely if ever the case when it comes to making video games. More often than not, a game developer will have a gameplay-based concept from which a game is then created, and it’s around this that the story and characters are usually built.
A video game scriptwriter must be able to make sudden changes to the script and anticipate the impact those changes have on the rest of the story when the game developer decides to fundamentally change something in the game e.g. a key gameplay concept or the content or flow of a particular level (something that happens very regularly) while still keeping the story interesting and characters consistent. Sometimes entire chapters or characters are taken out of a game, and huge rewrites become necessary.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for a video game scriptwriter is to make their voice heard in design meetings where many decisions are made, often with little or no thought of how they will impact on the characters or story. This doesn’t mean story should supersede gameplay, but rather that story and game design should perfectly complement each other in order to make a more compelling and believable overall experience in which gameplay informs story and vice versa. Things are slowly improving on this front, with developers such as Lionhead, Valve, BioWare, Naughty Dog and Ubisoft Montreal all making great strides in this department, but there’s still a long way to go.
Tell us a bit about your company and how it works?
My company has two branches. Through VideoGameConsulting.com I offer game consultancy services which provide developers and publishers with detailed feedback about every element (including story and characters) of their product, while offering suggestions for improvements and market positioning.
Through GameScriptwriting.com I offer video game services that encompass every facet of scriptwriting for a game. This can involve writing concept documents, character bios, narrative design, dialogue and mapping out story progression and its relationship to gameplay, as well as writing the actual script. I also edit existing scripts in order to polish dialogue and ensure narrative and character consistency.
Some projects can be done almost entirely from my office (with a handful of visits to the developer in order to talk things through at key junctures), while others involve working regularly from a developer’s office and liaising with level designers, scripters, artists etc. on a daily basis in order to craft the story and ensure that every element of a game remains consistent with the story, plot, characters and fiction.
Which writers have inspired you the most?
From a scriptwriting standpoint I’ve always admired James Cameron’s ability to mix action and suspense with deeply emotional and thematically impactful storytelling, while Stanley Kubrick’s masterful use of subtext is right up there with the best. On a broader scale, I’ve also found the works of Henry Miller (in my opinion one of the greatest writers of all time) and Thomas Hardy to be particularly inspiring, while a very talented movie, TV and radio writer called Lin Coghlan (who I worked with on a video game project called Milo & Kate) has been an incredible personal inspiration and mentor to me, and has helped me enormously to grow as a writer and to better understand the craft.
Which of your pieces of writing are you most proud of?
The project that I’m most proud of is the video game Fable: The Journey, which I worked on as lead writer and which was released in October 2012. Prior to working on that game I’d spent eighteen months co-writing a video game project called Milo & Kate with Lin Coghlan. It was a project that attempted to take character development within the field of video gaming to new heights, and on many levels I believe it succeeded in doing so. We were trying to create a real life character that players could interact with. Sadly, the game never saw the light of day and much of the work we did was never seen by the outside world. However, it was the work that we did on Milo that would heavily influence my writing on Fable: The Journey.
When I started writing Fable: The Journey I was adamant that the discoveries we’d made at Lionhead about how to make players empathise with video game characters, would not go to waste. For me, video game characters are all too often hollow, one dimensional stereotypes who exist for no other purpose than to tell the player where they should be going or what they should be doing next. This was something I was determined to avoid. I wanted to create fully fleshed out, believable characters, each with their own character arc, secrets, emotional wounds, needs and desires. I wanted players to become emotionally invested, to care about these virtual people, to be convinced by them, and to feel genuinely sad when something bad happened to them. Most games focus primarily on plot, but I was determined to place story and character development at the forefront.
I knew I was taking a risk trying something new, but I wanted to stick to my principals and my belief that character depth and development can be a key component in a video game. I was also very fortunate to be working with a great group of people at Lionhead, two supporting writers who really got how effective story and character development can be in a video game, the same motion capture studio (Giant Studios) who worked with James Cameron on Avatar, and a talented director and cast.
When the reviews for Fable: The Journey came out, many critics were incredibly positive about the game’s story, characters and emotional engagement, stating that they really felt a bond with the people they spent time with in the game. The fact that that they were able to make an emotional connection with these virtual characters, that they really cared about them, made all of the hard work worthwhile.
Looking back on your career so far, what advice could you offer aspiring scriptwriters?
Always believe in yourself but never think you’re too good to learn. Writing is a craft and every writer is still learning no matter how accomplished they are or what they’ve achieved. Read books about writing, go to seminars and seek feedback from other writers who can be honest with you and provide you with informed analysis.
One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was by a script consultant called Craig Kellem. He told me to practice the things I didn’t like doing, which basically meant I needed to work on the parts of my writing I was weakest at rather than just using the skills I was good at to mask my weaknesses. It’s turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given.
Try not to copy how other writers write. Your unique selling point is your voice and what you have to say. However, if you’re looking to write for a particular publication, website or company, do your research. If what you write for them is completely at odds with their style or tone, you’re unlikely to get very far.
Above all, work hard (and for free to begin with if that’s what it takes), learn from people (and from your mistakes), don’t give up, network and just keep writing. Being a writer is not easy and it’s an extremely competitive field to work in, but if you apply yourself, get yourself out there with pitches and applications and continue to hone your craft, there’s no reason why you can’t succeed. (Find out more about how to improve your writing skills.)
Thanks for your time, Martin
You can follow Martin on Twitter @MartinKorda
Interview by Nick Ellis