How can a German family relationship therapy exercise help with your story? I went along to the London Screenwriters’ Festival to find out. And boy, was I surprised at what I found.
I volunteered to be a guinea pig for new story tool Constellations, when script editor Hayley McKenzie innocently asked me if I’d like to take part in one of the workshops at this weekend’s London Screenwriters’ Festival. They needed a writer who had a problem with a script. My characters might be psychoanalysed in the session, she said, but not me.
I said yes. Why not? And came up with Learn To Croon, my ‘swing band with one last shot to make it’ script. I thought my problem with it was that I had ten characters to introduce in the first ten pages and couldn’t quite manage to do it, and this is what I told Constellations practitioner Richard Tierney an hour before the session.
He smiled and asked me a bit more about the story and we talked about the relationships of the characters to each other and to the music. But I was fairly confident that the workshop would be about solving my ‘how to squeeze 14 pages into 10’ problem.
Was I in for a surprise.
Over a hundred people gathered for the session and, after clearing a space in the middle of the room, Richard asked me to tell everyone about my story as briefly as possible.
This bit is important. You have to understand that everyone in the room knew very little about my story if you’re going to appreciate the magic of what followed.
I told everyone that my film was about a down on their luck swing band competing for a battle of the bands competition – the prize being a residency that would get them out of their shitty jobs. They had their one night of glory ten years ago but are now a mess and most of them don’t believe in it anymore. Main character Lou, the band leader, is the one dragging them kicking and screaming to the prize. He’s helped by Miranda, a music student who works in a care home and who’s found Lester, a 90-year old Afro-American jazz trumpeter still obsessively poring over his old scores from the 1940s. The band want the scores, but Lester doesn’t trust them to respect his work.
This was pretty much what everyone in the room knew about my story, including Richard, who led the exercise that followed.
He asked me to start choosing people in the room to represent Lou, Miranda and Lester (and one person to represent the band) and to place them somewhere in the space. Amazingly, there wasn’t a mass walkout at this point. I chose a few groaning victims and pushed them to where it first felt right, even though I thought it looked a bit crap and I’d probably done it wrong.
Then I was told to sit down and take notes.
Richard then asked the ‘representatives’ how they felt about where they were in the space, and thus began the remarkable adventure of a group of strangers who didn’t really know my characters, talking about them as if they really were my characters.
‘Lou’ noted immediately that he was at the head of a triangle comprising himself, Miranda and Lester, but the band were outside of it, and he felt intrigued by Lester and wanted to know his story. ‘Miranda’ felt close to Lester and felt she had a direct line to Lou but the band were in her way. ‘The Band’ felt vulnerable, exposed and not sure why they were there. ‘Lester’ felt scared: everyone was behind him and he had no relationship to any of them.
Which is pretty much how all those characters feel at the start of my story. 10 out of 10 for accuracy and a few bonus points for crystallising it all so neatly.
Then Richard asked them to think about where they all were a year before the story begins and, at the count of three, to go to that space.
CLICK. Lester didn’t feel as excluded and felt closer to Miranda. The Band were more excited and felt closer to Lou. Miranda felt she had more ambition. Lou was desperate to make it, felt threatened by Miranda and didn’t want the band to break up.
Gulp. So now the ‘representatives’ are telling me things I didn’t know about my characters. And these things come with the shocking force of revelation. How do they know all this?
Now Richard asks me to choose another person to take part, but this person isn’t representing a character in my story, they’re representing a concept. I have to pick someone to represent ‘Music’. I choose someone and put her where I think it feels right (again, I go with my first instinct and think it’s probably crap).
Now everyone gets to say how they feel about ‘Music’. Lester needs to be closer to her and still doesn’t trust Lou. Miranda feels like she enjoys a privileged access to ‘Music’. The Band feel Lester is between them and the Music and they feel intimidated. Lou is worried that they can all do without him. ‘Music’ herself feels that Lester really knows where she is and she’s very happy that MIranda is also close to her.
My characters are now telling me things about their inner lives I had no idea about. For me, it’s a great session, but I’m wondering if it might be boring for everyone else. I’m expecting a mass walkout at any moment. But people stay, and the atmosphere is intense.
The process continues. New representatives are added such as ‘Insecurity’, ‘Talent’ and a mysterious one chosen by Richard that is never identified but immediately disturbs almost everyone in the constellation.
We skip to the end and they all find themselves in a very pleasing space. Lou has forced himself to be in the middle of it all and thinks he’s achieved everything. Lester is at the end of the line and thinks he might be dead. The Band are triumphant and feel closer to Lester. Music feels she should be closer to Lester but that he’s gone. But Miranda still doesn’t feel quite connected and wants to be closer to it all.
So we work on Miranda. Her problem is she can’t see her Talent, and Insecurity is in her peripheral vision and freaking her out. Her Talent feels neglected by her and wants to fight back.
So they’re asked to skip to where they see themselves at the end of the story and we find that Miranda now can’t see her Insecurity and has Talent staring her in the face and likes it. We add Lou to this and I place him by her side, slightly behind her and at an angle. I don’t know why, it just feels right.
Miranda feels good about him being there. insecurity wanted her to confront him, but he can see she’s moved on. And Lou feels great; he can see her Insecurity but he feels he’s now protecting her.
I did get something in my eye at this point.
And there our session ended. My story was in another place, and I had a much more profound understanding of who my characters really were and how they felt at every stage of their journey together.
It was obvious from the reaction in the room, the high attendance at the chat with Richard that followed, and the amount of people approaching me the rest of the day, that this session had really struck a chord (no pun intended) and that even the scores of people merely observing, were deeply affected by it.
I think Richard might argue that no one was a mere observer and that everyone in the room, in some way, affected the process. It’s hard to argue with that when you see something so profound and can’t actually put into words what actually happened or how it happened.
Constellations seems like a mystical, alchemical process. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does, and works incredibly well, and even Richard can’t tell us why it works.
I’m still reeling emotionally from it a day later. And more importantly, I feel my characters are too. I know this because I know them so much more now.
Script Constellations are a safe immersive way to examine any story. Examining in this way allows you to see hidden aspects of the story, its structure, as well as the attributes and motivations of your characters. With a facilitator in charge, a spatial representation of your story is created, and then manipulated. Manipulated to allow you to see the story from many perspectives, experimenting with different endings, alternate back stories, and experiment with many versions of your story.
For mor information see Script Explorers