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WRITING REN - THE GIRL WITH THE MARK AS A FEATURE

A journey from Youtube series to big screen adaptation.

While Kate and her team was writing Season Two of the online series and gearing up to the Kickstarter, I was focussing on writing a feature version based on the series. With many millions of views, Ren has become an attractive I.P (Intellectual Property) that Kate and myself own, and we felt that it was worth exploring all the different ways the story we love could be told. This is a look into my process and the difference between writing for a series and a feature.

When I started writing the script I thought to myself: "This is going to be quite straight forward, we already have about 45 minutes of action, I just need to come up with another 55 and we've got ourselves a feature!" Imagining situations and action has never been a problem for me. On top of that, I had plenty of back-story, myths and legends to mine, and back when we developed the idea, both Kate and myself came up with things that could happen far beyond Season One. So far so good! But as I was writing, I struggled to come up with ways for Ren to be active after she left the village, as she does at the end of the series. It felt like I as shoehorning them in. The first rule of any story telling is that your hero or protagonist has to be active throughout the story. Obviously that goes for a series but even more so for a feature script. In a series you have the longer time line and also the opportunity to have huge parts of an episode where someone else takes over as it were. Not so much in a feature. But I ploughed on regardless.

 

After the first draft, I got notes back from the script readers I use in L.A (to get proper Hollywood industry feedback) and even before I read them, I knew what they were going to say: the story is great, fantastic world building, exciting action set pieces BUT you protagonist is too passive. So what was 'wrong'? I went back to analyse Season One and when I got to the end, which I love, it hit me that up until then, Ren had been this great, active and rebellious character and now she had turned into a 'damsel in distress'. This wouldn't be a problem for the series, as there would be plenty of opportunity to introduce other characters and for Ren to eventually turn her newfound powers to good use, but this wasn't any good to me. I was stuck. How could I get round the fact that Ren would not be able to be active for a long time in the present set-up?

When I was just about to throw in the towel, I had my first light-bulb moment: what if Ren did NOT get the Mark? At first I thought: "Well, that doesn't work because the script is called Ren - The Girl WITH the Mark!" But having written about 17 feature scripts, I have learned to listen to these at times strange ideas. In some of my scripts it has meant cutting a character completely or lose whole sections of a script but, in my experience it's always worth having a go at these ideas just to see what happens - you can always go back to the previous draft if they don't work out. So in this case I sat down and had a long hard think about how the Mark could be introduced to Ren's world without HER getting it but still have an impact on her life big enough for her to leave her family and everyone she knows behind. The answer was almost too obvious: BAYNON. This was a massive breakthrough in the process because, if Baynon got the Mark not only would that impact Ren massively, especially if she felt responsible, but it would also give her a reason to be active, one that would be able to sustain the entire script: to save her brother!

So back to page one I went. First of all I had to eliminate everything from when Ren gets the Mark in the series. So much for having 45 minutes already! The entire trial that takes up most of episode 3,4 and 5 went into the bin. Karn had to be eliminated from the first part of the story and Hunter had to take on a very different role because both these characters got in the way of Ren's new active role... don't worry, they're still in there!

 

The story began to take on a whole new life: without Karn, a new way to introduce Ren was needed. A new way of introducing the Spirit to Ren's world also had to be reinvented. The part of the writing process that I like the most, problem solving went into overdrive. For me that is the most fun and magical part of the process. It's where you have to come up with solutions out of thin air but also where things and themes that were only hinted at in the series become the solution and major plot drivers. In other words, some times you've already got the answer to your problem, you just haven't seen it yet. For example, the lovely farmer Torberry came out as a full-blown rebel and Ida, a character that was an enemy in the opening of the series became an alley in order to facilitate Ren's escape from the village and the Commander.

Every writer has a different approach to writing and I sometimes have different approaches to different ideas. Some scripts I start from blank page 1 and work my way through it till THE END. Other scripts, and that's most of them, I use the step-outline approach to get an overview of the story on the page. It works like this: when you've had a think about your idea, you start the script by putting one line, capitalised sentences into it. It doesn't matter where in the story you start as you can always add or delete the lines. An example:

REN AND BAYNON ESCAPE THE VILLAGE

THE COMMANDER TAKES UP PURSUIT BUT LOSES HER IN THE FORSEST

REN AVOIDS TROOPS LOOKING FOR HER

BAYNON GETS A FEVER, STRUGGLES WITH THE SPIRIT

THEY REACH LAGRATH

You keep doing this till you've got the entire story outlined like that, while you also can 'jump in' anywhere in the script when you get an idea for the scene in question. And little by little the capitalised sentences give way for the scenes until you've written the whole thing. It's quite liberating to work this way because you do not have to know exactly what has gone on before the scene or indeed after. Obviously you sometimes have to go back and change things in a scene you've already written because things have evolved before and after, but that is actually easy exactly because you have written the before and after! Once there is only one capitalised line between two scenes, I like to simply write a 'place holder' scene. This means that I will just write what I know needs to happen to link the scene before and the one after. I don't care how bad it is because it can be fixed later. All I care about is that now I have bridged the other scenes and is one step closer to having a first draft. When I used the word 'magic' earlier, I actually referred to this stage of the process because I have found that on so many occasions that little badly written scene contains the seed to solving a problem somewhere else. I might have written that the main character uses, let's say a hammer and suddenly the character's ability to use a hammer becomes instrumental in another scene. This happened when I was writing a scene in the script where Lyanna's gang had to acquire a Kah'Nath uniform. As a place holder, I wrote a scene where they used an 'actress' to lure a soldier into a back alley in the capital city of Landanill. Fast-forward to my last capitalised outline of the script:

REN GETS A BLUE CRYSTAL FROM THE FORTRESS IN LANDANILL

I knew this had to be a big action set piece but I was completely stuck when it came to HOW Ren would achieve this goal. Earlier set pieces had involved some ingenious thinking from Ren, but this one just wouldn't come to me. In desperation I thought to myself: "Okay, let's just get her into the castle and then worry about what she does there later!" Breaking the sequence down like that was the key. When I just had to come up with a way to get in, the solution came from that little place holder scene: I already had someone in the city that was already helping the rebels! So out of that emerged a fantastic group of actresses of both sexes that allowed for some much needed comic relief and a way into the castle. The rest of the scene was a piece of cake.

When I allowed myself to think outside the box and go with the idea that Baynon gets the Mark instead of Ren, it enabled a story that was carried by Ren's desire to save Baynon. Everything she did had to serve that mission, every obstacle had to get in the way of that goal and every character new or old had to either help or hinder her. The Spirit also became more active by merging with Baynon: the sheer power of the Spirit was turned into a great 'ticking bomb' because he simply is too young to merge with the Spirit and from the moment it hits him it is effectively killing him. That obviously drives Ren on in her quest and also indicates that the Spirit was actually attempting to bond with Ren in the first place. It was very exciting to write all of this stuff that merged so beautifully with the original in a new and powerful way.

But throughout the process there was one thing that kept niggling me: the story is called Ren - The Girl WITH the Mark! Her goal was now so clear and active, but I was getting far away from that original idea about this girl with a Mark that sparked Kate and myself to spend years of our lives bringing her to life. That was when I had my second light bulb moment: what if the only way Ren can save Baynon is to take on the Mark herself? And that was it! During most of the script Ren had tried to find someone, who could save Baynon, someone ELSE, who could get the Mark off her dying brother! So in a great moment of realisation I had Ren figure out that only SHE can save him. In this way I didn't start with Ren - The Girl With the Mark but I ended with her... sequel alert!!!

Appendix: another element of the feature had to be the back-story. In the series we only hinted at what had happened in the past with the Kah'Nath, the Nuh Mahri, the Spirit and indeed with Ren's mother Erin, because we knew there would plenty at opportunity to develop all of that. Again that's different in a feature where time is of the essence, so I decided to open the script with a scene that hopefully explains what the world was like before we meet Ren and also sets a solid foundation for the end of the script... judge for yourself, here are the feature opening pages of Ren - The Girl With the Mark:

 

 

 

 

 

And if you want to listen to some of the myths and legends from Alathia, here's a link:

https://christopherdane.podbean.com/