Declan O’Dwyer is a U.K-based TV director (Robin Hood, Wire in the Blood, Merlin) who wrote and sold the spec script “Broken Cove” to Thunder Road Pictures.
Recently I had a terrific conversation with Declan about his unusual path into the entertainment business and how he has added “screenwriter” to his resume.
Today in Part 5, Declan shares his thoughts about some aspects of the screenwriting craft:
Scott: I’d like to delve into some craft questions here in terms of your writing. Let’s start off with this, how do you come up with story ideas?
Declan: They gestate for a long time. They gestate for a very, very long time. I still find the process difficult. It’s part the dyslexia, it’s part laziness. So I do things in photographs. I collect lots and lots of imagery. I find it much easier to write in pictures than I do in words because I don’t enjoy the writing process.
Scott: How much time do you spend in what we call prep writing, like brainstorming, character development, plotting, research, outlining?
Declan: It varies per project because a lot of the time I’m trying to find the character. For someone like Smith from “Broken Cove” I didn’t always know where he was going to go. I always knew what his journey was. I tend to write my end first as well. I try and write my baddest character first, my nemesis first. I try to make that nemesis as human as possible and understand their decision‑making process. Just so they don’t suddenly start giving the whole exposition back‑story just before they kill, you know, the big set piece at the end. So I try and get their story sorted, so they’re so strong that they are a proper nemesis, not someone that you don’t fully believe. I just want to make them as real as possible, and that doesn’t have to be a person. I’ve just written something about a volcano which is the same thing. I had to get in and understand the workings of this volcano, because nature is the worst nemesis – you can’t fight that. It’s the same principle, so I found myself applying the same logic. Get my nemesis sorted, or my nemesis’ arc sorted, and where I want the story to end.
When I started writing “Numb,” - my story actually started where my prep work finished. Well, what I thought was going to be my end point became my script start point, which kind of undone the couple of months work that I’d put into it. I suppose, in a sense, it hasn’t. That’s all just research I guess eh?
Scott: How about characters. What sort of tools do you use in developing your characters?
Declan: They’re nearly always somebody I know or knew or something somebody has said to me. I find old people fascinating. I’m a people watcher. A voyeur. Mannerisms, ticks, tells – anything.
Ever made a decision or behaved in a way you’re not really proud of? Ever threatened at times to become one of those people that you despise? I explore all those, what that does to people physically and emotionally. It’s taken 44 years, but I’m slowly getting there.
My wife is an annoyingly talented actress, (Zita Sattar) and she’s fricking forensic about character stuff like that. Forensic. Which in turn has made me the same. If I can answer a question truthfully to something about a character – then I know that I’m on the right line.
So, characters, find a trait and truth. It could be the way someone picks up a cup of tea. It could be anything. It could be anything at all, and that will stay in my mind, spinning.
Scott: It could be a penny whistle.
Declan: That’s a prime example. That penny whistle. There is truth in that penny whistle. There is truth in that penny whistle.
Scott: What about dialogue? How do you go about finding their voices?
Declan: I say all my dialogue out loud. I don’t speak the Queen’s English. I’m very slovenly in the way I speak. My dialogue reads well, for me, because I work with scripts every day, and actors every day, having to deal with scripts. We’re constantly trimming dialogue that doesn’t work. It’s overwritten. Nearly always dialogue is overwritten. I’m surprised the computer actually lets them type it.
You know what it’s like. It’s hard to find a voice for every character that doesn’t run into the voice you’re already writing. It’s kind of a long‑winded way, but I do tend to do a pass on every character in the script, as well, when I’ve finished. When I think it’s finished I go back. I do different voices. I say them. Every character, I say out loud. I say it in a different way, and if they start to sound like the other guy, I need to nudge that a little bit, just to tweak it. Everybody should be identifiable.
I work quite hard on the individuality. Sometimes I overcook it. I’ve just finished a script. I read through one of the characters because I wanted him to be very well spoken, and very, very clear. It reads so badly. It reads like I’d had a seizure at some point. They used too many words in every sentence. Part of me is praying someone ‘gets’ what I’m doing, but the other part of me is like, “Man, that reads like a badly written scene.”
Scott: Speaking of “getting it,” what about the idea of theme. Do you think about that much, and if you do, do you start with the theme in mind? Is that something that evolves over times as you’re writing the story?
Declan: It varies. “Broken Cove” is a prime example of it. There are so many themes running though that. The theme of salvation, there’s a theme of revenge. “Broken Cove” started as ‘A prodigal son returns home to avenge the death of his brother story.’
But I’ve seen that story so many times, so many times, so what makes my version of that story different? Is it the world building, or is it the characters? Again, it’s an old theme isn’t it? It’s any western. It’s “Get Carter,” I suppose. Not the Stallone version, the ‘71 Caine version. And “Payback,” I suppose. “Point Blank,” the same things. It’s about revenge with a moral code, some kind of amoral code.
Thematically, I try to be governed by what my character is telling me it should be and not what I’m deciding it is on the outset, because it will grow and it will change as they grow and change.
Tomorrow in Part 6, Declan goes deeper into his approach to the craft of screenwriting.
For Part 1, go here.
Part 2, go here.
Part 3, go here.
Part 4, go here.
Please stop by comments to thank Declan and ask any questions you may have.
Declan is repped by WME and Energy Entertainment.