CREATIVITY FOR SCRIPTWRITERS 1 day course London Saturday Nov 15th
A course for scriptwriters in all media – TV, film, radio, theatre – designed to help you generate exciting ideas and characters, and give your creativity a boost with a day of fun, stimulating writing exercises. Run by TV drama script editor, producer and script consultant PHILIP SHELLEY with guest speaker writer CAT JONES.
CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2015
I’m delighted to be able to announce that entries are now open for the 2015 Channel 4 screenwriting course, which will take place between January and June next year. The entry period runs until MONDAY NOV 3rd at 6pm.
All the information about how to enter is here –
Our brief for the course is to find 12 exciting, talented writers who are new to TV drama, to work with them on a new script, the hope being that they subsequently launch careers as TV dramatists.
Over the 4 years of the course we have worked with some brilliant writers, many of whom are now doing very well indeed. It’s always very exciting for me and the other script editors on the course when the course writers go onto be recognised in the industry and achieve success.
Initially we have the all-important task of choosing the 12 ‘best’ scripts from the 1500 or so scripts submitted. This has obviously led me to think a lot about what makes the successful scripts stand out. SO I’ve tried to come up with a list of factors that successful scripts have, in my opinion. And I hope this may be useful to you if you’re considering entering for the 2015 course – and I very much hope that you are!
The first two things are to say are –
At the risk of stating the obvious, script-writing is not a measurable science! I try to get my script readers to express their views as technically and objectively as possible – but inevitably one’s response to a script is visceral, instinctive and subjective.
If you don’t get offered one of the 12 places, then you can console yourself with the fact that someone different running the course, and a different set of readers would probably choose 12 entirely different writers.
The other thing to say is that you shouldn’t treat this very personal list as a box-ticking exercise – there’s no way that your script will tick every single box; and there may well have been successful scripts that haven’t ticked any of these boxes.
This is just my attempt to impose some logical parameters on what can never be a purely logical process.
So here, in no particular order, is my list –
A big idea – something that engages our intellect \ imagination. If I had one general criticism of the submitted scripts, it is that too few of them tackle really big, striking ideas. You only have to watch the news, read any newspaper, look at the internet, to find a wealth of fantastic, big stories. But so few people seem to write scripts about these big ideas. Too many of the unsuccessful scripts are focused on small domestic situations – clearly it’s possible to write brilliant, compelling scripts about anything – but if you’ve got a big, original, attention-catching idea at the centre of your script, it’s so much easier to make it stand out.
Three examples from the scripts written on the 2014 course – a script about fracking in Southport, how it affects the community; a transgender woman from a traditional Bradford Asian family, forced to return home when her father is taken ill. (even when I read the 2 page pitch I knew this was going to be good.); a female psychologist who is suffering a breakdown and starts hallucinating Sigmund Freud.
A compelling dramatic premise – ie one that engages our emotions – even if your story doesn’t necessarily have an original, big idea – if it’s got an inherently dramatic premise, something that’s compelling and universal – even if it’s about familiar subjects like (for instance) death, love, divorce, immigration, imprisonment – if the writer has something to say about it, and explores it with depth and commitment, then that too will stand out.
More examples from the 2014 course scripts – a lonely 70 year old woman who through a set of extraordinary – but completely believable – circumstances, becomes a serial murderer; A household of unlikely misfits \ students who accidentally kill their landlord and then have to live with the consequences. An investigation into child pornography downloaded onto a computer in a Manchester accountants office – each episode the same events told from 3 different character perspectives.
SO – is your story about a kidnap, a child abduction? The death of a loved one? A brilliant daring robbery? The planning and execution of a murder? A break-out from prison, a fugitive on the run? About two unlikely people who meet and fall in love?
All of the above are familiar – we can all think of stories about those subjects – but there’s a reason – they’re all STRONG STORY PREMISES. Ideas that stir emotions and excite us.
Stories that tap into ‘emotional universality’. IMO most of the best stories – whether drama or comedy – work because we recognize something in them, there’s something in them that means something to us. Which means that as writers, you have to tap into stories, subjects, characters, that mean something to YOU. Not quite the same as ‘write what you know’ – but I think there has to be something of your passions – whether negative or positive – in a script, and your own personal observations. Most of the best scripts are hugely revealing of the writers and who they are as people – whether they mean them to be or not. Good writing is brave – you can’t help but lay yourself on the line, reveal yourself.
Zeitgeist – something that means something to us NOW.
On the 2013 course, for instance, we had a conspiracy thriller script about big multi-national service companies like G4S, Serco, Capita – this tapped into a story that was huge in the news at the time.
A memorable character \ relationship \ duel
CHARACTER – as ever memorable characters are at the heart of many of the best scripts. There are several characters from the best scripts who I can’t get out of my head – whatever tone \ genre the script is – these are usually characters with big problems but a real depth of humanity. Usually characters who have a major personal issue that they need to resolve. Characters with whom I engaged on a personal level. Characters who meant something to me – again ‘emotional universality’ – because they clearly mean so much to the writers.
This year – Grace the 70 year old murderess (See above); a 16 year old girl on the run after she comes home to find her father having stabbed her mother.
Many of the best stories are about, or based on memorable relationships.
Characters with real, human flaws are the characters that come alive for me. Characters who are conflicted.
Characters, for instance, like The Rev Adam Smallbone in REV. A genius creation (James Wood & Tom Hollander).
A new exciting story world AC12 – the police unit in LIN E OF DUTY, the Louisiana swampland of TRUE DETECTIVE, the women’s prison in ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, the Lancs valley town of HAPPY VALLEY – the bleak beauty of the setting is such a powerful element in that story.
Story-telling ability – the best scripts stand out for their narrative sophistication – for their ability for instance to structure several connected sub-plots around a compelling main plot, scripts that show an instinct \ expertise for cutting between different story strands with energy and pace. For telling the story through the cut. For artfully WITHHOLDING information so that the audience are on the edge of their seats, working hard to figure out the story, and make sense of the characters. And if it’s a pilot episode script, for showing the ability to deliver real story impact while setting up subsequent episodes compellingly. I think a lot of this is about having a passion and fascination for your craft as a writer – about watching a lot of TV drama, reading a lot of scripts, and thinking deeply about how story structure works at its best.
Humour – a strong comic undercurrent, a sense of humour are such valuable elements of a script – one of the scripts I enjoyed most last year was poignant, moving and worked on every level, but what I really loved about it was that it made me laugh out loud several times. This is gold-dust. Of the several hundred scripts I read for the 2014 course, I’d estimate that three made me laugh out loud. Which may be more a reflection of my very limited sense of humour than the scripts – but a sense of humour in a script stands out.
The least interesting element but not one to be under-estimated is PRESENTATION, and the quality of the writing. By which I don’t mean showy, literary writing. In fact I mean the exact opposite – clear, simple, effective use of language – and scene directions that are FILMABLE, visual and generally ACTIVE.
BUT as writers all the above means nothing if you aren’t also able to sell your ideas – to talk about them with passion and enthusiasm. To pitch them verbally and on paper. You need to be able to pique interest so that people will want to read your scripts. The writers who do well from the C4 course aren’t just super-talented writers because that in itself isn’t enough. It isn’t only about the script. A big aspect of the course is about whether the writer can enjoy and thrive in the process of working with a script editor, and whether the writer’s story idea grows and improves through this process. You’ve got to love TV drama, have a passion for the craft – read a lot of scripts, watch a lot of drama – TV, film, theatre, radio whatever; enjoy sharing ideas and your passion for the craft with other writers, enjoy working with other people generally – producers, directors, script editors, actors – this is a huge part of being a TV dramatist. Making contacts and remembering that you only need one person to like your script – regardless of how many others have rejected it.
Good Luck – and I very much look forward to the exciting process of enjoying your scripts over the next few weeks,
All the best
Oct 10th 2014