CREATIVITY FOR SCRIPTWRITERS 1 day course London Saturday Feb 21st
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 REGINA MORIARTY, writer of acclaimed BBC3 film, MURDERED BY MY BOYFRIEND.
CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2015 – 1ST WEEKEND
Last weekend I organised a series of talks and meetings at Channel 4 for this year’s 12 C4 screenwriting course writers.
It was a fascinating, thought-provoking weekend which made me think a lot about story, Channel 4 Drama and the TV Drama industry as a whole.
Here are a few of the highlights I took away from the various speakers over the weekend –
Whether you’re a new writer or a seasoned and successful professional you need to keep writing spec scripts, that show off your abilities as a writer and where you’re at NOW.
‘There aren’t that many really good screenwriters in the UK. If you’re good, you will work a lot’
Our guest director emphasised the importance of STORY – how, when he’s working with writers, it’s always the story he’s trying to bring to the fore, always looking to keep the big narrative premise as clear and simple as possible. He emphasised the difference between ‘incident’ and story. He talked about the importance of the comedy in story-telling, how he felt it important to cast actors who had comic strengths.
This director had a background in documentaries, and he brings a lot of his documentary story-telling skills to fiction – he talked about how in documentary it’s only in post-production that the story is really shaped. He talked about drama shows that he’s worked on, where major restructuring in the editing has changed and improved story.
We had a script editor’s POV – what a writer should expect from their script editor – to read the writer’s script quickly, and to give them an honest opinion about the script, also to act as the writer’s representative on a production. The writer needs to be able to trust their script editor.
There was a lot of talk about what Channel 4 Drama is, how it’s defined – which had wider applications to what makes for good stories on screen more generally. So – there was talk about how, for C4, they look for big ideas. If there’s a really big, challenging, provocative and exciting idea behind the story, this makes it stand out. At the same time, it’s about the approach to those ideas – it’s important to avoid the dull and worthy approach – to really dramatise the ideas through character, to get under the skin of the characters, and dramatise the big issues and uncomfortable truths humorously and provocatively. No-one’s interested in watching ‘bleeding hearts / liberal’ drama. Two of the shows referenced, that confronted big headline issues with real imagination and idiosyncrasy were THE SLAP and COMPLICIT (you can watch COMPLICIT, written by Guy Hibbert, on 4OD – it’s outstanding). What both shows have in common is that they take big headline issues (hitting children and torture, respectively) and dramatise them in such a way that they become fascinatingly morally complex, and lead you to question your own opinions about these issues. You don’t want these sorts of stories to confirm what you already know and think – you want them to turn an argument on its head, come up with a fresh way of looking at familiar issues, and really ask questions of their audiences.
(Speaking of which, as a reward to self for a fairly intense working weekend, I spent Monday afternoon at the cinema watching the wonderful WHIPLASH. One of the many things I liked about this movie was the internal debate it engendered about teachers, about the stick / carrot approach, and about how hard teachers should push promising pupils. The highlight of the film for me was the character of Terence Fletcher, played by the brilliant JK Simmons – who was equally scary in that great HBO series OZ. What a wonderfully complex, charismatic, appalling human being!)
The words used to describe Channel 4 drama at its best were ‘provocative, challenging, innovative’. And – especially when the stories are dealing with heavy, serious, important subjects – they need to be informed with humour and wit.
The Channel 4 representatives said, at a pitch meeting, there was nothing more likely to engage them, to win their attention, than a writer who really wanted to get something off their chest, a writer who was furious about something, who had a real agenda behind the story they wanted to tell.
Sometimes beautiful writing isn’t enough – it helps so much if there’s a big, exciting idea contained in the writing.
They also talked insightfully about how to write a successful opening episode of a series – one of the toughest things to pull off as a writer. A Channel 4 one hour episode is actually 47 minutes, and it consists of 4 parts, with three ad breaks.
Within the first 12 minutes before the first ad break, you need to set up the WHO, the WHAT, and the story needs to ‘declare itself’ – it needs to establish the big narrative proposition of the series. And the first episode needs to establish the pattern / format of the series, it needs to demonstrate how each episode will work as a story-telling construct. In other words, you need to try and avoid the ‘setting-up’ episode, you need to hit the ground running.
A few other expressions used about the first act were – ‘you need to set out your stall…grab the viewer’s attention…knock it out of the park in act 1’ – so that the viewers don’t turn over at the first ad break.
And I think this principal of grabbing the reader / audience by the scruff of the neck in the opening part is equally applicable if you’re writing a pilot series episode as your spec / calling card.
We had a speaker from one of the top TV drama production companies in the UK. The question their boss always asks when they’re pitching a new project is ‘What’s the story?’ The story is always the prime consideration.
Another really interesting topic covered in this talk was treatments and outlines – the cleverness and quality of the writing in these documents is of huge importance – even if this sort of prose writing is a totally different skill to screenwriting. All the decision makers on the course emphasised the importance of writers being able to write these sorts of documents, and how they should be written to reflect the nature of the idea – eg if it’s a proposal for a comedy, it should have the reader smiling, and if it’s a thriller, it should be to some extent thrilling.
Until next week
All the best
Jan 30th 2015