CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 1ST WEEKEND
This past weekend was the 1st weekend of this year’s Channel 4 screenwriting course, when we get together the 12 course writers, 4 script editors, 4 trainee script editors, and some very excellent guest speakers. As ever it was hugely mentally stimulating and the wonderful guest speakers and writers we had made me think so much about different aspects of screenwriting and this industry.
Here are some random notes from the weekend –
In terms of story-telling, and what they look for in scripts, speaker after speaker kept coming back to the primacy of Character – how brilliant characterisation is at the heart of the best scripts.
Writing your truth – and how incredibly hard that is – but how essential.
Different methods of writing – vomiter / plotter – which are you? And if you’re very much in one camp, try to do more of the other!
Voice – integrity – maintaining your voice / identity as a writer.
A personal approach – maintaining your confidence in a tough industry.
Courtesy – we’re all human – we all make mistakes, we all give bad notes – be considerate – everyone is under pressure – it never pays to behave like an arsehole – be empathetic to those around you in a pressured working environment.
Dealing with success – (I hope this is a problem that you face!) – but there were a couple of cautionary tales about writers finding it hard to cope with the level of demand on their skills, and almost cracking under the pressure. You need to make sure you’re not taking on too much work, that you can handle and still enjoy the work you’re doing.
If you want to be taken seriously in the business an agent is important. However you need to recognise when is a good time to start looking for an agent – you only need to have one once you’re starting to connect with the industry and if you submit your work to agents and they’re not interested, then your work isn‘t good enough. You need to improve it before trying again. Because there is a great hunger for new writers – that’s another point that came out of the weekend – it’s a brilliant time for new writers to be breaking into the industry. There are a lot more places you can take your work to than there used to be – more indies all with different tastes and agendas; and more platforms / broadcasters with money to spend on producing new content. Nowadays even the big broadcasters aren’t afraid to commission brand new writers – it’s all about the script.
And many producers positively prefer to work with new writers compared to more experienced writers – because they sometimes bring a greater passion to their work – the script is so important to them.
This is reflected in the many successes new writers have had from the last few years of 4screenwriting.
The business, the way it works at its best, is collaborative. Try and find the positives in that! Take and use the good ideas that are suggested to you – be grateful for all the people trying to make your scripts even better than they already are. You may get some bad notes, but good notes can be a wonderful gift to a writer.
Unlike feature films where the director is still king, in TV drama, the writer is the number one creative. The industry is always looking for the showrunners – the next big thing – the next Chris Chibnall, Russell T Davies, Jed Mercurio or Sally Wainwright.
Successful humour in a drama script is rare and immensely valuable.
Truth – writing, but particularly screenwriting is hard. If you want to produce quality work, you need to access deep, sometimes uncomfortable truths – this is what we as readers and viewers respond to. If your writing is true and honest, the reader will recognise and respond to that. Even if you’re writing a conventional genre script, this still applies. This is what your voice is – it’s your ability to tap into your personal truths.
This sounds obvious – but we all need to keep reminding ourselves of this – Story is Character. Speaker after speaker emphasised the importance of character in story when asked what they’re looking for in scripts, and what the best scripts have in common.
Remember this at every stage of the process. Because it is true of every stage. When the writers were discussing with us the ideas they wanted to write, the ones that leapt out were the ones about PEOPLE, about characters with whom you could relate and identify, characters with whom you can enjoy going on a journey. And the less interesting ideas were often less interesting because they were about a world or an idea but there weren’t any people in the pitch. Every story at its heart is the story of a single person (or a group of people) and these people are what we will care about. So put people in your pitch! Otherwise you’re leaving out the most important part!
Employers prefer to work with people they like. That sounds blindingly obvious but it’s always worth bearing in mind. Similarly you as writers will want to work with people you like. Part of your work as a writer is actively looking for those people.
The collaborative nature of developing a script is all about opinions. As a writer you will inevitably not always agree with all of these opinions. But work hard at understanding the sub-text of these opinions and trying not to make it about a clash of egos – it should always be about the work, not the people. Above all, work hard at not falling out with the people you’re working with. It will suck the fun out of the work and it won’t help in the bigger picture. It’s a small world and everyone talks to each other.
There are fewer mid-range 1 hour TV drama series episodes on which new writers can cut their teeth than there used to be. But there are far more writers rooms – where a lead writer will work with less experienced writers in beating out the series story. This may or may not lead to an episode writing commission – but it is invaluable experience for new writers, and a great way of getting your foot in the door.
Stand up for what you believe in. One of the writers gave an example of a line that she was asked to change but refused to change. To her, that line was about something much bigger – about culture. She articulated it brilliantly and reminded me how important and necessary it is for the quality of your script that you stand up for what is right and good in your work, and make sure you find the collaborators who will respond to this in the right way.
You need to leave room in your work for your collaborators. For instance, at its best, a director’s interpretation of your writing should surprise you and reveal things that you didn’t even know yourself were in there.
Screenwriting as a job is a long haul. There are ups and downs that you need to ride out. Don’t compare your career trajectory to other writers. ie don’t get envious of other writers’ early success. It’s about sustaining and developing both your craft and your career. You will change and grow as a writer if you keep working at it in the right way. If you have great early success, there is a danger of burn-out that you need to guard against – also the element of ‘fashion’. The industry eats up writers, and you need to find a way to retain your mystery and keep re-inventing yourself.
One of this year’s course writers got onto the course this year having submitted 3 scripts over about 5 years. She told me she was glad that she got ono the course this year rather than in 2014 because she now feels much more ready for it.
It was a brilliant weekend – absolutely exhausting by the end – mainly because of information overload – so many brilliant guest speakers throwing fascinating, thought-provoking ideas at you.
And finally some viewing recommendations that came out of the weekend – all shows that people spoke glowingly about –
Rams; Big Little Lies; In Between; Kingdom Of Us (Netflix documentary).
The next newsletter will be on Friday Feb 9th,
All the best
Jan 26th 2018