A few months ago, I put out a call to you the subscribers to this newsletter for questions you may have about any aspects of screenwriting. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get to them but here, finally, are my answers to your very interesting and thoughtful questions.
A massive thank you to Adrienne Aiken, Tony Clare, Adam Dickson and Alec McAulay for these questions, and I hope my answers are helpful in some way to you, and everyone else who reads this. Please do get in touch and continue the debates these 4 writers have kicked-off!
What is your view on writing a treatment (or series bible) regarding adding character and quirky styling. By this I mean not being dead straight in informative and storytelling aspects, but perhaps aligning the style of the pitch with the style of the project. I’ve seen this done before, in treatments for things like “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” http://www.zen134237.zen.co.uk/Dirk_Gently/Dirk_Gently_-_Bible.pdf which is pretty quirky, and it appeals to me, but what I like isn’t necessarily what industry execs and script readers will warm to. Is this approach something reserved for more known/experienced/respected writers, and if a newer writer were to pitch this way, it would be regarded perhaps as amateurish?
PS: An excellent question about the thorny topic of treatments, pitch documents etc. I’m very happy to tackle this question for several reasons – not least because it includes a link to a polished, professional TV show proposal / bible – and this sort of document is very hard to find. I agree that this document is ‘quirky’ and I would say – be very careful before deciding to write an outline that is so self-consciously ‘wacky.’ With source material by Douglas Adams, I think there is some justification, because his stories demand a radical stylistic approach. And I do think it’s important that your written pitch tonally reflects how you want the script to read. (And ultimately I think this is a very good example of one of these documents). But what you should be concentrating on is making your story as compelling and well-thought-out as possible. These documents are hard enough to write well without also trying to do something novel and gimmicky. In my experience, too many treatments that try to stand out from the crowd by being stylistically innovative put too much emphasis on style and not enough on content. If your story is strong enough, it should speak for itself without the need for gimmicks.
This outline is 28 pages long. Be very careful that when you are submitting pitches and other sales documents like this, that they are as short as you can possibly make them while still doing full justice to the idea. And that’s a judgement only you as writer can make. But these documents are very hard to write and very hard to read. And whoever you’re sending this to (producer, script editor, agent etc) will be far keener to initially read a 2-3 page document than a 28 page document. This sort of document should give as much substance as possible (the last thing it should give is empty sales-pitch promises) but it’s never going to provide all of the answers. It should lead to interest and more questions from the reader. (I’m sure that the stage this project was at, a 28 page document was completely justified – but if it’s your initial pitch of an idea, 28 pages is way too long).
I have a drama script which a few people have read and liked. Two readers (independently of each other) both mentioned the same actor for the lead role. The actor in question is highly talented but would, I imagine, be within the reach of a low budget feature. My question is: given these opinions on the role, would it be worth me sending the script to the actor’s agent to ask whether he would be interested in playing the part if it went into production? Does this carry any weight when approaching Production Companies?
PS: That’s a tricky question! I’d say it’s entirely dependent on the box office appeal and potential influence of this actor. In general, I would advise against attaching an actor to a script before you have a producer involved. Any producer taking on your project will want to feel that they’re in on the start of the project with you, and that they would want to be involved in the decision about the lead actor. Ultimately my purist view would be that the script should speak for itself. Attaching actors (obviously there are a few ‘name’ exceptions to this!) closes down your options too early in the process. However if the actor attached has their own contacts and can open more doors for you, it may be worth considering. But again, I’d say be very careful before you go down this path. Your choice of actor may not be everyone’s choice of actor. And if a producer you like and who likes the script is then put off by the attached actor, it will be very frustrating for you.
Probably like many other readers of your Newsletter, I have completed several scripts which for the most part just sit in files on my computer. When approaching Production Companies with any of these scripts, I never know whether to send it as a Spec Script and specify this in the covering letter. Or, just send it marked for their consideration in the hope (and assumption) that if they did not want to include it in their slate but liked the writing, they would take it as a spec script anyway. Is there a best way to approach this?
PS: Every script you send out professionally should be targeted at a specific individual in a specific company. There needs to be a particular reason why you are sending a script out now. You should know when sending a script out why you’re sending it out. And sometimes it will be because you want to work on a specific show or for a specific company, and your script fits the tone / subject-matter of that show; sometimes it will be because you want to work with a particular producer / company and you think the script is a good fit for them (as a ‘spec’ / sample of your writing); or you will be entering a competition, etc etc. OR the subject-matter of the script is particularly timely and you have a clear reason for believing a particular producer / company might be interested in it.
The best way to get a script to a potential employer is through another contact – ie someone recommending your script. It’s so important to use the contacts you already have to generate more contacts. For the people in the industry actively looking for new writers, dedicating time to reading unsolicited scripts is (to be brutal) the least time-efficient part of their work. The likelihood of them finding writers who they want to work with is far higher when the script comes with a recommendation.
This may all be too obvious to be worth stating but I am reading (perhaps unfairly?) a slightly too untargeted approach of script submission into your question??
I am an aspiring writer with a lifelong love of TV, especially the classic shows thrown up by the golden age we currently inhabit, and as such I have written short films and a TV pilot. I am always reminded that a lot of writers start out in theatre, however, I have no real desire to write plays. As so many 4screenwriting alumni are theatre writers, as being someone who writes for screen exclusively, am I at a disadvantage compared to other new writers?
PS: I think it’s always been the case in the UK that a significant proportion of new screenwriters started out in the theatre. There is a much healthier new writing culture in theatre than there is in screenwriting (mainly for the simple reason that it’s easier to stage a play than it is to make a film). And this is a tradition that persists. This is another tricky but very good question! My instinct initially was to just say – I absolutely don‘t think that, if you’re interested in being a professional, working screenwriter you need to have started as a playwright. But the more I think about it, and the more I look at the facts of the Channel 4 screenwriting course over the last few years, it is true that at least as many if not more of the writers on the course who have achieved screenwriting success have come from a theatre background than from a purely screenwriting background. Many of these writers then go on to juggle writing work across the different media – which I think is a really good thing to aim for. It’s hard enough to make a living as a professional writer without also limiting yourself to one medium. There are of course many examples of successful screenwriters who have no interest in writing for the theatre – but evidence would suggest that writing for theatre might significantly increase your chances of getting noticed. And I feel slightly uneasy saying that – because it shouldn’t have to be the case.
My main experience of these new writers breaking into TV is through the Channel 4 screenwriting course. Over the 8 years we have had a significant minority of stage writers (who have decided that they’d like to write for TV) on the course. Screenwriting is obviously a very different skill to writing a play, and some of these writers find that transition difficult – although for the most part they take to it brilliantly. There is no doubt that success in theatre will give you a certain cachet in TV and film but it’s not a pre-requisite. There are many examples of writers from the Channel 4 course who have no interest in writing a play but have achieved great success as TV dramatists.
Various filmmakers, including Neil Jordan, say you should only write what can be seen, and what can be heard. Others says you can include elements on mood, emotion etc. that indicate a character’s state of mind, in order to aid the actor. Personally, I favour the former, with a pragmatic inclusion of the latter, where necessary. Do you feel there is any consensus on this issue among script readers?
I think the answer is in the question! Reading a lot of screenplays as I do, the question of what works best in the writing of directions in screenplays is something I think about on a daily basis (sad I know). I’m with you – as a rule of thumb the directions (‘action’ as it’s called in Final Draft) should clearly and simply describe what we’re seeing on screen – whether this applies to people, objects or action. So – you should describe what a character looks like physically, what they’re physically / visually doing when we first meet them but I would say you shouldn’t describe their internal emotional state or back-story. Usually this feels to me like cheating – giving the reader access to privileged information that won’t be accessible to the audience. Too often, doing this just makes it hard for the reader to clearly work out how the story will play on screen. The experience of reading a script should be as close as possible to watching the film. The reader should only see / know what the audience will see / know. I would say this should be your starting point – and any exceptions to this should be very carefully considered!
The next newsletter will be on Friday March 9th.
All the best