This week, a few thoughts about / responses to the scripts I’ve been reading for the last few weeks for the C4 screenwriting course. As ever, it’s been a fascinating, mentally stimulating, exciting and exhausting process. A huge thank you to all of you who have submitted. I appreciate the huge amount of sweat and time that has gone into these scripts and it’s an absolute privilege to be able to read so many new, exciting, original scripts – and frustrating that we are only able to offer 12 places on the 2020 course.
I’m going to write further about this in the coming weeks – in particular about the qualities that stand out in the scripts we short-list for writer interviews. But before that, this week I’m focusing on some broader observations, mainly on some of the pitfalls to avoid – so apologies if this comes across as a little negative – my further thoughts will be more positive!
One of the things that has struck me is just how few of the submitted scripts are based on real stories – especially compared to what is made, and the shows / films I’ve seen in the past few weeks. And not just scripts based on true stories, but scripts directly focusing on specific societal and political issues in contemporary British life. As I spend the last few weeks reading the scripts I also have an eye on the news – eg the committee questioning Mark Zuckerberg, on Brexit in all its lies and underlying political agendas, on the death of 39 people in a lorry container and the circumstances that enable this to happen – and on the anger, frustration, dismay I feel about all these events – over 1m. people congregating in central London to convey their feelings about Brexit, Greta Thunburg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the challenges of the climate emergency and the ever-widening scale of global inequality. Compared to films and plays I’ve enjoyed recently, there are very few scripts that directly address these sorts of contemporary issues and stories. For instance, one of the best stage plays I have seen recently is A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON – about the state-sponsored murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London; and I’m greatly looking forward to the BBC / Dancing Ledge productions 3 part serial, SALISBURY, about the circumstances surrounding the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. It seems to me that these are not only stories that have real ‘public interest’ – but they are also extraordinary and inherently dramatic. Other shows I’ve enjoyed recently that that have been inspired by real events – OFFICIAL SECRETS – or simply just tap into the zeitgeist – The POLITICIAN, GREED. So many of the submitted stories are about lower-key domestic situations and relationships. However well written, with too many of these I don’t know what they’re ultimately about, why the writer thinks they will be important or resonant for an audience.
One of your aims as new writers should be to tell stories that are going to make a splash, stand out, challenge the status quo and accepted wisdoms and provoke debate and controversy. And now at the start of your career when you’re not writing under commission, when you’re not having to predict broadcaster taste is when you can be doing it. Embrace the freedom of being able to write whatever you want to and aim high. Think big, tell that story that is going to mark you out as brave, different and original. The best stories resonate with contemporary issues, tap into what is important and scary today.
Some other thoughts / observations –
Find a clear, simple, personal, emotional connection to your own work
There aren’t enough scripts that I start reading and think – wow, what a great, fascinating, dramatic idea. Too many of the ideas feel too small.
You have to hook the reader straight into your story ON PAGE 1. Your page one has to be brilliant. The aim of your first page is to make an impact, to grab the attention of the reader. You need to pull us into your story instantly.
The sequence in which people wake up in the morning and we see them go through their waking up / showering / breakfast / leaving the house routine becomes over-familiar when you read a lot of scripts. Think very hard about the dramatic and narrative purpose of these scenes – and whether you are bringing something unique and subversive to them. If you’re not, cut them and come into your story later.
The trope of starting your story with a ‘teaser’ that is dramatic and attention-grabbing but that is plucked from later in the story, then going back to days / hours / weeks before this event – is another very over-familiar trope. It is so for a reason – it can often work very effectively. BUT think long and hard before doing this – and make sure you’re not just doing it to compensate for a lack of drama in the real opening of your story.
Placing stories in a fictional, dystopian future sometimes takes the edge and urgency out of the story. If you want to tell a story about a compelling issue of today – set it in the recognisable present unless you have a really strong story-telling reason for not doing so. Near-future dystopias are another over-familiar story-telling trope; and feel too often like a way to dramatize the problems in the real world that detracts from the friction and immediacy you need.
Structure is about how stories escalate in intensity, about how every single scene advances the story – not enough of the scripts pay attention to these essential elements of story-telling. Story is about change. The story has to keep changing and moving forward – story is dynamic.
Something that is missing from too many scripts – believable warmth & affection between characters – we need this to enable us to empathise / engage with the characters and to help us understand what they have to lose.
The balance between directions and dialogue. Directions need to be written economically and dynamically. They need to convey visual action and movement. Don’t over-burden the reader with unnecessary information – just the information that really serves the story. Huge screeds of direction can be daunting for the reader. Don’t start directions with ‘We see…’ Directions should be active and economical. ‘We see’ is superfluous and weakens the dramatic force of the actions described.
Clarity of story-telling and writing is so important. OWN your story. Hold the reader’s hand through the story. Consider your audience / reader in the way you write / present your story.
Your story needs to be dramatic – ie it needs to have conflict, friction, be tense, intriguing, mysterious, intense, heightened… tackling big, emotive issues head-on
‘Interesting, even ‘fascinating’ are fine – but what we all really want from a story is ‘moving’ and ‘hilarious’. The response that counts is visceral not intellectual. There aren’t enough scripts that confront the emotion of life head-on, not enough scripts that risk sentimentality – and sentiment is part of life, part of story.
There is an emotional clarity and a simplicity to good writing.
What is the logline / one-line pitch of your project? It is vital that you keep thinking about and eventually – know – what this is – and that this single sentence is distinctive, compelling, dramatic and immediately engaging.
Story that shines a light on unfamiliar, unexpected worlds that are new to us stand out, ie aim to make your stories original and distinctive not generic or derivative
I hope this is helpful. In a later newsletter I will look at the other side of the coin – the qualities that myself and the script readers found compelling in the short-listed scripts.
We should be getting in touch with those short-listed writers in the next week or so.
The next newsletter will be on Friday November 29th,
All the best
November 15th 2019