I hope you are continuing to cope with the weirdness of social isolation and still managing to find the headspace for writing and creativity. Here is the text from an interview I did earlier this week about various aspects of screenwriting with Hanna Peretz, a Film & TV producer based in Sweden –
‘I had the pleasure of meeting Philip when I asked him to speak at a screenwriting and pitching workshop I ran in London, back in 2008. He is currently in the 10th year of running the annual Channel 4 Screenwriting course, which is an initiative to find twelve of the most talented new writers in the UK and working with them for 6 months to develop a pilot script, then introducing them to the industry.
He has a Script Consultancy (www.script-consultant.co.uk) where he works with both freelance writers and with production companies, covering reading, development and marketing of scripts.
At the moment, in these crazy times when nobody’s really leaving their house, he gets a lot of scripts to read from both brand new writers and some very experienced writers. I wanted to take this opportunity to get Philip to share his knowledge, some tips and get us all inspired to create some great stories!
It can be quite daunting to write a script. How do you get started?
I think it’s good to start writing short content. It’s not as daunting as thinking you’ve got to write a 90 minute screenplay. I would encourage people to start small and gradually work their way up to feature film scripts. Occasionally, I get feature film scripts from first time writers and I often wish that they’d talked to me when they were developing the idea rather than sending me the full script, because if there’s something problematic with the story then it’s much easier to flag that at the outline stage than when they’ve written a full script. It’s really hard for writers to unpick it and work backwards at that point whereas if it’s just an outline, you’re more free to make changes and feel less emotionally attached.
I would also encourage a lot of people-watching. I run a Creativity for Scriptwriters course (http://script-consultant.co.uk/training/ ) which is mainly about looking outside yourself and getting out into the world; observing people and reading newspapers. Trying to get ideas from external sources rather than relying on just you in front of the computer screen which is often the least productive creative place to be.
I think we can all relate to that.
One of my issues is that I have too many ideas and find it hard to stay on track..
Yes that is difficult. I feel the same way sometimes, often thinking of ideas – but executing them is the big challenge. It’s finishing your work that’s really important. Finishing your first draft and showing it to people. I think it’s really important to have a community of fellow writers around you, making those contacts and finding people you can trust to give you an honest but constructive opinion. Often you’re writing that first draft and realise that perhaps this isn’t the idea you want to pursue and you move on to something else. But it’s so much about finding the time and having that discipline and that regular writing time.
Exactly, often you think you have a great idea, start writing and realise it doesn’t hold up.
Yes which is another great reason for outlining before you write. The way the industry works is that producers will want as much evidence as they can get that your idea will be fantastic before they commission you to write a script. So they will commission outlines with several drafts and will be reluctant to pay you a script fee until they’ve got a really well worked out outline.
It’s quite demoralising when you get two thirds into a script before it all starts to fall apart so make sure you know what your ending is for that episode or feature film and do all that planning work, because it’s invaluable. Some writers don’t like to do that and just like to get a finished first draft before going back and start moving the furniture around, but the way the industry works, you’re very much encouraged to do your planning, write an outline and demonstrate that your story is going to work before you get to script stage.
What should you include in an outline and how detailed should you be?
It depends on what stage you’re at but it should be quite detailed because as a writer you need to visualise how it’s going to play out onscreen, how the cuts will go from scene to scene. Writers often don’t like writing those documents because usually they’re only getting about 10% of their script fee and they would argue – quite rightly – that it’s probably 80% of the work of creating the script in that outline. Once you know what every scene does and what every scene contains then it should be relatively easy to write the dialogue. It’s a really important and necessary part of the process whether you’re getting paid or not and it will make the chance of you finishing that script more likely because you have that map.
But I think the key to writing good outlines is just thinking visually and cinematically. Describing the action without explaining it. The things that you read and really enjoy in terms of outlines just tell you what happens on the screen, leaving you as the reader to interpret it.
It can be hard to convey everything that you pick up more easily visually. How much description should you write?
That’s something I think about so much when I read scripts and I’m so often giving notes on that to writers. My guiding principle in terms of reading a script and writing a script is that it should as accurately as possible reflect what we’re going to see on screen. When you read a script, the experience should be as close as possible to watching the film, so I would argue that generally you shouldn’t give privileged information to the reader that’s not accessible to the audience. When introducing a character you’re meeting for the first time, you shouldn’t give a lot of backstory about their background or wealth, for instance. I think as much as possible introductions to characters should be active, so when we meet the character they are doing something that characterises them and tells you something about them in a dynamic, interesting way (which isn’t always possible). I think what you should describe about the character is everything we’re going to be seeing on screen, like their age, gender and anything in particular about them, perhaps something about their manner or the way they behave. What I think people should try to avoid is saying something like “this is John 24, he’s never come to terms with the death of his father”, which is more like writing a novel. It’s interesting but it confuses the read and it’s not screenwriting.
Can you overdo scene directions?
Yes, you can look at a script and think: there are too many big blocks of directions here. It’s going to be a hard read. It’s about being economical and maintaining a good pace, making sure the cuts from scene to scene work really well, adding energy to the storytelling.
And I would say in principle, generally you concentrate on the people rather than the objects. And that’s a rough guide, but also make the directions as active and dynamic as possible. When you read a scene heading and it starts with a detailed description of the room, the table and the number of chairs, you just think: Do I need to know all that? Unless it’s absolutely vital to the story.
And what makes a good character?
That’s a really tricky question, it’s such an instinctive thing. The character is the most important thing, it’s the reason we care about stories. I think one of the keys to that is the tension between the surface of the character and what is actually going on underneath. The characters that often don’t work are the ones where everything about them is apparent the first time you meet them and the writer has nowhere to go from that point. There has to be that tension. I think flaws are the key to good characterisation, how characters cope with their flaws. Once a character is able to articulate their problems and flaws, they immediately start to become less interesting, there’s a lessening of that inner tension.
So much of good characterisation is in the visual detail of the character as well. In the way they behave, the way they talk, walk, relate and behave with other people, the way they wear their hair, all those things are what make people interesting. Also, it’s about building a backstory of a person: thinking about their politics, what their attitude to life is, what they like eating, what they’re like with their family. But at the end of the day, characters are interesting because of how damaged they are. Often stories are about how they resolve that inner damage over the course of the story. If the character has no issues, it’s really hard to make an interesting story and narrative. That relates to relationships as well, there have to be issues with people and frictions and conflicts to make stories interesting. I think good storytelling is often about revealing stories slowly and withholding from the audience. It’s a fine balance between doing that artificially and making it feel like it’s integral to the story. But making the audience ask questions is the key to good storytelling.
I think lies, secrets and denial are absolutely fundamental to characters and story.
It’s a tough balance though, to keep the audience from losing interest!
Yes, particularly if you’re withholding a lot and then the payoff at the end isn’t worth the wait. It’s a tricky balance. One of the things I get quite concerned about is structural principles of storytelling and for me, too often when writers start thinking like that in the early stages, their stories start to be less surprising, less interesting and I think it can be quite inhibiting. We all have an innate storytelling instinct and we don’t need to think about all those points when we’re writing the story initially because your instinct does that for you. If you start thinking too much about ticking all those boxes (eg end of act one, two, story mid-point) it can be quite damaging to your creativity.
I’m always saying to new writers – don’t worry about the budget. Try writing something as ambitious and distinctive as possible because the likelihood is that the script they’re writing isn’t going to get made but they are going to get a lot of work and meetings because people liked their scripts. When they’re not second guessing the industry but they actually write really original, distinctive scripts that give strong impressions of a unique voice.
When scripts don’t work it’s sometimes because the writers are thinking too much about whether it will get made, which broadcaster may commission it, how commercial it is etc. When they’re trying to break into the industry that’s the last thing they should be worried about because what people are looking for is something original and surprising.
Looking for further guidance or inspiration?
Philip has his own script consultancy, runs quite a few courses and writes a free fortnightly screenwriting newsletter to which you can subscribe, you can check them out here www.script-consultant.co.uk
He also produced this series of dramatic monologue podcasts – www.tributepodcasts.co.uk
The next newsletter will be on Friday May 1st,
Stay safe and look after yourself,
April 17th 2020